The understated charm of the “first modern city.”
by Ann Marlowe
03/31/2008, Volume 013, Issue 28
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.