First, I have to say that Kay and I didn’t go to Italy recently during one of the coldest, grayest weeks of the year on a whim. We went to see an art show we had read about a month before in the International New York Times.
For decades, I’ve been a fan of the art of Giorgio De Chirico, and especially of what are known as his Metaphysical paintings. These mysterious and disturbing works that he began early in the 20th century and continued during his three years in Ferrara from 1915 to 1918 are world famous and very distinctive. When we learned that a gathering of the Ferrara paintings from museums and private collections all over Europe and North America would be shown for a limited time in a Renaissance Palazzo in that city, the opportunity to see them was irresistible. We had to go.
It strikes us as odd that the city of Ferrara is not more of a tourist destination. Perhaps Ferrara’s lights seem less bright because they glimmer in the shadow of Bologna, its larger, wealthier, and more famous neighbor. Yet, architecturally speaking, it is an impressive city, and its well-preserved central core is evidence of a glorious past.
It is in that central core, the centro storico or historical center, that we found Zen, our accommodation for a week that bills itself as “room and breakfast”. Its greatest attraction is its location, a stone’s throw from the Castello Estense, the giant castle that dominates the city center. But why a week to view a single exhibition?
Well, since we were going to be in Ferrara anyway, why not give ourselves time to look around and see what else of interest we could find? Another reason is that Ferrara is only a short train ride away from Ravenna the city on the Adriatic whose original claim to fame is that it was where the Roman Empire in the West went to die in 476. The Goths occupied the city for a short time after, before a Byzantine army led by Belisarius kicked them out.
It was the Byzantines that gave Ravenna the treasures that it has today. These are mostly in the form of religious mosaics that are to my mind the finest in the world. They are beyond gorgeous. To not see them when we would be so close was unthinkable.
Now back to Ferrara and the artist whose work we had come to see: De Chirico was born in Greece in 1888 into a multi-lingual Levantine family that had its beginnings in Constantinople. He discovered his particular artistic sensibility as a young man. Here I quote from the Times article:
“In October 1909 while visiting Rome and Florence, De Chirico had the first of a series of revelations . . . in which places, buildings, and objects around him appeared as mere physical manifestations of more profound worlds and hidden meanings. This inspired him to try to create analogous painted images . . . ‘to make visible that which cannot be seen.’ “
The paintings that resulted from this inspiration contain pictorial elements and symbols that recur over and over again, and the titles of these paintings like The Enigma of the Hour or The Dream of Tobias sometimes give a hint as to what De Chirico might be getting at.
There is a danger, though, in trying to explain these paintings logically because their essence is illogical. They contain a dream-like poetry. The paintings done prior to World War I are only tangentially dealt with in the Ferrara show, but, in our minds at least, they formed a context for what we saw there.
A further goal of the show is to illustrate the influence that the Metaphysical paintings have had on other artists. Thus, in addition to De Chirico’s work, the show contains paintings by his Italian contemporaries Carlo Carrà, Giorgio Morandi, and Filippo de Pisi,
as well as Rene Magritte, Salvador Dali, Max Ernst, and others.
Although he was making his Metaphysical paintings well before André Breton wrote the Surrealist Manifesto, the Surrealists claimed De Chirico as one of their own.
The Ferrara paintings contain some elements specific to the city where they were painted. For instance, we see images of locally baked biscuits and of Ferrara’s distinctive horn-shaped bread.
Occasionally, a painted room contains a window with a partial view of a simplified building or tower that recalls Ferrara’s cityscape.
Otherwise, there are the repeated motifs: incoherent perspectives, jumbles of set squares and other odd wooden tools,
and mannequins whose limbs seemed bolted together and whose oval heads are faceless. Regarding perspective, De Chirico’s rooms always appear as though looked at through a wide-angle lens. What’s also interesting about these paintings are their color choices, their emerald green and ultramarine skies, for instance, and the realistically precise ways that even unreal objects are drawn.
Elements are outlined, and straight lines look as though drawn with a ruler. So much for my feeble attempts at description.
