A guide to splendid Ferrara, the first modern city in Europe - Bellarome

A guide to splendid Ferrara, the first modern city in Europe

Ferrara is an Italian town of 131.987 inhabitants, the capital of the homonymous province in Emilia-Romagna.

It is a splendid city of art to be savored while strolling through its streets, discovering in every corner its character as a magnificent capital of the Renaissance and grasping the reasons for its present from this glorious past.

The Estensi ruled it for three centuries and gave it the look it still retains today: a unique urban planning that harmoniously blends the Middle Ages and the Renaissance and makes it the first modern city in Europe. Precisely for this characteristic, it was recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site in 1995 and in 1999 it obtained a second one for the Po delta and for its Este delights.

It is a silent city, on a human scale, to be explored on foot or by bicycle, reliving at every step magical atmospheres of the past.

The urban development that took place during the Renaissance, the Addizione Erculea, made it the first modern capital of Europe.

The best times to visit the Este city are spring and autumn. May in particular is a month of celebrations, linked to the famous Palio di San Giorgio, in March and September prestigious exhibitions attract numerous visitors to Palazzo Diamanti, a jewel of the Ferrara Renaissance, while in the last week of August street musicians from all over the world they gather at the Ferrara Buskers Festival filling the late summer evenings with notes.

Let’s begin our journey through this marvelous city of art!

 

Estense Castle

The Estense Castle, or San Michele Castle, is the most representative monument of the city of Ferrara.

It arose in 1385 as a fortress for political and military control and for the defense of the Este family, therefore also thought of as a repressive tool.

 

The work was commissioned to the architect Bartolino da Novara, former architect of the castle of Pavia and then of Mantua, by the marquis Niccolò II d’Este who believed it essential to have a powerful repressive machine after an imposing popular revolt unleashed in May of that same year.

The Marquis was initially granted a loan of 25,000 ducats from the lord of Mantua Francesco I Gonzaga.

At the news of yet another increase in taxes, the Ferrarese rose and demanded the delivery of Tommaso da Tortona, adviser to the Marquis and responsible for collecting the gabelles. After having received the sacraments, Thomas was handed over to the angry crowd by the marquis, who literally tore him to pieces.

Over the centuries, the Estense Castle has played several roles: it was the seat of the Este militias with stables, armories, warehouses, workshops and everything that was needed by the small army that housed it, and then gradually transformed into a noble residence where life took place of the Estense court.

Always besieged by neighboring cities and internal revolts, the Este family always stayed in the upper part of the building, leaving the defensive function of the castle on the lower floors.

A visit to the Castle allows you to discover the apartments, the kitchens, the prisons, the garden, the chapel and many other things. A real journey into the daily life of one of the most powerful families in Europe.

 

Palazzo dei Diamanti

Palazzo dei Diamanti is one of the most famous monuments of Ferrara and the Italian Renaissance, located in Corso Ercole I d’Este 21, in the Quadrivio degli Angeli, right in the center of the Addizione Erculea.

It is not difficult to understand why the Palazzo dei Diamanti in Ferrara is called this: 8500 blocks of white marble streaked with pink form its external structure. A magnificent composition, designed in 1493 by Biagio Rossetti to create unusual perspectives and light effects, on behalf of Sigismondo d’Este, brother of Duke Ercole I d’Este, in 1492.

Doubts remain about the models that may have inspired Rossetti and the question is still open today. Among these Bruno Zevi quotes Palazzo Sanuti now Bevilacqua, in Bologna, Palazzo Raimondi, in Cremona, part of the Church of Gesù Nuovo, in Naples and other buildings that were probably unknown to the architect of the Estensi. The actual construction took place between 1493 and 1503. The building was modified between 1567 and 1570 by Galasso Alghisi (sometimes referred to as Galeazzo Alghisi or Galeazzo da Carpi), such interventions could according to some scholars have concerned the fascia in brick that crowns the building, the insertion of the corner balcony, the shape and arrangement of the facade windows.

The building was inhabited discontinuously by members of the Este family until the devolution of Ferrara to the Holy See in 1598. In particular from 1586, it was the residence of Cesare d’Este, cousin of Duke Alfonso II d’Este and his wife Virginia de ‘Medici daughter of Cosimo I and Camilla Martelli. During this period, the three rooms that overlook Corso Biagio Rossetti (the ancient Via di San Benedetto or dei Prioni) were decorated and constituted the apartment of Virginia de ‘Medici. The coffered ceilings and friezes of the “double room” (1589 – 1590) and of the “delivery room” (1591) were made mainly by Giulio Belloni and aids and are still partially visible on site.

