The carved statute of 1173

Written by  Gherardo Ortalli
Ferrara's long-hidden treasure
Anyone looking at the southern wall of the Cathedral of Ferrara will notice the shops that have stood under the elegant portico for centuries, but few know that they conceal a unique piece of mediaeval European history: a carved text of the twelfth-century Statute of the Commune of Ferrara.
This can be dated back to 13 May 1173, in the time of Pope Alexander III and the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, when an assembly of the Ferrarese populus approved the decretum drawn up by the Council of Wise Men. The text was carved on marble tablets, some of which had been salvaged from elsewhere, then mounted at head height above the bench which ran along the cathedral wall, below the portico which was subsequently occupied by rows of merchants' stalls and by shops which are still there today.
How long they remained in this condition is hard to say. It is certain that the shops which were set up under the porticoes attached to the cathedral had already obscured the magnificent carving by 1330. Times had changed and the decretum was seen as outdated. The new symbol of the age was the complex and detailed statute passed in 1287 under Obizzo II d'Este, representing the consolidation of the lordship of Ferrara. In the new political climate, the concealment of the old carving belonging to the Commune of Ferrara can be seen as a sign of the changes that had taken place. Relatively little is known about the ruling that was passed in 1173.
The conditions in which the stonework ended up only allow us to reconstruct part of it, probably little more than a quarter. As well as the enclosure of the porticoes, where shops were taking the place of the old benches, the level of the piazza was raised towards the end of the fourteenth century, burying the lower portion of the marble fascia and making it impossible to read the text. Aside from the exceptional quality of the carving, the decretum is extraordinary in that it is way ahead of its time. The real heyday for statutes was after the Peace of Costanza, which put an end to the conflict between Barbarossa and the communes in 1183. The communes started setting down their own laws in writing in the context of the peace agreements and thus formally asserted their capacity for self-government.
The statute would then have become the primary legal document for the community. Thus, Ferrara's marble slabs were far ahead of their time: I like to think that this awareness led to the decision to carve the statute in marble.
The statute was forgotten after the fourteenth century. The first person to rediscover its existence was Girolamo Baruffaldi, who transcribed the first section of the decretum while carrying out excavations in the piazza in 1696. However, the real rediscovery came in the second half of the twentieth century, thanks to the work of Adriano Franceschini.
Everything that we now know about the 1173 statute is thanks to Franceschini, and notably to his book 'I frammenti epigrafici degli statuti di Ferrara venuti in luce nella cattedrale' [The carved fragments of the statutes of Ferrara discovered in the cathedral], published in 1969 by the Deputazione Ferrarese di Storia Patria and the Ferrariae Decus. There is still much more to learn on this subject; it would be a major advance in our understanding of Ferrarese history that the missing portion of the decree be discovered. In any case, this is indisputably a monument of unique and extraordinary value: not to recognise it as such would be an offence to the heritage of culture, history and civilisation which Ferrara has constructed over the course of the centuries.