Carpi and the Prince

Carpi: the prince and the city – Analysis of the urban structure and the interaction among Pio’s family and the city during XIVth and XVIth century

This time, after previous articles you can find here, I want to talk about the city of Carpi, that has been the subject of an analysis for the class of Modern History of Architecture. It has also a singular importance while I’m writing because the city of Carpi has been recently hit by the earthquake of 20th and 29th May 2012 and suffered some heavy damages in its historical center.

The urban plan of Carpi represents the result of centuries of interventions and extensions. The period from 1327 to 1525_ in coincidence with the feudal investiture of Manfredo I Pio and the end of Pio’s dominion_ represents the most important moment for Carpi. In that period the native nucleus of the walled citadel began to expand to the outside and assumed the characteristics of an urban center: in few words Carpi was preparing to become a city. Analyzing the two centuries of princely dominion it’s possible to notice the direct relationship among the “Principe”_ member of a family of able commanders and of deep culture_ and his “land”, on which he is direct witness and on which he carries out changes and wise interventions.

Carpi during XIVth and XVth century

Since the taking-possession of the Pio’s family in the citadel the direct relationship among the prince and those who lived inside the fortress was evident: as feofee, the lord offered a sure and well defended lodging and the tax exemption in return of activities like the cultivation of the lands around the castle.

Thanks to the increasing prestige of the family, in a short time the fortress was endowed with all the equipments of a small city; shops and houses of merchants, artisans and high dignitaries rose up around the existing church.

At the end of XIVth century the population growth drained the space inside the citadel; then some suburbs rose up along the principal approaches to the castle, particularly in the south side, towards Modena (Borgoforte or Borgo S. Giacomo). Under Galasso I (1348 -1367) and particularly under the dominion of Alberto I (1418 -1463), statutes were issued and vast valuation campaigns functional to the control of the territory and the urban space were planned, leading to the editing of a rural inventory (1448) and then to the urban one (1472). These operations underline the wish of the prince to check the building expansion, regulating it and creating some well separate sectors according to the position and the various functions. The stables and the houses of the wealthiest families gathered in the northern district (Borgo Superiore), whereas in the western district (Borgo Nojoso) there were the shops and the houses of merchants, on the south side again shops, craftsman houses and, towards the city boundary, the farmhouses.

The XVth century was a period of great ferment: the small Italian courts, and those of the Pianura Padana (Mirandola, Novellara, Correggio, Imola, Mantua, Vigevano), began to carry out small but meaningful strategies of urban transformation, and the climate of ceasefire that arrived with the Treaty of Lodi (1454) favored a notable prosperity under the economic and cultural aspect. Carpi was greeted by the reporters and visitors of that time as “opulentissimum oppidum” (cit. Flavio Biondo, Italia illustrata), as a fortified center flourishing in the trades and in the craftsmanship, closed in the new surrounding walls of regular plan erected by Marco I Pio (1389 -1418). But already after the death of Marco I the situation started slowly to get out of hand; the numerous members of the family claimed the small inheritance and expected for themselves the dominion on Carpi. For a long time (from 1418 to the 1500) periods of relative calm alternated with periods of feuds and clashes, while the various heirs lived in separate buildings inside the old citadel.

Alberto III Pio


In this unstable situation the most meaningful figure of the history of Carpi was born: Alberto III (1475 -1531). Son of Lionello Pio and Caterina Pico De La Mirandola, he trained up his culture away from Carpi, in Ferrara, at the court of Ercole I D’Este; there he formed strong friendships with the greatest humanists of his time, like Aldo Manuzio and Pietro Bembo. When he resided in Carpi he had to share the dominion with his cousin Giberto. Alberto III was a man endowed with great culture and had a notable diplomatic ability, but he was also able to be determined and merciless in the decisions he had to take. Highly ambitious and aware of his qualities as cultivated man, he aspired to get a great influence and control over Carpi; this led him to clash violently with the near relative, who tried to reprimand him many times avoiding useless disorders.

