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Ercole I d'Este

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Ercole I d'Este
Ercole I d'Este, possibly by Dosso Dossi
(Galleria Estense, Modena), c. 1500-05
Duke of Ferrara
Duke of Modena and Reggio
Reign20 August 1471 - 25 January 1505
PredecessorBorso d’Este
SuccessorAlfonso I d'Este
Born(1431-10-26)26 October 1431
Ferrara, Duchy of Ferrara
Died25 January 1505(1505-01-25) (aged 73)
Ferrara, Duchy of Ferrara
SpouseEleonora d'Aragon
(illeg.) Lucrezia
(illeg.) Giulio
HouseHouse of Este
FatherNicolò III d'Este
MotherRicciarda of Saluzzo

Ercole I d'Este KG (English: Hercules I; 26 October 1431 – 25 January 1505) was Duke of Ferrara from 1471 until 1505. He was a member of the House of Este. He was nicknamed North Wind and The Diamond.[1]


Ercole was born in 1431 in Ferrara to Nicolò III and Ricciarda da Saluzzo.[2] His maternal grandparents were Thomas III of Saluzzo and Marguerite of Roussy.

Portrait relief of Duke Ercole in armor by Sperandio Savelli, c. 1475

He was educated at the Neapolitan court of Alfonso, king of Aragon and Naples, from 1445 to 1460; there he studied military arts, chivalry, and acquired an appreciation for all'antica architecture and the fine arts, which would result in his becoming one of the most significant art patrons of the Renaissance.[3]

In 1471, with the support of the Republic of Venice, he became Duke on the death of his half-brother Borso, profiting from the absence of the latter's son, Niccolò, who was in Mantua. [4] During an absence of Ercole from Ferrara, Niccolò attempted a coup, which was however crushed; Niccolò and his cousin Azzo were beheaded on 4 September 1476. Ercole married Eleonora d'Aragon, daughter of Ferdinand I of Naples, in 1473. The Este alliance with Naples was to prove a powerful one.

In 1482–1484 he fought the War of Ferrara with the Republic of Venice, which was allied with Ercole's nemesis, the Della Rovere Pope Sixtus IV, occasioned by disputes over control of the salt monopoly. Ercole was able to end the war by ceding the Polesine at the Peace of Bagnolo, and Ferrara escaped the fate of destruction or absorption into the papal dominions, but the war was a humiliation for Ercole, who lay sick and immobilized while the besieging army destroyed Este properties in the surrounding neighbourhoods.

After this, he remained neutral in the Italian War of 1494-1498, and tried for the rest of his rule to improve relations with the Papal states. He reluctantly agreed to the marriage of his son Alfonso to Lucrezia Borgia, daughter of Pope Alexander VI, a marriage that brought notable territorial donations.

Eleonora d'Aragona and Ercole I d'Este.

His subsequent career as a patron may be seen to some extent as compensation for the early military setback: significantly, Ercole was the only Italian ruler who characterized himself as divus on his coinage, like a Roman emperor.[5]

The scale and consistency of Ercole's patronage of the arts was in part a political and cultural statement. He hosted theatrical representations with elaborate scenery and musical intermezzi, some of the first purely secular theatre in Europe since antiquity[6] and was successful in setting up a musical establishment which was for a few years the finest in Europe, overshadowing the Vatican chapel itself.[7] For the next century Ferrara was to retain the character of a center of avant-garde music with a decidedly secular emphasis. In music history Ercole was one of the Italian nobles most responsible for bringing talented Franco-Flemish musicians to Italy. The most famous composers of Europe either worked for him, were commissioned by him, or dedicated music to him, including Alexander Agricola, Jacob Obrecht, Heinrich Isaac, Adrian Willaert, and Josquin des Prez, whose Missa Hercules dux Ferrariae not only is dedicated to him, but is based on a theme drawn from the syllables of the Duke's name.

Grosh issued under Ercole I d'Este.

Ercole is equally famous as a patron of the arts, as much an expression of his conscious magnificence as his cultivated aloofness, grave and stern as befitted the new ducal rank of Ferrara (Manca 1989:524ff). He made the poet Boiardo his minister, and also brought the young Ludovico Ariosto into his household.

