In 1291 the marquis Obizzo II D'Este, first noble of Modena, ordered to build a castle in the north-eastern part of the city, near the ancient wall and the confluence of the three main urban canals of Naviglio. The place was chosen for its characteristics: control on the navigable way up to Po and Ferrara, the availability of space and non-marshy soil, entrance from one of the main doors of the city (Porta Albareto). After destructions, fires and remakes, in the 16th century the castle had a rectangular shape of 35x85 mt. (long side towards north-south); it was enclosed by a moat; it had two floors and a wide attic; it had two drawbridges and two towers, one on the north-eastern side and the other one on the south-eastern side, 35 mt. high (unfortunately there are no photos of the building in that period).
Sometimes the castle hosted the D'Este family, the governor, the captain and other guests in transit in Modena; for that reason the sixteenth-century building was soon adjusted as an aristocratic residence. In 1598 the estense capital was forced to move from Ferrara to Modena, after Alfonso II died without any direct descendants and his cousin Cesare became duke laying claim to the territories of Ferrara by Pope Clemente VII (Ferrara was one of the territories of the Church while the dukedom of Modena and Reggio was an imperial feud).
The rich court could not settle down in the city: the castle, two palaces of noble families of Modena and two monasteries were occupied so works of adjustment and enlargement were necessary. Francesco I (duke in 1629) wanted "a new big palace", adequate to the importance of the family. After the mediocre proposals of the court architects, the task was assigned to Bartolomeo Avanzini (born in Rome in the late sixteenth century and died in Modena in 1658).
Student at the Vignola's school and collaborator of Bernini, the architect proposed some projects according to the characteristics of that period, with scenic effect on the main wall and the wide northern courtyard. In 1634 the works started with the filling of the canals and the building of the foundations of the imposing façade. The building had not to interfere with the use of the old castle and, in spite of economic difficulties and changes in the project, it was completed in the late seventeenth century with the façade almost finished (right side and the fortified tower finished, left side until the second floor), the great perron and the loggia on the southern and western side of the courtyard).
With the dukes Rinaldo I, Francesco III and Ercole III, only the left side was finished while the eastern side and the last two sides of loggia were completed by Francesco IV and Francesco V (first half of nineteenth century). The upper floors of the north-western wing were finished in 1941 but, destroyed by air attacks in 1944, they were rebuilt soon after the end of war. After 12 years of adjustments and structural renovations the palace was completely cleaned and painted in the colours of that period; today it is one of the most important royal residence in Italy.
The façade has got a great structural quality, with equilibrium of dimensions and decorations; the defensive tower has got elegant balcony and colonnade. In the recesses at the entrance there are two statues (Hercules and the Consul Emilio Lepido) realized by the sculptor Prospero Sogari (known as Clemente) between 1565 and 1568: they were firstly conserved in Scaruffi Palace in Reggio and later the duchess Prati Scaruffi gave them to Duke Rinaldo I in 1724. The precious bronzes that decorated the front door were lost during the temporary government in 1796, except for two masks that today hold up the chain in front of the entrance. To the top of the Palace façade, the statues on the right side of the balcony represent Hercules, Juno, Athena and Mercury, realized in the late seventeenth century; those on the left side represent Vulcan, Ceres, Bacchus and Venus, realized by Giuseppe Graziosi (1879-1942) to substitute the preexistent ones in wood. On the central defensive tower there are Mars, the Virtue, the Fortress and the Time, while on the northern side Jupiter and Neptune.
From the entrance you arrive to the Honour Court (Grand Court), passing through a wide atrium with decorations and fence designed by prof. Arturo Prati (in the early twentieth century) in order to place the Memorial Monument of the Military Academy; the gravestone along the sides report the names of the previous Fallen Soldiers. On the arches there is the motto of the Royal Academy of Infantry and Cavalry "new heroes will be prepared for the glories of Italy".
Passing through the locutory you can see the following paintings (from the right): Nicolò II D'Este (Carlo Goldoni 1822-1874), "Le Nozze di Cana" (a copy of Veronese by Jean Boulanger 1566?-1660), Azzo D'Este (Angelo Mignoni), Azzo VII (Giuseppe Zattera 1825-1891) and Obizzo II (Carlo Goldoni). Walking along the porch you reach the Honour Perron (Royal Perron) that is made bright by a court; along the flights there are recesses with the statues of Prudence and Abundance by Andrea Baratta (realized between 1687 and 1690), while the other six date back to the roman period and they come from the famous Villa D'Este in Tivoli (near Rome). The Minerva's statue is the most prestigious sculpture that was moved to Piazza Grande during the French occupation in 1796 to represent "the Liberty", but it was seriously damaged. From the perron you can enter the beautiful loggia and admire its peaceful and spacious aspect. The statues located in the recesses are wooden and plaster works.
The use of the interior areas of the Palace changed several times in accordance with the needs of the court or the government; normally on the raised floor there were the guards' rooms (on the right side respect to the entrance), the judiciary offices, the mint and the archive (on the left side respect to the entrance). In the area of the old castle there were stables, depots, kitchens, services, etc. On the noble floor there are still today the representation rooms (State Apartment, now Headquarters and Officers' Club), while the areas in the old castle and the additional ones to the north hosted the Ducal Apartments.
The art collections, books, weapons and mirabilia of the Dukes D'Este had always an international importance for the qualities and the preciousness of paintings and manuscripts. We can mention the Estense Medal Collection (with about 36 thousand coins, medals and stamps), the Ducal Armory (with more than three thousand cold steels or weapons), the Estense Library (with more than 100 thousand volumes) and the Estense Art Gallery rich in paintings of famous Italian and foreign painters of the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Unfortunately, because of the economic crisis, in 1746 Duke Francesco III had to cede the most precious 100 paintings of his collection to the King of Poland Augusto III for a hundred thousand gold coins. This collection, except for some works, is still stored in Dresda. With the victorious Napoleon's campaign in 1796 and the settlement of the cispadano government in the Palace, a great part of furniture and collections were taken away, smuggled or sold by auction before being got back during the Restauration. When Francesco V definitely left in 1859, the Medal Collection, the Art Gallery and the Library remained in the Palace (except for the Armory that was moved to Austria); later Francesco V gave the collections to the City of Modena in 1868 and since 1880 they are exhibited in the Museums palace. Almost all the nineteenth-century furniture remained in the Palace but it was preserved in specific depositories during the adaptation of the areas to new uses (Prefecture, Courthouse, Military Academy, etc…). The Private Apartment remained at the disposal of the Royal Family and the Princes of Savoy. The creation of new ministries in Rome capital led up to use almost all the furniture, including the Private Apartment; in memory of the ancient furniture, today there is only the oval table of Colleoni Room. The paintings that are today in the Palace belong to the Military Academy and the Superintendence for the Historic, Artistic and Ethnoanthropologic Heritage of Modena and Reggio Emilia; they have been recently selected and repositioned according to the historical requirements and the military characteristics of the Institute. The most famous authors are portraitists of the twentieth century, teachers at the Atestina School of Fine Arts of Modena that carry out family portraits but also portraits of the ancestors of D'Este Family.