The interest in classical antiquities which distinguished the members of the Este dynasty is particularly well documented from the middle of the fifteenth century up to the end of the eighteenth.
As in the other Italian Renaissance courts, during the period in which the collections were being formed the "archaeological" interests tended to favour epigraphs, coins and medals and glyptics (engraved gems and cameos). The first to display these antique interests was the Marquis Leonello d’Este, in keeping with the humanistic studies to which he had been introduced by Guarino. In the course of the sixteenth century, the antiquarian passions of the Este dynasty began to extend to sculpture. Statues, heads, reliefs and decorated sarcophagus fronts were purchased, mostly on the Roman market, in addition to the inevitable series of busts portraying illustrious men and the twelve Caesars, together with other significant portraits of the members of the imperial families.
The antiquarian passion of Alfonso I and Alfonso II, like that of the Cardinals Ippolito I and Ippolito II, produced important collections of archaeological pieces, coins and medals and glyptics, as illustrated in the current collections of the Estense Gallery.
Among the sculptural works which undoubtedly originated in the collections of Cardinal Ippolito II, which figure in the 1584 inventory as belonging to Duke Alfonso II, the most outstanding piece in terms of historic importance and artistic quality is the famous Spinario. The Este exemplar is indeed one of the finest replicas of the boy seated on a rock engaged in removing a thorn from his foot, a genre subject which enjoyed great popularity in the late Hellenistic Greek world: several versions were produced, which have come down to us through copies of the Roman age.
Then there were the collections which belonged to Cardinal Rodolfo Pio da Carpi, partially acquired on his death by Duke Alfonso II d’Este for the Antiquarium which the Duke himself established, displaying a particular predilection for works on Dionysian subjects, as well as for subjects connected with Hercules – in view of the namesake members of the dynasty – in addition to amorous subjects involving Venus and her cortege of cupids. The inventories of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries continue to reveal the passion for gems and cameos, frequently used as wedding gifts, or exchanged.
Following the Napoleonic defeat, the installation of the Austria-Este branch in Modena in 1814 reignited the passion for antiquities in the court collections.
In addition to the fine collection of coins and medals which Duke Francesco IV of Austria-Este and his brother Massimiliano had brought from Vienna, the original collections were further enhanced by the hereditary acquisition of the archaeological collections from the Museum set up by the Marquis Tommaso Obizzi in the Villa of Catajo, in what is now Battaglia Terme, in the hills close to Padua.
The Estense Gallery and the coins and medals section continue to offer fascinating evidence of that distinctive cultural phase of dominant neoclassicism: from the glyptics to the Egyptian exhibits and the exemplars of Greek, Etruscan-Italic and Roman craftsmanship, represented by small bronzes and ceramics.