The Magazine

Ferrara for Me

The understated charm of the "first modern city."

Mar 31, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 28 • By ANN MARLOWE
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After three decades of visits to Italy, I stumbled upon the perfect small Italian city. It's a wonderfully livable haven which offers the best case for the Italian way of life, as lived in exquisite surroundings--not uncommon in Italy--but with a rare civility and sense of the common good.

It has a long history of violence and despotism--in 1264 it was the first free Italian city to cede its liberty to what would today be called a warlord--but also of enlightened city planning, art, and intellectual endeavor. Tasso wrote his Jerusalem Delivered here, and Ariosto his Orlando Furioso. Antonioni was born here and, until recently, had a museum devoted to him. Because it was planned, Jakob Burckhardt called it the "first modern city" of Europe: Ferrara, a gem of the 14th and 15th centuries.

The gently curving streets of small earth-toned town houses are interrupted every few blocks by a 14th-century palace or austere Romanesque church that would merit guidebook notice in many towns but doesn't even make the tourist map here. There are a few major buildings and museums to visit--the Castelle Estense (Este Castle), the Cathedrale, Palazzo Schifanoia, and the Pinacoteca Nazionale--but, mainly, Ferrara is to be enjoyed, and explored over a leisurely couple of days. A college town--the university was founded in 1391--it is full of bookstores and offers an alarming number of cultural activities.

Overshadowed by its larger neighbor, Bologna, a half-hour away, Ferrara is virtually untouristed. I had been to Bologna two or three times before I first visited Ferrara this past summer. It's a UNESCO World Heritage city, but you can stand in front of the cathedral at 10 in the morning and see not a busload of tourists but small clusters of older Ferrarese men, well-dressed, standing by their bicycles and chatting with each other.

This brings me to another of Ferrara's virtues: It's a cyclist's dream. Compact and flat, Ferrara has one of the highest rates of bike use in Europe: Thirty-one percent of its citizens use them to get around. Many Italian towns are plagued by incessant traffic noise--and the ambient anxiety of being smeared against an exquisite medieval stone wall by one of the cars careening down a ten-foot wide road never meant for motor traffic. In Ferrara, you can walk and think, rather than dodging scooters and cars.

Your hotel will give you a free one-speed, but if you want something fancier, you can rent high-quality hybrid bikes for eight euros a day. And if you can only spend a day in Ferrara, you should first bicycle around to get a feel for the place. The city grew north from the bank of the Po River, and the bottom third, clearly demarcated by Corso della Giovacca, is the medieval quarter. The streets here are winding and narrow, while north of Corso della Giovacca they are straighter and wider. A series of planned 15th-century expansions brought the city to its current pentagonal shape.

If you've overdosed elsewhere on Baroque, you may find Ferrara's pre-Renaissance monuments refreshing. The 14th-century palaces and churches have a serene, unself-conscious confidence that evokes a less complicated, if not less bloody, world. Several of the churches were founded much earlier, and a few have been reconstructed, either because they were tampered with or, in one or two cases, damaged by bombing raids in World War II.

Bike around the Castello Estense, begun in 1385, one of the few moated castles left in Europe, or inspect the richly ornamented façade of the cathedral, begun in 1135. Leon Battista Alberti is said to have designed the unfinished bell tower, or campanile, which is around the corner on the right. The façade of the Palazzo del Comune, or Town Hall, opposite the cathedral, was designed in 1300s style in the 1920s, but the building behind it does date to the 13th century.

The palazzo of Renata di Francia, a French princess who wed an Este, is now a university building, while Casa Romei, a rich merchant's richly frescoed house, is now a small museum. And it's located on a street named for no less than Savonarola, who was born near Casa Romei in 1452 and attended the local university before becoming a friar and then the Mullah Omar of 15th-century Florence.