Ferrara in Italy | Three Locals Share Insights on City’s Culture
Ferrara in Italy is a beautiful city that is home to a magnificent castle, an intriguing palace, and a spectacular cathedral. Located in the Emilia Romagna region of Italy, Ferrara was named a UNESCO World Heritage Center in 1995.
Ferrara is a university town, with its 16,000 students a sizable percentage of the small city’s overall population of about 132,000. The city also embodies the integration of different ages in its architecture, which spans the Middle Ages and the subsequent four decades of the Renaissance.
Embodying this multi-epoch heritage and at the heart of Ferrara’s historic center is Estense Castle, originally built as a fortress that over time evolved into a Renaissance palace. From Estense Castle, it’s a three-minute walk south to Piazza Trento e Trieste with its arcaded Loggia of the Merchants, and Ferrara Cathedral, also known as St. George’s Cathedral, on the other end of the square.
After exploring here, stroll along Via Mazzini to via delle Volte, one of the city’s oldest streets which dates to the Middle Ages and brings you to Ferrara’s Jewish Quarter. From here, you can head east to visit one or more of the several palaces en route to Palazzo dei Diamanti: Casa dei Romei, Palazzo Schifanoia and Palazzina Marfisa d’Este are each fascinating windows into the region’s history.
Then, treat yourself with a walk north along the city’s ancient fortified walls, enjoying the leafy greenery and vantage points of the city, making your way to Palazzo dei Diamante, a Renaissance palace that is now a museum. A few blocks beyond is a former monastery built in the 15th century that is home to Certosa di Ferrara, a movingly beautiful cemetery.
We believe that the best way to experience a culture is to ask locals for their perspective on the place that is their home. And so we are delighted to share with you the insights on what makes Ferrara in Italy special! Meet tour guide Elisa, teacher Caesar and chef Giacomo for an insider’s guide to what to experience in Ferrara!
The City Built by the House of Este
Elisa Faccini, a guide at Guide Estensi, shared an overview of Ferrara’s unique place in history.
“Since 1995 the “Renaissance Area” of Ferrara in Italy is listed among the UNESCO World Heritage Site,” she said. “This happened because the cited area of the city is the result of the first urban rectangular plan in Europe, which makes Ferrara the first real modern city in the continent.”
“Ferrara was one of the most important European capitals during the Renaissance period,” Elisa explained. “It was the residence of the Estense family, a very sophisticated and influential dynasty that had a central role in the politics of Europe during that time.”
“In Spring 1385 a huge uprising from the people against the Estensi burst,” she continued. “The people of Ferrara, exhausted by the taxes, rose up against the lords that governed the city. Once the uprising had been suppressed, the Estensi built up a fortress, positioned on the north margin of the city.”
“The modern streets of Viale Cavour and Corso Giovecca were previously the moats of the medieval walls,” she pointed out. “Corso Giovecca was covered in 1492 and Viale Cavour underwent this process after the Union of Italy.”
“The Castle started its slow transformation from fortress to ducal residence in 1492,” Elisa said. “It took 100 years to get to the actual appearance. After the Unification of Italy in 1861, a part of the Castle was transformed into a museum.”
“Historical chronicles tell that the brother of duke Alfonso I spent almost 50 years of his life in this prison,” Elisa said. “Saved by his great-uncle Alfonso II, he was freed from his captivity when he was 80 years old.”
Garden of The Oranges
“The Garden of the Oranges was realized for princess Eleonore of Aragon, daughter of Ferdinand I king of Naples,” Elisa explained. “She was an educated lady and became the wife of Ercole I d’Este. Once she moved to Ferrara, she wanted to recreate a small environment that reminded her of her motherland: a terrace, that remained a magical place through ages.”
Duomo of Saint George and Piazza Trento e Trieste
Just a three-minute walk from the Castle is Piazza Trento e Trieste, which was the heartbeat of Medieval Ferrara, and it remains a major thoroughfare and gathering place today. In the Middle Ages, this long, rectangular-shaped plaza was where the local power elite kept an eye on their subjects, and where farmers and tradesmen sold their wares; its original name was ‘Piazza delle Erbe’, or “of the herbs”.
The superb architecture lining the perimeter of the square reflects this multifaceted and inter-twined legacy. Ferrara Cathedral, also known as St. George’s, is named after the city’s patron saint. Consecrated in 1135, the facade of the church was designed by an Italian sculptor known as Niccolò who history regards as one of the Romanesque masters. Made of white marble, the exterior features elaborate imagery: seated lion sentinels; the Mother and Child; St. George slaying a dragon; prophets; and griffins. During the “magic hour” that precedes sunset, when the light is softer and golden, the building seems to glow.
Running the entire length of the south side of the cathedral is Loggia dei Merciai or “Merchant’s Lodge”, a portico supported by marble columns, where still today shopkeepers hustle. At the other end of the loggia is a Renaissance bell tower made of white and pink marble, built in the 15h century.
