Gardens in Ferrara

Written by  Gianni Venturi
The search for Eden in the gardens of Ferrara, from the isle of Belvedere to the public green spaces of today.
The demise of a family and a power, however, could no longer be staved off by the propitiatory song of the ladies of the court as its notes wended their way upwards towards the merlons of the castle.

But the myth of the garden survived as a mental model of Paradise, and resisted the menacing turbulence of history's tempests while the wave of the contingent, bearing the flotsam and jetsam of a world gone mad, lapped the last Eden granted to man's folly: the garden of the Finzi Continis.

Inspired by the memory of the Grotto of Princess Marguerite Caetani and by Ferrara's via sacra, la via dei Piopponi (today Corso Ercole I d'Este), Bassani's imaginary garden reaffirms that principle proper to the Edenic idea of a place that is both consolation and memory, an inviolable sanctuary of the affections, but also a precarious refuge from history as it knocked at Micòl Finzi Contini's great dark door.

Another garden, dominated by a magnolia, encloses the innermost thoughts, the tears in things, no longer of the first person narrator of The Garden of the Finzi Continis, but of a Giorgio Bassani who entrusts the tree and the fresh moisture of a secret garden with the memory of a childhood and a certain discontinuity of the heart.
There are no beautiful gardens in Ferrara: there are orchard-gardens where memories coalesce in the sudden shock of a colour, the white of a column against which a rose bush rests, a head of lettuce or the golden trumpet of a courgette flower between asters and dahlias, the tender green of lemon verbena that mitigates and restrains the pompous and gelid presence of a baccarat rose, so absurd amid the cultivated universe of the, alas, omnipotent marigolds or petunias and, worse still, insolent scarlet sage and forlorn begonias.

In this affectionate jumble of colours and scents, however, there are still plentiful traces of the glorious past; these are the marvellous courtyards whose architecture - by Rosetti and Girolamo da Carpi - still forms a scenic frame for the worn-out remains of impoverished and neglected vegetation: from the courtyard of palazzo dei Diamanti to that of palazzo Don Giulio d'Este, from the rhythm of the columns that mark the boundaries of palazzo Renata di Francia and the remains of the Pareschi garden, to the miracle, the perfection of the Naselli-Crispi courtyard or the disturbing geometry of the walled garden of palazzo Varano-Dotti.
The gardens, therefore, can be seen not only as the historic, but also the natural memory of a flora still able - in Ferrara - to coexist in aesthetic harmony with architecture and urban planning. Although the great Renaissance gardens have disappeared: the Cedrara, the Ragnaia, the Castellina, the Montagna di San Giorgio, the Barchetto del Duca, the Belfiore, the Belvedere, and the Montagnola - all names of a discreet sweetness, evoking peaceful retreats and idle conversation between the mists of the plain and the scorching breath of high summer's heat - there remain traces of a vegetation that has not abdicated the rights of a countryside that shades off into and loses itself in the city without let or hindrance on the part of the city walls, which rather than block out the countryside enhance it by lending it a sense of perspective and distance.

This garden-landscape where public use during the last century resulted in the disappearance of many gardens, which were transformed into desolate, uncultivated areas to which some dare to give the name (which cannot ever be sufficiently execrated) of public green space, has nonetheless retained its garden-like quality.
Fortunately Ferrara has not reached the point of no return that has seen so many Italian cities forever despoiled by uncontrolled speculation, but this is not to say that its gardens do not have their enemies.
These - and mark this - are not only the overwhelming and invasive effects of urban planning or speculative building projects, but also people's pretensions to create, without either culture or memory, a place - the garden, to be exact - with the use of alien and misleading symbols. The enemies of the gardens include those containers or flower pots, often made of cement, which by good fortune invade our historic city centre less and less frequently, melancholically filled with the most banal flowers, extraneous to our local climate and flora.

Another enemy of the garden is the lack of a school of gardening capable of teaching even the youngest that here, in the gentle Emilian plain, the linden tree is beautiful, but not the fir or arbor vitae; that oaks, chestnuts, linden trees, poplars, sycamores, and horse chestnut trees are the creatures that must inhabit our gardens and also that different, exotic, perhaps more charismatic trees - ah, the sublime beauty of a cypress in a Tuscan garden - are less important, less necessary, less cultivated than the trees that should populate our gardens.

Thus, and with due gratitude for that miraculous moment when one comes to a bend in the road to see brick walls festooned with roses or laurel leaves that conjure up thoughts of never to be forgotten horti conclusi or, having crossed the threshold of Sant'Antonio in Polesine, at sunset, the hour in which the red brick of the bell tower is all aflame, our hearts sing at the sight of the triumphal glory of the cherry tree that offers blossom and scent to who is or would be a citizen of a city of the soul.