Eighteenth Century in Ferrara

Written by  Ranieri Varese
In Ferrara, the history of culture doesn't mean only Renaissance and the Twentieth century.

Ferrara has always been subjected to judgements and assessments that bind her to fascinating moments in its history, moments that - nevertheless - precisely because of their richness and quality, negate a consistent part of the life of the city and therefore end up by misrepresenting and ultimately impoverishing it.

It would be foolish and unhistorical in spirit to deny or desire to reduce the significance of the epoch spanning the Fifteenth and Sixteenth centuries but it should also be borne in mind that, after the renaissance, Ferrara enjoyed a second period of renewal that lasted throughout the Eighteenth century.

This is a period that needs to be examined in a more thorough manner than hitherto even though it should be remembered that, fortunately, we are not working in a vacuum and various scholars, from Ferrara and elsewhere, have begun turning their attention to this period.

It should suffice to remember the conferences organized by the Accademia delle Scienze in 1978 and 1979 on Giuseppe Antenore Scalabrini e l'erudizione ferrarese nel '700 and La Cattedrale di Ferrara; and by the University, in 1981, on Gianfranco Malfatti nella cultura del suo tempo and the studies that appeared from 1991 onwards for the Vlth centennial of the Ferrarese Studio; the research promoted both by the Biblioteca Ariostea and the Musei Civici di Arte Antica; the exhibition of Eighteenth century paintings organized in 1971 by the Pinacoteca Nazionale; the texts published by the Deputazione Ferrarese di Storia Patria, it is sufficient here to mention two, Elena Bonatti's reconstruction of the library of Vincenzo Bellini (1996) and the admirable work, edited in 1991 by Maria Angela Novelli, entitled Descrizione delle pitture e sculture della città di Ferrara by Carlo Brisighella (1710); not to mention the books promoted by the Cassa di Risparmio starting with Il Settecento ferrarese by Eugenio Riccomini (1970) and the Indici ragionati of Baruffaldi's Vite edited by Amalia Mezzetti and Emanuele Mattaliano, 1980-1983.

But we lack a framework capable of emphasizing the complexity of the cultural life of Eighteenth century Ferrara, a system that would allow us to bring a new equilibrium to a lopsided set of data in which the importance accorded the art of painting has wholly overshadowed other aspects of civil life such as philosophical debate, theatre and music, religious life, literature, scientific life, town planning, the history of agriculture, the academies, art collections and so on.
As it would be futile to aspire to a definition of every situation we ought rather to devote our energies to the construction of a body of knowledge calculated to serve the promotion and reorganization of research on the one hand and to indicate lines along which future research might profitably be made on the other.

To achieve this we ought to utilize resources already present in the city, from the University with its three faculties of Architecture, Law and Literature to the Associations that have already done so much good work in the recovery of local history; on the other hand we have to extend research to hitherto completely overlooked sectors such as - and here I make a few examples almost at random - furnishings, the organization of public structures in the city, the way in which images are transmitted, the state of agriculture and so on.

With a view to setting up a debate, without any pretensions to being exhaustive and bound as I am by limitations of space, I would point to some central themes: Politics: The Cardinal Legates; the City Magistrature, Management of the Territory; Economics and Taxation; Rome/Ferrara. Science: Mathematics, Algebra and Geometry; Hydraulics; Medicine; Applied Science; Encyclopaedias. Culture: the Academies and the philosophical debate; Classicism; Training and education; Literary life; Towards Ferrara: the Travellers. Religion: Spiritual life; Parishes and Convents; the Bishop and the Cardinal Legate; Reform and the Apostolate; Ferrarese hagiography. The arts: Theatre and Music; Painting, Sculpture and the so-called minor Arts; Architecture and Town Planning; Collections and Patronage; the Institutions: Academy and Museum; Furnishings and ephemera.
Such divisions merely represent the grounds for a discussion that, if it led to the definition of operative projects, could and would profoundly modify the above schema. The city, as a whole, is now far better placed than ever before to tackle projects of such complexity.

Such a project would amount to a 'great event' that would unfold over at least three or four years and would be divided up into conferences, theatrical performances and exhibitions: this would also involve publishing re-editions of texts and documents that would allow us to forswear all forms of sentimentalism with a view to basing every analysis on documented data.
The various hypotheses worth putting to the test include the reconstruction of how things were made, i.e., the organization of work and civic life in Ferrara.

If this should prove possible then we will be able, in concert with local government, to establish that museum of the city whose absence has for some time been pointed to as a serious lacuna in the city's museographic system.
Such a museum would collect and house tools and reconstructions of the city's crafts, signs, popular graphics, written material provided by the city corporations, magistracy, and confraternities, models and images of the city and the recurring events peculiar to it: from religious processions to lay demonstrations.