Ferrara is an elegant, prosperous and compact city, located between Venice and Bologna. It is surrounded by medieval walls which circle the city and protected it from enemy forces in days gone by. The Castle that dominates the ‘centro storico’ was built in the 14th century and was the Court of the d’Este family for more than 200 years. In the 15th and 16th centuries Ferrara was an important centre of literature, art and learning. It is a city of palaces, courtyards and cobbled streets. The university is still one of the most respected in Italy.
As I cycle through the streets of Ferrara I’m immediately transported back in time. To the Ferrara of Giorgio Bassani and the Second World War. Bassani was a famous writer and intellectual who grew up in Ferrara in the years before the war. I pedal along Corso Ercole Este, an elegant cobbled street that runs north from the centre of town to the medieval walls and the countryside beyond. Elegant patrician houses are concealed by high walls and luxuriant vegetation. In Bassani’s novel ‘The Garden of the Finzi Contini’ the eponymous family live in a large, old fashioned villa surrounded by an extensive garden which includes a tennis court. The tennis court is an important character in the novel. When the young Finzi Contini are excluded from the Ferrara Tennis Club because they are Jewish they set up their own informal club at home. The tennis court becomes the meeting point for a small group of young people, who gather to play tennis, socialise and to fall in love. The narrator, Giorgio falls for Micol the engimatic and beautiful daughter of the Finzi Contini family.
The Jewish community in Ferrara lived and prospered in the city for generations, they were fully integrated and worked in various professions. They were doctors, lawyers, business owners and academics. When Mussolini allied himself with Hitler, segregation swiftly followed. The exclusion of Jews from the Tennis Club is a perfect example, chosen by Bassani to illustrate the ‘race laws’ of 1938 and the changing attitude to religious tolerance that happened in the Fascist era of the 1930s and early 1940s. You can still visit the Jewish Ghetto area of Ferrara, explore the narrow streets where the Jews lived and see the Synagogue which remains in use to this day. Tragically many of the Jewish people of Ferrara did not survive the war – the Finzi Contini family were among them. The awful truth is that Jews were being deported to Germany as late as December, 1943. Just a few months later the allied forces started to make their way north from Salerno and Sicily in a military campaign that eventually liberated Italy. It was too late for the Jews of Ferrara.
Inspired and moved by Bassani’s novel my first stop is the Jewish Cemetery. Here a rather brusque notice informs the visitor that you must ring the bell to gain entry. La Custode, the guardian, will then let you in. Once inside the cemetery is hauntingly beautiful, with lots of grass, trees, family chapels and tomb stones, numerous tomb stones in various states of disrepair. It is interesting to read the names of those buried there. Many Jewish families took the name of the town where their ancestors first arrived in Italy. Ancona, Pesaro, Pescara – all ports on Italy’s Adriatic Coast – are common names for Jewish families in Italy. I wander through the gravestones looking at names, dates and occasional personal details. I come across the Mausoleum of the Finzi Contini which, in the prologue to his novel, Bassani advises us is empty except for a family member who died long before the war and the oldest son Alberto who died of cancer in 1942. Just a few years ago a new memorial to Giorgio Bassani was installed at the cemetery, this has increased visitor numbers, much to the irritation of ‘La Custode’. Here I am on this beautiful, sunny, peaceful day reminded of how brutal the past was for many of our ancestors. It forces me to consider how important peace, freedom and liberty are to every single one of us.
Suitably appreciative of my freedom and good health I continue my bike ride along the city walls to the north of Ferrara, with the flat, agricultural land of the Po Delta to my right. This area of the city is green and lush. The walls today are used by walkers, joggers, cyclists. This town is a joy for fresh air enthusiasts. Just a few miles away is the River Po, and an extensive area of fields, streams and open countryside, running down to the Adriatic Sea.
By complete chance today is the day that the Mille Miglia will come through Ferrara. The Mille Miglia is a historic car race that first started in Italy in 1927. Mille Miglia means ‘A Thousand Miles’ and the race starts and finishes in Brescia (just east of Milan). It runs for two days every May. The beautiful and historic Corso Ercole d’Este is the entry point for the Mille Miglia contestants so I beetle along to watch the cars coming through. First it is a fleet of modern Ferraris, who lead the classic car pack by several hours. They roar past a small, enthusiastic crown heading for the Cathedral and the main square in the centre of town. Flags wave, horns toot. I carry on into town to position myself in the Piazza Trento Trieste to see the old cars, the historic cars, from the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s – the glory days of the Mille Miglia. The local TV and Radio Stations are out in force, offering incessant commentary and interviewing unwitting members of the general public who fail to get out of the way quickly enough.
