Passion and the Princess

Meet the woman behind the famous ‘Singing Ladies of Ferrara’. Named after her grandmother Lucrezia Borgia, Princess Lucrezia d’Este, the Duchess of Urbino, was participant, patron and witness to the greatest music of the 16th-century at the court of Ferrara. Passion, violence, murder and treachery weave through her story, with music her one delight in the brutal world of Renaissance politics.

A narrated journey through sixteenth-century Ferrara with music by Willaert, De Rore, De Wert, Luzzaschi and Monteverdi, and other rare gems of the Ferrarese court.

Programme notes

Lucrezia d’Este (1535-1598), like her great-aunt Isabella d’Este and her grandmother Lucrezia Borgia, was a true renaissance woman. The daughter of Duke Ercole II d’Este and Princess Renée de Valois, she was the granddaughter of a king, and the great-granddaughter of a Pope. Lucrezia was brought up to be the consort of a head of state, learning all the skills required of a statesman, while at the same time developing the qualities required of a noblewoman. She was taught Classics, rhetoric, and mathematics by Ferrara’s finest professors; needlework by its most skilled nuns; dancing by its most graceful masters; and, most importantly for her, music by its most prestigious musicians. As she entered her teens, she and her two sisters were the centre of international attention, new beauties to be admired, and new actors on the court’s political stage.

But things didn’t go according to plan. The diplomatic vulnerability of her father, the religious intransigence of her mother, even her place in the birth order of her siblings all conspired to diminish Lucrezia’s chances of realizing the life path that had been constructed for her from infancy. A succession of negotiations stalled and failed, while all the time Lucrezia was watching her youth disappear and with it the crucial capacity for all potential royal wives: the ability to bear children.  With no responsibilities to fulfill, Lucrezia’s life was hers to live, but without her own income, she spent the next twenty years at home, cared for first by her mother and then her brother, Duke Alfonso II, filling her days with music, literature and hunting. And when she eventually did marry – at the age of 35 to the Prince of Urbino, fourteen years her junior – the result was calamitous. Despised by her husband, she returned to Ferrara whenever she could, and resumed a romantic liaison with a local courtier. Recognising the potential for political embarrassment, the men of her family had her lover murdered. Then only months later, after Lucrezia had returned to her husband’s palace, she found that the Prince had given her a devastating venereal disease. She fled Urbino, never to return.

Lucrezia spent the last twenty-two years of her life at her brother’s court, surrounding herself with musical courtiers, seeking solace in the words of preachers and, when the discomfort of syphilis and chronic malaria became too much, the ministrations of the nuns at her grandmother’s convent, Corpus Domini. She forgave her brother for the murder; but she swore lifelong enmity on Don Alfonso d’Este, the cousin who had betrayed her and her lover – even though his son Cesare was the only hope the family had of retaining rule of Ferrara. These years were filled with the music of the ladies of the court, the famous concerto delle dame di Ferrara, who sang nightly in her chambers, and in those of her brother and sister-in-law. The ladies, of course, had their own stories to tell: as women who consented to sing publicly, they were always walking a tightrope of suspicion, and their personal honour was always on the line. Scandal, condemnation, and even murder were never far away.

When Duke Alfonso died in October 1597, the Este lost the right to rule Ferrara, and the city reverted to the Papal States. Through her support for the Pope’s claim, Lucrezia made sure that her detested cousin Cesare could not remain. As soon as she was certain that Ferrara would not be his to rule, she finally let go of life. In the dead of winter, she was laid to rest with her family in the inner choir of Corpus Domini, where the nuns still sing for her eternal rest.

© Laurie Stras