Memories of Ferrara

Written by  Franco Cardini

The evocative atmosphere of a city as experienced, imagined and dreamed in the words of a great writer and historian.

deserted beauty of Ferrara, / I praise you as one praises the face / of the woman who leans on our hearts / seeking the peace of her distant happiness…”. I wrote this in the sweltering spring of 2007, with my sixty-sixth year already well advanced. Certainly, my sixty-six years were weighting on me more heavily than usual, as I came to recall one of the places I love most in the world, one of ‘my’ cities which is most my own: and inevitably it was through Gabriele D’Annunzio’s verses that I remembered it. We are now in the Third Millennium after Christ; man travels through the heavens and uncovers the secrets of his own molecular structure, standing on the brink of great new discoveries or perhaps great new tragedies. And, in this post-modern world, I find myself – born and raised as I was in a twentieth century which still felt like the nineteenth - turning once again to Le Città del Silenzio. To D’Annunzio’s poem from the Elettra collection, which made me feel old already at eighteen years of age when I tried to recite a few verses, intending to impress an aloof and attractive girl at my school. I sought to impress her by reciting the lines from Ferrara: “I praise your flat roads / Wide like riverbeds / Which lead those who go alone on to infinity…” I was around sixteen when I first saw Ferrara: fog-grey and brick-red, under a sullen and rain-filled sky. I had arrived with some friends, on an autumnal Sunday excursion, in a FIAT “Topolino” which had already taken us to see Ravenna and which would return us to Florence that evening. I had no idea it would be one of the cities of my destiny.

I found the true Ferrara again several years later, at the Literature Faculty of Florence, where Eugenio Garin and Roberto Longhi began - each according to his own tastes – to introduce me to the astrological frescoes of the Palazzo Schifanoia, while Gianfranco Contini obliged me to immerse myself in the works of Boyard, Ariosto and Tasso. And quite by chance Walter Binni assigned me the contemporary author Giorgio Bassani: I studied his famous novel Il Giardino dei Finzi Contini and above all Le Storie ferraresi. By then the 1960s were nearly half-way through. Vittorio De Sica had not yet directed his film version of the Finzi Contini, but the crude black and white of La lunga notte del ‘43 by Florestano Vancini had had a profound effect upon me. In that Ferrara they still held “Matriculation parties.” It was in a long and already cold late October night that, between the cathedral and the castle my overwhelming and eternal love for Laura blossomed, for a few short hours: I never knew her surname or her address. We walked together long in the cold, holding one another by the hand in the uncertain dawn, and saying goodbye after a boiling hot cappuccino in the station bar.

Yes, I searched for her again, Laura. If we had met just a few years later, in the confusion of the false revolution of ‘68, we would perhaps have consummated our relationship that night, standing up, leaning against the columns of the porticoes, and then forgotten one another immediately. But instead we met one another in a more romantic time: and for this reason that the few chaste kisses which we exchanged then have lingered on my lips for ever, like sweet scars, and I still remember her perfume and her breath misting in the icy night air. Just three years later I returned to this destiny. I had graduated a few months before and on the sleeve of my blue-grey airforce lieutenant’s jacket shone my officers’ insignia. I think that they assigned me to the small airport at Ferrara because my grades at the Academy were poor: but I was happy to find myself back there, in Laura’s city. I did not manage to find her though. Perhaps it was in order that the memories of that chaste night remained eternal that we had not exchanged addresses or phone numbers. That’s how it was. Laura-for-Ever: never forgotten, never betrayed, never touched by old age or tiredness or bitterness, or any of the miseries which fade love. 1966 was the year of the flood, which I experienced at Florence, on a few days’ leave. Once I returned to my post I was sent to the Po delta, between Pomposa and Codigoro, invaded by the waters. The months passed rapidly in the routine of service, between the night duties of winter surrounded by the impenetrable blanket of the Padania fog and those of the spring, already filled with mosquitoes. Since then I have returned to Ferrara whenever I could. When I can find a room I go down to my preferred Hotel Touring. And I pass by the “Provvidenza” restaurant once again, there near the bastions, to taste the pasticcio of tortellini in sweet pastry and of course a spicy spoonful of salama on its bed of sweet puree.