This city has a fascinating history of political intrigue, war, dynastic marriages, and revolution. From uncertain origins, it is assumed Ferrara arose from two early settlements on opposite shores. Its first mention occurs in a report in 753 AD from the Lombard king, Desiderius, as being part of the Exarchate of Ravenna (belonging to a Byzantine exarch – or governor – and forming part of the duchy). In another two hundred years (984), it was noted as a holding of Tedaldo, nephew of Emperor Otto I – the founder of the Holy Roman Empire. Shortly thereafter, it asserted its independence, but it was crushed by Countess Matilda of Tuscany who successfully brought the town back under control in 1101. Ferrara would be governed by the Adelardi family until 1146 when Guglielmo II of Adelardi passed away leaving the town as a dowry to his niece. His niece married Obizzo I of Este.
The Este family was the most powerful family in all of Ferrara. As a way to consolidate their power and convert the city to a true principality, the family undertook a series of extensions to the city. Niccolò d’Este enlarged the city by pushing the walls further away to the north and building the Castello Estense – the family’s fortified manse. In addition to the architectural endeavors, the Este court attracted artists, musicians, composers, and architects from all over Italy and Europe. It was a dynamic time of cultural and political revolution.
The city truly flourished under the rule of Ercole 1st Este. Many composers and artists worked for him or were commissioned by him, and the city grew into the renowned Renaissance cultural center of the 15th and 16th centuries. When he asked Biagio Rossetti to redesign the city in 1484, Rossetti created one of the most beautiful examples of city planning and embodied the principles of the Ideal City, or Citta Ideale. This was a powerful concept in the Renaissance that followed rational criteria and shadows of utopic and philosophical thoughts. Rossetti’s “Addizione Erculea” would gain the city the coveted listing as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Este family would lose control of Ferrara in 1597 when no legitimate heir was born. The Papacy assumed control over the weakened territory in 1598, and it would remain a frontier province of the Papal States until 1859. It then became part of the Kingdom of Italy. In more recent times, the city has been a major player during both World War I and World War II. Unfortunately, during World War II, the city incurred some heavy losses with a number of buildings and monuments destroyed by bombing raids. Eventually, the city recovered, and today is a vibrant city that celebrates its past while keeping an eye on the future.