Piazza Trento e Trieste is a great spot to chill, absorb the ambiance and people watch.
Via delle Volte and Ferrara’s Jewish Quarter
Via delle Volte is a 500-meter narrow, cobblestone lane features overhead passages that connect the closely-constructed buildings; these suspended corridors were created so tradesmen could transport merchandise from the Po River to sell in the market. This street was the boundary line of Ferrara’s Jewish Quarter, an atmospheric Medieval enclave of small alleys of vaulted arches, wrought iron balconies, and terra cotta cornices.
The Jewish neighborhood is bound by three streets that form a triangle; on bustling Via Mazzini, along with cafes and boutiques, are three synagogues, located in a building that was bought and donated to the community in the 15th century by a prominent Jewish lender. Museum of Italian Judaism and the Shoah is located at Via Piangipane 81, the site of a former jail, and was founded in 2003 to “bear witness to the events that have characterized the two thousand years of Jewish presence in Italy.
Ferrara’s Jewish quarter was once home to about 2,000 Jews; today there is a small community of about 80 people. In Medieval times, the Este princes welcomed Jews as they faced expulsion from Spain, Germany and elsewhere during the Crusades. In Ferrara, Jews’ skills as merchants, traders and printers were valued contributions to economic prosperity. But when the last of the Este line died, Ferrara in Italy came under the control of the Catholic Church, which ushered in an era of anti-Sematisism that led to Jews being restricted to a ghetto for more than 200 years. With the end of papal dominion in 1870, Jews obtained full emancipation, only to face renewed persecution when Mussolini imposed racial laws in 1938; the ghetto remained in place until the modern nation of Italy was formed in 1859.
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Jewish Heritage Inspires Restaurant Balebuste
Giacomo Marabini is the owner of Restaurant Balebuste in Ferrara’s Jewish Quarter and credits its location as a culinary inspiration.
“We are lucky enough to be in the heart of the city, at the centre of the city centre and of the Jewish Ghetto,” he said. “It’s impossible for tradition not to be influential. Moreover, we also cannot avoid the expectations of people coming to “visit” us, very often they are discovering Ferrara in Italy and what it has to offer. That is why our menu tries to create a bond between traditional dishes and known tastes, closer to a contemporary palate. Let us not forget that Jewish dishes often go with flavors that echo smells “cleared from customs” coming from countries more or less far away.”
Giacomo strives to honor traditional dishes while being mindful of modern flavours.
“Bases don’t have to be “betrayed” but they can be enriched with notes that can help flavours that were probably expected, to emerge,” he said. “Those notes can come from all over the world, and they can integrate with local taste contributing, in this way, to write a new history. This is what the name of the restaurant want to evoke: Balebuste – a term taken from the Yiddish language – goes together with the subtitle “Culinary notes from all over the world”.
Culinary Philosophy of Ferrara in Italy
When asked if there is a dish in the Ferrarese culinary tradition that has a particular history, Giacomo singled out cappellacci (squash ravioli).
“The name comes from the dialect term “caplaz” used to describe the straw hat worn by farmers during the Renaissance,” he explained. “The shape of this hat was probably similar to that of the actual pasta.”
Giacomo summed up his culinary philosophy with passion.
“The perfect dinner, for me, it’s the one that through each plate can infuse something, an emotion, for example, contributing to the experience as a whole,” he declared. “Creating a menu means to insert elements of storytelling that can take on various forms depending on the taste and the inspiration of the narrator; only in this way the client can then compose his/her proper experience. The person behind the menu leaves some traces and imagines many possible worlds. The perfect dinner, for me, it’s the one that through each plate can infuse something, an emotion, for example, contributing to the experience as a whole.”
Ferrara in Italy | City of Bicycles and Green Walls
Ready to walk off your lunch in the Jewish Quarter? To stretch your legs and make your way to Palazzo dei Diamanti, head for Ferrara’s nine kilometer greenway atop its ancient city walls–and be sure to stay out of the way of moving vehicles!
“At the entrance of the city, a sign saying “City of bicycles” welcomes the tourist,” said Elisa. “Indeed, many Ferraresi use bicycles as their main means of transport around the city and the Medieval city centre has been a pedestrian area since the end of the 1970s.”
Slow Pace at Ferrara in Italy
Cesare Lamantea, a Ferrara transplant from Milan who teaches high school Italian and History, told me that the widespread use of bicycles makes a statement about the way of life in this Renaissance city.
“In Ferrara and the surrounding villages it is very common to use a bike to move around on rather than a car, and the rhythm of everyday life is slower than in the big city,” he observed. “I adapted really well to the calm life of the province, it wasn’t that difficult coming from the craze of the city. Also, people have always been open and friendly with me. I think it would be a lot more challenging to move from a small provincial town to a big city.”
