Thursday, June 5, 2014


Ferrara is a beautiful city north and east of Bologna, the home of a spectacular Duomo, a stunning castle with moat, one of the first Renaissance planned districts in Italy, amazing palazzi.  But my entire visit was colored by my reading of Giorgio Bassani's The Garden of the Finzi-Continis.  I had already visited the Gardens of Ninfa, which inspired Bassani and where he wrote much of the book.  Ferrara is so vividly described in the novel, down to the marble cannonballs in the courtyard of the castle, bikers riding along the ancient walls above the cemetery, and the the Corso Ercole, the spine of the new Renaissance development.

The Garden of the Finzi-Continis is a heartbreaking story, where your knowledge of the ending -- most of the Jews of Ferrara are sent to their deaths -- only heightens the drama of this slowly evolving, never-achieved romance between the narrator, who seems to be a version of the author and the brilliant, aloof, mysterious Micol Finzi-Contini.  The noose around Jewish life is steadily tightened, but up to the very last page, the holocaust is held at bay, while the dance between the narrator and Micol continues, awkwardly and disappointingly, at least to the narrator.

The visit brought me out of my lull brought on by the flutter of churches and their gorgeous decorations in Ravenna and Parma and Bologna, and reminded me of the awful history of Jews in this country.   Every city has its ghetto, following the first one, in Venice, in 1519, and every one is virtually devoid of Jews, save for the few stragglers who hid in the war, or survived the camps.  Ferrara had one of the largest Jewish communities in Italy and there are plans for a new Jewish museum here, which was a compromise with the plans of Rome for a national Shoah memorial museum, which is to be designed by my new friend Luca Zevi in the park of the Villa Torlonia.  In the meantime, an earthquake of several years ago has left the existing synagogue and museum closed.

To anchor these 17th century columns opposite the Duomo, Jewish graves were harvested for the job.  A guidebook to the city proudly claims that this shows how Jews are part of the "foundation" Ferrara.  

The Duomo

The statue of Girolamo Savonarola towers over the outdoor market

Palazzo dei Diamante

Street in the ghetto

The synagogue on Via Mazzini, the one, in the novel, the Finzi-Continis founded as virtually their private  shul.

The archways of the ghetto

The entrance to the cemetery, and the chapel (below), which serves as inspiration for the opening pages of the book, where the narrator describes the garish new crypt built by the newly wealthy Finzi-Continis, and where only one of their children is buried, the only one not to be killed in the Holocaust.

Bassani's grave, oddly placed off on its own, away from any other graves, but in the shadow of the wall, with bicyclists peddling by overhead.

Bassani on the cemetery in the prologue of The Garden of the Finzi-Continis:

"But once again, in the quiet and torpor (even Giannina had fallen asleep), I went over in my memory the years of my early youth, both in Ferrara and in the Jewish cemetery at the end of Via Montebello.  I saw once more the large fields scattered with trees, the gravestones and trunks of columns bunched up more densely along the surrounding and dividing walls, and as if again before my eyes, the monumental tomb of the Finzi-Continis.  True, it was an ugly tomb -- as I'd always heard it described from my earliest childhood -- but never less than imposing, and full of significance if for no other reason than the prestige of the family itself.

And my heartstrings tightened as never before t the thought that in that tomb, established, it seemed, to guarantee the perpetual repose of its first occupant -- of him, and his descendants -- only one of all the Finzi-Continis I had known and loved, had actually achieved this repose.  Only Alberto had been buried there, the oldest, who died in 1942 of lymphogranuloma, whilst Micol, the daughter, born second, and their Ermanno, and their mother Signora Olga, and Signora Regina, her ancient paralytic mother, were all deported to Germany in the autumn of 1943, and no one knows whether they have any grave at all."

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