Palazzo dei Diamanti, Ferrara

Encased in glittery diamond-shaped marble, Palazzo dei Diamanti illustrates the grandeur of Renaissance Ferrara.

Palazzo dei Diamanti, designed by Biagio Rossetti, 1493–1503, marble and Istrian stone, Ferrara, Italy

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank: [0:04] We’re in the city of Ferrara in northern Italy, and we’re standing at a busy intersection of the city today, in front of this large, imposing structure that was a family palace of the Este family here in the 15th century.

Dr. Heather Graham: [0:22] This intimidating structure with the façade rendered in stone cut so that it looks like the entire structure is encased in diamonds, this structure was built between 1493 and 1503. It’s known as the “Palazzo dei Diamanti,” the Palace of the Diamonds.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [0:37] It’s easy to see why as we’re standing here; the two façades that are visible to us are covered in these forms that look like diamonds that project outwards. You can’t even lean against the wall.

[0:48] We’re standing here in the morning, and the sun is just hitting the façade. It gives us this wonderful impression of what it would have looked like in its heyday. The marble that forms the diamond shapes are not just white, but there’s also pink-veined marble. It has this slight glittering effect that reminds me of what a diamond is supposed to do.

Dr. Graham: [1:08] This is clearly a carefully calculated effect to communicate to the people of Ferrara, and any visitors to the city, the magnificence of the Este family, particularly for the two brothers, Ercole d’Este and his brother, Sigismondo, who were of the ruling family. Ercole was duke, and this was created for his younger brother, Sigismondo.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [1:30] When you get to this intersection, you can’t help but notice how different it feels than the more organic or meandering streets, because here at this intersection, the four streets that radiate from it are broad and straight.

[1:43] And in fact, the palazzo was constructed on the corner of an important intersection that was constructed under Ercole to transform the city. If we stand looking from the palazzo, we have an unobstructed view down to the Castello of the Este family. So we have this visual connection between the family palace and also another structure associated with the family’s power.

Dr. Graham: [2:09] Beginning in 1492, Ercole d’Este and his architect, Biagio Rossetti, began the process of transforming this part of the Ferrarese territory that had previously been outside of the city center into a new addition with straight streets, imposing buildings, and structures meant to amplify the prestige of [the] Este family.

[2:30] Many scholars see this as, perhaps, our first example of urban planning, making Ferrara one of the first modern cities of Europe.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [2:38] We could also say that this is one of the first attempts at trying to replicate the humanist idea of the ideal city. Humanists at this time were interested in Greco-Roman antiquity. They’re reading different architectural treatises by people like Vitruvius and they’re thinking about how to create a structured, ordered city.

[2:59] We’ve seen artists attempt to paint this in two dimensions using linear perspective, or one-point perspective. Scholars and others have suggested that what Ercole was trying to do with his city planning, and in conjunction with his architect, Rossetti, was creating this now in three dimensions in the heart of Ferrara.

Dr. Graham: [3:19] A city that would rival Rome and its grandeur. As we look closely at the façade, we can see elements that recall that glorious past.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [3:26] There are more than 8,500 stones that form the diamonds on this structure. This all had to be imported at great cost.

Dr. Graham: [3:35] Ercole d’Este is looking to the examples of the classical Roman past, particularly that of the emperor Augustus, who himself said that he found Rome a city of brick and transformed it to a city of marble. Here, where stone [is] quite limited, the Este family is doing the same thing, but they’re doing it at great cost.

[3:53] The façade of this massive palazzo is punctuated on both the lower and upper stories by regularly spaced windows. On the lowest level, these are topped by square plinths. On the upper level, they’re topped with a triangular pediment. The whole building itself is topped with a projecting cornice.

[4:11] Entering into the Palazzo from the main entrance requires walking through a classically styled rounded arch. We see grotteschi, or sculptures reminiscent of the paintings found in ancient Roman grottos, decorating the structure in the engaged pilasters at all four corners.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [4:29] The use of those grotteschi on these pilasters at the corners of the building, and also surrounding the entryway, mark certain parts of the building as more visually distinct. That is also because they are in Istrian stone, another imported stone.

[4:45] But also the densest concentration of these grotteschi, or these more elaborate forms, is on the corner both above and below a balcony from which members of the Este family could stand and look down these four broad sweeping streets that have transformed the urban core of the city of Ferrara.

Dr. Graham: [5:02] They sort of double down on expressing the ownership of this structure by using the diamond motif, which was one of the symbols of the Este family, and one used particularly by Sigismondo.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [5:14] Like in many other places in Italy during the Renaissance, we see the use of architecture in the service of those in power to advertise their wealth, to advertise their social status, and to make that clear to anyone who would be walking through the city of Ferrara.

[5:29] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank and Dr. Heather Graham, "Palazzo dei Diamanti, Ferrara," in Smarthistory, April 18, 2023, accessed June 13, 2024,