11 January 2019

A Romance of Ferrara


A small city of some 100,000 in northeastern Italy, Ferrara is one of the unforgettable places on the map of 20th century literature thanks to Giorgio Bassani. His works, known collectively as Il Romanza di Ferrara (The Novel of Ferrara), were published between 1958 and 1972, and just recently reissued in one handsome and newly translated volume.

"A relevant character, and by no means a minor one .... Ferrara, the city within whose bounds the events of those lives unfolded...." - excerpt from "Down There, at the End of the Corridor" by Giorgio Bassani, translated from the Italian by Jamie McKendrick

Ferrara, the settlement of a restless region, whose ancient origins are uncertain, possibly Roman, or Etruscan, or Byzantine.    Located in the Passa Badana, a low-lying delta of the Po River,  the climate is humid and the river has regularly delivered disastrous floods along with fertile soil to the region.  The old city walls survive, making an almost unbroken circuit around the city, topped by a broad tree-lined way that is popular with walkers and bicyclists.    The walls protected the residents from invaders for centuries but served to imprison the Jews of Ferrara in the interwar world.  Indeed, the walls and the riverine mists are prominent features in the lives of Bassani's characters.  

An important city during the Renaissance, its center was dominated by a cathedral and a castle.   The Ducs d'Estes were pioneers of enlightened town planning and the local cardinal was a patron of the great poet Torquato Tasso  Although its political power and influence declined over centuries, Ferrara remained prosperous.

The Jewish population of Ferrara, 700 out of 120,000 inhabitants, were prominent in civic life and politically engaged, like Bassani's father, a doctor.  Early on the Jews, like their Catholic neighbors, supported Fascism but, by the latter half of the 1930s, that position had become untenable as the movement's racist tenets marked their community as undesirable, leaving them isolated and completely alone.  Almost imperceptibly, their beloved city had become a redoubt of the Blackshirts.  The dislocation and involuntary solitude of Bassani's Ferrarese characters turned out to be the singular experience of personal life in the 20th century.

Bassani co-wrote Anontioni's 1953 film I Vinti (The Vanquished0.
Vittorio de Sica filmed Bassani's The Garden of the Finzi-Continis in 1970.
Giuliano Montaldo filmed Gli ochialli d'oro (The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles) in 1987.

For further reading:
The Novel of Ferrara by Giorgio Bassani, translated from the Italisn by Jamie McKendrick, New York, W.W. Norton: 2018,

Image:  Luigi Ghirri -  "Palazzina Marfina d'Este - Ferrara, De Primi Fine Art, Lugano.

For more about Luigi Ghirri go here and here.

2 comments:

Hels said...

I remember the Ducs d'Estes very well and I am certain that they were clever pioneers of enlightened town planning and architecture. But here is the tricky bit. Because the city's political power and influence declined since its peak, when spouse and I travelled throughout the north of Italy, we didn't even put Ferrara on our itinerary. What a shame.

Jane LIBRIZZI said...

Hels, with so much to see, it would be difficult to choose.
Bassani makes Ferrara such a vivid presence in his books that it becomes a continuing character, along with some people who appear in the background of one story, only to take the foreground in another.