Sassuolo, west of Maranello on the Fiume Secchia, is the centre of Italy’s flourishing ceramic tile industry. Under the Este dukes it produced rather more artistic ceramics, some of which can be seen at the Collezione Vistarino at Viale Monte Santo 40, t (0536) 818 111, www.assopistrelle.it (open Mon–Fri 8.30–12.30 and 2.30–6.30 by appointment; closed Aug).
Though now it’s a gritty industrial town, the Este favoured Sassuolo as a summer residence, especially so after the great plague of 1630 carried off 40% of Modena's population. Francesco I purchased an existing country estate here, and hired architect Bartolomeo Avanzino in 1634 to transform it into what he would call the Delizia, a fairytale palace that could compete with the great courts of Europe. The result, the Palazzo Ducale did just that, though the glory days of the Este were already over. After Napoleon kicked them out the palace fell into disrepair, and eventually it became part of the Italian Military Academy. The soldiers did not treat it well; eventually they tired of the place, and now the slow work is underway of restoring one of the most stunning creations of the Emilian Baroque.
The palace entrance is on the enclosed, stately Piazza della Rosa, designed as part of Avanzino's plan for the palace ensemble. Just to the right of the palace facade is another original feature, the dukes' church of San Francesco in Rocca. Its austere facade hides a sumptuous interior decorated by some of the same artists that worked on the palace, including a great quadratura ceiling by Jean Boulanger, a Frenchman who studied under Guido Reni—apparently with help from the quadratura masters, Agostino Mitelli and Angelo Michele Colonna.
On the palace itself, the attraction is not so much the restrained architecture as the impressive statuary on it. Much has been lost, or was never completed, but there are allegories of 'Civil and Military Architecture', and flanking the portal, the spectacular statues of Neptune and Galatea by Antonio Raggi (1652). Raggi, a student of Bernini, was one of the most celebrated sculptors of his day; you can see his work all over Rome. Galatea, one of the Nereids, or sea nymphs, was a frequent subject for ancient and again Renaissance art. Her renewed popularity in this era may be due to Raphael, who painted a celebrated fresco of the 'Triumph of Galatea' in Rome; to him, she represented an ideal of perfect beauty.
The statues aren't marble, but stucco coated in marble dust—marmorizzato, as the Italians say. After the Este lost Ferrara, and were cooped up in their ruritanian Duchy of Modena, they never had the income to match their pretensions.
Passing these, the courtyard has another marine fantasy by Raggi, the Fountain of Neptune, possibly done from a design by Bernini. On the walls are traces of frescoes by Colonna and Mitelli, who also did the grand stair, the Scalone d'Onore; by the stair are two more sculptural allegories, representing Happiness and Eternity, by the Roman sculptor Maschio Lattanzio.
Inside, the frescoed rooms of the piano nobile have been largely restored. Many artists, mostly obscure, contributed to these. There are several quadratura ceilings here, as in the lovely Camarino del Genio and the Camera della Fortuna; no doubt Mitelli and Colonna were busy here too. much of the best is by Jean Boulanger, including the ducal apartments and what might be the highlight of the visit, the mind-blowing Gallery of Bacchus.
Now swallowed up by the town, the Palazzo retains only a sad remnant of its once-extensive gardens. These originally spread over six miles in length along the river Secchia, an expanse of garden walks, terraces, fountains and follies meant to recreate the fabulous gardens the Este once had at Ferrara, now also lost.
One bit that survives is the colossal, bizarre fountain called the Peschiera or 'Fontanazzo'. It was built along what was once part of the earlier palace's moat. A crumbling, purpose-built 'ruin', similar to the artificial rustic grottoes so popular among Renaissance princes, it continues the marine theme of the palace's decoration that began with Raggi's statues at the entrance. The fountain was once the centrepiece of an elaborate outdoor theatre, used for mock sea battles and other spectacles—and also to stock fish for the dukes' table.
Piazzale della Rosa, Sassuolo
Hours Apr-Oct, open daily exc Mon, 10-1, 3-7pm. La Peschiera (on Piazza Roverello just south of the palace) is open daily 9-7pm, -6pm in winter
Adm €4. Guided tours available by appointment
+39 053 6880801
Images by: Gloria Saccani, Chiara Soldati, Widenti