Ferrara in the Poetic Imagination

Written by  Roberto Pazzi
In the visionary fantasy of a poet, Ferrara may even be located in the middle of the mountains.
One evening a few years ago I nearly fell out of my armchair as I was reading a lyric by Osip Mandelstam, the great Russian poet who died in one of Stalin's camps; his words were: «O miserly Ferrara, why not give the world a poet like Ariosto more often?» Shortly after that, on reading Borges I came across Ariosto and the Arabs: «No one can write a book. For a book to exist in a real sense you need dawn with sunset, centuries, arms and the vast sea that unites and divides. / Thus thought Ariosto, who in sunny indolence / amid black pines and lustrous marbles / gave himself up slowly / to the pleasure of dreaming / what was dreamt before».

When a place assumes the dignity of a literary topos it acquires a dual existence; suffice it to think of Recanati, a topos for boredom and habitual routine in the collective imagination of half the world. The first life throbs in the veins of its inhabitants while the second is on paper, thanks to the imagination of the writer who labours indefatigably to build houses, walls, fortresses, hills, rivers, and city squares in that place he has never visited except in his mind.

I have direct experience of this dual and, in its own way, marvellous Ferrara that I should like to share with you. In 1989 I attended an international congress of writers held just outside Helsinki. Chatting with the Australian poet Alan Wearne, I happened to mention where I come from.
His face immediately lit up, as if he already knew my home town well, and he told me that two poet friends of his, in Australia, had just published a novel in verse entitled The Ferrara Poems, set in the city they had never seen, but were about to visit a few months thence.

A few weeks after I returned to Ferrara I received the book from Australia (The Ferrara Poems, by Ken Bolton and John Jenkins, The Experimental Art Foundation, Adelaide, 1989). With considerable curiosity, I plunged into an absorbed reading of this verse work, made up of unrhymed couplets. You can imagine my surprise when, in the first pages I read «They were at ease / and Karl chose / not to notice / remarking instead on the Alitalia flight / over the distant conifers / growing on the low hills that surrounded Ferrara»!

The plot has some young Australian tourists visiting some of the city's most evocative places, such as the Castello Estense and Palazzo Schifanoia. But the city of a hundred marvels girded by its pentagonal walls has been reconstructed amid mountains and hills so as to create a new Ferrara, for the delight of those who, down there on the flat plain of reality, dreamed that the city might one day be promoted to an altitude that might radically modify its agrarian soul. The mountain folk of Ferrara, in short, elevated to heights that not even Ariosto or Tasso could have imagined.
The verse novel has the strange and evocative characteristic of calling up places and customs that give rise to the hope that the authors have undergone a visionary experience, as for example when they talk of scooters running along cobbled streets, of a square with a large fountain near the castle, and of a Bar Suisse: the mind immediately conjures up the Fis, the bar named after the old pampepato bakery that once stood opposite the Clocktower. Especially in the last verses there is a clear reference to Ferrara and its most deeply rooted customs: «We've booked bicycles for a few hours / we can cycle round town. / We must be careful not to fall off».

It is a strange sensation to feel oneself recreated by a mind weaving tales in the Antipodes, it shrinks and unites the world, it makes it seem "drawn IN brief charts", some marvellous stuff of invention and reinvention complementary to the spirit of that great armchair traveller who was Ludovico Ariosto, even though our poet is never mentioned in The Ferrara Poems.

And so, even in this decidedly unpoetic century of ours, so taken up by the need to view - or better to teleview - and not to dream, Ferrara's claim to propose itself as a topos of the poetic imagination remains intact.