Where it was, and as it was!

Written by  Vittorio Chiari
The rebuilding of Saint Benedetto, a temple of spiritual life and folk memories.
That war and art cannot go hand in hand is illustrated in the small stretch of history that covers the life of the San Benedetto church. This year marks 50 years since its post-war reconstruction and consecration, to which the Fondazione Cassa di Risparmio di Ferrara made its first major contribution by supporting urgent maintenance work on the roof.

On 28 December 1943, wailing sirens heralded an unexpected air raid strike. The planes vanished as quickly as they had arrived, leaving dozens of dead in their wake. The parish priest, Father Michele Gregorio, recorded 62 of them in his parish register.

Without warning, the planes returned on the 28 January 1944. This time there were no human casualties, but tragically, one of the most familiar churches on Ferrara's landscape, the church of San Benedetto on the Via dei Prioni (today known as Corso Porta Po) was struck.

San Benedetto was a stupendous church, easily recognised by its bell tower, which leaned like the Tower of Pisa. It was designed by Aleotti in 1621 and was completed in 1646. The church became a home to the monks of Pomposa Abbey, who had been forced to move into the city during a malaria outbreak in 1553.

The history of the monastery, fascinating to mediaeval scholars, is closely interwoven with that of 16th century Ferrara. It was here, on 3 July 1486, that Ercole I d'Este and the Bishop of Adria together laid the foundation stone of the new abbey in the area known as the 'Addizione Erculea' as described by Biagio Rossetti. The same architect, or - as some experts believe - students of his school built this monumental church. It was the centre of the spiritual life of the city, and home to the Benedictine monks until 1797, when a Cisalpine Republic decree dissolved the order. The church was desecrated and became first a stable, and then an army barracks and hospital for the war wounded of various wars.

The sublime poet Ludovico Ariosto, author of the epic poem Orlando Furioso, was buried there at his own request. No famous person passing through Ferrara failed to visit it. Later, after the Napoleonic Edicts in 1801, the monument and tomb were moved to avoid damage to the Biblioteca Comunale where they remain to this day.

In 1812, the church was handed back to the church while the monastery continued to belong to the military administration. In 1912, the Salesian order obtained part of the cloisters and transferred the Istituto San Carlo boarding school there. The San Carlo, which educated thousands of students from the province and from the region, remained open until some 20 years ago; it has now stands empty and has fallen into an advanced state of disrepair.

In 1930 archbishop Ruggero Bovelli asked the Salesians to take on responsibility for the parish. The first parish priest was the Piedmontese Father Michele Gregorio, a cultured and compassionate man who began his parochial duties by opening an Oratory for young people.

The church was restored to its former artistic glory by the intelligent and courageous work of canon Monsignor Benedetto Pavani, who never gave up in the face of the difficulties he encountered in restoring the church.

The war continued, and the third bombardment on the 5th of June 1944 was "fatal for the School", according to contemporary Salesian accounts; "Bombs rained down on the courtyards and buildings, and rendered the entire site uninhabitable."

"Tears are futile! We must rebuild our church," Father Gregorio told everyone, "where it was, and as it was," quoting the phase used by the Venetians when the bell tower of St Mark's Basilica collapsed.

In the archbishop of Ferrara, Monsignor Ruggero Bovello and the city's then Member of Parliament Natale Gorini Don Gregorio found backing for his obstinacy. Not everyone agreed, but the people of San Benedetto were at one with their priest: local memories were bound up with the church, and memories cannot be destroyed, wiped out. The matter was taken up by the City Council on the 7 June 1947. The vote, with 30 for and one abstention, supported Father Gregorio's view: the church would be rebuilt where it was, and as it was!

Work started on 28 May 1951, and was completed in 1954. Unfortunately, it was not possible to repair the damage inflicted on the church's artistic treasures, which careful research, presented in a photographic exhibition in 2004, has captured in images. Works by Tiarini and Bononi were destroyed, as was the gilded wooden altarpiece designed by Aleotti that contained Scarsellino's Our Lady of the Assumption, along with precious canvasses and frescoes by some of the greatest Ferrarese and Emilian artists of the century.

The ceiling, so magnificently decorated by Giannantonio da Chiavenna, was also destroyed, and the great organ installed in 1941 was buried under the rubble, along with the high altar and its precious tabernacle from Pomposa. From the former church, only the central pillars, forming the three naves with their lintels, the spandrels of the domes, and as much as possible of the lesser naves could be recovered.

In just three years, the church rose again in the space mapped out by Rossetti: only the frescoes and decorations are missing, but the church has been restored in the memory of its lines, through respect for those who built it, continuing to write new pages in the history of our city and our local church.