Ferrara is a city and comune in Emilia-Romagna, northern Italy, capital city of the Province of Ferrara. It is situated 50 kilometres (31 miles) north-northeast of Bologna, on the Po di Volano, a branch channel of the main stream of the Po River, located 50 km (31 miles) north. The town has broad streets and numerous palaces dating from the 14th and 15th centuries, when it hosted the court of the House of Este. For its beauty and cultural importance it has been qualified by UNESCO as World Heritage Site. Modern times have brought a renewal of industrial activity. Ferrara is on the main rail line from Bologna to Padua and Venice, and has branches to Ravenna, Poggio Rusco (for Suzzara) and Codigoro.
The origin of Ferrara is uncertain, it was probably settled by the inhabitants of the lagoons at the mouth of Po river; there are two early centers of settlement, one round the cathedral, the other, the castrum bizantino, being the San Pietro district, on the opposite shore, where the Primaro empties into the Volano channel. Ferrara appears first in a document of the Lombard king Desiderius of 753 AD, as a city forming part of the Exarchate of Ravenna. Desiderius pledged a Lombard ducatus ferrariae (“Duchy of Ferrara”) in 757 to Pope Stephen II. After 984 it was a fief of Tedaldo, count of Modena and Canossa, nephew of the emperor Otto I. It afterwards made itself independent, and in 1101 was taken by siege by the countess Matilda. At this time it was mainly dominated by several great families, among them the prominent Adelardi (or Aleardi) family.
In 1146, Guglielmo II of Adelardi, the last of the House of Adelardi, died, and his property passed, as the dowry of his niece the Marchesella, to Obizzo I of Este. There was considerable hostility between the newly entered family and the prominent Salinguerra family, but after considerable struggles Azzo VII of Este was nominated perpetual podestà in 1242; in 1259 he took Ezzelino of Verona prisoner in battle. His grandson, Obizzo II (1264–1293), succeeded him, and he was made perpetual lord of the city by the population. The House of Este was from henceforth settled in Ferrara. In 1289 he was also chosen as lord of Modena, one year later he was made lord of Reggio. Niccolò III (1393–1441) received several popes with great magnificence, especially Eugene IV, who held a council here in 1438. His son Borso received the title of duke for the imperial fiefs of Modena and Reggio from Emperor Frederick III in 1452 (in which year Girolamo Savonarola was born here), and in 1471 was made duke of Ferrara by Pope Paul II. Ercole I (1471–1505) carried on a war with Venice and increased the magnificence of the city.
During the reign of Ercole d’Este I, one of the most significant patrons of the arts in late 15th- and early 16th-century Italy after the Medici, Ferrara grew into a cultural center, renowned for music as well as for visual arts. The painters established links with Flemish artists and their techniques, exchanging influences in the colors and composition choices. Composers came to Ferrara from many parts of Europe, especially France and Flanders; Josquin des Prez worked for Duke Ercole for a time (producing the Missa Hercules dux Ferrariæ, which he wrote for him); Jacob Obrecht came to Ferrara twice (and died during an outbreak of plague there in 1505); and Antoine Brumel served as principal musician from 1505. Alfonso I, son of Ercole, was also an important patron; his preference for instrumental music resulted in Ferrara becoming an important center of composition for the lute. The architecture of Ferrara benefitted from the genius of Biagio Rossetti, who was asked in 1484 by Ercole I to redesign the plan of the city. The resulting “Addizione Erculea” is one of the most important and beautiful examples of renaissance city planning and contributed to the selection of Ferrara as UNESCOWorld Heritage Site.
Alfonso married the notorious Lucrezia Borgia, and continued the war with Venice with success. In 1509 he was excommunicated by Pope Julius II, and he overcame the pontifical army in 1512 defending Ravenna. Lucrezia, together with other members of the Este house, is buried in the convent of Corpus Domini.
Gaston de Foix fell in the battle, in which he was supporting Alfonso. With the succeeding popes he was able to make peace. He was the patron of Ariosto from 1518 onwards. His son Ercole II married Renée of France, daughter of Louis XII of France; he too embellished Ferrara during his reign (1534–1559).
His son Alfonso II married Lucrezia, daughter of grand-duke Cosimo I of Tuscany, then Barbara, sister of the emperor Maximilian II and finally Margherita Gonzaga, daughter of the duke of Mantua. He raised the glory of Ferrara to its highest point, and was the patron of Tasso, Guarini, and Cremonini – favouring, as the princes of his house had always done, the arts and sciences. During the reign of Alfonso II, Ferrara once again developed an opulent court with an impressive musical establishment, rivaled in Italy only by the adjacent city of Venice, and the traditional musical centers such as Rome, Florence and Milan. Composers such as Luzzasco Luzzaschi, Lodovico Agostini, and later Carlo Gesualdo, represented the avant-garde tendency of the composers there, writing for gifted virtuoso performers, including the famous concerto di donne — the three virtuoso female singers Laura Peverara, Anna Guarini, and Livia d’Arco. Vincenzo Galilei praised the work of Luzzaschi, and Girolamo Frescobaldi studied with him.
