“The Glorious Princes always aimed at matching together the useful, and the delectable, […] and this can be seen especially in the fortifications they made around the walls of the city with such magnificence, and majesty, […] which contain within the Plains, and Hills, and Mountains, and Ponds, and resemblances of Rivers, and Caves, and Palaces, and Gardens, and Vegetable gardens, and Parks, and Aviaries and Nurseries, and Vineyards, and practically everything, both varied and playful, that could but delight the eye.
Alberto Penna wrote this about the surrounding walls of Ferrara in 1671, but it also perfectly illustrates the context of the “places of delight”, or the many country houses that the Este family built in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries which, along with the city and the cultural landscape of the delta, are today recognized by UNESCO
as a World Heritage Site.
Paradises of magnificence or gardens of Eden rebuilt with symmetrical precision, the Delizie were places for the enjoyment of the senses (often the scene of hunting parties) and fortresses of an agricultural economy that used the towers to look beyond the boundaries of the estate.
Palaces, villas, castles and courts often stood near water, and in those days the land was covered with a network of waterways, that were often used even more than the roads and lanes.
Flat-bottomed boats and barges laden with merchandise navigated those waters, but also elegant boats and, when the Dukes travelled, even the magnificent state barge with its valuable carvings and oarsmen on each side.
A landscape embroidered with a dense network of canals and tributaries of the Po Grande, or by entire submerged areas of brackish water, that were controlled in a more orderly and efficient manner as a result of the drainage project proposed by Alfonso II in the second half of the sixteenth century. These waterways allowed merchants and sailors to reach the city and estates speedily, transporting a constant supply of the required goods and the many craftsmen engaged in excavations, construction and decoration.
Magnificent buildings, which shone like mirages from a distance, with their coloured plaster, walls and battlements decorated – as on the Mesola estate – with green and yellow glazed terracotta.
Veritable cities closely surrounded the stately homes, with courtyards, gardens, arcades and workshops, offices occupied by inspectors, cashiers and book-keepers, continually occupied with managing the properties, planning restoration and making sure that the workers carried out their duties properly: cutting stones, digging ditches, plastering walls, building doors and windows, repairing floors, painting or applying frescos to the walls of the buildings.
There were also warehouses, barns, stables and granaries, the bakery, cellar and menageries for the livestock, sometimes even exotic animals such as leopards could be found in the Barco area of Ferrara.
And then of course the gardens, true works of architectural metamorphosis, the alter ego of the mansions and their ‘natural’ extensions.
Penna described green areas planted with rose espaliers, potted cedars, olive trees, shady pergolas and ponds teeming with fish. But also poplars and elms, more typical of the plains landscape, vineyards and orchards, marked by stone stairways and balustrades surmounted by marble globes, balconies and box hedges, aviaries and labyrinths, grottos and fountains. Today this vision of the Belriguardo gardens, as well as those of certain city delights, no longer exists.
The end of the sixteenth century also marked a decline in the fortunes of the Este dynasty: the deviation of the Po at Porto Viro, ordered by the Serenissima, and the progressive reduction of navigability on the Po di Tramontana to the north, redefined the landscape and the range of activities of the duchy. These actions, together with the extinction of the legitimate Este heir and Devolution (1598) which brought the dukedom under the control of the Holy See, definitively sanctioned the end of an era.
Seventy years later Alberto Penna wrote: “entering these places of abovementioned delight through the Giara gate, we are no longer met by Gardens, nor Labyrinth, nor Aviary, nor Caves, and no springs, all have been ruined, undone and removed; Fishponds can no longer be discerned, as all are filled with manure, and razed to the ground, no longer Vineyards, no Pergolas, and no orchards, all has been cut and uprooted […].
Today the Delizie, owned both by public and private concerns, have been largely restored and are used as museums, cultural centres and spaces for recreational or productive activities, thereby recovering a qualified role as a pole of attraction in the area. They form an ideal network in which to explore and discover more about a noble family and a magnificent historical period.