The Renaissance on the Po Delta

Ferrara, Italy

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Ferrara, already an important fluvial trade centre during the Middle Ages, reached the peak of its splendour in the Renaissance, under the Este fami-ly. This golden age is reflected in the inclusion of the city in the World Heritage List by Unesco, which took place in two subsequent stages: initially in 1995, then in 1999.
In 1995, during the 19th Session of the Committee for World Heritage held in Berlin, the city of Ferrara was added to the list according to the criteria (ii), (iv) and (vi), as a “site of outstanding universal value, being a Renaissance city, remarkably planned, which has retained its urban fabric virtually intact. The developments in town planning expressed in Ferrara were to have a profound influence on the development of urban design throughout the succeeding centuries”. The inclusion regarded the city centre, enclosed within its monumental walls, with its still surviving inner grounds and gardens.

Ferrara, Town Hall –Ferrara, Municipio   On December 2, 1999, during the 23rd session held in Marrakech, the Committee for World Heritage extended its recognition according to the criteria (iii) e (v) stating that the Este ducal residences illustrate the influence of Renaissance culture on the natural landscape in an exceptional manner; the Po Delta is an outstanding planned cultural landscape which retains its original form to a remarkable extent. As requested by the Italian State, the Committee has consequently decided to change the name of the inscribed property to “Ferrara, City of the Renaissance and its Po Delta,” including therefore a much wider area, and emphasising the continuity between the city and its territory. The motivations for the two subsequent inclusions highlight how the Renaissance ideals of the Este court found their realisation in the urban and architectural design as much as in landscape planning, in perfect interaction between culture and nature. The entry of this site in the World Heritage    List presupposes the application of preservation and promotion policies not only to the single monument, but to the whole environmental complex in its natural and cultural landmarks. The site is a cultural landscape that encompasses the historic centre of Ferrara and the vast area around the ancient Po Delta. The border is not a continuous line and encircles the areas that best represent the territory which underwent great change during the Renaissance period. During this time, the ruling Este family instigated urban, architectural and artistic development in both the city and the surrounding countryside with the drainage of huge swathes of swampland, the introduction of “castalderie” and the construction of a network of noble residences known as the “Delizie Estensi”. The UNESCO site in Ferrara extends to the ring of defensive walls that surround the city. Over time, this ring was gradually enlarged to accommodate new urban extensions. 


Ferrara, Diamond Palace    

The Town

The heart of the city still retains a good balance between past and present. Inside the maze of the winding streets of the medieval area, it is still possible to find a trace of the ancient bed of the Po river. Examples of the typical architecture of those times still survive in the well preserved “case a cassero”, easily recognizable for their narrow and elongated shape. To the north of the medieval town, the city centre features important monuments such as the Estense Castle, symbol of the Este dominion over the city, and the Cathedral, an outstanding work of art in which the Romanesque and Gothic styles blend together. Among the numerous remarkable monuments comprised within the city walls, a few of them stand out: Palazzo dei Diamanti, located in the Corso Ercole  I d’Este, the only one of its kind in Europe, which constitutes the main axis of the urban enlargement ordered by duke Ercole I in 1492, and carried out by architect Biagio Rossetti; Palazzo Schifanoia, whose frescoes series in the “Hall of the Months” still constitute one of the highest achievements in the Ferrarese painting of the Renaissance and one of the greatest testimonies of how the splendid Este court attracted a constellation of artists, poets and philosophers, especially the new Renaissance humanists. Within the boundaries of the city walls it is also possible to experience nature, and not just inside the exquisite Botanical Garden; the city features numerous parks, gardens and ancient orchards, sometimes well hidden within the courtyards of Renaissance palaces. These age-old trees constitute a symbol and a living proof of an immortal past. The layout of the city comes from the changes implemented in medieval and later times, especially as regards the Renaissance expansion designed by Biagio Rossetti. His design included a system of perspective axes that make the city unique, which are still perfectly preserved and are easily recognized by visitors. In accordance with the urban plan, the network of streets and walls was closely linked with the palaces, churches and gardens as part of an overall pattern that served to accentuate the beauty of individual buildings and the harmonious layout of urban perspectives. The developments in town planning expressed in Ferrara were to have a profound influence on the development of urban design throughout the succeeding centuries. 

