Living in Ferrara

Written by  Roberto Pazzi
Here, in my life, is Ferrara, and even though I still do not know if it is Armida's garden or the castle of Atlas I nonetheless wander around it, an amazed and voluntary prisoner.
"I have come here TO be amazed": the quotation is from Goethe, on his travels through Italy. The remark has always remained in my memory and perhaps it is only the years of maturity that have gradually revealed the subtle and vaguely prophetic flavour of my life's most fundamental decision: to stay here, because that here, in my life, is Ferrara, and even though I still do not know if it is Armida's garden or the castle of Atlas I nonetheless wander around it, an amazed and voluntary prisoner.

And I'm astonished every time I undertake this journey through the room that is my city, rediscovering it alone or in the company of foreign guests to whom I wish to show it. Here in Ferrara, the Italy that offered itself to Goethe towards the end of the XVIIIth century in all the variety of its styles and epochs, in the magnificence of its nature, is enclosed within the brief circle of Rossetti's walls, complete with that undiminished capacity to present itself as a microcosm that had already enchanted Ludovico Ariosto in the early XVIth century, when Cardinal Ippolito was pressing the reluctant poet to follow him to far-off Hungary.

It is the state of mind that I attempted to express in these verses from Calma di Vento, "I nomi", which came to me as I strolled around with my head raised to read the names new and old names on the plaques that bear the names of the city streets:

Stanley gave names to rivers
That nobody knew
And on the virgin map of Africa
Cities and waterfalls appeared
Conjured up by that expert name giver.
The explorer never revealed
The source of his naming
But sometimes, in town,
When I look up to read
The names of the streets
There lives again in me
That love for the unknown ones
Imprisoned in the sleeping stone
And the incoherence of the waters

But the city, as I have said, is also a room, a place dedicated to an intimacy and faithfulness to ritual and custom that halt time in a Proustian repetition of events, thus creating the security of a closed cosmos where everything is known and measurable. These are the houses of my Ferrara, where we, creatures of the moment, "pass" in all the senses of the verb, those of transformation and those of movement, against the semantic background of the Christ-like "passion" of the verb "TO pass".

Here are some other verses that express the emotion of experiencing the entire city as if it were a comfortable and welcoming "interior" of a single room, "Le stanze":

How many slumbers
In these rooms...
Then one day the rooms
Will be no more;
Others will be built,
And only the dreams will remain.

There are places in Ferrara where time comes to a standstill and living in the vicinity of these marvels is an intense pleasure that fades into the pangs of aging; in such places the cloying web of bourgeois rituals, the resigned consumption of sweet cakes of a Sunday, is torn asunder: the wind of distant seasons storms in followed instantly by "la presente / e viva, e il suon di lei" (the living present / and the sound of it).

We are the ruin that stands out stark in these places; those stones, colours and shapes are the signs of Life immutable. It is as if the roles had been reversed; the living have become the dead and the dead the living. Of these places, two in particular fill me with a particular melancholy, an unfailing sense of pure amazement and wonder, "gli occhi incerti fra il sorriso e il pianto" (eyes hovering between laughter and tears), as our Carducci - who loved Ferrara so dearly - would have put it: the prothyron of the cathedral and the frescoes of Palazzo Schifanoia.

The prothyron was hidden from our eyes for a good fourteen years, the time required for an admirable work of restoration. These verses on the prothyron were inspired when my gaze fell on it once more at 38 years of age, having been catapulted in the meantime from a youthful 24 to full maturity. In the statues of the damned and the blessed sculpted above me I saw the age of the senses and of reason, as if certain places in my city were the hands of an invisible interior clock that must be consulted when we wish to know which point of the Journey we have reached:

September was a month of sins
Forbidden by the sign of the virgin
And for the rest of the year
Brought back to mind
By fear of Final Judgement.
And now that half of my life
Towers tall before me
In the cathedral of my memory
The statues of lust seem
Less ancient than those high above me.

There is a garden in Ferrara where the seasons of history seem to surrender to those of nature, as if in that patch of ground the beauty of art and the sweetness of life had come harmoniously together in the rhythms of a tree that in April reminds us of the mystery of rebirth; that April that Eliot calls "the cruellest OF months" because it is privileged by Nature to return to youth every year with the coming of the spring, a pleasure denied us mortals.

That place is the garden of the Convent of Sant'Antonio in Polesine where every spring folk run to admire the Japanese cherry tree. It is a tree whose growth is expressed and consummated entirely by its most delicate, almost fleshy, blossoms, known to everyone in Ferrara. But the Japanese cherry gives virtually no fruit - only a tiny, almost invisible seedling. In the case of this tree, the symbolic cycle of life, the passage from leaf, to flower, to fruit, seems to balk at the final phase, contenting itself with leaf and blossom. We know that the fruit is the symbol of the child - we are reminded of this by the most famous Christian prayer to the Virgin Mary - as well as the symbol of the first step in the continuous and infinite renewal of the cycle, as the earth consents to motherhood.