Other paintings on canvas made by Carracci and Gaspare Venturini for the “room of the balcony” (1592) are now kept in the Estense gallery in Modena.

Also in the Estense gallery in Modena there is a series of four rectangular paintings attributed to Gaspare Venturini, other parts of the cycle now belong to private collections, depicting allegories from the “dressing room” of Caesar’s books. The dressing room was assumed to be in the south wing of the building on the ground floor and the decorations were made between 1592-1593.

During the bombings of 1944 that hit the city, the building was damaged, and part of the works preserved in the deposits were lost.

After the 2012 earthquake, the building is undergoing restoration, while both the art gallery and the rooms used for temporary exhibitions remain accessible.

 

Cathedral of San Giorgio

The cathedral of San Giorgio Martire is the main Catholic place of worship in Ferrara, the mother church of the archdiocese of Ferrara-Comacchio. From 4th March 2019, it is not possible to access it due to important recovery and consolidation works on the building that was damaged by the earthquake.

It rises in the center of the city, in front of the Palazzo Comunale, next to the ancient Piazza delle Erbe (later Piazza Trento and Trieste), not far from the Estense Castle. It is connected to the archiepiscopal palace through a covered vault.

The cathedral is no longer a parish church but is home to all the most important celebrations of the diocese: ordinations, pontificals, solemn funerals. The Blessing of the Palii also takes place in the spring, or the four painted fabrics that make up the prize of the four races of the Palio di Ferrara.

Pope Urban III is buried in the cathedral.

In November 1959 Pope John XXIII elevated it to the dignity of a minor basilica.

In the center of the portal is depicted Saint George killing the dragon below which there are scenes from the life of Christ. The upper part of the prothyrum is a unique example in Italy: it is formed by a loggia above which the theme of the Last Judgment develops over three registers. The souls who come out of the tombs are judged by St. John the Baptist, who weighs their souls and directs them to Heaven or, chained, to Hell. To welcome them are Abraham (left) or the cauldron (right). In the tympanum, the figure of Christ the Judge inside an almond. The interior of the three-nave Cathedral has been completely redone in Baroque style after the devastating fire of the 17th century.

A visit to the Cathedral Museum, housed in the nearby former Church of San Romano is a must.

 

Palazzo Schifanoia

The museum headquarters of Palazzo Schifanoia is housed in an Estense Delight in via Scandiana 23The palace was built in 1385 and the name chosen (literally: disgusting boredom) intended to emphasize its function at the Este court, that is, as a building intended for rest and recreation.

The palace was built for Alberto V d’Este in 1385. Invested in the title Duke of Ferrara by Pope Paul II, he decided to celebrate his power with a ducal hall decorated with an exceptional cycle of frescoes. So the Salone dei Months, the largest Renaissance cycle of pagan frescoes in which, more or less allegorically, the Duke’s good governance is celebrated through mythology and astrology, was born.

Borso d’Este transformed the palace and enlarged it. The occasion to commission the cycle of frescoes in the palace occurred when, in 1452, Borso received the title of duke for the imperial fiefs of Modena and Reggio Emilia from the emperor Frederick III and in 1471, Pope Paul II appointed him first duke of Ferrara.

The pictorial works commissioned were intended to celebrate the good governance and greatness of the duke. Later, to Biagio Rossetti, Ercole I d’Este commissioned a further extension of the building.

The hall is 24 meters long, 11 meters wide and 7.5 meters high and the cycle of the months of the year begins on the south wall. Obviously, the protagonist is the Duke who is crowned, governs, triumphs, gives the poor a coin and so on.

 

Piazza delle Erbe

Piazza delle Erbe is the reference point of the city walk, an obligatory passage of every tour in the historic center. The medieval square was built together with the cathedral and since then assumed the value of the city center, around which the main seats of political, economic and religious power overlooked.

For two centuries, it was a place dedicated to the fruit and vegetable market, all the symbols of the power that ruled have concentrated in the square.

There is the Cathedral of San Giorgio, the Palazzo della Ragione, the Loggia dei Merciai where the merchants of cloth and wool had shops, the unfinished bell tower attributed to Leon Battista Alberto.

