Tuesday, September 14, 2010


Saturday was my first solo excursion to a new city.  I may have gone a little overboard, leaving the house at 6:30AM and not returning till well past midnight.  When I told my classmates I was going all the way to Ferrara, they wondered why.  It’s not a major tourist destination, and it’s two to three hours by train from Verona—not even a direct train, you have to change in Bologna or Padova.  What’s so special about Ferrara?

Many things, it turns out.  While an MA student, I spent a whole semester doing an independent study on Ludovico Ariosto’s masterpiece sixteenth-century romance, the Orlando furioso.  It’s an absolutely splendid work and if you haven’t read it, you must.  Believe me, there’s nothing dusty or academic about it—it’s a rollicking adventure story, with a mad hero, knights-errant (two of whom are girls!), enchanted islands, epic battles, naked princesses sacrificed to sea-monsters, a hippogriff  (better than Rowling’s), a magic ring (MUCH better than Tolkien’s), and a trip to the moon.  There’s even a decent prose translation out there if you don’t feel like grappling with verse.  But you should definitely read it, and I should get back to my main topic.

So: The reason I mention Ariosto is because he lived and worked in Ferrara, under the patronage of the Este dukes, and as I read the poem, I began to slowly uncover the history of the city and its ruling dynasty.  But then I left Ferrara behind, and I didn’t get to take another Italian class before embarking on my thesis project, which ended up being mostly about Florence and Venice with a cameo appearance by Vicenza.  Ferrara didn’t come back on the radar until I was preparing to re-apply to grad school after a little hiatus from academia.  I was reading and translating some culinary history texts for fun and got my greedy little hands on a copy of Cristoforo di Messisbugo’s mid-16th century treatise on banquets.  Messisbugo, it turns out, had actually been the majordomo of the Este court, contemporary with Ariosto.  His treatise includes descriptions of the entertainments at the banquets: musical and theatrical performances, which turned out to be very relevant to my research interests, and, to my delight, a way for me to sneak some foodie tidbits into my academic work.  Finally, I learned that in the late sixteenth century the Este court had been the first to create positions for professional female singers, the famous concerto delle donne.  So, you see, it just so happens that Ferrara has a history of fundamental importance to my three greatest passions: literature, music, and food (with a little feminism on the side).

I left home obscenely early in the morning so I could be in Ferrara by the time the museums opened.  (Note to future travelers: Early morning regional trains run almost as fast as the high-speed trains because they make fewer stops, but at maybe a third of the cost.)  It was a beautiful day.  The historic town center is quite a short walk from the train station; I even had time to pause for a cappuccino on my way to the first stop: Ariosto’s house.

Like many museums, the Casa dell’Ariosto forbids photography, even in the gardens.  Which is a shame, because it’s quite pretty—not luxurious, but simple, open and airy.  It would make a very comfortable living space even today.  The downstairs rooms are empty; they get used for temporary exhibitions, lectures and concerts.  There is a small courtyard and beyond it a larger yard with trees and a well.  The large back room, which has a covered brick hearth, a drain in a sloping corner of the floor, and easy access to the well, must have been the kitchen.  Upstairs (the stairs and wrought-iron railing are original to the house, which was built in the early sixteenth century) are a large-ish main room, with original ceiling and red tile floor, and the two bedrooms.  One of them has oil paintings and furniture from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries; the other has Ariostean paraphernalia, like commemorative medals, special editions of the Furioso, and a museum guest-book signed by Giuseppe Verdi—all of these dating from the nineteenth century.  (I signed the guest book too; maybe when I’m famous they’ll put it on display.  Just kidding.)

The house was charming.  I turned back to the main road that would lead me to my next destination, the Castello Estense.

Here is the wonderful but slightly disconcerting thing about Italian cities.  You’re walking down along a broad, modern avenue, with cars whizzing by, televisions and radios blaring, neon signs inviting you to buy ice cream or coffee or lottery tickets, and then all of a sudden you look up and you are confronted by something like this:

It’s a little storybookish to talk about castles suddenly looming up in front of one, but it does happen.

Fortunately, the castle museum allowed photography!  Hooray!  (No flash, though, so some of these are a little blurry--sorry.)

Also, I must say that one thing I really loved about the castle museum was that it was extremely well organized, beautifully designed, not overcrowded; everything was well labeled, and there was tons of information all over the castle about what visitors were seeing and why it was important.  Very clean and very user-friendly--I'd venture to say the layout was the best of any museum I've seen on this trip.

The tour of the castle goes as low as the dungeons:

and as high as the rooftop gardens:

(more accurately, it goes as high as the towers, but there is a separate entrance for that, and I chose not to visit since I had such a full itinerary for the day already--I was worried I wouldn't have time for everything).

