The collections reflect the versatile and refined tastes of the Este family, addressed not only to painting and sculpture.
The Estense Gallery in Modena, which houses the wealth of art treasures gathered by the Este family over long centuries of collecting, is one of the oldest and most important national galleries in Italy. In addition to the fine picture gallery there is an important graphics collection (prints, drawings, woodcut blocks), a select collection of ancient and modern sculpture, an important selection of decorative arts (metals, glassware, ivories, majolica, ceramics, furnishings and accessories) and one of the finest collections of coins and medals in the world (ancient and modern coins, medals and plaques, seals, dies and punches).
The origins of these fabulous collections are tied up with the Este dynasty, first marquises and later Dukes of Ferrara. They moved to Modena in 1598, where the collections were housed prevalently in the sumptuous new Ducal Palace, which was built around an existing nucleus of mediaeval origin starting from 1630.
The collections clearly reflect the sophisticated and wide-ranging tastes of the Este dynasty, which embraced not only painting and sculpture, but also antiquities and the decorative arts, graphics and coins and medals. The pieces in the picture gallery are particularly fine, consisting predominantly of masterpieces of the Emilian school from the fourteenth to the eighteenth century, including works by Cosmè Tura, Correggio, the Carracci, Guercino and Guido Reni.
After the Este Dukes moved to Modena, the collections were expanded through the bequest of Cardinal Alessandro d’Este (1624) and then, to an even greater degree, through the passion and ambition of Duke Francesco I d’Este (1629-1659), who had no scruples about removing important altarpieces from numerous churches in the duchy to expand the Ducal Gallery. Indeed, the two greatest masterpieces conserved in the Gallery are connected with Francesco: his portrait executed by Diego Velazquez (1638-1639) and the magnificent marble bust by Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1650-51). Following the loss of the hundred most precious paintings, sold in 1746 by Francesco III to the Elector of Saxony (still conserved in the Gemäldegalerie of Dresden), the Dukes made strenuous efforts to restore splendour to the collections through acquisitions and the confiscation of works originating from the territories of Modena and Reggio Emilia.
Following the dramatic period of the Napoleonic dispossessions, the collections were further enriched by donations, bequests and acquisitions, including that of the Obizzi collection in 1822. In 1854 the Gallery was opened to the public in the historic premises of the Ducal Palace. The Gallery was then bequeathed to the city by the last Duke, Francesco V of Austria-Este, after which it was moved to the former hostel for the poor, the monumental Palazzo dei Musei. This building was destined to house the most important cultural institutions of the city (the Este Lapidary Museum, the “Luigi Poletti” Civic Art Library, the Historic City Archives, the Civic Museums and the Este Library).
The renovated Estense Gallery was reopened to the public in its new premises in 1894, following a major reorganisation carried out by one of the most prominent Italian art historians, Adolfo Venturi, who in 1822 published what continues to be a seminal book on the history of the Este collections. As a result of the tireless efforts of the various directors of the Gallery, and in particular of Giulio Bariola in the early twentieth century, the museum pursued an active policy of acquisitions, aimed in particular at retrieving works originating from the antique Este heritage. The current appearance of the Gallery is the result of an important new layout designed by the architect Leone Pancaldi implemented between 1968 and 1975, together with the required modifications made in recent years to keep pace with the new demands of the museum public.