Discovering Ferrara

Written by  Gaetano Tumiati
Sixty years on, the writer goes searching for the treasures he overlooked as a child
I find it mildly irritating that my identity card states that I was born in Bologna. It's quite true; a long, long time ago I was born in a Bologna hospital. The irritation is not because I have a problem with Bologna, which I think is, in many ways, an ideal town; but because, despite living for more than half a century in Milan and travelling throughout the world, I still regard myself as entirely ferrarese, a citizen of the city of my ancestors, the magical city of my childhood, adolescence and early youth; a landscape that has stayed with me down the years to the extent that, during my work as an envoy, I took a special pleasure in describing its poetry and characteristics to my foreign colleagues.


It was only a few years ago-let's say, after I retired, when I was able to get away from Milan to visit Ferrara more often?that I realised that my impassioned accounts were very, very partial. I considered only one part of the town, the Renaissance streets of the 'Herculean Addition', to the left of the Corso Giovecca looking towards its Prospect: broad, straight roads which meet at right angles, as designed by Biagio Rossetti during the second half of the fifteenth century.
For me, Ferrara was Via Palestro, where our old house stood; Piazza Ariostea, which I remember as it was when, as I child, I went to the elementary school run by the Sisters of Saint Vincent in Palazzo Rondinelli. Or Via Borgoleoni, the location of the Ginnasio Liceo Ariosto with its marvellous, unforgettable teachers, and where-even more importantly-there lived the most delicious girl in the whole town, quite beyond my reach because she was eighteen, two whole years older than me. And again: the harmony of Via Frescobaldi, the spaciousness of Montebello, of Corso Porta Po, of the luminous Piazzale della Certosa. But above all that symbol of Renaissance Ferrara?Corso Ercole I d'Este, long and straight as a sword, paved by cobbles, with its marble posts, the vast aristocratic houses, bounded at the bottom by a rustic pale red building, Porta degli Angeli.
These were the streets I knew best, the roads along which I knew every bump in the cobbled surface when I rode my bicycle.
And the rest of the town? After all, the Herculean Addition is just a fifteenth century add-on to the other parts of Ferrara: the historic centre and the medieval town with its surroundings. The historic centre?the castle, the cathedral, the town hall, Piazza Trento and Piazza Trieste, formerly Piazza delle Erbe, with its historic Listone?we Via Palestro folk knew it well, it was only a step away, just past the Giovecca; we went there every day to get to the newsagent in Piazza Teatini or the main post office which used to be on the corner. Or to take part in the daily walk that ran from the Cathedral through Corso Roma to the corner of the Quattro Esse. But that centre was a sort of public space, a big common stage, and not where we belonged, as the Addition was.
As for the medieval town and its surroundings, on the other side, we were almost completely unaware of it, apart from the occasional trip to Porta Reno or to San Romanoto visit the Apollo or Diana cinemas, in Piazza Travaglio.
Another area which I did not know, which I have now discovered and explored, is the part around the former Ghetto and its surroundings. Its core, Via Mazzini, formerly Via dei Sabbioni, was for me, as a university student, just a commercial street like any other, one which I practically ran through to get to Palazzo Paradiso, then the chief University building, without even noticing the main Synagogue, hidden behind an anonymous facade and, of course, lacking the large, tragic memorial stone recording the names of the ninety seven Jews of Ferrara exterminated in the Nazi camps. Nor did it ever occur to me to explore Via Vignatagliata and Via Vittoria to the right, the heart of the Jewish quarter. Visiting it today is an inevitably emotional experience. Yes, the buildings are not very different from the equally old-perhaps even older- houses in the neighbouring area to the south-east: narrow streets, the comforting presence of brick, a defining feature also of the elegant doorways of the pargetted houses; cobbled roads, a total absence of traffic. Everywhere, there is a rare and restful silence. And everywhere there are signs of the Jewish past, starting with the atmospheric Spanish Synagogue, with its memorial stone recording how Ercole I- perhaps the most open-minded of the Este dukes-welcomed Sephardic Jews fleeing from persecution in Spain with a view to encouraging trade; or the Hebrew School, a moving symbol of more recent persecution, which took in Jewish students expelled from Ferrara's schools after the racial laws of 1938.