I sit down at a popular bar and order an Aperol Spritz, it arrives with crisps, olives, tiny panini and delicious slices of a savoury torte. Civilisation here in Ferrara! Around about 7 pm the old cars start to arrive – they are magnificent. There are Mercedes, Porsche, Rolls Royce, Bentleys, Maserati, Ferrari and Alfa Romeo all represented here. To participate in the Mille Miglia a car must be pre-1957. Only cars entitled to compete in the original race can enter – so these cars are real old timers. The drivers and their navigators are determined, sporting and resolute. Many of these cars have no windscreen. The drivers are wearing helmets, scarves and goggles to protect themselves from wind, stone chips and weather. Just four hours into the race and they’ve already encountered pouring rain and high winds. They left Brescia at around 2 pm so their brief stop in Ferrara is 5 hours into their epic journey. This race really started the notion of ‘gran turismo’ the idea of touring in a high performance, high speed car. As the cars enter the square, horns blaring, drivers waving, I can’t help but be impressed by the resilience and spirit of the drivers. What a great spectacle they make as they roar and screech around the Piazza Trento Trieste.
I glance up to my right and there is the thoroughly evil statue of Savonarola. He was a monk and priest born in Ferrara in 1452. He condemned frivolity and any form of fun. He preached a fire and brimstone approach to religious salvation. The statue shows a thin-faced man with long, frightening fingers, gesticulating wildly. Rather amusingly someone has thrown a football scarf around his shoulders! His friar’s hood is up and his boney face peers menacingly from the shadows. He participated in the overthrow of the Medici Family in Florence and briefly acted as ‘President’ of the newly created ‘Republic of Florence’ but his success was short lived. He loved to have a good bonfire and he was partial to burning books that met with his disapproval, which was pretty well anything that expressed liberal ideas or a love of culture and art. He was not an open-minded, easy going kind of guy! He managed to fall out with everyone, including the Pope. He only made it until 1498, when at the age of 46 he had upset so many people with his ranting and raving that he was eventually burned at the stake, in the centre of Florence with several of his sidekicks. A lesson to us all in moderation perhaps………….
My overwhelming impression of Ferrara, is of a joyful, booming small city. It is a prosperous place with nice shops, beautiful public buildings and a big student population. It is a vibrant town – people want to live here! Everyone rides a bike. Life is civilised and comfortable. Just off the main piazza is the gloriously decorated Via Mazzini. Brightly coloured umbrellas have been suspended from the lamp posts to create an exhuberant and thoroughly up-lifting welcome to this bustling shopping street. The elegant cathedral (duomo) is flanked with small shops that look as if they were added on as an after thought. I’m reminded of the famous Bible story when Christ removes the traders from the temple. Maybe these traders were similarly evicted and in an effort to slight the church offered to move outside the cathedral confines, but only just! I’m not in a shopping mood but if I were I could do some serious damage here.
I’m staying in a charming ‘dependence’ which is an old palazzo, complete with elegant rooms and a garden courtyard. It’s run by the town’s only five star hotel as an up-market B & B. It is really comfortable and totally Italian – I love it. Two minutes up the road is Piazza Ariostea, where open air theatre takes place in the summer months. I ask for a recommendation for dinner and I’m directed back into town (I go by bike of course) to a pizzeria and trattoria set up fairly recently by some lovely Sicilians. It is called Estebar and the food is delicious. I can choose from meat or fish and the pizzas look wonderful. A great meal, a glass of wine and a bill of € 18.00 – now that’s value! Another great place to eat is Hostaria Savonarola, just in the square next to the statue of the mad monk himself. This is an authentic, busy and brilliant place to eat – don’t miss it!
I strongly recommend a visit to Ferrara. It is authentic, organised and truly delightful. Even the Tourist Office is conveniently and elegantly located right in the Castello Estense. Make sure it’s on your next Italian itinerary…………….
- Giorgio Bassani was born in 1916 in Bologna. He was from a well-established Jewish family. He was a writer, editor, poet and intellectual. From 1938 he became involved in anti-fascist activities for which he was imprisoned in 1943. His works include The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles, The Heron and Five Stories of Ferrara, which won the Strega Prize. The Garden of the Finzi-Contini was awarded the Viareggio Prize in 1962. He spent much of his life after the war in Rome. He edited the literary journal ‘Botteghe Oscure’. Later he became influential in Italian television.
- Bassani was also responsible for the publication of ‘The Leopard’ by Tomasi di Lampedusa. The author failed to find a publisher before his death – however Bassani secured its publication in the early 1960s.
- ‘The Garden of the Finzi Contini’ and ‘The Leopard’ both consider themes of change, ending and destruction against a backdrop of Italian landscape and history.
- Ferrara for me is a microcosm of Italy. Art, architecture and palaces. Fascinating history and a vibrant and dynamic, contemporary art scene. There’s a film festival the first week in June and a Hot Air Ballooning Festival every September! Personally I can’t wait to go back!
- Corso Ercole Este is a UNESCO World Heritage Site don’t miss it when in Ferrara
- I also mention Ferrari in La Custode – The Guardian
- Ferrara also gets a mention in my article The Importance of a Bicycle in Italy
- Estebar Pizzeria and Ristorante Friendly restaurant – great food.
- Hostaria Savonarola – strongly recommended.
- www.artedeicontrari.com beautiful cards, posters, photographs of Ferrara.
- Happy Reading!
Written & Published: 09 June 2016