The story of the Palazzo goes back in time, probably dating back to the time of Matilde of Tuscany. During the thirteenth century, it was recorded as part of the Della Rosa fiefdom until the Este conquest of 1373. It was the Marquis (and later Duke) of Ferrara himself, Borso d’Este, who initiated the works to convert the Palazzo from a fortified manor into a court residence which included the frescoes by Agnolo and Bartolomeo degli Erri, now lost. For the whole of the sixteenth century the building was in the possession of the Pio di Carpi family with work carried out by artists such as Nicolò dell’Abate (in the lost Appartamento di Orlando) and Domenico Carnevali (whose frescoes in the Camera della Cancelleria only survive in fragments). The castle eventually returned once again into the Este’s possession and became a strategic seat for Francesco I d’Este’s new approach to politics. After the House of Este moved its capital from Ferrara to Modena, Francesco I converted the residence in Sassuolo into a Baroque palace whilst simultaneously transforming the Este castle in Modena into the colossal urban Palazzo Ducale. Under the team of artists amassed by the Duke, the Palazzo’s environment was transformed and re-orientated towards natural light and views of the foothills: the corner towers were made into panoramic terraces; the courtyard became a theatrical space populated with gigantesque river god designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini and Antonio Raggi; and an arcade of three staggered archways gave the illusion of symmetry on the building’s new Baroque façade, opening it up towards the town. Bartolomeo Avanzini and scenographer Gaspare Vigarani designed bizarre creations such as the fish pond (the “Fontanazzo” adjacent to the piazza) whilst sculptors and plasterers such as Lattanzio Maschio, Luca Colombi and Giovanni Lazzoni worked to produce sculptures for the atrium, Scalone d’Onore and Appartamento Stuccato.
The peak of Baroque refinement and splendour was achieved by the team of painters summoned by Francesco I. In the double height Salone delle Guardie, Agostino Mitelli and Angelo Michele Colonna created a superb sense of illusionistic perspective as a backdrop to the celebration of the Este’s patronage of the arts, literature, music and historical writing. The Galleria di Bacco is a unique space with quadratura decoration (by Gian Giacomo Monti and Baldassarre Bianchi) and still lifes (by specialists Pier Francesco and Carlo Cittadini) that frame visionary court painter Jean Boulanger’s exceptional fresco cycle depicting tales of Bacchus. Boulanger’s artistic expression reached new heights at Sassuolo. He decorated the Duke and Duchess’s apartments in a classicising style influenced by French and Nordic art that gave perfect expression to the Este residence’s cheerful, self-celebratory narrative.
The Palazzo’s decline began with its requisition during the Napoleonic era and subsequent purchase by the Count d’Armazit de Sahuguet d’Espagnac. This chapter also marked the beginning of the dispersal of its décor and collections, starting with the marbles from Alfonso I d’Este’s ‘Camerini d’Alabastro’. These renowned Renaissance masterpieces, created by Antonio Lombardo for the Castello Estense in Ferrara, were kept for a long time in Sassuolo and are today almost all in the collection of the State Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg. In 1917 the Palazzo became a temporary military barracks, then later the seat of the Bellentani meat-processing and sausage company. In 1941, it became part of the historic Accademia Militare di Modena and remained in the possession of the Ministry of Defence until its recent hand-over to the Ministry of Heritage, Cultural Activity and Tourism.