When the Lancers were in Ferrara

Written by  Gaetano Tumiati
Urban landscape in the Thirties.
Once in a while I leave Milan to visit Ferrrara and so I am perfectly familiar with its modern aspect. Nevertheless, when I think of my home town, I see it as it was in the years of my infancy. The Ferrara of those days had two principal distinguishing characteristics: an enormous number of soldiers and an equally eye-catching number of horses.

Three regiments were garrisoned in the town: the cavalry in the barracks in via Cisterna del Follo, the artillery in via Palestro, and the infantry in corso Ercole I d'Este, where the grammar school stands today. Three regiments meant thousands of soldiers spreading out through the streets in their off-duty hours to fill the city squares and the cinemas. Three regiments meant continuous parade ground drill, squads of men filing by and the windows shaking with the rhythmic pounding of their feet, the jingling of spurs, and endless bugle blasts.

In our house almost opposite the barracks in via Palestro those sounds signalled the various moments of the day: reveille, flag raising, dinner-time... Of the three regiments, the most aristocratic was the cavalry. The officers wore extremely elegant uniforms and, on days when dress uniform was required, sky blue cloaks and heavy Russian-style busbies topped by a superb plume. At midday on Sundays they would gather in groups in front of the Café Folchini in the Giovecca, where the Café Europa stands today; later, in the Thirties, the rendezvous was in front of Azzolini's in via Boldini.
From time to time the white-gloved hands resting on the hilts of the sabres would be raised to the visor of their caps to greet the ladies in their finery and respectable girls chaperoned by decidedly no-nonsense mothers.
In those days uniforms were thought extremely glamorous and many's the romance that bloomed between subalterns and young ladies, while the occasional passionate affair between captains and ladies of forty-something would provoke endless gossip. The presence of the cavalry, and later that of a regiment of Artillery and Horse, made the horse one of the typical features of the urban landscape.

As well as the army horses there were also those from the stud farm; the sleekly plump teams that drew aristocratic carriages; the big black ones used by the undertakers; the huge draught horses of the Gondrand removal company with their mighty hooves that sent the sparks flying from the cobbles as they strained to get underway; down to the nags loitering between the shafts of the hackneys, stationed in piazza Teatini amid puddles of pungent urine.

The most important noble families had their own private carriages, jet black, with a coachman on the box; wealthy farmers' sons would ride their own horses while others had sulkies; horse races marked the arrival of spring and autumn just as the operatic performances in the Teatro Comunale marked the winter months.
But the horse that made the biggest impression on my young mind, the very emblem of horsiness, is still the horse that belonged to Mr P., a landowner client of my fathers: a splendid bay harnessed to a gig, it would often make a haughty appearance at the bottom of corso Giovecca.

Kept on a tight rein by Mr P., it would trot nervously along the road, climb the slight slope from the castle and then take via Cavour, a wide straight with only a few bicycles about: there, finally, the driver would relax the reins a fraction and the horse would set off at an ever brisker gallop with its hooves clattering over the asphalt at a furious rate. It wasn't a horse any more but a mythological beast, a tornado, a tempest.

It was madness to take a horse at that speed over asphalt, a blatant breach of one of the most elementary rules of equestrianism. But in those moments Mr P., his body thrown backwards to rest in the animal, was certainly happy.
And from the edges of the great avenue full of sunlight, betrothed couples, wet-nurses with their multicoloured costumes full of nappy pins, pensioners, students, off duty light cavalrymen, and myself the child, all would stop, delighted, to watch that madness.