“Our modern view of buildings enhanced by the patina of age owes much to them, but was not the accepted view in earlier centuries. In Italy the consequences of industrial wealth arrived almost a century later and many ancient monuments were preserved through poverty. Old buildings could normally be replaced only when there was money to pay for them. Thus the shell of quattrocento Ferrara survives, but this same poverty was responsible for lack of maintenance, and what would formerly have been a city of gaily painted buildings was reduced to a city of plain brick facades.” — Tuohy, Herculean Ferrara, 2.
For many of us in this year’s Ostiglia course, Thomas Touhy’s words were our first in-depth contact with Ferrara. Through Touhy (and also Lockwood), many of us came to know the past splendor of Herculean Ferrara, from the ornate tapestries to the ephemeral sugar sculptures of the Estense court. This past Monday, our group had the pleasure of exploring Ferrara in person and walking through many of the spaces and streets discussed by Touhy. Though the trip lasted only a few hours, our visit allowed us to experience in person the spaces about which we have heard and read so much.
After the usual confusion of arranging travel to the city — naturally a train station wouldn’t sell train tickets, but rather a store down the road sells them — we caught our train to Ferrara. The short train ride gave us a taste of the north Italian country side, as we passed corn and soy fields and the occasional patch of red poppies. Upon our arrival at the train station, we headed straight for the ducal palace. Most striking about the city? The number of bicycles. Compared to Amsterdam with its enormous bike garages, the number of bikes in Ferrara pales in comparison, but for a city of only 135,000, the number of bikes is astonishing. The little “bike meters” installed on bike lines boast thousands of passing bicyclists each day. Our stroll took along Via Garibaldi and by the Palazzo Bentivoglio. Built by Borso d’Este in the 15th century, the building was home to a variety of wealthy individuals and now functions as an apartment building.
From the Palazzo Bentivoglio, we continued to the Palazzo Ducale (better known as the Palazzo Municipale). The steps to the Palazzo Ducale have become famous among the M603 Ostiglia participants, as they provide the backdrop for one of the annual group pictures. Because the Palazzo Ducale is now used as an administrative office for the city of Ferrara, only a few rooms of the original structure are available for the public to see, and even fewer retain original art and furnishings. One of the rooms with original decoration is the studiolo or camarino of the duchesses. The room was decorated between 1555 and 1560 and was meant for the two duchesses, Isabelle and Lucrezia d’Este, daughters of Hercules II. The decorations are rich in color and elaborate in design, featuring both painted panels in the grotesque style, marble and wooden borders, and abundant symbols of fertility and wealth.
The other room we were able to see was the Sala dell’Arengo, which features frescoed walls painted in the nineteenth century. The images vary from scenes of daily life to a ring of Zodiac symbols arranged on the ceiling. It’s a strange series of paintings which left me with more questions than answers (as usual), and perhaps my next summer reading will be on Fascist painting in Italy. As the rest of the Palazzo Ducale has been taken over by the city government, we left the palace after only a brief stay and headed on to our next adventure: lunch.
Lunch is no small matter in Italy, especially for a group of foodies like ourselves. We happened upon a nice restaurant which marketed itself as serving authentic Ferrarese food, and as the saying goes, when in
One of the main plates they offered was a dish called salma da sugo, which they served on a bed of mashed potatoes. The paper placemats, complete with a basic English translation, told the story of the dish:
This special Ferrarese dressed pork dish has benn [sic] appreciated by famous people, like Lorenzo il Magnifico, Mascagni, Ungareti, Greta Garbo, D’Annunzio and many others. It’s made of pork meat, liver, and tongue, mixed with red wine (with some drops of marsala or cognac or rhum), pepper, cinnamon and clove. It is left for at least one year hung in a dark, fresh [cool?], and ventilated room. It must be boiled in water for at least four hours before serving.
I felt famous just eating it. I also found myself drinking water constantly for the next 24 hours, but the salt intake was entirely worth it! After our usual afternoon espresso, we headed off to the duomo. The Cathedral of Ferrara sits opposite the Palazzo Municipale/Ducale (call it what you want; according to Tuohy this has been a problem for lots of folks before us). The church is a large Romanesque and Gothic construction with later Baroque decorations filling its inside.
From the church we walked over to the Castello Vecchio, which is marketed as the Castello Estense to tourists. Complete with a moat and drawbridge, the Castello Vecchio is everything one imagines an old castle to be. There are dark, dank dungeons with early modern graffiti (prisoners got bored back then, too), a rooftop orange garden, and numerous rooms with fresco-filled ceilings. Many of the frescoes serve as reminders of the recent earthquake, as restorative tape covers cracks and areas where the paint has begun to flake off.
The ducal chapel in the castle made a lasting impression on many of us, as it gave us perspective on the size of rooms in which early music was made. The room, perhaps no more than 8’x10’ (I’m terrible with estimating sizes) serves is a testament to the intimacy of private music making for the court. The room is covered in marble and painted glass, and looking up, one finds the four evangelists painted on a vaulted ceiling. Curiously these are the only religious figures in the entire room.
Our trip back to the train station involved a much needed stop for gelato.(Can you believe we had gone a week in Italy without gelato?) With satisfied stomachs and tired legs, we headed back home to Ostiglia, ready for another week in the archive!