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When the legendary Ferrarese filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni called his beloved hometown "a city that you can see only partly, while the rest disappears to be imagined," perhaps he was referring to the low-lying mist that rolls in off the Adriatic each winter and shrouds Ferrara's winding knot of medieval alleyways, turreted palaces, and ancient wine bars—once inhabited by the likes of Copernicus—in a ghostly fog. But perhaps Antonioni was also suggesting that Ferrara's striking beauty often conceals a dark and tortured past.
Though it was settled as early as the 6th century AD, Ferrara's history really begins with the arrival of the Este, who first made their appearance in the city in 1196. For more than three centuries the dynasty ruled with an iron fist; brother killed brother, son fought father, husband murdered wife. The majestic moated castle, now the architectural gem of the historic center, was originally built as a fortress to protect the ruthless Este dukes from their own citizens; deep within the castle the Este kept generations of political dissidents in dank cells. The greatest of the dukes, Ercole I (1433-1505), attempted to poison a nephew who challenged his power, and when that didn't work he beheaded him. Though the Jews were already well established in Ferrara as early at the 1380s, it's Ercole I who invited Sephardic Jews exiled from Spain to settle in Ferrara, thus giving form to one of the liveliest Jewish communities in Western Europe. The maze of twisting cobblestone streets in the ghetto witnessed the persecution of its Jews once fascist Italy was officially at war with Nazi Germany in October 1943. This tragedy was documented in Giorgio Bassani's semiautobiographical book and Vittorio De Sica's film, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis.
Today you are likely to be charmed by Ferrara's prosperous air and meticulous cleanliness, its excellent restaurants and coffeehouses, and its lively wine bar scene. You'll find aficionados gathering outside any of the wine bars near the Duomo even on the foggiest of weekend evenings. Though Ferrara is a UNESCO World Heritage site, the city still draws amazingly few tourists—which only adds to its appeal.
Ferrara at a Glance
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