Ferrara, Italy: Renaissance Culture on the River Po
Ferrara is one of the most impressive cities in Southern Europe. Filled with splendid historic buildings, magnificent monuments, and picturesque parks, visitors can wander the streets to revere in the Renaissance architecture and humbling sculpture.
Absorb the shimmering marble façade of Palazzo dei Diamante and take a walk around the nine-kilometre long castle wall, before enjoying an excellent meal at one of the city’s many impressive restaurants.
Read on if you’d like to find out everything you need to know, plus the best things to do in the city of Ferrara, Italy!
Where in Italy is Ferrara?
Located in the Emilia-Romagna region of northern Italy, Ferrara sits on a branch of the stunning Po River. Only a stone’s throw away from picture-postcard Venice, Ferrara has a slower, steadier pace to life and less visitors. It’s the perfect place to visit if you’re looking for all the culture of Venice, but with fewer crowds.
What is so important about Ferrara, Italy?
Steeped in history, the town of Ferrara is renowned as one of the most culturally significant cities of Renaissance Italy. Dominated by the Este family from the fifteenth century, Ferrara experienced a golden age during the Renaissance.
The Italian commune of Ferrara is renowned for its cultural contribution to literature, politics, gastronomy, and the arts. The city was visited by the English poet, Lord Byron, who immortalised its historic residence in his writing. The twentieth century Italian writer Giorgio Bassani was born and raised in the city, basing many of the locations in his novels around real places in Ferrara.
Italy’s Ferrara was mainly built between the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, based on a remarkable new urban design by Biagio Rossetti. Its architecture therefore varies between the late medieval and the Renaissance in style. Many of its buildings were founded by the formidable Este family, including its castle, palaces, University, and cathedral. Considered so unique and historically significant, Ferrara was recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1995.
What can you do in the city of Ferrara, Italy?
The magical city of Ferrara, Italy is awash with historic and cultural activities to choose from. Top places to visit in Ferrara, Italy, include Castello Estense, Palazzo di Schifanoia and Ferrara Cathedral.
1. Castello Estense
At the centre of Ferrara stands the moated Castello Estense, with its four corner-towers and fortified defences. Reached via drawbridge, this castle has seen so much of Ferrara’s history. Founded by the powerful Este family in the twelfth century, the castle was a palace before it was fortified two hundred years later, in a bid to keep revolting rebels out when they refused to pay their taxes.
Visitors to the castle can take a tour of the many gothic, vaulted, chambers and hear stories about Castello Estense’s residents. Don’t miss the dungeons, which will make the hair stand up on the back of your neck. They contain the cells used to hold Parisiana, who was the second wife of Marquis Niccolò III, and her stepson-lover, Ugo. The ill-fated couple were both beheaded for adultery at the ages of 20 and 19.
2. Palazzo Schifanoia
Known for its fabulous fifteenth century frescoes, Ferrara’s Palazzo Schifanoia is an opportunity to experience some of the city’s most marvellous artistic extravagance. Teaming with splendid works of art by old master painters, like Francesco del Cossa, Palazzo Schifanoia displays over 250 works over 21 rooms.
As a residence of the wealthy Este family of Ferrara, Palazzo Schifanoia is filled with opulent paintings, frescoes and sculptures, demonstrating the family’s investment in culture and the arts. Built in the late twelfth century, Palazzo Schifanoia became the centre of Ferrara’s court life in the medieval period. Its grand rooms were where Borso d’Este received audiences, settled legal disputes, and observed visits from diplomatic envoys.
3. Ferrara Cathedral
The Catholic cathedral of Ferrara, locally known as the Basilica Cattedrale di San Giorgio, Duomo di Ferrara, towers above the Piazza della Cattedrale with its magnificently carved white marble West front. Connected to the Archbishop’s Palace by a secret passage, this extravagant building was constructed from the twelfth century, with its architecture ranging in style from Romanesque, gothic and Renaissance to baroque.
Looming over the entrance on the West façade of the Ferrara Cathedral is a twelfth century Romanesque portal that shows carved detail of Saint George, the patron saint of Ferrara, slaying a dragon. The portal is surrounded by statues of characters like the Madonna and Child, and carvings of biblical scenes like the Last Judgement. The entire upper section of the Western façade of Ferrara Cathedral is not original to the design and was added in the thirteenth century, in the gothic style.
4. The National Archaeological Museum
If you’re into ancient history, then head to Ferrara’s National Archaeological Museum, which is full of treasures from the Etruscan town of Spina. Buried in the mud until 1922, Spina was a forgotten port city located near the Po River. This historic city was active between the 6th and 3rd centuries BC.
The ancient city of Spina was a city through which many goods destined for Bologna were imported, and items such as ceramics, utensils and jewellery passed through its ports. Spina had its own special network of canals that helped to prevent the river from flooding and enabled the irrigation of surrounding farmland. Amongst the excavated Etruscan artefacts, visitors will get a glimpse of golden tiaras and funerary goods at this fascinating museum in Ferrara, Italy
5. Botanical Gardens of the University of Ferrara
Lovers of peace, quiet and the beauty of nature will enjoy a free visit to the University of Ferrara’s Botanical Garden in the city centre. Since 1771, a haven of spectacular gardens have been nurtured to display 2000 species of plants over 4500-square-metres.
Occupying the former garden of Palazzo Turchi-Di Bagno, Ferrara’s Botanical Garden contains three greenhouses which maintain different climates to showcase plants from all around the world. Exploring this hidden gem in the city centre, you’ll forget you’re in Ferrara and think you’ve been transported to all four corners of the globe!
See the Sights of Ferrara with La Bella Vita
Join a hotel barge along between Venice and Mantua from the comfort of luxury hotel barge La Bella Vita. With a mid-week excursion to Ferrara to see some wonderful examples of Italian art and architecture, guests can experience the Renaissance splendour of the city with all their needs taken care of.