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Ferrara Cathedral with the reflection
of Palazzo Municipale.
Photo by Marco Caselli Nirmal
It is really very difficult to depict the moral climate or identity of a city in which you have always lived. Others pick up the scent that we give off, but we don’t, others see us, but we don’t see ourselves… So while I was racking my brains over how to explain for Bridge what my Ferrara has that is unrepeatable and unique in these days of 2012, nothing comes to my rescue better than an article of mine that was published in Corsera in 1987. I think that its climate of a former ducal capital that retains its splendor, together with that sense of it being resigned to its destiny of minor character still so in love with itself, are aspects I ought to capture in this article. The Leopardian literary topos of the tormented Recanati-Rome relationship explains a lot about the Ferrara mentality, but in reality I think it is the key to the interpretation of the relationship of all Italian cities with the most beautiful capital city in the world.
You can dream in Ferrara
by Roberto Pazzi
Corriere della Sera, 16th February 1987
(translated by Susan Perry)
“Messer Lodovico, where on earth have you been to seek out so much bullshit?”. The words of Cardinal Ippolito d’Este to Ludovico Ariosto, after he had finished the reading of the first song of Furioso have grown within me over the years. It’ll be the coincidence of living in the same town, walking and talking in the same streets as that Great man, it’ll be the inevitable superimposition of a perfect and absolute literary image on my poor, short-term one, of a man permanently on the edge of the precipice so as to snatch the flower of the right word; those definitive and implacable words, however, immediately persuaded and illuminated me, and maybe even helped me to understand something we have in common.
Whoever writes from Ferrara, conceiving of this as an absolute gesture, flees. Nobody stays. Bassani, Antonioni and Caretti always lived elsewhere. And those runaways seem to be want to tell us that you can’t live here. The town has its mythical presence in the memory of those tourists who, when questioned in Paris or London if they know where it is, respond immediately to the promptings about its proximity to Venice and Florence, on reminding them of the Este and Borgia families – it happened to me in Paris with Ertè –. Two seconds later, though, will trip up and cite Ravenna, adding talk of its mosaics to their aporia of information about Ferrara. And yet no passing stranger, neither in the past or in the present, walking in Piazza Ariostea or near the house of Biagio Rossetti, fails to wonder why they haven’t been before, with a sense of regret for having discovered it so late, while at the same time perusing the timetable to find the train which will take them to the more famous neighbouring cities.
Bassani probably grasped just the intimate and private side of its atmosphere and elevated it to poetry; maybe only the metaphysical painters, following the crude and electric light of Cosmè Tura, bear absolute witness to that immobile crystal transparency that guarantees this ship that has been traveling in Time for a thousand years a tranquil route towards an unknown port; the same that is addressed in the verses of Ludovico Ariosto who found in the deafness of the cardinal an encouragement to avoid nearer, safer destinations. Because the deafness and apathetic indifference of Cardinal Ippolito are the eternal defence that in Ferrara characterises the desperation of the average quiet Italian, who does not want to be bothered; life in Ferrara reveals the naked weft it is woven with. High School, Casa Cini or Fgci (Casa Giorgio Cini is the diocesan center of culture of the Ferrara-Comacchio archdiocese, seat of the Religious Science Institute; the Italian Young Communists’ Federation, Fgci, was the youth section of the Italian Communist Party - ed.) a job, getting engaged, buying a house, kids, retirement and death. The “happy, holy desires” that our biological nature endows the human race with. And let no-one wake up the living dead, who every Sunday liven up the dining table with cream or chocolate cakes. And their souls, surrendering to the cakes, are content.
Thus, in Ferrara, the Emilian town so far from the others, so discrete and resigned, a paradigm of contrast between Being and being there arises, and the town acquires a prodigious modernity if it helps to understand a much bigger problem than that of provincialism. Rome, Milan and Florence have not offered such clarity: they confound the terms of the modern condition – or post-modern, as they say these days –, they still let you glimpse the Nothingness that they live and cloak themselves in, pitilessly, the end of the illusion that life experiences there, at least. But if Being there is bitter and fugal, where on earth will we go to root it out? If the great are really those who have, Musil-style, substituted the “Grandeur of the Effect for the Effect of Grandeur”, in which silence will we go to seek refuge for the Word?
The desperate sweetness of living in the dark night of Recanati, having come back from Rome in 1823, was, for Giacomo (Leopardi - ed.) a confirmation of what he had already understood before going away. Here the values are guarded by the callous aridity of Cardinal Ippolito, here a passionate defense of imagination and dreams can raise its head in the face of such a coarse attack. A declaration of faith can only be made in the face of an authentic persecution, in the face of a lowering, honestly discovered, of the moral tension of existence. Ferrara is all of this, so I love it and will never leave it.
In no Italian city with a noble past – and which Italian city has not got an illustrious past? – is the contrast more evident between the ancient and modern. I repeat: Rome, Milan, and Florence confound the terms of the problem, trick you into believing in a possible eternity of their grandeur because there they carry out the rites necessary to the appropriate Institutions. But here the gods have fled, the only things left are the magnificent stones of the fourteenth, fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Here we live in the awareness, as Kavafis has it, that “the life spent in this discrete corner / has been spent all over the land… and “you will not find another place nor other sea / the town will come after you”. But we are allowed to believe, to go on fighting against mortifying realism and resignation, and in the meantime snatch from the sea some new province of the imagination, protected from the new metaphysical dams.
That is why Ferrara has been able to bind itself to the myth of the metaphysics of De Chirico, Carrà and Morandi, the artists from the great town who rediscovered, in the light of Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, a disquieting symbol of modern man.
Here, once the two or three things that assure us of our daily bread have been carried out, there is still however, so much time to fill in. The clocks of De Chirico’s stations discourage waiting just like the words of Cardinal Ippolito d’Este annul all expectations and the dream of glory: they seem to be saying that there is nothing to wait for, there’s nobody coming, that neither History, the redeeming and eschatological Event, the Revolution, the Emperor, the “Veltro” nor any other God is coming this way again, if he ever came the first time. The courtyards of Ferrara are still full of the lugubrious sobbing of doves, the same sound that the young Czar Peter must have heard, on his journey through this city in the last years of the 17th century, when he stopped in a Ferrara inn and – not wanting to draw attention to his presence – simply signed himself as the “King of the North”.
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