The city was much affected by the 1570 Ferrara earthquake.
Ferrara remained a part of the Papal States from 1598 to 1859, when it became part of the Kingdom of Italy. A fortress was constructed by Pope Paul V on the site of the castle called “Castel Tedaldo”, at the south-west angle of the town, that was occupied by an Austrian garrison from 1832 until 1859. All of the fortress was dismantled following the birth of the Kingdom of Italy and the bricks used for new constructions all over the town.
The town is still surrounded by more than 9 kilometres (6 miles) of ancient walls, mainly built in the 15th and 16th centuries. Together with those of Lucca, they are the best preserved Renaissance walls in Italy.
The most iconic building of the town is the imposing Castello Estense: sited in the very centre of the town, it’s a brick building surrounded by a moat, with four massive bastions. It was built starting in 1385 and partly restored in 1554; the pavilions on the top of the towers date from the latter year.
The ancient City Hall, renovated in the 18th century, was the earlier residence of the Este family. Close by it is the former Cathedral of Saint George, begun in 1135, when the Romanesque lower part of the main façade and the side façades were completed. According to a now lost inscription the church was built in 1135 by Guglielmo I of Adelardi (d. 1146), who is buried in it. The sculpture of the main portal is the signed work of the “artifex” Nicholaus, mentioned in the lost inscription as the “architect” for the church. The upper part of the main façade, with arcades of pointed arches, dates from the 13th century, while the lower part of the protiro or projecting porch and the main portal are by Nicholaus. The recumbent lions guarding the entrance are replacements of the originals, now in the narthex of the church. The elaborate relief sculptures depicting Last Judgement gracing the second story of the porch above date from the 13th century. The interior was restored in the baroque style in 1712. The campanile, in the Renaissance style, dates from 1451–1493, but the last storey was added at the end of the 16th century.
A little way off is the university, which has faculties of law, architecture, pharmacy, medicine and natural science; the library has valuable manuscripts, including part of that of the Orlando furioso and letters by Tasso. Its famous graduates include Nicolaus Copernicus (1503) and Paracelsus. Near the main university facilities it raises the University of Ferrara Botanic Garden.
Ferrara has many early Renaissance palaces, often retaining terracotta decorations; few towns of Italy as small have so many, though most are comparatively small in size. Among them may be noted those in the north quarter (especially the four at the intersection of its two main streets), which was added by Ercole I in 1492–1505, from the plans of Biagio Rossetti, and hence called the Addizione Erculea.
Among the finest palaces is Palazzo dei Diamanti (Diamond Palace), named after the diamond points into which the façade’s stone blocks are cut. The palazzo houses the National Picture Gallery, with a large collection of the school of Ferrara, which first rose to prominence in the latter half of the 15th century, with Cosimo Tura, Francesco Cossa and Ercole dei Roberti. Noted masters of the 16th-century School of Ferrara include Lorenzo Costa and Dosso Dossi, the most eminent of all, Girolamo da Carpi and Benvenuto Tisi (il Garofalo).
The Casa Romei is the best preserved Renaissance building in Ferrara. It was the residence of Giovanni Romei, related to Este family by marriage to Polissena d’Este and likely the work of the court architect Pietro Bono Brasavola. It did not fall into decay because it was inherited by the nuns of the Corpus Domini order who lived there without making any changes to its structure. Much of the decoration in the inner rooms has been saved. There are fresco cycles in the Sala delle Sibille (Room of Sibyls), with its original terracotta fireplace bearing the coat of arms of Giovanni Romei, in the adjoining Saletta dei Profeti (Room of the Prophets), depicting allegories from the Bible and in other rooms, some of which were commissioned by cardinal Ippolito d’Este and painted by the school of Camillo and Cesare Filippi (16th century).
The Palazzo Schifanoia (sans souci) was built in 1385 for Alberto V d’Este. The palazzo includes frescoes depicting the life of Borso d’Este, the signs of the zodiac and allegorical representations of the months. The vestibule was decorated with stucco mouldings by Domenico di Paris. The building also contains fine choir-books with miniatures and a collection of coins and Renaissance medals.
The City Historical Archives contain a relevant amount of historical documents, starting from 15th century. The Diocesan Historical Archive is more ancient, mentioned in documents in AD 955, and contains precious documents collected across the centuries by the clergy.
The Ferrara Synagogue and Jewish Museum are located in the heart of the medieval centre, close to the cathedral and the Castello Estense. This street was part of the Jewish Quarter in which the Jews were separated from the rest of the population of Ferrara from 1627 to 1859.