The Landscape

The centre of Ferrara, as the historic and artistic core of the surrounding territory, is located at the heart of a planned cultural landscape – a green area ranging from the city limits and running along the Po river to the Adriatic sea. Beyond the perfectly preserved city walls, in the rural area outside the boundaries of town, the cultural landscape indeed retains the human marks left on the natural environment throughout the centuries by the incessant shaping action of man. The definition of this environment as a “Cultural Landscape” aims at showing the way in which the Renaissance ideals brought forward by the Este Court found a practical realisation both in the urban/architectural development and in the landscape, emphasising the constant interaction between culture and nature. The necessity of employing the large wetlands outside the city limits for agricultural purposes has led to centuries of incessant land reclamation works which have arranged, shaped and constructed the surrounding landscape. The landscape is studded with monumental buildings, churches, fortresses and castles, as well as parks and natural reserves, from the inland to the coastline, where the plain meets the sea. The architectural landmarks are of very different types, but they are linked together by the particular 
  conformation of a landscape affected by a shifting and problematic balance between land and water – an amphibious territory interspersed with a tightly woven web of waterways and shaped by the joint action of nature and man, in which rural basins, settlements and cultural centres have developed in a number of different layers. Today, the most crucial marks of this control over the territory remain the “delizie”, princely residences and pivots around which both entertainment and culture revolved. The term “delizia” (delight) denotes various manifestations of princely buildings, characterised by a continuous interplay between nature and artifice that the literary tradition of the late 16th century associated mainly to places of leisure and entertainment. The “delights” of the Este family are a set of over 30 villas, hunting lodges and summer retreats located in the territory of Ferrara and Rovigo, built by the Este family in a period from the late 14th to mid-16th century. These are mainly suburban or rural residences, with economic, political, strategic and representative functions, always ready to welcome an itinerant court. Some of them are still extant and have been restored, but five of them are really the best examples. The Delizia di Schifanoia was the first to be built at the end of the 14th century. 
Verginese “Delizia”   



  It was originally set in the outskirts of town and decorated with an outstanding series of frescoes painted by the masters of the local painting school, the so-called “Officina ferrarese”. The Delizia del Belriguardo in Voghiera imitates the pattern of ancient Roman villas, and was built in the open country in 1436–40 with the contribution of many of the most important architects and artists of the time, such as Pietrobono Brasavola, Pietro Dagli Ordini, Biagio Rossetti, Cosmè Tura, and Ercole de´ Roberti.   
The Castle of Mesola was erected as the most notable landmark celebrating the reclamation of the Polesine di Ferrara area. The castle, surrounded by thick woods, was often visited by the dukes during their hunting and fishing expeditions. The Delizia del Verginese, in Portomaggiore, features four battlemented towers and bossy cornerstones. The Delizia di Benvignante in Argenta presents a coved vaulted entrance hall and a battlemented tower.

Abate Tower, aerial view –Torre Abate, veduta aerea    
The cultural landscape ranges from the artistic cities of Ferrara and Comacchio, whose ancient city centres have largely been preserved until today, to more mystical places such as the parish church of San Giorgio in Argenta and the abbey of Pomposa. It comprises the typical structures of the “casoni di valle” (huts located in the marshlands of the Po Delta, used as temporary housing during periods of fishing, for equipment and storing), the watchtowers on the Adriatic seafront and the hydraulic works used for land reclamation; it features fortresses (the most important of which being Rocca Possente di Stellata), villas and castles (often surrounded by ancient villages), the gardens and walls of Ferrara, and the veritable web of the Este “delizie” scattered throughout the territory. UNESCO’s recognition underlines this very aspect of the cultural landscape, and points at a new way of understanding cultural assets, reading them not only as episodic instances or individual monuments but, where possible, as part of a significant and coherent context. This is why it is not the “delizie” of Verginese, Pomposa, Mesola Castle or Belriguardo themselves that have been put on the World Heritage List, but rather the territory in which they stand, understanding it as a cultural whole in which monuments and natural features are reciprocally bound.