The city of Ferrara sits in the Po delta, nestled between the former Republic of Venice and the Papal States. With such ambitious neighbours, the ruling house of Este often found itself embroiled in political conflict, but that did not Duchy of Ferrara
Duchy of Ferrara
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prevent its devoted patronage of music and especially the literary arts. Borso d’Este was named Duke of Ferrara in 1452 by Holy Roman Emperor Frederick III (which annoyed the Pope), the same year in which Savonarola was born there (which would later annoy the Medici in Florence). Josquin des Prez worked for Borso’s son Ercole, and Obrecht visited Ferrara a couple of times.

In 1559, Alfonso II d’Este became Duke of Ferrara. Among his ancestors he was able to name Beatrice and Isabella d’Este, Alfonso II d’Este
Alfonso II d’Este
who were married into the notorious Milanese Sforza and Mantuan Gonzaga families respectively. His grandmother Lucrezia Borgia was married to his namesake grandfather Alfonso I. It was Lucrezia’s third marriage; her family was evidently finished with the families of her previous husbands.

Alfonso II was almost as busy as Henry Tudor in trying to produce an heir, albeit without the religious preoccupation. After marriages to Lucrezia de Medici and Barbara of Austria, he was wedded Margherita Gonzaga, daughter of William I, Duke of Mantua.

Ferrara’s court is noted as the birthplace of the concerto delle donne (“consort of ladies”), a group of ladies who cultivated a particular style of singing that was, for a time, famous all over Italy. The novelty of their performances, together with Alfonso’s shrewd control of who was allowed to hear them, made them perhaps the first celebrity performers of their kind in Europe.

During the decade following 1570, a group of courtiers at Ferrara, including Lucrezia and Isabella Bendido, Leonora Sanvitale and Vittoria Bentivoglio performed madrigals for their own entertainment. By 1577, they had come to dominate the musica secreta, a series of chamber music concerts held by Alfonso for an exclusive group of listeners and guests.

After he married Margherita Gonzaga, Alfonso formed the concerto delle donne itself, partly to occupy his new wife, partly to help earn himself prestige. The new singers, Laura Peverara, Livia d’Arco and Anna Guarini (daughter of the poet) Estense Castle
Estense Castle
(Wikimedia Commons)
were officially accorded status as Margherita’s ladies–in–waiting, but they were really hired for their singing. It is said they practiced for up to six hours a day, singing from memory or by sight–reading. Their highly ornamented, florid style demanded rehearsal for maximum impact, and it had the desired result. Only Alfonso’s very special courtiers and invited guests were invited to his musica secreta concerts and had a chance to hear the ladies, making them all the more wildly popular. Courts in Italy and much of Europe thereafter scrambled to create their own ensembles in imitation.

There was no lack of material for them to perform; among the composers who wrote for them were court organist Luzzascho Luzzaschi, who often accompanied them on the harpsichord, and the maestro di capella Ippolito Fiorini who accompanied on the lute. The quirky gentleman–composer Don Carlo Gesualdo was inspired to write music in the same style, as were Luca Marenzio, Claudio Monteverdi, Lodovico Agostini, and Giaches de Wert. Poets too, contributed: Ferrara’s most famous poet, Torquato Tasso — author of the monumental Gerusalemme liberata — wrote works for the donne. Alessandro Striggio’s time in Ferrara was put to good use relaying information back to his masters at the court in Florence so the Medici could set up their own rival ensemble.

Sadly for Alfonso and Ferrara, his ambition to produce an heir proved less successful even than Henry VIII: he died without issue in 1597. The Pope was quick to snatch Ferrara as a vacant fief and annex it to the Papal States. The court at Ferrara, including its donne, other musicians and poets, was dispersed.

Luzzaschi, Aura soave di segrete accenti

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