24 January 2016

LIFE: Once Upon a Time in the Court of d'Este

CHIAVARI, Italy - This is the true story of a young girl who made the mistake of falling in love with the wrong man, and was beheaded for that mistake.  It didn’t matter that she was the daughter of a rich man, it didn’t matter at all for he was as bad as the rest of them.
The d'Este Castle in Ferrara
The story takes place in the early years of the 1400’s, a difficult time in Italy. Condotierri ruled the land, each with their own city-state, each with a private army, each full of ambition and greedy for power. Some ruled as Lords of their city, others ruled as Dukes or Marquis, all grabbing whatever title they could to make them seem more respectable. But behind the pomp and circumstance of their courts, they were soldiers of fortune, and very violent men.

The most important unit was the family, but the value of the family was focused on creating a dynasty. Finding the right bride from the right family was a priority, and often deals were made and marriage contracts signed when the girls were very young, like the girl in this story.

Her name was Laura Malatesta. She was born in the fall of 1404 in the region of Emilia Romagna, where her father, Andrea Malatesta, was the Lord of Cesena. They called her Parisina, or the Parisian. It was their way of saying she had a natural grace, and elegance, even as a child. The family however, was not particularly elegant and its history is marked by dark family conspiracies and unexplained deaths.

One of the victims of the Malatesta family was Laura’s mother, Lucrezia di Francesco Ordelaffi. Just weeks after having given birth to Laura, she was poisoned by Laura’s father over a property dispute. A few years later, Laura’s father died a sudden and suspicious death, and she was sent to Rimini to live the court of her uncle, Carlo Malatesta.
Fresco of Daily Life in Ferrara in the 1400's 
In Rimini Laura’s life changed dramatically. Gone were her private lessons of Latin and French, of speech and the art of conversation, literature and etiquette. They were replaced by reading novels, horseback riding, hunting, falconry, and learning how to play the harp. She also learned the art of buying small works of art that could become frescoes, jewelry or miniatures for her future collections.

It wasn’t that her uncle was concerned about her future collections; in fact he didn’t care about her collections at all. What concerned him was who he could marry her off to, and what he could gain from the union.

He got some unexpected help from Venice when Venetian diplomats offered to handle marriage negotiations between Laura and the newly widowed Marquis of Este, who ruled the city-state of Ferrara.

Niccolo d’Este may have been a little plump and a little overly sensual, but he was also a smart international mediator, and an alliance with the House of Malatesta was definitely in his best interest. A deal was reached, and the wedding pact was signed. Fourteen year old Laura would marry the thirty-four year old Niccolo d'Este, Marquis of Ferrara in mid April, 1418.  

Laura was introduced into the extended Este family in Ferrara where the Marquis lived with his many illegitimate children. His favorites were Ugo, Leonello and Borso, the sons of his current mistress, Stella dei Tolomei. Stella disliked Laura from the start, knowing the legitimate heirs Laura could produce would interfere with her sons’ inheritance.

Three years into the marriage, what the Marquis’ mistress had feared became a reality. Laura had a baby boy, born on May 24, 1421. He was named Carlo Alberto. Unfortunately the long-awaited heir was a sickly child and died shortly after his first birthday. 
Bronze Statue of Niccolo' III d'Este, Marquis of Ferrara
After Carlo Alberto died, the Marquis began to seriously reconsider the political roles his other sons should play in governing Ferrara, especially his favorite son, Ugo, the oldest. He knew Ugo resented Laura, and even though he was sure the resentment was coming from Stella, Ugo’s mother, he decided to put an end to it.

In May 1424, he directed Ugo, who had just turned 19, to accompany Laura, his 20 year old step-mother, on holiday, and stay with her for a month. In spite of his feelings toward her, Ugo obeyed his father, and a few days later they began the long 55-mile journey to Rimini in a horse drawn coach. 

As the days passed and they got to know each other, the resentment that Ugo felt toward Laura soon faded. They were both young, and full of life and it wasn’t long before their newly found friendship developed into a love affair.

It was a dangerous game that both knew could lead them straight to the gallows if they were discovered, so they promised each other that when they returned to Ferrara   the affair would end. But in spite of their intentions, they continued to meet in Ferrara and in the country houses where the d’Este family often gathered in the summertime.

On May 21, 1426 a servant girl whispered the truth about Ugo and Laura in her master’s ear. Niccolo d'Este was stunned. Furious and hurt, he positioned himself in the room above Laura’s bedroom and through a small crack in the floor, he saw for himself what the servant’s words had revealed.

The Marquis waited until the middle of night to have Laura and Ugo arrested. They were taken to the dungeon below the Marchesana of Ferrara, the castle tower, and placed in separate cells to await execution. There was no trial, just a formal Decree signed by the Mayor.
 Pleading for the Lives of Laura and Ugo (1640)
Ugo begged and pleaded with his father to spare Laura, but his pleas fell on deaf ears. Even the pleadings of Niccolo’s ministers and friends to change his sentence from death to imprisonment were rejected. He was a man betrayed and humiliated, and he would have his revenge.

The two lovers were beheaded that same night. The next morning, as soon as dawn broke, they were hastily buried   in the garden of the church of San Francesco Ferrara, near the bell tower. 

But the deaths of the Marquis son and his wife did not pass unnoticed by the townspeople, and he knew that people were whispering about him behind his back. It was more than he could bear. He ordered the bodies of Laura and Ugo dug up, had their heads sewn back on and held a royal funeral. He played the part of a grieving husband and father well, mourning the deaths of his dearly beloveds who had died in an unfortunate accident.

There is some evidence that shows that in the days after the beheadings, the Marquis of Ferrara sent a dispatch to the Lord Chancellors of Italy, who were aware of what had happened, and yet no Italian archive has ever been able to find such a document. Laura, her story and any images of her that may have existed, have disappeared. All traces of Laura have disappeared. It’s as if she never existed.

A few years later Niccolo’ married Ricciarda di Saluzzo, and had two children with her. Between his three legitimate wives and four known mistresses, Niccolo’ produced 19 children, insuring the continuance of the name d’Este. And so it has.

Copyright © 2016 Phyllis Macchioni

Attn: Best of Italy blog. 
This is copyrighted material. Please stop posting my articles on your page.

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