Unlike Cole Porter’s troupe of strolling players, we did not open in Venice: we go there last, having spent two very hot days in Ferrara, and having arrived in Mantua, to the twin delights of wifi and a terrific thunderstorm (see below), for another two. I didn’t have many preconceptions about Ferrara, which first impressed me as rather grim – though this was probably due as much to my mood than to any inherent grimness in the place itself.
I am an Anxious Traveller (as in ‘It is better to arrive quickly than to travel anxiously’). I do things which are reasonably out of character, such as dropping my passport on the floor in the queue through security and not noticing that I have done so, or (in Italy) forgetting to ‘convalidate’ my rail ticket. On arrival in Ferrara, I failed to realise that we were at the last stop for the minibus from the airport and needed to alight, and while faffing around collecting my small suitcase from the back, further failed to observe that I had left my bag (with passport, phone and other impedimenta) on my seat. Luckily, when I scorched back 200 yards or so, the minibus was still there: however, I didn’t notice in all this frenzy that our hotel was about 20 yards from the bus stop, and, using our generic and inadequate map, we then walked up and down Viale Cavour and its sidestreets for some time before the penny dropped.
Inside the hotel, they had no record of our booking (made in May): not our fault or their fault, but that of the middleman. So we were given two single rooms instead of the intended double, and I drew the short straw, with antiquated air conditioning and a non-functioning bedside light: impossible to read, impossible to sleep with the noise of the air conditioning, impossibly hot with it switched off. (Next day, when we were moved to a double room, there was only one set of towels: talk about first-world problems…)
But even when I’d got over myself, Ferrara remained a tiny bit grim: and I realise with hindsight that this was to do with the bricks. Ferrara is built of bricks, of a very dark orange/brown colour, not plastered, and this terracotta/burnt siena/burnt umber/whatever presence – almost everywhere, from the staggering Castello Estense to the city walls to the university buildings to the comfortable villas of the nineteenth century – felt oppressive.
Yet it was not supposed to be like this (and I don’t imagine for one minute that the current citizens have a problem with it). Ferrara used to be dotted with large gardens, many of them open to the public, which would have blunted the edge of the massive brown blocks lining the roads. But alas, many of these green retreats were removed in the 1800s to create more massive brown blocks … and Ferrara must surely claim the odd distinction of having the only botanical garden in the world which is closed all day on Saturdays: a fact of which we became aware too late on Friday …
As further evidence for grim, I discovered from a statue of the Dominican friar in mid-rant that Savonarola was born here (in 1452): he stands today with his back to the wild excesses of local café society, which is probably just as well. On the other hand, the scale and quality of the nibbles that come with drinks is such as to indicate a devotion to good living (and obliterates any need or desire for antipasti).
But of course, what we were there for was the Este inheritance: the castello itself and its subsidiary buildings, and the little palazzini (all within half an hour’s walk of the castello) that the various members of the family had built over about 300 years for their ‘necessary relaxation’ from affairs of state. The Este family tree is far too complicated (for me) to grasp in any detail, though I did rather like the look of Borso d’Este, who is portrayed smiling in both sculpture and paintings (unlike some of his more martial relatives, or indeed the Doge Antonio Grimani, from his own Venice palazzo).
So we visited the castello itself, the Palazzo Schifanoia (= Sans Souci, or perhaps ‘Be Gone, Dull Care!’), the Palazzo Bonaccosi, the Palazzino Marfisa d’Este, the Casa Romei (a remarkable merchant’s house of the mid-fifteenth century),
and, most terrific of all, the Palazzo dei Diamanti, a building spiked all over (a bit like those hedgehog cakes with sticking-out almonds or chocolate buttons) with stone ‘diamonds’, the latter being one of the Este heraldic devices.
The Palazzo houses one of Italy’s national art collections, consisting, mainly and unsurprisingly, of paintings from the Ferrarese school. If you’d asked me to cite any member of it, I would have been able to come up with Dosso Dossi, not because I would recognise any of his works, but because he has a memorable name. But I’ve just learned two more: Sebastiano Filippi (1528/32–1602), known as il Bastianino, and the more gnomic Maestro delle occhi spalancati, who was active in Ferrara in the second half of the fifteenth century. ‘Spalancare’ means ‘to open wide’, as the room custodian helpfully explained to me, and this anonymous painter depicted his subjects with their eyes wide open. Here is a ceiling painting, originally from the monastery of St Antonio in Polesine:
an enthroned Madonna and Child;
and details of a triptych, showing the birth of John the Baptist and the martyrdom of Sts Peter and Paul.
This lovely Nativity is by Bastianino:
Other works that I enjoyed were this St Cecilia, looking a bit oppressed by her kit, including portative organ, lute, sackbut and bass viol – at least she’s got a cherub to play the harp parts;
and this Trinity, by the enigmatic ‘Maestro del GZ’ – though it seems a bit lacking in Holy Spirit?
The sad postscript to our two warm and sunny days in Ferrara was that we left by train for Mantua on Saturday, passing dozens of orchards and market gardens full of almost ripe apples, pears and grapes. That afternoon, the whole area was devastated by a freak hailstorm (the rainstorm that greeted us in Mantua must have been the tail end of it), wiping out between 60 and 100 per cent of the crop in some places. Let’s hope that local farmers recover quickly from this disaster.