Many of the rooms had gorgeous fresco-decorated ceilings, and enormous mirrors were set up so that visitors could see the frescoes in detail:

But my favorite room, as you can well imagine, was the kitchen.  A kitchen Messisbugo himself might have worked in!  This is where the culinary magic happened:

Just imagine fires in all those ovens, a team of cooks tending those stovetops while others worked at large tables around the room...getting the picture?  Pretty extraordinary.  I'd be in heaven in a kitchen that size!

After the castle, I took a break for lunch; I’d brought a sandwich from home and I ate it under a statue of Savonarola.  I love this pose:

Next stop was the Duomo, the main cathedral.  It has a beautiful Gothic exterior:

I must confess, though, I wasn’t thrilled with the interior.  It looked to me like it had been redone in the eighteenth or nineteenth century; very ornate, luxurious, but somehow soft and unengaging, and utterly disconnected from the church façade or, for that matter, from the architectural aesthetic of the whole city.  (I looked this up after I got home and, indeed, the interior was re-painted in the eighteenth century after a fire destroyed the original artwork.)  The cathedral museum, though, was lovely, with some beautiful silver reliquaries (though I have to admit that I find relics pretty creepy…I was completely taken aback to see Ariosto’s finger on display in his house!! And don’t even get me started on Galileo’s finger in the science museum in Florence), as well as stunning vestments with intricately worked lace and painstakingly detailed embroidery done in silver and gold threads.  There was a collection of twelfth- and thirteenth-century marble statues that was really beautiful, and a stunning set of tapestries by a Flemish weaver working in Ferrara, a cycle depicting the martyrdom of St. George, the city’s patron saint.

Next stop, Palazzo Schifanoia, one of the Este court palaces.  On the way there I passed by an interesting-looking bookshop and ducked in to see what they had.  It’s called Sognalibro, “book dream,” and it was a dream of a little shop.  They had a lot of scholarly texts, used as well as new, and a lot of rare and out-of-print books.  I started poking around but, not finding what I was looking for, asked the proprietors for assistance.  I still didn’t find what I was looking for, but I found some other wonderful things, and had a great chat—being both Ferrarese and literary-minded, they knew exactly why I was looking for what I was looking for.  They even showed me, proudly, a study of Ariosto by an American scholar—“He comes here when he is in Ferrara, you know”—which I was familiar with, and would have bought if it weren’t twice as much as it would be back home!  I came away with Machiavelli’s Il Principe and Tasso’s Aminta, a little volume of dialogues and letters by Pietro Aretino, and a facsimile of the 1559 edition of Giovanni della Casa’s etiquette guide Il Galateo.  There were about a dozen more books I wanted to take home with me, but they were all too expensive or too big or both, so I settled for these four, which turned out to be a bargain, really. 

The Palazzo was another marvel (and again, sadly, no photos).  Empty, probably because the weather was so beautiful, why would anyone want to be shut up inside a museum?  During most of my visit, I was the sole visitor in a given room, and this was wonderful and leisurely.  I felt almost as if I had the palace to myself!  (And after experiencing the mad crush of tourists in Venice, a blessed relief.)  The docents were knowledgeable and happy to talk about the artwork with an interested visitor.  On the upper floor of the Palazzo is a room called the Salone dei Mesi, which is a grand hall, originally decorated with paintings of each month of the year, with their Zodiac signs, all around the walls of the room.  The last room before you get there has a nineteenth-century copy of one of the walls.  The docent gave me a lesson in the history of the room: after the Este dynasty collapsed, the Papacy took political control of Ferrara.  When Vatican officials arrived, they deemed the walls of pagan designs inappropriate, and had them covered with several layers of paint and plaster.  They underlying artwork was not rediscovered until the nineteenth century, and then an effort was made to restore it.  Two of the walls were frescoes, that is, pigment mixed in with wet plaster; those have survived mostly intact.   But on the other two the paint was applied directly to a dry wall, and it could not be recovered.  But even only half-complete, the room is stunning.

It was a fabulous day but utterly exhausting; my train left after 9PM (of course, I had to leave myself time to have dinner in town--though that's another post) and was due to get me to Verona sometime after midnight, with a change in Bologna.  Well, wouldn’t you know it, the train got to Bologna late, leaving literally two minutes for me to make my connection.  By the time I got to the signboard that listed departure platforms, the my train already had a blinking light next to it, and by the time I dashed to the platform itself, it was too late.  The next train left an hour later, at 11PM.  I was exhausted and my feet hurt and I had to sit outside in the cold--no way was I going to risk not being at the platform when my train came.  I was, to put it mildly, very grouchy.  Then the train finally showed up—and it was a sleeper car!  Obviously I had not made a reservation, and the thought of hassling my way into one of the bunks for such a short trip was too painful to contemplate.  So instead I plunked myself down in the dining car.  It was full of Germans (the train was going to Munich) and they were all drinking beer.  So I had a beer too, chatted with other passengers, and overall had a much more interesting time than I probably would’ve on my first train.  And, best of all, because there were no other stops between Bologna and Verona, it got me home at about the same time the first one would have.  Everything did indeed work out for the best...