The Marvelous Certosa

Written by  Gaetano Tumiati
The fascinating cemetery offers a key to understanding Ferrara.
Why opt for the cemetery as one of the most significant symbols in a city as rich in prestigious monuments as Ferrara? To me, cemeteries faithfully reflect the spirit of their cities. And in this respect the cemetery of Ferrara is second to none.

To start with, it lies within the city itself. An 1811 decree exempted Ferrara from the Napoleonic law ordering cemeteries to be built outside the town walls, because of the extensive open green spaces already incorporated into the city.

To reach the Certosa, you simply take the Via Borso d'Este, a road flanked by walls concealing large gardens. On both sides, towering above the walls, the trees rise to above the road, forming a kind of shaded tunnel. You emerge from the cool of the road into sudden blinding light: an immense sky, and a broad green manicured lawn, cheerful despite the six funeral temples set perfectly in line some distance from each other. At least two of them are dedicated to out of the ordinary people. The first contains the remains of a boy of seventeen, Roberto Fabbri, an enthusiastic aviator who died when he crashed his plane in 1910. The radial engine lies on the little altar, a witness to the tragedy. The second is the final resting place of a young American tourist, Alfred Lowell Putnam, who died in Ferrara in 1855 and was buried here at the wish of his family.

To the right of the great lawn there rises the church of San Cristoforo, designed by Biago Rossetti in 1498 but opened only in the mid-sixteenth century. Two long curving cloisters extend from the central nave, each arch in the portico containing a family tomb.
Inside the cemetery itself the scene is vast and complex. If the lawn outside reflects the rural harmony of Ferrara, the city of the plain, inside we are abruptly aware of two centuries of culture and history, from the early nineteenth century to the present day.

Romanticism and neo-classicism naturally predominate: busts of gentleman with moustaches, maidens in mourning drapery, and angels, their wings open to take flight to heaven or closed in sorrow. In other areas, heavy family chapels recall the splendour of the city's great families, the Massari, the Gulinelli, the Avogadri, the Cini. In still other parts, greener and more modern, there is a faint echo of Northern European culture.

In the past I never paid much attention to this great historical and artistic heritage. Visiting the Certosa as a child or a young man, I would simply follow the family route from the main entrance to our family tomb, taking care not to get lost. From those distant years I retain the memory, as is often the case, of minor details: for example, the identical cylindrical flower vases in white enamel with a big black cross which old ladies would laboriously fill with water from the primitive hand pumps before slipping in a couple of carnations.
It was only quite recently that I tried to look at the Certosa afresh, taking in the life of the whole complex and its present problems: the much-needed extension, and the restoration of the interior of San Cristoforo through an agreement between the State, the city authorities and the Fondazione Cassa di Risparmio di Ferrara.

Above all, however, I was able to admire for the first time works by great sculptors like Antonio Canova, Arrigo Minerbi, Leonardo Bistolfi and Annibale Zucchini, and make a brief pilgrimage to the tombs of the great figures from Ferrara's past, first and foremost that of Borso d'Este, (1413-1471) duke, politician and patron: today his sarcophagus stands out high on the wall of the Arco Maggiore in unexpected but harmonious company with the tombs of Garofalo (1481-1559) and the poet Vincenzo Monti (1754-1828).

Garofalo is the only painter buried here who died before the Certosa was founded so the fifteenth century masters of Ferrara - Cosmé Tura, Francesco de Cossa, Dosso Dossi, Ercole De Roberti - are absent. Instead we find the tombs and memorial stones of some modern masters such as Gaetano Previati (1852-1920), Giovanni Boldini (1862- 1931), Giuseppe Mentessi (1857-1931) and Filippo de Pisis (1896-1956).
Boldini actually has two tombs, one from the 1930s, erected by his young widow immediately after the artist's death and now empty; the other erected when it was necessary to move the body for technical and environmental reasons.

Though there are many painters from Ferrara buried in the Certosa, there is a surprising and almost total absence of writers and poets. Torquato Tasso is not here, despite his long and close relationship with Ferrara; he is buried in his native Sorrento. Nor is Ludovico Ariosto, who lies in Ferrara, but at the Palazzo Paradiso. Also absent, but nearby, is the greatest writer of modern Ferrara, Giorgio Bassani (1916-2000), buried in the fascinating Jewish cemetery. Only the tomb of Corrado Govoni (1884-1965) is here, in a green area as befits the author of the Inaugurazione della primavera.

After some time looking among these public figures, I needed to spend some time on more personal concerns, and to seek out dear friends, recently departed, whose tombs I had never seen. Where, for example, was Franco Giovanelli, the dazzling literary figure I'd known since we were young? Or Lanfranco Caretti the literature scholar, an expert on Tasso, who chose to be buried in Ferrara after spending his whole working life in Florence, bequeathing more than 15 000 works to the Biblioteca Ariostea?
It was a surprise to find Giovanelli - always so irascible and anti-conformist - in the semi-darkness of the temple of fame. Caretti, however, sprang the opposite surprise, having chosen for himself and his wife (who died shortly after him) a shining, polished vault in the newest part of the Certosa.

At the end of my pilgrimage, with these meetings echoing in my mind, I retraced my footsteps to the family tomb, that arch of soft pink marble which my grandfather bought, I believe, at the end of the nineteenth century. I had never lingered here long, and this too was a brief visit. Just long enough to read slowly the familiar inscriptions to my grandparents, my father, my mother and - even more slowly - my brother Francesco. "Gold medal. He gave his life heroically FOR freedom AT the age OF 22, 17 May 1944".

After a few moments, when my feelings had calmed, I left. On the way out of the Certosa I realised that right there and then, after fifty years living in Milan, I had suddenly regained the long-dormant sense, now keen and fresh, of belonging in Ferrara.