Magnificat’s first program this season features settings of texts drawn from Guarini’s pastoral drama Il Pastor Fido. Like so many poets, artists, and musicians of the Italian Renaissance, Guarini benefited from the patronage of the Este family of Ferrara. Both Guarini and his friend and rival Tasso had stormy relationships with the court that employed them and the intrigues within and battles outside the court doubtless caused misery for many, but from our vantage point several centuries hence we are indebted to them for the great works they supported.
The Estensi, a branch of the 10th-century dynasty of the Obertenghi, took their name from the township and castle of Este, near Padua. The founder of the family was the Margrave Alberto Azzo II (died 1097), through whose son Folco I (died 1136?) descended the House of Este. The family first gained prominence as leaders of the Guelphs in the wars between the Guelphs and Ghibellines. The Estensi influence in Ferrara dates from the 13th century and by the middle of the 14th century their court there had become one of the most magnificent in all of Europe.
Alberto d’Este (1347-1393) began the transformation of the city, establishing the university there in the last year of his life. His son Niccolò (1383-1441), a great patron of music and the arts in general, built the castle that still dominates the city. During Niccolò’s reign, Guillaume Dufay began his long association with the d’Este family.
Leonello (1407-1450), who succeeded Niccolò, was cultivated classical writings, philosophy, and history while Borso (1413-1471) was more interested in law and medicine and provided great support for the university. Isabella, the daughter of Ercole I (1431-1505) born in 1471, inherited her father’s passion for the arts and, after her marriage to the Marquis of Mantua, became one of his chief competitors in collecting art.
Under Ercole I, Ferrara became one of the political powers and cultural centers of Europe. Composers came to Ferrara from many parts of Europe, especially France and Flanders; Josquin Des Prez, Jacob Obrecht, and Antoine Brumel all served during his reign. His son Alfonso I (1476-1534) was also an important patron; his preference for instrumental music resulted in Ferrara becoming an important center of composition for the lute. He also was a patron of the poets Pietro Bembo and Ludovico Ariosto. After his marriage to the notorious Lucrezia Borgia, Alfonso I was excommunicated by Pope Julius II, and attacked the pontifical army in 1512 outside Ravenna. He got on better with later popes, but relations between Ferrara and the Vatican remained strained throughout the sixteenth century.
Alfonso I’s son Ercole II (1508-1559) married Renée, daughter of Louis XII of France. He joined the pope and France against Spain in 1556, but made a separate peace in 1558. He also was a patron of the arts, as was his brother, Ippolito II, Cardinal d’Este (1509–72), an able diplomat who led the pro-French party at the papal court. Ippolito built the celebrated Villa d’Este at Tivoli. Ippolito was responsible for bringing Palestrina to the Este court during the 1560s. Another son of Ercole II, Alfonso II married Lucrezia, daughter of grand-duke Cosimo I of Tuscany, then Barbara, sister of the emperor Maximilian II and finally Margherita Gonzaga, daughter of the duke of Mantua. He raised the glory of Ferrara to its highest point, and was the patron of Torquato Tasso and Giovanni Battista Guarini.
During the reign of Alfonso II, Ferrara developed a remarkable musical establishment. Composers such as Luzzasco Luzzaschi, Lodovico Agostini, and later Carlo Gesualdo, represented the avant-garde of the late Renaissance. The reign of Alfonso II also witnessed the famous concerto di donne — the three virtuoso female singers Laura Peverara, Livia d’Arco, and Anna Guarini, daughter of the poet. Alfonso II however had no legitimate male heir, and in 1597 Ferrara was claimed as a vacant fief by Pope Clement VIII, ending the Este family’s control of the city.