Rinaldo d’Este

Edited by

Federica Fanti

Rinaldo d’Este


The Life: from Cardinal to Duke

Rinaldo d’Este was born in Modena on 25 April 1655, the last son of Francesco I and his third wife Lucrezia Barberini. From childhood he was initiated into an ecclesiastical career, initially under the protection of his uncle Rinaldo, already a Cardinal in Rome and, after his death, followed by his other uncle Cardinal Carlo Barberini.

The heirless death of Duke Francesco II (1694) once again left the House of Este apprehensive about its fate but, fortunately, the Duke’s will named his uncle, Cardinal Rinaldo, as successor. In 1686, Rinaldo had in fact obtained the dignity of cardinal but not ordination to the priesthood, a circumstance that made the procedure to renounce the purple quicker, an act that took place in 1694 following the permission of Pope Innocent XII, born Antonio Pignatelli di Spinazzola. After the renewal of the imperial investiture over Modena and Reggio, Rinaldo legitimately assumed the power and title of Duke.


Rinaldo found a weak Duchy, characterised by a serious financial situation, due to the occupation of part of the territory by Austrian troops and conditioned by the unstable political relationship with France. 

Rinaldo’s first political action was his own marriage: an explicit declaration of alliance that was to sanction the union of the Duchy of Este with the Empire and the reuniting, after centuries, of the two lines of the dynasty descended from Alberto Azzo II, the first Lord of Este who had lived in the year 1000, whose son Guelfo had given rise to the House of Bavaria in the second half of the 11th century. 

Rinaldo thus became related to the most important families in Germany by marrying, in 1695, Princess Carlotta Felicita, daughter of Gian Federico Duke of Brunswick-Luneburg and granddaughter of Ernesto Augusto Elector of Hannover of the Holy Roman Empire. In August 1697 her eldest daughter Benedetta Ernesta was born, while on 2 July 1698 the long-awaited male heir Francesco Maria arrived, destined to become Duke Francesco III, followed by Amalia Giuseppina (1699), Gian Federico (1700) and Enrichetta Anna Sofia (1702).

Henri Gascard, Portrait of Charlotte Felicita of Brunswick, second half of the 17th century, oil on canvas, 71×59.9 cm, Banco BPM Group Collection. Public domain,

In the period immediately following his rise to power, Rinaldo was involved in initiatives in favour of the population: he granted pardons to anyone who applied for them and was determined to regulate activities connected with the production of grain, which often concealed abuses against the farmers and, in order to avoid speculation and possible scarcity, he ordered the purchase of large quantities of grain from other territories. The taxes imposed to cover the expenses incurred for the occupation of the Austrian soldiers were also distributed among those nobles who had not paid anything up to that point and, even the Duke himself, paid his own tribute.

The War of the Spanish Succession and the first occupation of the Duchy

The death of Charles II of Habsburg (1700) and the proclamation as King of Spain of Philip V of Bourbon, nephew of the King of France Louis XIV, at the same time governing Spain and in the French line of succession, effectively allowed Louis XIV to reunite and control two of the most powerful thrones in Europe. The rupture of the European political balances triggered the War of the Spanish Succession, which in opposition to France saw the Grand Alliance of the League of Augsburg, made up of England, Austria, the Netherlands, together with the allies of the Holy Roman Empire who supported Leopold I of Habsburg. The situation showed the fragility of the small Duchies of Emilia, which, thanks to their strategic geographic position in the centre of Italy, actually played a fundamental role. The Duchy of Este used to manage a complicated political-diplomatic balance that was shattered when Rinaldo granted the fortress of Brescello to the imperial troops after having denied it to the Franco-Spanish troops, provoking the reaction of the latter who invaded Reggio and destroyed the fortress, forcing the German troops to leave. On 1 August 1702, the French occupied Modena, forcing Rinaldo and the Court to take refuge in Bologna, an occupation that turned into the complete conquest of the city the following year. 

But the fortunes of war were changing: the Savoy dissolved their alliance with France in favour of Austria and thanks to the victory in Turin, the German army crossed the Po conquering Guastalla, Carpi, Correggio and Reggio, besieged Modena in November 1706 forcing the French to retreat to the Cittadella and capitulate after eight days of intense bombardment. 

In those agitated days, Duke Rinaldo arrived in Modena, greeted with exultation by his people, but the Este family was only able to return to the Duchy at the beginning of February 1707, again greeted by great celebrations.

The long years of occupation and conflict had resulted in social and material damage caused by the undisciplined behaviour of the troops, the obligation to contribute, in men and beasts, imposed on the citizens and the frequent sackings, including that at the expense of the Ducal Palace. This disastrous situation led Rinaldo to ask the Empire for compensation but, as often happened, he was only granted vague promises about a hypothetical claim to Comacchio and the purchase of Mirandola and Concordia, valued at well over 200,000 Spanish doubloons. Hopes of re-annexing Comacchio to the Duchy were revived in 1708, when the imperial troops occupied the city and a long political dispute began, which saw Modena and the Papal State opposing each other in presenting their reasons. The diplomatic battle culminated in the 1712 document ‘Piena esposizione de i diritti imperiali ed estensi sopra la città di Comacchio’ (Full exposition of imperial and Este rights over the city of Comacchio) by Antonio Ludovico Muratori, a court historian and man of letters as well as archivist and librarian, to whom Duke Rinaldo had entrusted the drafting of the legal documents supporting his position. In the text, through an extensive examination of documents and events, the right of the Empire, and thus of the House of Este, over the city was demonstrated. Unfortunately, the validity of the Este claims once again clashed with the overwhelming power of the Papal State, which reunited Comacchio with its possessions in 1725.