Under Ercole Ferrara became one of the leading cities of Europe; it underwent substantial growth in the Ercolean Addition, approximately doubling in size, under Ercole's direct guidance, producing the first planned and executed urbanistic project of the Renaissance. To enclose it, he extended the city's walls, hiring architect Biagio Rossetti for the work.[8] Many of Ferrara's most famous buildings date from his reign.

Ercole was an admirer of church reformer Girolamo Savonarola, who was also from Ferrara, and sought his advice on both spiritual and political matters. Approximately a dozen letters between the two survive from the 1490s. Ercole attempted to have Savonarola freed by the Florentine church authorities, but was unsuccessful; the reformist monk was burned at the stake in 1498.[9]

In 1503 or 1504, Ercole asked his newly hired composer Josquin des Prez to write a musical testament for him, structured on Savonarola's prison meditation Infelix ego. The result was the Miserere, probably first performed for Holy Week in 1504, with the tenor part possibly sung by the Duke himself.[10]

Ercole died on 25 January 1505, and his son Alfonso became Duke.[11]

Appearance and personality[edit]

Ludovico Coradino, medal of Duke Ercole, 1473.

Hercules was a duke sincerely loved by his subjects, who repeatedly demonstrated it to him, both taking his defense against Niccolò di Leonello and at the time of the war with Venice, when they spontaneously took up arms to press the invader, sometimes against the will of Hercules himself.

He was magnanimous, beneficial, famous for his clemency: he offered forgiveness even to the same supporters of Niccolò, as long as they swore obedience to him, and very often pardoned those condemned to death (even in cases of lesa maiestatis) when they were already with the rope around their necks ready for hanging. The chronicler Caleffini describes him in fact as "a pitiful gentleman and to whom it pains to hurt every person".[12] He was also concerned about the living conditions of the family of the condemned and sometimes left money to his wives and daughters so that they could support themselves with dignity. Not for this reason he was weak of pulse, indeed he punished criminals in person, as when in December 1475 he beat a drummer who had bothered a girl in church and imprisoned two other responsible squires.[13]

He loved to dance very much, which he continued to do despite an injury to his foot, in addition to the already mentioned passions for music and singing, which he then transmitted to his children. Several times he found himself dying over the years, now because of the wound never completely healed, now for illness and now for suspected poisoning, and always recovered, sometimes treating himself in country residences or at the spa.

As a father he was very fond of his eldest daughter Isabella, to whom he reserved great attention, so much so that in 1479, finding himself fighting in Tuscany and having learned that the child, despite being only four years old, had already undertaken her studies, he rejoiced with his wife, but explicitly recommended that they not be "given bote" even by her mother if by chance she did not learn.[14]

Portrait of Duke Ercole, Dosso Dossi.

In his youth he possessed a very impetuous character, which he manifested especially in war, in rides and duels, which he then transmitted to most of his children. Even at a more mature age he continued to always be at the forefront of the battles in which he took part, exposing himself to danger of life and sometimes receiving some wounds.

He loved jokes and buffoons and we know a singular episode in which, being the Carnival of 1478 and having as a guest in Ferrara the lord of Bologna Giovanni Bentivoglio, he went out disguised in the streets of the city in the company of his guest, the brothers Sigismondo and Rinaldo and other courtiers to throw eggs to the ladies and ended up beating with certain other masked in the square.[15]

Nevertheless, for his often icy and authoritarian character, aimed at profit rather than kinship or feeling, Hercules was called "cold much more than the tramontana" and from this derived his other nickname.[16][17] He was a very devout man, he listened to Mass every day or even several times a day and on Holy Thursday he fed hundreds of poor people every year, serving his own meal in the great hall of the castle together with his brothers, and then washing the feet of the guests and giving them clothes and money. Together with his very religious wife he was protector of nuns and founder of convents.[18]

As for his physical appearance, Aliprando Caprioli describes him as "of the right and square stature; et very strong in person. he had a colorful face, clear blue eyes, and black hair".[19] However, although blue eyes were frequent within the d'Este family, at least from the portraits that have remained of him it would seem to have possessed dark eyes.