Between the years 1995 and 1999 UNESCO honored Ferrara by naming it, City of the Renaissance and of the Po Delta. Ferrara sits beside a tributary of the Po known as the Po di Volano, and its once powerful family, the Este, ruled benignly over the watery expanse of the Po River’s delta, protecting its ecology and leaving it “patterned with symbols of order and beauty.”
It was the munificence of the Este together with the wealth of the Church that were responsible for the appearance of the city’s historical quarter.
The Renaissance Palazzi of the Este are today re-purposed as museums, a library, and venues for art and culture. One of these, the Palazzo Diamanti, is the setting for the De Chirico show. The Diamanti is so called because of its striking façade composed of hundreds of stones shaped like the facets of diamonds, a real treasure.
Walking around the Centro Storico is pleasant because so much of it is closed to motorized traffic. Instead of Florence’s noisy motorbikes, many citizens of Ferrara travel by bicycle. They are everywhere, propelled by the young and the old, and parked at the many bike racks around the quarter.
Another of Ferrara’s pedestrian pleasures is strolling past the alluring shop windows that line the quarter’s main streets. Their merchandise is so attractively displayed. Kay and I have often noted that Italians have an innate sense of design; it is one of their greatest national traits. Ferrara has many clothing stores, and what is most unusual in our experience is that there are as many stores for men as for women. Italian men like to dress well. (On your next visit to an Italian airport, just observe the uniforms worn by the police.) It was in one of these mens’ shops that Kay urged me to try on some stylish pullover sweaters. What we discovered is that they are not cut at all for men of my build. The shoulders are too narrow, and they are sized too small.
While the half-Romanesque, half-Gothic façade of Ferrara’s cathedral is striking, its vast interior is dim and uninteresting.
The cathedral’s treasures have been moved to a nearby former parish church that is now a museum. Its 15th-century tapestries, woven in Ferrara, depict the torture and beheading of early Christian martyrs, seemingly a favorite subject.
Ferrara has more museums than Kay and I had time or energy to see during our visit, yet, as the intrepid tourists we are, we did visit a few.
One former Estense palace, Palazzo Paradiso, is now a library. The ground floor has stacks of books that can be borrowed while the floor above is the repository of a collection of rare volumes, so large that I marveled at the obscure lifetimes spent in their authorship over the centuries.
This upper floor also contains the tomb of one of the city’s favorite sons, the poet Ludovico Ariosto (1474-1533). I’ve not read Ariosto’s famous epic poem Orlando Furioso and doubt I ever will; however, I learned that it has been an important influence on other authors from the poet’s time up to the present.
I should write a few words about Castello Estense, not because it is a singular beauty (it isn’t) but because its vast bulk is so imposing and because it has played such a large part in Estense history. The Este family, whose origins were in the Veneto, was ancient. The family took advantage of political upheavals in Farrara and after years of fighting and struggle consolidated its power by the end of the 13th century.
In 1385, the city’s population, driven to revolt because of high taxes, so frightened Niccolò d’Este that he ordered the construction of the castello for his family’s protection. During the years of the Quattrocento the power and prestige of the Este increased until its court became one of most famous in Europe. Significant ruling members were refined intellectuals who attracted artists, architects and musicians to the city.
The castello, gradually losing its defensive function, grew in size and grandeur until it had the appearance it has today. However, with its moat, four towers, and three gateways entered from drawbridges, the castello still has a somewhat forbidding appearance.
Only a portion of its interior is open to the public. We passed through what once must have state rooms now devoid of furniture except for large mirrors angled in such a way that we could look at the beautifully ornamented ceilings without craning our necks. The rooms had names like The Chamber of Dawn where as an inscription of the time puts it, “. . . the flow of time and the motion of the universe find their celebration . . . “
Each room also contains panels describing the room’s function and giving facts about the Este Family’s vast holdings, which at one point comprised 9,000 square kilometers.
Our tour of the castello ended at another temporary exhibition entitled L’Arte per L’Arte. It exhibited the work of two Ferrara artists, Giovanni Boldini and Filippo de Pisis, whose lives overlapped with de Pisis being the younger.