Internal policy of the Duchy 

Duchess Carlotta Felicita died of complications from childbirth on 29 September 1710. Rinaldo reserved a solemn funeral for the death of his beloved wife, which took place in April 1711. Despite the period of mourning, a positive event involved the Duchy: the Emperor granted the imperial investiture over the Duchy of Mirandola and Concordia and, following the payment of 200,000 Spanish doubloons, on 12 March 1711 the two states became part of the Estensi’s possessions. The Duke was thus able to have the titles of ‘Duke of Mirandola’ and ‘Marquis of Concordia’ in addition to that of ‘Knight of Toson d’Oro’ recognised to him by Emperor Charles VI.

In the meantime, new tensions emerged due to the successions that had taken place in the states of Tuscany and Parma, and Rinaldo found himself in disagreement about the assignment of the latter to Don Carlos, the future Charles III King of Spain, Naples and Sicily, eldest son of Elisabeth Farnese, wife of Philip V of Bourbon and Queen of Spain. Sinning with rashness and imprudence, the Duke put his own forward and to give more support to his proposal requested the support of France. To reinforce the alliance, Rinaldo also resorted to a marriage union, combining the wedding of his son Francesco Maria with the fourth daughter of the Regent of France, Charlotte Aglae d’Orléans. The numerous rumours circulating around the restless Mistress of Valois did not put off the Duke, nor did Philip of Orleans, who wanted to marry off his daughter and remove her from the licentious Life in Paris. The wedding took place on 12 February 1720 at the Tuileries, the bride postponed her departure for Modena for as long as possible and after more than three months of travelling she arrived near Reggio where, on 20 June 1720, she met Duke Rinaldo and her husband who, together with the Este nobility, escorted her to the capital where she arrived surrounded by a long procession of carriages and where, after the solemn ceremony in the cathedral, days of festivities followed. 

A few years later (1728), another marriage consolidated the alliance with the neighbouring Duchy of Farnese. In fact, the premature and heirless death of Duke Francesco Farnese brought his brother Antonio to the throne, who on 5 February 1728 married Enrichetta d’Este, Rinaldo’s daughter. Unfortunately, the Duke also died prematurely in 1731, believing that he would leave his inheritance to his son, but Enrichetta never gave birth to him. The Duchy thus passed into the hands of Don Carlos of Spain, son of Elisabeth Farnese, marking the end of the Farnese dynasty whose inheritance passed to the Bourbons of Spain and later Naples.

The War of Polish Succession and the Second Occupation of the Duchy

In 1733, on the death of Augustus II, the War of Polish Succession began, opposing Austria and Russia in support of the Elector of Saxony Frederick Augustus, and Sweden and France supporting Stanislaus Leszczyńsk. The Duchy’s ostentatious position of neutrality actually concealed a pact between Rinaldo and Emperor Charles VI, but the agreement was discovered by the French, who had already occupied Reggio on 13 July 1734 and, before the French-Piedmontese troops occupied Modena again (20 July 1734), the Duke retreated to Bologna. Three years later, following the Peace of Vienna on 24 May 1736, Rinaldo returned to the Este capital, accompanied by the festivities of the population. This time the loyalty shown to Emperor Charles VI was rewarded with the investiture of the Novellara and Bagnolo estates (1737). Two weeks later, on 26 October 1737, Duke Rinaldo at the remarkable age of 82 passed away in the Ducal Palace in Modena.


Despite the restrictions imposed by Rinaldo to contain the disastrous financial situation of the Duchy and his strict ecclesiastical training, which left an indelible mark of rigour and seriousness on him, the Duke did not deny his support for culture and art. Under his rule, work continued on the Ducal Palace in Modena, Rinaldo commissioned the decoration of the most important rooms such as the Hall of Honour where Marcantonio Franceschini and Enrico Haffner painted in 1694 the representation of the mythical origins of the House of Este ‘Bradamante crowned by Jupiter on Olympus’, continuing the work of the Bolognese school of perspective painting. The room next door was instead painted by Francesco Stringa with ‘Lo Sposalizio di Psiche’ (The Marriage of Psyche), and the late 17th-century gilded stucco decoration that completes the room is the work of Antonio Travi known as ‘il Cestellino’.

In the year of his death (1737), Rinaldo financially supported the reconstruction of the church and convent of St. Margaret, which experienced a period of notoriety during the 18th century, becoming the seat of a society of musicians, the Unione dei Musici, where the feast of St. Cecilia was celebrated with solemnity.

The Duke was particularly fond of the music chapel, which was led by illustrious musicians such as Antonio Maria Bononcini and Antonio Maria Pacchioni, but due to the worsening financial situation caused by the War of the Polish Succession, the institution went into a period of decline from the late 1920s.

Worthy of mention is the figure of Antonio Ludovico Muratori, the court historian and man of letters to whom Rinaldo entrusted the role of archivist and librarian from 1700, and who through his work was able to enhance the precious manuscripts of the Biblioteca Estense, attracting scholars and the curious from both Italy and Europe.

Palazzo Santa Margherita, Modena. Photo archive MiBACT


“The Este Duchy: Modena and Reggio Emilia” Bruno Adorni, p. 354-369

 ‘The Estensi. A thousand years of history” Luciano Chiappini, Ferrara, Corbo Editori, 2001

“Gli Estensi. The court of Modena” edited by Mauro Bini, Il Bulino art editions

Treccani Biographical Dictionary of Italians