Seen from afar

Written by  Vittorio Emiliani
The dramatic development of Ferrara, as seen by a citizen who emigrated to Rome
Across the countryside of lower Lombardy, in old farmsteads almost the size of walled cities, I often used to find workers who had 'come from the Ferrara Delta. In the course of my trade union work I met other emigrants from Ferrara at Fiat's Mirafiori plant in Turin, people who had moved there in search of stable jobs. Someone, I recall, had set up a goods co-operative there. There was also Canzio Cirelli, from the town of Copparo outside Ferrara, to whom I once lost a 4 x 800m relay race. But in Turin I didn't meet up with him. Instead I chanced upon one of my old friends who I'd known in Ferrara on the train to school, a man named Balli. He was a representative of the Italian Metalworkers' Union, who explained certain things to me during the tumultuous autumn of '69. These things come to mind because in the '50s and '60s Ferrara and its surrounding area were the weak point in the economy of Emilia-Romagna. Whilst the rest of the region was experiencing a boom, Ferrara and Piacenza struggled. Ferrara in particular suffered from an excess of unqualified manual labour, unable to find local employment.
I returned to Ferrara as part of a journalistic investigation and I found the surrounding countryside much changed. There were no longer the hemp fields of old, nor the orchards. In spring, there used to be a sea of pink and white blossom against the green grass. There were some fifty thousand hectares of orchards, they tell me, maybe a little less. Then came the first crises of over-production, not least because the region lacked the infrastructure and refrigerated warehouses with which the Romagna or the Modena regions were equipped, and the change was dramatic.
Meanwhile the urban landscape of Ferrara, alas, had been scarred by two ugly skyscrapers in front of the Station, visible from all over the old city.
The beaches of the Ferrara province were also beginning to be developed for the tourist trade, some thirty or forty years after those of Romagna. We hoped that the negative aspects of Romagna's rapid development might be avoided; but history, as Hegel tells us, teaches nothing to either governments or people.
In 1972 I became involved for the first time in a projected Po Delta Reserve, dedicated to preserving the beautiful Mesola Forest. There were four or five of us journalists, the usual suspects: Antonio Cederna from Il Corriere, Mario Fazio from La Stampa, Vito Raponi for L'Avanti, and myself representing Il Giorno. We were at a conference organised by the 'Italia Nostra' heritage association held in the amazing abbey at Pomposa. We were talking to the novelist Giorgio Bassani, who at that time was the national president of 'Italia Nostra', when suddenly we were given news of an alarming demonstration: a group of fishermen and activists were marching against this conference dedicated to the preservation of the Delta, in a threatening though unarmed protest. They were demanding a coastal development zone which would permit them to develop the shore in a similar style to that of the beaches to the north. Fortunately Guido Fanti, the president of the Region, went out to meet the marchers and halted their protest. The Region immediately opposed these proposals and thus succeeded in preserving the Gran Bosco of Mesola and the rest of the Delta.
So it was that within a few years, numerous journalists, both Italian and foreign, could be shown around that expanse of woodland groves, preserved in their entirety. We had begun the long road towards the Parco del Delta, with which I was to become closely involved much later, as a Parliamentary Deputy in 1994-1995.
Initially we conceived of the Park as a National, then an Inter-regional park; it was finally developed by the two Regions involved as an independent collaborative project. Through much hard work, we fostered a discussion of the environment almost unimaginable thirty years ago. Despite the opposition which had dreamed of a second, more southerly Albarella,a highly developed tourist resort,or of those who had hoped for a highly lucrative hunting industry, we had created a park truly dedicated to the preservation of nature.
I returned to Ferrara again in the course of my television work, as part of a nation-wide investigation into our cultural resources for RaiDue. With the specialist director Leandro Castellani, we made a thorough exploration of the enclosed convent of Sant'Antonio of Polesine, and above all explored Ferrara's city walls which had been immaculately restored thanks to the financial support of the FIO (Fondo Investimenti Occupazione) and the commitment of the local authority. The city was in the process of qualifying as an officially designated 'city of art and culture:' a release from the inferiority complex which,as Giorgio Bassani has observed,Ferrara had often felt towards Padova and Bologna. In those days I frequently returned for the Ferrara Arte exhibitions and for Ferrara Musica's attention,grabbing seasonal programmes, as arranged by Claudio Abbado and financially supported by the Cassa di Risparmio.
I had two further pleasurable opportunities to revisit the city, once at the invitation of the selfsame Cassa to receive an honour from the city, and the second time to visit my old school, the Liceo Ariosto, now housed in a new building.
The principal, Signore Mauri, invited me, as an alumnus, to launch a particularly important school year. I found myself confronted with an ultramodern complex of laboratories and teaching facilities, in the lush green surroundings of via dei Piopponi. 'We keep our library open until 8pm,' the head-master informed me, 'but even then we have to struggle to send our students home.' I thought back to our austere and uncomfortable evenings of study, often in the gardens or waiting rooms of the train station after missing the 1:30 pm train and having to await the next, at 5pm.
Luckily this too has changed in modern-day Ferrara. I read that in 2003 the level of unemployment in the province fell to 3.9%, around half that of only four years earlier, and not far from the regional average of 3.1%. We've come a long way.