Family and issue[edit]

Legitimate children of Ercole: Isabella, Alfonso, Ferrante, Ippolito and Sigismondo had inherited the typical Este nose of their father; Beatrice the slightly upturned one of her mother. Furthermore, all were dark-haired, except Ferrante and Sigismondo, who had recovered, as it seems, the traditional blond of the Este.

Ercole and Eleonora had seven children:

Ercole had three illegitimate children:

In mass culture[edit]

  • In Prince of Foxes (1949), Ercole is played by Joop van Hulzen.
  • In Le grandi dame di casa d'Este (2004) by Diego Ronsisvalle, focused mainly on the figure of his wife Eleonora d'Aragona, Ercole is played by the Italian actor Daniele Valmaggi.
  • In the television series French Borgia (2011-2014), he is played by British actor Michael Byrne.

See also[edit]


  • Chiappini, Luciano (2001). Gli Estensi. Mille anni di storia. Ferrara.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  • Gardner, Edmund G. (1904). Dukes and Poets in Ferrara: a Study in the Poetry, Religion and Politics of the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries. London.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  • Guerra, Enrica (2005). Soggetti a ribalda fortuna gli uomini dello stato estense nelle guerre dell'Italia quattrocentesca (in Italian). F. Angeli.
  • Gundersheimer, Werner L. (1973). Ferrara, the Style of a Renaissance Despotism. Princeton.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  • Lockwood, Lewis (1984). Music in Renaissance Ferrara, 1400-1505: The Creation of a Musical Center in the Italian Renaissance. Oxford.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  • Macey, Patrick (1998). Bonfire Songs: Savonarola's Musical Legacy. Oxford: Clarendon Press. ISBN 0-19-816669-9.
  • Rosenberg, Charles M. (1997). The Este Monuments and Urban Development in Renaissance Ferrara. Cambridge.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  • Tuohy, Thomas (1996). Herculean Ferrara: Ercole d'Este, 1471-1505, and the Invention of a Ducal Capital. Cambridge.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)


  1. ^ Sloan, John. "ISABELLA D'ESTE GONZAGA". xenophon-mil.org. Archived from the original on 2009-11-23. Retrieved 2009-02-19.
  2. ^ Guerra 2005, p. 31.
  3. ^ Manca, Joseph (1989). "The Presentation of a Renaissance Lord: Portraiture of Ercole I d'Este, Duke of Ferrara (1471-1505)". Zeitschrift für Kunstgeschichte. 52 (4): 522–538. doi:10.2307/1482468. JSTOR 1482468.
  4. ^ Bertazzo, Claudia. "Il principe umanista". Medioevo. 11 (142): 78.
  5. ^ Manca 1989; pp. 525, 529
  6. ^ L. Zorzi, Il teatro e la città: saggi sulla scena italiana (Turin) 1977, pp 10-50.
  7. ^ Lockwood, Lewis (972). "Music in Ferrara in the Period of Ercole I d'Este". Studi Musicali (1): 101–131.
  8. ^ Zevi, Bruno (1960). Biagio Rossetti, ferrarese: il primo urbanista moderno europeo. Turin.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  9. ^ Macey, p. 186
  10. ^ Macey, p. 184ff.
  11. ^ Bietenholz, Peter G.; Deutscher, Thomas B., eds. (1995). Contemporaries of Erasmus, A–E. Vol. I. University of Toronto Press. p. 444. ISBN 0-8020-2507-2.
  12. ^ Ugo Caleffini. Croniche 1471-1494. p. 11.
  13. ^ Ugo Caleffini. Croniche: 1471-1494. p. 132.
  14. ^ Maria Serena Mazzi (2004). Come rose d'inverno. p. 12.
  15. ^ Gina Nalini Montanari. "La corte estense in festa". Nuovecarte. p. 42.
  16. ^ Riccardo Bacchelli (1983). La congiura di don Giulio d'Este (Arnoldo Mondadori Editore ed.). pp. 273, 313.
  17. ^ "Pan Volumi 4-5". Rizzoli. 1935. p. 355.
  18. ^ "ERCOLE I d'Este, duca di Ferrara Modena e Reggio".
  19. ^ Aliprando Caprioli (1635). Ritratti et elogii di capitani illustri. p. 153.
  20. ^ Genealogia dei principi d'Este.

External links[edit]

Preceded by Duke of Ferrara, Modena and Reggio
Succeeded by