Ferrara Day 3 – Museo del Risorgimento e della Resistenza, Pinacoteca Nazionale & Monastery of San Antonio in Polesine

Our final day in Ferrara loomed and we decided to finish off the allowance of museums on our MyFE cards (highly worth the money if you ever visit Ferrara, 14 euros for 3 days. AMAZING). So we got up and headed out and made our way towards the Pinacoteco Nazionale (National Museum of Ferrara), taking a short pit stop at the very sweet Museo del Risorgimento e della Resistenza.

This museum tells the story of soldiers from Ferrara during a number of wars, with particular attention being paid to the soldiers who freed Ferrara from the Nazis in World War 2. It’s not a very big museum, but it really is very sweet and the exhibits are labelled in both English and Italian. I highly recommend visiting this place if you have a spare half an hour.

After this, we headed to the National Gallery of Ferrara which has to be one of my favourite places that we visited over the few days we were in Ferrara. I do love an art gallery, and the moment we walked in and saw the early Renaissance artwork I was completely in my element. The gallery is housed within the Palazzo Diamanti, a beautiful Renaissance era palazzo and the art held within date from the thirteenth century to the eighteenth. Whilst not on the same scale as the huge Uffizi gallery in Florence, this is still an art gallery that you can waste a good few hours in.

We swung back to the hotel following our jaunt around the art gallery for a quick pit stop. Once we were refreshed and sure that the lunch time ‘siesta’ was finished with, we decided to head across down towards the Monastery of San Antonio in Polesine – like Corpus Domini this is still a working convent and houses nuns, these ones of the Benedictine Order. San Antonio was originally founded by Augustinian hermits in an area that was once a high piece of land surrounded by water (hence the name Polesine) but in the 13th Century, Beatrice d’Este received the monastery as a gift from her father. She moved into the monastery as a Benedictine nun in about 1257 and since that day it has been home to Benedictine Nuns.

When we arrived, we were greeted by scaffolding and I found myself slightly disappointed. Thinking that the place was closed for visitors, we began to walk away but then a little voice came over the loudspeaker they have by their doorbell. It was a sweet little nun, talking in Italian, and she invited us inside. Now it must be mentioned that as this is a working convent, it isn’t specifically open to the public despite having ‘opening hours’ – the nun was so incredibly sweet and very patient as she showed us around the place, understanding that we spoke very little Italian. I was particularly awe struck inside the Church when she showed us a number of frescoes painted by the Renaissance master Giotto. They truly are stunning pieces of work despite being faded with age and it truly was an honour to see them.

I didn’t take any photographs inside this incredibly moving place – I was more concerned with listening to the wonderful Nun as she told us the stories and, more importantly, I didn’t want to intrude on her home more than we already had. They did have small gifts available however, which you could purchase with donations, so we picked up a couple of postcards of the frescoes and left a little more money for them as well. Honestly if you have a chance please do visit this wonderful place – it feels so incredibly peaceful there and I found myself feeling at peace in the presence of such a kind and humble lady as the Nun who we had the pleasure of meeting and speaking with.

The below photographs are not by me, however were found on wikimedia commons.

We returned for dinner that night to the Hostaria Savonarola, the wonderful resteraunt in the Piazza Savonarola, and we had the most amazing meal. Tagliatelli al Ragu and a beautifully tender pork shank, along with some very tasty local wine!

Ferrara truly is a beautiful place and it is chock full of history. You certainly won’t need many days to see it all, however, as it is a very small place. But it really is worth taking the time to visit. I fell in love with the place and all it’s crooked medieval streets as well as it’s wonderfully friendly people. It’s not every day that you can visit a place where you are allowed inside working convents to see where people from history were buried, or to walk the same streets as your favourite historical people. So please do visit Ferrara, and if you do make sure to pick up the MyFE museum card – excellent value for money!

Simonetta Vespucci – The Florentine Beauty.

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Portrait of a woman, said to be Simonetta Vespucci, by Piero de Cosimo.

Simonetta Vespucci is a name commonly associated with both the Medici family of Florence and the artist Sandro Botticelli. For years, people have believed that Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus” is actually a painting of Florence’s most beautiful woman – she was said to have stunned Botticelli with her beauty which is why the same face pops up over and over again in his paintings. These days many art historians say that this is actually because Botticelli’s workers (is that the word for them?) actually painted them based on the portrait of the ideal woman – whether or not that’s the case, I quite like the idea that the artist was so taken with her beauty that he wanted to get her in as many of his paintings as possible.

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Birth of Venus detail. Photo by me.

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Could this be Simonetta Vespucci? Detail of Boticelli. Photo by me

But who was Simonetta Vespucci, and what was it about her that seemed to have the people of Florence either wanting to BE her or to BE WITH her?

Simonetta was born in the mid 1450’s to Gaspare Cattaneo and Cattochia Spinola although her exact place of birth is unknown. Some say she was born in Genoa whilst others say that she was born in Portovenere, where Venus herself appeared from the waves – this may be due to the belief that she was indeed the model for Botticelli’s Birth of Venus. But wherever she was born, at the age of around sixteen she was married to Marco Vespucci and the two moved to Florence.

It wouldn’t be long until the young woman caught the eye of the Florentine populace – she particularly caught the eye of both Giuliano de’ Medici (Lorenzo the Magnificent’s ill fated younger brother) as well as many local artists including Botticelli. In the January of 1475, Giuliano held a joust in the Piazza Santa Croce which he dedicated to her. For his banner he carried a painting of the beautiful young woman painted by none other than Sandro Botticelli himself. When Giuliano won the tournament, Simonetta was crowned Queen of the Joust. It is said that Simonetta became Giuliano’s mistress, although given the fact that Marco Vespucci was close to the Medici family it seems somewhat unlikely that the two had a sexual relationship.

Just one year later, however, tragedy struck during the Spring of 1476. Simonetta Vespucci was struck down with a life threatening illness. Lorenzo the Magnificent, who was in Pisa at the time, insisted on receiving daily updates about the state of her health and sent his own personal physicians to her when he found out her health was on the decline. But his efforts came to little and the great Florentine beauty passed away on April 26th. It is said that the entire city was struck down in grief at her passing. Following her death, Simonetta’s father in law sent Giuliano some of the gowns that she had worn – a sign of just how much the young Medici felt about her, perhaps?

It was a sad end for a young woman cut down in the prime of her youth and beauty. Her open coffin was paraded through the streets of Florence for the populace to be able to see her beauty for one last time. She was buried in the Church of Ognissanti, the parish Church of the Vespucci and perhaps somewhat tellingly, Sandro Botticelli requested to be buried there upon his death.

Further reading

Miles J Unger – Magnifico: The Brilliant Life and Violent Times of Lorenzo de’ Medici

Claudio Angelini – The Mystery of Simonetta

Christopher Hibbert – Florence: The Biography of a City

Christopher Hibbert – The Rise and Fall of the House of Medici

Paul Strathern – The Medici: Godfathers of the Renaissance