A City with a Story to Tell

Written by  Carl Wilhelm Macke
Ferrara as seen through the eyes of a German journalist who has elected it his second home.
The Italians, or at least so it seems to me, are mad about those statistical tables ranking the cities with the highest standard of living that one sees published regularly in the newspapers. The most important criteria for these assessments include the average income of the citizens, the quality of services offered by the community, cultural activities, the efficiency of public transport and the number and surface area of green spaces. These are undoubtedly important indicators, but there are also other criteria of a non-material nature that define the worth of a city: literary criteria, for example.

"The way IN which Bassani has written about Ferrara has drawn the attention OF tourists TO his city", wrote Alfred Andersch, one of the most famous post-war German writers in his essay On the Trail of the Finzi-Continis. Many foreign visitors therefore associate Ferrara with Bassani's Novel of Ferrara, they look for the garden of the Finzi-Continis and, when they don't find it, they are disappointed.

But the foreign visitor who can stay a little longer will find, apart from the streets mentioned by Giorgio Bassani, new traces that lead to other short stories, novels, essays and, why not?, even to poems still to be written.
Everywhere you can discover details and ornaments, epitaphs and votive tablets that bear witness to a long history and some of Ferrara's most mysterious tales. So please indulge this visitor to your city and let him speak of some of his first discoveries.
For example, the Jewish cemetery in via delle Vigne, so different from German cemeteries with their maniacal order and basic structure borrowed from the autobahnen. In the shade of the city walls, covered by a stand of trees, the dead can rest in peace. The inscriptions that can still be read on the gravestones, by now worn smooth by passing time, tell many's the story. They recall people with "great heart" and then, behind the already crumbling dates between 1940 and 1945, "Nazi death camps" and "deported TO Auschwitz". Particularly mortifying stories for a German.

Then you come across older, if not ancient, epitaphs such as that of Jacob Massarani, died on 21 March 1877, in life a "scrupulous observer": in a day marked by fast and univocal judgements who - apart from artists - can permit himself the luxury of being a "scrupulous observer" of his own times? Sometimes it is precisely these old gravestones that remind us of irremediable losses.

In the cities along the Po a particular significance is still attributed to slowness, which perhaps finds its finest expression in "bicycle culture". In Ferrara, bicycles are never luxurious items laden with accessories: two wheels and a frame that isn't too rusty will suffice.
On these conveyances, which in Germany would be considered in breach of all road traffic legislation, distinguished bank clerks and elegant boutique salesgirls alike make their way to work with style and nonchalance. Old folk are past masters in the "art OF cycling": they pedal on the verges of immobility so they can chat calmly with the cyclist alongside them: an anachronism amid the Twentieth-century dictatorship of time.

Vicolo Leocorno, a tiny street hidden on the edges of the old town, where a short time ago I bought a flat, is named after a grocery that stood there around the middle of the 16th century; as the Italian name suggests, its symbol was the fabled unicorn. Starting from this detail, one could relate the entire chronicle of the commercial activities and small shops of Ferrara that now risk closure on account of the large supermarkets outside the city walls.

In a shop window in via Carlo Mayr I saw, alongside a copy of Giovanni Boldini's La donna in rosa, cosmetics lovingly displayed: I seldom saw customers in that shop. Perhaps because we have all forgotten that for every shop, for every little trattoria, and for every bar that closes, the city is deprived of a little part of its peculiarity and identity.
«The new abundance,» wrote Italo Calvino in Invisible Cities, «made the cities overflow as materials, buildings, new objects, and new people flocked in from outside; nothing and no one had anything in common with the Clarice or Clarices of before: and the more the city triumphally ensconced itself in the place and name of the first Clarice, the more one became aware of the fact it was moving away from her and destroying her as surely as the rats and the mould.» Had he been thinking of Ferrara when he wrote these lines?

In Germany, the city of the Estes is justly renowned for its cultural policy. All the guide books rightly praise Ferrara's artistic inheritance, but the city still has a historic and cultural inheritance that the guide books do not mention.

«The cultural problem of modern cities,» wrote the American sociologist Richard Sennet, «is that of giving a voice to an anonymous environment and that of lifting cities out of their decay and neutrality.» For Ferrara, this problem does not exist. Perhaps all it has to do is to learn to rediscover and get the best out of an important element of the quality of life in the city: its narrative capacities.