Boldini was a successful society portrait artist in fin-de-siècle Paris. He knew both Sargent and Whistler.
What distinguishes the Boldini portraits are first, the casual ways he posed his subjects, and second, the methods he used to capture their vitality and motion. It was a time of great social change, and the world was speeding up. Several of his masterworks are in the show, and one,
The Lady in Rose is especially striking.
This trip’s other field of exploration was food and drink. Here, the results are mixed. Since the cuisine in neighboring Bologna is famous for its quality, we expected Ferrara’s to be its equal, and we were mildly disappointed. It’s not that the citizens of Ferrara don’t enjoy their own specialties. One of these is Cappellacci di Zucca al Ragù, large ravioli filled with cooked pumpkin and topped with ground beef. Another is baked macaroni in a pastry shell called Pasticcio Farrarese. The latter can be ordered as a sweet or a savory. The thing is that this pair of dishes seemed to be on every menu.
One restaurant discovery was serendipitous. Kay slipped and fell one afternoon on the cobblestones around the castello. This caused us to enter a seafood restaurant behind the lobby of our bed and breakfast in search of ice to ease the swelling on Kay’s knee and nose. The staff was so friendly and helpful that we returned that evening and the next two nights, as well, for dinner. Some of the dishes at Ristorante Dogana were novel. I ordered a light dish of something translated as Dogfish that came in a mild tomato sauce with olives and slices of roasted potato as thin as potato chips. On another occasion I ordered squid soup that was more like a casserole of squid with a rich sauce instead of broth. Both these dishes and others were excellent.
Finally, there was al Brindisi, an enoteca (think wine) that claims to have existed since 1435. It is said that Benvenuto Cellini once ate there. The walls of the small restaurant are filled from floor to ceiling with bottles. While none of them date back to the 15th century, some are very old vintages. We’ve read that there are ports so rare that al Brindisi may be the only source for them in the world. I spotted a dusty bottle of red wine, vintage 1963, a time that I was twenty years old.
At al Brindisi we both ate a dish of roast pork called Stinco di Maiale. (“Stinco” connotes something different in Italian than in English.) Our young waiter paired our pork with a bottle of Centesi Mio Selezione di Fred, a local red with a hint of cherry.
As for Ravenna, we made it a day trip, traveling there and back on a local train that was cold and dirty. The window grime was such that it made looking at the scenery difficult. This was not much of a loss, since the terrain between the cities is flat and uninteresting, especially at this time of year.
We have to say that Ravenna, only one-and-a-half hours from Ferrara, feels quite different. With more English speakers than Ferrara, Ravenna deals with foreigners more fluently. Also, the two cities developed very differently.
Ravenna, as mentioned earlier, belonged to the Byzantine Empire, and this is reflected in the city’s architecture. The Basilica of San Vitale, the church containing the largest number of mosaics is plain on the outside, while within it is a devotee’s idea of Paradise.
I won’t say more about the San Vitale mosaics except that they were created in the 6th century and are so clear, colorful and vibrant they might have been made last year.
Before leaving Ravenna, we had to visit Dante Alighieri’s tomb situated in a tiny neo-classical, temple-like structure next to the Church of San Francisco whose cloister has statues of the young Dante and Beatrice facing each other at a distance across the cloister’s green lawn.
Dante died at Ravenna in 1321, and his remains became a subject of contention between the people of that city and the citizens of Florence, the city that had earlier exiled him. At one point a Florentine delegation arrived at Ravenna to claim the remains; however, before they could do so, some monks broke into Dante’s tomb and hid them so they would remain in Ravenna. What a wonderful historical footnote!
Before ending this account, I want to make a point about time and travel. Because travel and sightseeing disrupts our normal routines, psychological time is extended. Kay and I were away from home for only a week, but it seemed much longer. Although traveling to Ferrara and Ravenna had its moments of discomfort, we saw what we went to see and a lot more besides. For that we are thankful.