The illuminated codex on parchment (1474-1479 c.) consists of two fragments, one preserved in Modena, the other in Rome.
An incredible collection of portraits
The manuscript consists of 169 portraits of the princes and members of the House of Este from its origin to the beginning of the 16th century, from Alberto Azzo, the first vicar of Ferrara (1095) to Isabella d’Este-Gonzaga (1474).
The last sheet of the Modena fragment shows four medallions ready for the next four children of Ercole I, up to Ippolito, born 20 March 1479; from this the dating of the codex was deduced. It is definitely the work of a court artist, thought to be either Bonifacio Bembo or Baldassarre d’Este.
The journeys of the book
The codex, commissioned by the Estense family, belonged to Cardinal Alexander until his death in 1625, when it passed to the Teatini Order; in Reggio Emilia it was unexpectedly split up and lost.
The fragment made up of two external sheets returned to the Estense Library after the Order was abolished in 1782 while the four central sheets reappeared in 1886 and were purchased by the State for the National Library in Rome, for at the time they were not known to be part of the Estense codex.
A family album
The manuscript, unique in its genealogical interest, iconography and as a history of dress, was intended as a courtly “family album” to show to important guests and to flaunt the family’s wealth, power and illustrious origins. Nine portraits per page were planned, though not all pages were completed.
The 169 family members, portrayed in medallions, are shown as busts. The faces are water-coloured on a deep blue or gold background. The gold background is only used for reigning princes, shown holding a staff, and their consorts.
The texts under the medallions, in the dialect of Ferrara, identify the person and give essential biographical details. For the most important princes there is a lot of information.
The head of the Family
Just the portrait of Borso d’Este is different. The complete figure, taking up a whole page, is shown standing on grass, showily dressed in red and gold and holding a sceptre. This is not only to emphasises his leading role in the family, but it is also a posthumous thanks from Ercole I to his brother, who chose him as his successor instead of the legitimate pretender.