The feuds and the clashes among the factions that sustain the one and the other prince increased their frequency more and more, therefore the exasperated population asked to the duke Ercole I D’Este to settle the controversies.

It’s the year 1500: Ercole D’Este granted the feud of Sassuolo to Giberto in return of the dominion on an half of the city of Carpi. The new century began then with peace and prosperity: between Alberto and Ercole D’Este there was good friendship, thanks to their great culture in common but especially for the delegation of the supervision of Ercole’s part of Carpi to a trusted emissary. Alberto could finally put in plain his aspirations; he started an articulated and extensive urban strategy, aiming to endow that “land” of the infrastructures and of the equipments typical of a city. The prince in fact wanted to transform Carpi in a flourishing city, shooting for the prestige of his own dominion.

Unlike other princes like Federico di Montefeltro_ who built an immense building and realized expensive public works making Urbino a capital worthy of his dukedom thanks to the huge fortune accumulated during the military campaigns _ Alberto III didn’t have enormous quantities of money, neither Carpi was enough rich and populous to  draw a notable sum of money from taxes. Nevertheless, through localized and targeted projects, he tried to effectuate a much complex and ambitious plan; with the restoration, extension and embellishment of existing buildings, the demolition of useless structures and the reuse of its material, he wanted to transmit to the inhabitants the image of an aware prince and endowed with great “liberalitas et munificentia”, able in the management of the resources, masterful in the decisions but generous and munificent at the same time, making every effort to improve the conditions of the urban center and of his people.

The architecture became for Alberto III a mean to remember and to point out a political message; it was a  “instrumentum regni” and had to surprise for subduing. The church of san Nicolò, the convent of the Franciscan friars, was promoted as dynastic mausoleum and was reconstructed in great scale inspiring to Bramante architecture. The sumptuousness of the decorations and the holy ornaments _there was the famous painting of the Compianto su Cristo morto, commissioned by Alberto to the painter Cima da Conegliano in 1505 and now in the Galleria Estense in Modena_ impressed the local population but didn’t find the agreement of the religious order, which stated that the church was too much opulent; Alberto III, aware of his decisions, didn’t want to stop the works neither to come to an agreement with the order, continuing “sine capituli consensu.” At the same time the duke D’Este, with the purpose to maintain the respect and friendship of the local prince, contributed to the works of renewal and enlargement of the urban center sending him the best of his architects: Biagio Rossetti.

It’s not clear what the ferrarese architect did in Carpi, even if the frequent correspondence between the duke and the prince gives us confirmation that he operated until the death of the lord of Ferrara, happened in the 1505. In some interventions effectuated in Carpi it’s possible to notice some precise references to works already realized by the architect in Ferrara; the district of Borgogioioso, born as a western extension of the old Borgonojoso englobed in the old fifteenth-century surrounding walls (those of Marco I Pio), it’s a direct reflex of the works of urban extension made by Biagio Rossetti in Ferrara, better known under the name of “Addizione Erculea”.

As a matter of fact, Borgogioioso was composed by a series of regular roads in symmetry with the principal road (now via Guaitoli), which conducted to the approaches of the citadel_ subsequently included in the new princely palace_ crossing a great open space that would constitute the new city square.

The Golden Age of Carpi


In the 1505 Ercole I died; Alfonso, his son, succeeded him. In that time Alberto III began intense diplomatic activities; the Emperor Maximilian I elevated him to the status of caesarian ambassador at the papal court of Leo X. With the notable fortune accumulated he purchased the other half of Carpi in 1511, becoming the undisputed prince of the city. In 1512 he obtained from the emperor the full investiture on the territory of Carpi and the right to strike coin: for Carpi began the golden period. In the Rome of Leo X Alberto III had the possibility to assist to the enormous construction sites and came into contact with one of the most appreciated architects of that time: Baldassarre Peruzzi. A creative dialogue was established between the two figures, as it happened previously between Francesco Sforza and the Filarete or Pope Pius II and Bernardo Rossellino; Alberto asked to the senese architect some suggestions and commissioned to him various projects for Carpi.

