The Ferrara of Giorgio Bassani

| Fri, 07/18/2014 - 02:40

Words by Andrew and Suzanne Edwards

Few Italian writers are so bound by their singularity of purpose and literary output to one place as Giorgio Bassani is to the delta city of Ferrara. 

Bassani was born in 1916 to a well-off Jewish family; his father was a doctor. Having spent his school years at the L. Ariosto liceo in the town, he then moved to Bologna for his university studies where he was taught by the influential art historian Roberto Longhi.

Bassani moved in circles that ran against the repressive currents of the day. The period from 1938 to 1940 had a significant impact on Giorgio’s life and writing.  In 1938, Mussolini’s anti-Semitic racial laws severely impinged upon the aspiring writer’s choices, not least of which were his exclusion from joining the town’s tennis club and the restriction of his teaching career to Ferrara’s private Jewish school.  Such Draconian measures prompted Bassani to join the Resistance and publish his first book in 1940 under the pseudonym of Giacomo Marchi. It was entitled "Una città di pianura" (A City of the Plain), a clear nod in the direction of his home town. 

In fact, the majority of Giorgio’s writing was collected into an edition called "Il romanzo di Ferrara" – a large tome that pulls together all six of his major Ferrarese works, which are now individually available in English translations, the most well-known being "The Garden of the Finzi-Continis" (1962).

[Photo: an alley in Ferrara.]

Perhaps the best way to understand Bassani’s Ferrara is to walk its streets in his footsteps and in those of the characters portrayed in his novels and short stories. The obvious place to start is in the centre of the town, not far from the cathedral and the castle that once belonged to the dukes of Este, specifically the street named after that ubiquitous hero of the Risorgimento, Giuseppe Mazzini. 

Via Mazzini no. 95 is home to the synagogue and Jewish museum - an unassumingly simple building with a red brick façade that blends into the surrounding shops.  Either side of the venerable panelled door are two plaques, one of which is a commemorative list of names. This list is significant in that it remembers those who lost their lives to the Nazi death camps, but it also features in Bassani’s short piece, "Una lapide in via Mazzini" (A Memorial Plaque in Mazzini Street).  In this story, Geo Josz returns to his hometown after the war to find his name mistakenly inscribed in the marble.

The Spanish or Sephardic synagogue described in "The Garden of the Finzi Continis" is no longer in existence as a religious building, destroyed in the conflict of 1944.  These cataclysmic changes inflicted on the Ferrarese Jewish community by the war loom large in Bassani’s fiction and, indeed, dictated the path of his own life. Via Vignatagliata intersects Via Mazzini and it’s in this street that the newly graduated Bassani taught at the Hebrew School, now a private residence.  As we know, he had little choice in the matter, owing to the aforementioned racial laws. The building is also recognised by a plaque that mentions the author and the generations of children who were educated in the building.  The twisting, cobbled lane was at the heart of the old ghetto district, whose restrictive rules were only lifted in 1863 after the Papal States were annexed to a unified Italy.

[Photo: the Este Castle - Castello Estense]

In "Lida Mantovani", another of the quintet of stories forming Giorgio’s "Five Stories of Ferrara", the author tells the tale of Lida, a catholic from the poor neighbourhood of Via Salinguerra. She has an affair with the rich young Jew, David, whose family live in the more prosperous climes of Corso della Giovecca, the elegant street that runs towards the Este fortress.  A much wider thoroughfare, it is lined with grand palazzi, in shades of pastel pink and terracotta.  At the end of the street, you catch a glimpse of the jutting battlements of the castle, embraced by that quintessential accompaniment to any bastion, a moat. The road opens out into the appropriately named Piazza Castello, where the clock tower is visible. The chimes of this particular time piece are a constant presence in the stories, perhaps marking the time left for the city’s beleaguered Jews. 

It is thanks to the Estes and their Renaissance town planning that Ferrara has achieved UNESCO World Heritage status. Cited as an example of structured development, the ruling dynasty intended their city as a capital and a model for future generations.  It is the only major Italian city that isn’t based on a Roman street plan.  Not only did the court attract the best architects, but also practitioners in the fields of poetry, art and philosophy, including Torquato Tasso.

Bassani’s world, though, encapsulates the 19th and 20th century struggles of his community.  Lida and David’s story is not the only one of social division. "La passeggiata prima di cena" (Walk Before Supper) details the divide between the families of the medic, Elia Corcos, and his gentile bride, Gemma. He lives on Via Ghiara, another of Ferrara’s straight boulevards lined with serious mercantile façades, an intimidating experience for peasant stock. The story also opens with a wonderful evocation of Corso della Giovecca in 1888, its buildings casting shadows over the right hand side of the street, whilst the dusky light throws the left into relief.

[Photo: the promenade along the walls of Ferrara]

What of the fabled garden of the Finzi-Continis?  In reality it doesn’t exist in Ferrara, although maybe in Rome.  In order to catch some of the atmosphere in the book, the tourist board suggests you take a walk along the Mura degli Angeli to the north of Piazzale San Giovanni and walk down the embankment to follow a path that skirts the Jewish cemetery and leads to Via delle Erbe. Micòl and Alberto, the Finzi-Contini children, could have walked through here in the novel, before the war took its deadly toll, leaving Alberto, who died young, as the only one to reside in the family tomb. In fact, the cemetery is where the author himself is buried, along with other members of his family.

There is no Via Giorgio Bassani in Ferrara, the nearest to be found is in neighbouring Migliarino. It is perhaps fitting that the Ferrarese chose to name a green sward in his honour; to the north of the old town in Via Riccardo Bacchelli, you will find the city’s dedication to its famous son, the Parco Urbano G. Bassani.