But what remains after the fruit, the final season of desire, the calm of possession, and the pleasure of sinking one's teeth into the flesh of life? What remains once the anxiety of verifying that the child has been born healthy has been allayed? After the fruit there is death... And we human beings are like the fruit and not only the leaves of the tree.

The splendour and maturity of intelligence and physical beauty last for a brief moment of triumph, at an age, which - for most people - is today around thirty to thirty-five years. Now a tree, such as our Japanese cherry, which is "sterile" in the sense that it brings forth only blossoms, reminds us that, with regard to the leaf-blossom-fruit cycle, the most poetic moment, the one richest in hope because the end is still not in sight, is when the plant blooms. Here is another poem that signifies this truth, plucked from another magical corner of Ferrara, "Il ciliegio giapponese":

There is the almond,
That blooms
Some few days only
Before shedding its colours
To bear fruit,
As do all mortal loves.
There is the fig
That flowers never
And bears fruit straightway,
Like the mother of God.
There is the Japanese cherry
That scarcely knows fruit
And blossoms only,
Like the love of God.

One of the sweetest and most deeply felt dimensions of Ferrara lies hidden in the passing of the hours there, the typical world-weariness so typical of this place and its relationship with time. Here, time does not pass as it does in Paris, in Prague, or in Rome. The temporal dimension in Ferrara is no longer comparable to that of Bologna or of Rovigo. This is a truth that I perceived at a very early age, in the enormous house where I lived, still an only child as my sister Emilia had not been born yet. The house was in the same building as the Cassa di Risparmio in Corso Giovecca. We lived on the top floor, where I would play looking up at the sky from an enormous internal courtyard frequented by swallows, snow, clouds, blackbirds, and the sunbeams that set the bricks of the facing wall ablaze with light.
In that house in the heart of the city the hours never passed with the same regularity; certain winter afternoons dragged their feet, while in another wing of the building, forbidden territory for me and as distant as Cathay, my father worked away at his desk... As a child, up to a certain point, play gave me the illusion that time was passing. Sometimes it would stop as the Castle clock tolled the hour and the half-hour.

Of those days I still possess the echo, ineffable and in a certain sense heroic, of boredom. Something palpable and closely linked to Ferrara afternoons and to a particular hour: four o'clock. If God has set aside for boredom, as an emergence from mal du vivre, an hour assigned to its epiphany, for me it is four p.m. in Ferrara. There was only one tactic that enabled one to get through that terrible hour of truth; to remain motionless, to adopt almost the same cadaveric rigor that certain animals assume in the face of danger so as not to be killed: to escape death by feigning a little death while still alive, to make a statue out of one's living flesh.

Perhaps it is a psychological connotation of patience linked to the psyche of people from Ferrara, perhaps of surrender, of the impossibility to believe that brings one to the point of lying to oneself about certain ultimate truths. I wouldn't know, but certainly that resigned immobility, that syndrome of Oblomov, which flourishes in the discreet paradises of the provincial Italy that Leopardi loved so dearly, is now in my blood and is now a part of my personality, a Ferrarese for life, not only by blood but by destiny.
Many years after those afternoons of my childhood, after having abandoned that residence symbolic of the savings produced by so much energy - in the hope of a future reward, but also a latent invitation to renounce instant action - I moved to another house where I was to make other discoveries regarding the Ferrarese feeling for time. In the new house, where I still live today, the hours visit me with a curious dystonia, as the Castle clock always strikes the hour a little before or a little after that of San Domenico.

It's only in the last two years that I have noticed the presence of a third, the clock of San Cristoforo's, which is the most accurate because it also strikes the quarter hour. It was right that the hour of the dead was the most rigorous of all, realized as it is on the face of the city's third clock - it is the hour heard by Dr. Malagiati, the optician of my novel, as he wanders through the streets by night - the time where life and death meet in the unitary dimension of memory, the great mother of Ferrara.

Here all is memory, there is no escape; sometimes the journey is a salutary flight from the beloved city in an attempt to recover the strength required to live in the shadow of memory, should this become obsessive. Here is the poem on the clocks of Ferrara, written before I discovered the clock of San Cristoforo's during the writing of my novel:

Two clocks together sound the hour
At a safe distance from tower to tower
Does the useless repetition seek
The deafer ear
To convince it that time
Really does pass;
Or perhaps it is the ear
That distorts time,
Repeating as it does the hour
In the empty rooms of mind?

The publishers wish to thank Garzanti Editore for their kind permission to reprint the texts "l Nomi", "Le Stanze", "II protiro del duomo di Ferrara", and "II ciliegio giapponese" from Calma di vento (1987).
Thanks also to Editore Corbo for their kind permission to reprint the text "Gli orologi di Ferrara"from II filo delle bugie (1994).