Este, House of

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Este, House of

The House of Este was a noble family that ruled a region in northern Italy during the Renaissance. Among the cities under Este control at one time or another were Ferrara, Modena, Reggio, and Rovigo. The family also served as patrons* of the arts and learning. Este residences contained huge collections of art, and their libraries were filled ancient and humanist* manuscripts. In the 1400s, Este princes transformed Ferrara into a model Renaissance city and supported its university.

Niccolò III. Founded in the Middle Ages, the House of Este reached the peak of its power during the Renaissance. Niccolò III, one of the notable members of the dynasty, ruled from 1393 to 1441. He increased the family's power by playing his neighbors against each other. Niccolò's long rule brought stability to Este territory and consolidated the family's control over the lands. Under his successors, the court of the Este became one of the most brilliant in Europe.

Aware of strong local traditions and privileges, the Este did not try to unify their state. They made Ferrara their seat of power and governed other territories through appointed officials. Among the Este holdings were papal* lands ruled by the family. Beginning in the late 1300s, the Este headed off several attempts by the papacy to regain direct control of these lands. The pope finally succeeded in reclaiming Ferrara in 1598. The Este then moved their seat of power to Modena and ruled their remaining territories from that city.

During the Renaissance, the highest rank for the Este family was achieved by the son of Niccolò III, Borso (ruled 1450–1471). In 1452 the named Borso the duke of Modena and Reggio and count of Rovigo. In 1471 the pope added the Duke of Ferrara to Borso's titles. These titles were passed on to Borso's successors. The Este coat-of-arms reflected the family's status and appeared prominently on Este residences and public buildings.

Alliances. During the 1400s, the major powers on the Italian peninsula sought to expand their territory. Yet, remarkably, the Este family survived without major territorial loss until 1598. This success stemmed in part from the ability of family members to find powerful allies in times of crisis. The Este also avoided involvement in wars whenever possible. However, when forced to fight, their princes proved to be skillful military commanders.

The Este relied on marriage as a way to forge political alliances. The daughters of Este princes were raised to be suitable wives for other rulers. Through marriage, the House of Este created alliances with Mantua, Milan, and the kingdom of Naples. In 1502 Alfonso I d'Este reluctantly married Lucrezia Borgia, the daughter of Pope Alexander VI, in an effort to end papal military pressure against Este lands. Unfortunately, any advantage gained by the marriage was lost when the Borgia pope died a year later.

Este males often had children outside of marriage. Niccolò III is said to have fathered some 300 illegitimate children, including numerous sons. This led to many rivalries for power and even to assassination plots by unhappy brothers. Este princes sought to steer surplus children to the church to become priests or church officials. From the late 1400s, the aim was to ensure that a member of the dynasty would become a cardinal, who could further Este interests through his papal connections. For a brief period, the family boasted two cardinals at the same time.

During the late 1500s, Este rule became increasingly despotic. Some princes were cruel, vengeful, and morally corrupt. Moreover, the heavy taxation necessary to support the Este patronage of the arts led to an unhappy and restless population. Any unrest that erupted in Este lands, however, was put down quickly and harshly.

(See alsoCity-States; Italy; Princes and Princedoms. )

* patron

supporter or financial sponsor of an artist or writer

* humanist

referring to a Renaissance cultural movement promoting the study of the humanities (the languages, literature, and history of ancient Greece and Rome) as a guide to living

* papal

referring to the office and authority of the pope

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Este, House of

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