Ferrara: Italy's history goes way back, but how far?
August 17, 2004
There are parts of Italy, no matter how ancient, where it seems there’s a historical record about everything.
Then there are cities such as Ferrara where the past is a bit murkier. The origin of the city’s name, for instance? Unknown. When the city was founded? Unknown — the earliest mention on record comes from the eighth century.
But the biggest mystery may be trying to navigate the city center by car or finding a parking place once you get there. Many of the locals don’t try — visitors will likely see a lot more people on bicycles than tourists snapping pictures.
Not that Ferrara doesn’t have sights and a well-documented history since the Renaissance to offer.
Much of that history is detailed — exhaustively — in the city’s main edifice and tourist attraction: Castello Estense. The castle built by the d’Este family, which ruled the city for about 300 years during much of the Renaissance, is a huge, red brick structure that essentially fills a city block. Parts date to earlier times, but much of the castle goes back to the late 1300s. After riots by some of the area’s peasants, the ruling family built the castle as protection from them.
Today, the municipal government, including a tourist information office, uses some of the building. A few wings are open to the public. The ground floor has been stripped of just about everything. All that’s left are panel after panel detailing (in Italian and English) the history of the castle, the city and the d’Este family.
The rooms on the second floor are more colorful, especially the frescoes on the ceilings. The last set of rooms open to the public also features an art collection.
Those who aren’t interested in the history — or those who have children — probably would prefer just to cross the moats and take the free walk through the interior courtyard on the way between other attractions.
The closest one to the castle is the city’s cathedral, which dates to the 12th century. The pink-and-white façade contains both Romanesque and Gothic elements. Built along the exterior facing the square are shops dating back hundreds of years that are still operating (there’s a McDonald’s across the street).
Another attraction, located several blocks down the street (Corso Ercole I d’Este) on the opposite side of the castle, is the Palazzo dei Diamanti.
The building is named after the thousands of carved rocks that make up the exterior, said to look like diamonds. Inside, the National Picture Gallery (Pinacoteca Nazionale) and Gallery of Modern and Contemporary Art (Galleria D’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea) each takes up a floor.
A few blocks farther down the street, remnants of the city’s medieval walls remain. There’s a walking path next to them, so visitors can circle around much of the city on their way to a handful of other sights, such as churches, museums and smaller palaces.