Ferrara’s nine kilometer ring of defensive walls erected in the late 15th century were designed by Biagio Rosetti. The architect cleverly constructed the fortifications so that the interior of the walls are heavily padded with a thick layer of earth so that from within the walls, the appearance is of a sloping grassy hill rather than evoking the sense of being in a constricting prison. Looking outward from the tree-lined bastion, you get a splendid view of the surrounding countryside and the River Po; in the other direction, you look down upon the red-tiled rooftops, the city gates. The park is wide, flat and very well used, traversed by runners, dog-walkers, and the legion of Ferrara’s bicyclists, as well as picnicers sprawled out on the grass and people pausing to sit in one of the many benches to relax and absorb the ambiance.
Walls Symbolize Essence of Ferrara in Italy
Cesare reflected on the significance the walls hold for him personally.
“Surrounded by lawns and filled with trees, the Walls can be considered as a huge garden, a place to relax, a meeting point for people and the perfect environment to see the passing of seasons through a constant change in colours,” he said. “They also represent a location of transit from the city to the countryside.”
“Ramparts, fortified towers, doors and passages can be seen while walking on the walls, as a sequence remembering the history of the city: from the Porta degli Angeli (Angels’ Door) the Estensi family made its final exit from Ferrara in Italy when they had to leave the city in 1598,” Cesare explained.
“To me the Walls represent the essence of Ferrara, something intrinsic to its being unique and different from the majority of small/medium cities,” he continued. “The Walls are part of the personality and beauty of the city and with the changing of season they offer new images, impressions and inspirations. You’ll never be a real ferrarese (an inhabitant of Ferrara) if you don’t at least walk once on the Walls observing the where the city ends or begins.”
“On the occasion of a snowy day, I took a walk to photograph the city, since snow is an uncommon weather in Ferrara–it can snow once or twice a year but not every year, so it’s quite rare,” he said. “I wanted to ‘freeze’ the memory of what the city looked like under the snow.”
Ferrara’s Palazzo dei Diamanti
Yet another legacy of the d’Este dynasty to Ferrara’s architectural splendor is Palazzo dei Diamanti. Elise shared the back story of this must-see former royal residence.
The Palazzo dei Diamanti (“Diamond Palace”) was realized by the architect Biagio Rossetti and it is one of the main buildings in the Renaissance part of Ferrara. Its façade is covered with an ashlar decoration, a stone-cutting technique very popular during the Renaissance; this ashlar is unique because it has the peculiar form of a diamond. A legend says that the duke Ercole wanted to hide a diamond in one of the 8500 marble blocks and that the bricklayer that worked at the project got his tongue cut to avoid telling the secret.
The palace is embellished with a frieze carved in the marble and an angular balcony. Art pieces from Ferrarese painters, such as Dosso Dossi, decorated the rooms of the palace, which had been a property of the Estensi until 1700. In 1836 the palace was used to host a National Gallery. The ground floor is used for temporary exhibitions.
Ferrara’s Certosa Cemetery
Just a five minute walk away from Palazzo dei Diamanti is Certosa di Ferrara, a fabulous monument to Renaissance sacred art and architecture. I happen to have an affinity for the peacefulness of cemeteries; I read a description of this serene space as “a physical place for mystical lives” and that captures the evocative ambiance of Certosa di Ferrara. The late afternoon light at the time of our visit really amplified the site’s aura of grace.
In 1451, Borso d’Este invited the Carthusian Order to Ferrara in Italyand they settled 800 meters outside the inhabited centre. In 1492 Duke Ercole I incorporated the monastery inside the city walls, though he assured them their vows of isolation would be respected. Later, with the suppression of religious orders, the Carthusians were obliged to leave their monastery.
The architect Marquis Canonici started the transformation of the Carthusian Order’s monastery into a Christian cemetery. The project started in 1811 after the Edict of Saint Claude had been issued, which required that all cemeteries had to be moved outside the city walls for hygiene reasons. In fact, the area around the cemetery had been considered as “countryside” until the 1950s, when it became urbanized.
Among the most important people buried in the cemetery is Giovanni Boldini, an artist from Ferrara who became famous for having been the painter of the Parisian high bourgeoisie during his time.
In the Certosa Cemetery, the most prestigious tombs are those inside the old cells used by the Carthusians, and they have gravestones and epitaphs that date back to the 19th Century or the first decades of the 20th Century.
Ferrara in Italy | Lively Festivals
While Ferrara is home to an array of elegant historic palaces, churches, and museums, be assured it is not a stuffy place.
“Ferrara is a culturally lively city, thanks to the university,” Cesare observed. “Indeed, there are a few festivals that have now become yearly not-to-miss experiences: the Vulandra Festival devoted to kites, usually held at the end of April, the Buskers Festival, held at the end of August, and the Ferrara Balloons Festival dedicated to hot air balloons, which is at the beginning of September.”
Map of Ferrara’s attractions
Interactive map of Ferrara’s attractions, courtesy of Francesca Lamantea