Monday, July 11, 2011


Last Friday we took a day trip to the city of Ferrara, which is about 50 km (31 mi.) NNE of Bologna, on a southern branch of the Po River.  Controlled by the art-loving Este family before and during the Renaissance, Ferrara has an abundance of beautifully constructed and decorated palazzi, an imposing castello in the center of town surrounded by a water-filled moat, and a large cathedral that retains Romanesque and Gothic attributes despite Baroque remodeling in the 17th century and later.

We took the train, a 55-minute trip for us on the inexpensive local (20 min. on the pricey express headed to Venice).  Bologna is a major rail hub which I always find interesting, with lots of people and lots of action on the rails as trains head all over Italy. As with airports, I’m fascinated by the infrastructure, from the pedestrian tunnels leading out to the boarding platforms, to the maze of suspended catenary power cables over the tracks and the raveling ribbons of steel rail joining, crossing and ultimately curving into the countryside in pairs.  There are remnants of an even more complex train yard left from the recent past—stone switchyard control towers, a set of radiating tracks missing their turntable that once dealt engines to the mainline, former rolling stock maintenance buildings now isolated by weedy gaps in the tracks leading to them. 
View of the terminal building from the platform
of binario sette (track 7).

Our train a few minutes before departure.

Bologna railyard complexities.   (picture borrowed from Wikimedia)

The countryside between Bologna and Ferrara is largely rural, with fields of pomodorini (cherry tomatoes), lots of corn (mais in Italian), and fruit orchards—apricot (albicocca), pear (pera), and peach (pesca—but you knew that).  We also saw industrial installations large and small, including a Lamborghini factory—their main offices are a few km west in Sant’Agata Bolognese.
One of the first things we noticed about Ferrara was the abundance of bicycles.  Cyndy read that there are more bici per capita here than anywhere in Italy.  Here are a few outside the stazione.  Many roads in town have separate lanes for the bikes, and we saw people of all ages riding around.

Ferrara is a city of bike riders.  These are at the train station.

After the requisite stop for caffè and a pastry, we toured the imposing Castello Estense,  which dates from the late 1300s with extensive additions in the 1550s.  All along the tour route are descriptives panels detailing the history of Ferrara and the Este family.  But the building itself and its decorations are the real attraction.  In the lower reaches are several dungeon prison cells with iron doors and many layers of iron grillwork securing the small windows to the outside.  One cell had hazy lettering on the ceiling said to be written with candle smoke.
Castello Estense

Passageway just above the prison cells

Dungeon cell entrance

Six sets of iron grillwork block the way

On an upper floor is il giardino di aranci, a grove of orange trees in terracotta pots arrayed on the loggia terrace.  The implications of privilege are manifest, with the private garden hidden from public view and housing exotic plants that would have to be moved into the shelter of the adjacent loggia greenhouse during winter.  In past centuries there were also hanging gardens and flower beds planted in earth carried upstairs sack by sack from outside.  We climbed the lion tower,  torre di leone, to get good views over the city and look down on the garden terrace.

This garden is said to have inspired the orangerie at Versailles.  

The second level terrace garden above the moat.
Red tile roofs and city streets from the castle tower.

Elaborately decorated ceilings are everywhere in Italy, certainly including Castello Estense.  Here are a few examples including the chapel, a salon with allegories of the sun’s travels, a ceiling of  games and sports, and some geometric figures and historical motifs.  Paintings date from the 1500s into the 20th century (one ceiling—not one shown here—represents Italy surrounded by symbols of conquest from the era of fascism) .
Ducal chapel ceiling

In the Chamber of Dawn
Mirrors help survey the game-players on this ceiling

Four scenes from local history surrounded by a complication of geometry and decorative motifs.

From the ceiling above, boat races in the moat to entertain a visiting pope.
The moat was once larger and connected to the river.

Because of my interest in medieval architecture, the cathedral down the street from the palazzo caught my eye.  Consecrated in 1135, it was begun in Romanesque style, added to and expanded in Gothic style in the mid-13th century, then, following a fire in the 18th c., was completely refurbished inside in Baroque fashion.  Along the way, a pink and white marble campanile (bell tower) was added in the 1450s.  The patron saint of Ferrara is Saint George, and the cathedral is dedicated to him.  I especially like the pink marble lions and griffons and the variety of Venetian Gothic arches and columns in the high south wall  loggia.  If you want more pictures of the church exterior, you can find some on this Italian site.  (Be sure to click ‘prosecuzione dalla vista’ at the bottom to open the second page.)
The West Front, Romanesque below, Gothic above.

Large animal sculptures are remnants from the
demolition of a south-wall porch and entry.

The South cathedral wall, with the campanile at the southeast corner.
  The rough remains of the former south porch are quite visible about mid-way along. 

The upper loggia columns are a stone mason's fantasyland.

We wandered some of the medieval lanes between the cathedral and the Po, visited the library and the cathedral museum (15th c. manuscripts, tapestries and salvaged statuary from the cathedral renovations), and, because it was hot, ate some excellent gelato at the Rivareno shop.  
Did I mention that everyone rides bikes here?

What might explain that curvy brick fascia?

A medieval-era street known as the 'vaults.'
We knew that there would be too much in Ferrara to see in one day, especially a hot day, so we’ll try to return to see more of the Este legacy—palazzi, art and architecture.  And we’ll check out the Renaissance-era city wall, to see if it really does rival the one around Lucca.


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