Alberto III ordered the refurbishment of the space on the west side of the castle, inspiring himself to Vigevano and Imola’s squares, cities visited as ambassador. The new square, already notably long, was further enlarged, assuming majestic dimensions and becoming one of the greatest of Northern Italy: its dimensions in length (271 ms x 54 ms) exceeded those of Vigevano (124 ms x 36 ms), Mantua (140 ms x 58 ms) and also St. Mark square in Venice (170 ms x 64 ms). It was a urban space created or defined by the dominant authority, as it happened in Urbino and Vigevano, an intermediate space among the urban agglomeration and the princely palace, where the prince represented himself as the absolute holder of the political power. The building was organized in the middle of an articulated system of spaces, both of its facades fronted on squares rationally served by roads connected to the urban road network. The west open space of the citadel, over the moat, had already assumed a regular form in 1472, when a long portico was erected on the west side; this makes us understand how the space had already been thought from the Pio’s family as an urban square, but the family struggles had postponed many times a definitive arrangement.

Alberto III carried out a general rearrangement of the pre-existing buildings of the citadel, aiming to assume a more unitary form, with a uniform and elegant façade on the side of the new square; in line with the door of the western access he ordered to create a great courtyard, which recalled those of Urbino ducal palace. The little square of the citadel was regularized and turned into private court demolishing part of the old church of Saint Maria, which new façade was erected by Baldassarre Peruzzi, inspiring himself to the the church of Roccaverano, erected by Bramante.

The city church, that Alberto III wanted as the first cathedral, was erected on the north side of the new square; the project was submitted to Baldassarre Peruzzi, who drew his inspiration from Rafael’s sketches for St. Peter Basilica in Rome. Here it’s possible to notice the aspiration of the prince to raise Carpi to the rank of diocese and therefore of city, as Pope Pius II had already done for the city of Pienza; under Pope Julius II a college of canons was founded in Carpi, a clear basis for the passage to Episcopalian see.

The residences that soared above the long portico became the home of officers and dignitaries of the prince, whereas the Wheat Market Loggia was erected on the south side, in front of an abattoir. At that time the prince had already started the works for the construction of new surrounding walls, more modern and updated to the new war techniques.

In the years between 1512 and 1525 the new city was full of construction sites: the works started by the prince brought the local population to be direct witness, promoting and financing interventions of refurbishment and construction of their own houses and churches, also without the personal suggestion of the prince. The population became then the witness of lord’s aspirations and supported gladly the strategy of urban renewal and embellishment.

The end of Pio’s seigniory

In 1525 the defeat of the French troops of Francis I against the army of Charles V in Pavia put an end to Alberto’s plans; lining up with France, the prince lost the imperial trust, so much that he decayed from the title of Lord of Carpi. Passed in the hands of Este’s family, Carpi ceased to be the capital; despite the diligence of its inhabitants, some buildings in construction, too much expensive, started to be abandoned. The first bishop won’t arrive in Carpi if not two centuries later, when the church, consecrated to Saint Maria Assunta, in smaller dimensions in comparison to the initial sketches, would be finally completed.

Alberto III then was exiled among the French court; on the verge of death, he made a will in which his strong attachment to the native land was shown through. With a vein of acute melancholy for the missed achievement of his goals, he listed the works that he hadn’t launched yet_ and of which he wished the realization to the posterity_ that were a library and an academy of arts; these one would have contributed enormously to the culture of the citizens, with notable effects on the economy and on the prestige of the new city.

All that would have fulfilled the dream of the prince, definitely consecrated and celebrated as great political character of his time.

Nevertheless, the notable building and urban inheritance left by the long dominion of the Pio’s family in Carpi represents one of the most admirable and meaningful examples of passage from medieval fortress to modern city in the Italian and European scene.

credit photo: Stefano’s page, Comprensivocarpinord, Ricercahotel, Eurekabooking

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by Andrea Pagotto

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