In “Piazza delle Erbe” the “plank” begins, a sidewalk 12 meters wide and 120 long usual place for strolling, stalls and Christmas markets.

In front of the Cathedral, you enter the Town Hall Square, with the imposing grand staircase that led to the first residence of the east.

There are numerous roads leading to the square, Corso Martiri della Libertà, via Cortevecchia, via San Romano, via Mazzini, via Canonica and via Contrari. On the square, there is also the bell tower of the cathedral, an unfinished work attributed to Leon Battista Alberti.

The square has been the subject of numerous interventions over time, such as the new public lighting and the reconstruction of some parts of the porphyry cobblestones.

 

National Archaeological Museum of Ferrara

The sixteenth-century palace traditionally attributed to Ludovico Sforza called il Moro, Duke of Milan, actually belonged to Antonio Costabili, Ludovico’s secretary and prominent personality of the court of Duke Ercole I d’Este.

The structure displays various artifacts from the excavations of the Etruscan city of Spina, which flourished between the sixth and third centuries BC.

The city of Spina, abandoned during the second century BC, was excavated following the rediscovery linked to the draining works of the Comacchio Valleys. In the necropolis more than 4,000 tombs have been found, to which must be added the excavations of a part of the town.

The initial project of the Archeological Museum was by the ducal architect Biagio Rossetti, tutelary deity of the Ferrarese architecture of the Renaissance. The building site of the palace saw some illustrious stonemasons and painters from the Este court of the early 16th century at work: among the first Gabriele Frisoni, Girolamo Pasino and Cristoforo di Ambrogio, among others Benvenuto Tisi known as Garofalo, Ludovico Mazzolino and ‘Ortolano.

Biagio Rossetti began construction of the building in 1500 and in 1503 left it to the care of Girolamo Pasini and Cristoforo di Ambrogio from Milan. However, in 1504 it was definitively abandoned and the building remained unfinished.

The centerpiece of the building is the courtyard of honor, completed only on two sides and adorned with a double loggia with a rich sculptural decoration in white stone, probably the work of Gabriele Frisoni. Of the same is the staircase leading to the main floor, with raised steps decorated with geometric patterns, dolphins and palmettes.

The windows on the main floor, originally alternately open and blind, create a game of full and empty spaces that can still be partially appreciated on the facade of the building on via Porta d’Amore. The loggia on the southern side of the main courtyard overlooks a vast garden.

 

National Pinacoteca

The Pinacoteca was established in 1836 on the initiative of the Municipality of Ferrara. The chosen venue was the main floor of Palazzo dei Diamanti where the large altarpieces from the churches suppressed by Napoleon and the paintings purchased from private city collections were exposed to the public.

In 1958 the Municipal Art Gallery passed to the State and thus became the National Art Gallery. Other works were gradually added to the original nucleus through deposits, donations (Vendeghini-Baldi collection), purchases by the State and the Cassa di Risparmio di Ferrara which deposited its collection in the Pinacoteca so that a wider audience could enjoy the artistic heritage of Ferrara recovered on the antiques market.

Here, you can admire the Triumph of Saint Augustine by the Modena-born Serafino de ‘Serafini, the Madonna and Child by Gentile da Fabriano. Cosmè Tura contains the Judgment and the Martyrdom of Saint Maurelio). We can also find  paintings by Ercole de ‘Roberti, near da Ferrara and Michele Pannonio, among the main artists of the fifteenth century from Ferrara.

From the Este collections come works by Andrea Mantegna, for example the Christ with the animula of the Madonna. Of uncertain author are the Muse Erato and the Muse Urania, originating from the Studiolo di Belfiore of the marquis Leonello d’Este in Palazzo di Belfiore.

The sixteenth century is represented by Garofalo, present with the Pala Costabili, work performed with Dosso Dossi. Some works can be found by Sebastiano Filippi known as Bastianino from the Mannerist period. Other masters present with their works are Carlo Bononi, Scarsellino, Vittore Carpaccio, Giovanni Battista Benvenuti known as Ortolan, Giovanni Francesco Maineri, Domenico Panetti, Coltellini, the Master of the Eyes Wide Open and others.

Among the most important works of the seventeenth century, we must mention the Martyrdom of San Maurelio (1635) by Guercino.