Ferrara was probably settled by the inhabitants of the lagoons at the mouth of Po river; there are two early centers of settlement, one round the cathedral, the other, the castrum bizantino, on the opposite shore, where the Primaro empties into the Volano channel. Ferrara appears first in a document of the Lombard king Desiderius of 753 AD, as a city forming part of the Exarchate of Ravenna. Desiderius pledged a Lombard ducatus ferrariae ("Duchy of Ferrara") in 757 to Pope Stephen II.
Obizzo II d'Este was proclaimed lifelong ruler of Ferrara five hundred years later. He also became seignior of nearby Modena in 1288 and of Reggio in 1289. In 1452 the Este rulers were created Dukes of Modena and Reggio, and in 1471 Ferrara also became a duchy.
In 1597, when Alfonso II died without heirs, the House of Este lost Ferrara to the Papal States.
Ferrara remained a part of the Papal States from 1598 to 1859, with an interruption during the Napoleonic period: in 1859 it became part of the Kingdom of Italy. A fortress was constructed by Pope Paul V on the site of the castle called "Castel Tedaldo", at the south-west angle of the town, that was occupied by an Austrian garrison from 1832 until 1859. All of the fortress was dismantled following the birth of the Kingdom of Italy and the bricks used for new constructions all over the town.
On August 23, 1944, the Ferrara synthetic rubber plant was a target of Strategic bombing during World War II.
The town is still surrounded by more than 9 kilometres (6 miles) of ancient walls, mainly built in the 15th and 16th-centuries. Along with those of Lucca, they are the best preserved Renaissance walls in Italy.
The imposing brick Castello Estense sited in the very centre of the town is iconic of Ferrara. The castle, erected in 1385, is surrounded by a moat, with four massive bastions. The pavilions on the top of the towers date from the 16th-century refurbishment.
The City Hall, renovated in the 18th century, was the earlier residence of the Este family. Close by it is the former Cathedral of San Giorgio, The Romanesque lower part of the main façade and the side façades was completed first in 1135. According to a now lost inscription the church had been commissioned by Guglielmo I of Adelardi (d. 1146). The sculpture of the main portal was signed by a Nicholaus, mentioned in the lost inscription as the church's Romanesque architect. The upper part of the main façade, with arcades of pointed arches, dates from the 13th century. The recumbent lions guarding the entrance are copies of the originals, now in the narthex of the church. An elaborate 13th-century relief depicting the Last Judgement is found in the second story of the porch. The interior was restored in the baroque style in 1712. The campanile, in the Renaissance style, dates from 1451–1493, but the top storey was added at the end of the 16th century. The campanile is still incomplete, missing one additional storey and a conical top, as it can be seen from numerous historical prints and paintings on the subject.
Nearby is the University of Ferrara; the university library houses part of manuscript of the Orlando furioso and letters by Tasso. Its famous graduates include Nicolaus Copernicus (1503) and Paracelsus. The campus also shelters the University of Ferrara Botanic Garden.
Unlike other towns, Ferrara retains many early Quattrocento palaces, often retaining terracotta decorations, though most are comparatively small in size. Among them are those in the north quarter (especially the four at the intersection of its two main streets), which was added by Ercole I in 1492–1505, from the plans of Biagio Rossetti, and hence called the Addizione Erculea.
Among the finest palaces is Palazzo dei Diamanti (Diamond Palace), named after the diamond points into which the façade's stone blocks are cut. The palazzo houses the National Picture Gallery, with a large collection of the school of Ferrara, which first rose to prominence in the latter half of the 15th century, with Cosimo Tura, Francesco Cossa and Ercole dei Roberti. Noted masters of the 16th-century School of Ferrara include Lorenzo Costa and Dosso Dossi, the most eminent of all, Girolamo da Carpi and Benvenuto Tisi (il Garofalo).
The Casa Romei is perhaps the best preserved Renaissance building in Ferrara. It was the residence of Giovanni Romei, related by marriage to Este family and likely the work of the court architect Pietro Bono Brasavola. The occupation of the palace by the nuns of the Corpus Domini order prevented its destruction. Much of the decoration in the inner rooms has been saved. There are fresco cycles in the Sala delle Sibille (Room of Sibyls), with its original terracotta fireplace bearing the coat of arms of Giovanni Romei, in the adjoining Saletta dei Profeti (Room of the Prophets), depicting allegories from the Bible and in other rooms, some of which were commissioned by cardinal Ippolito d'Este and painted by the school of Camillo and Cesare Filippi (16th century).
The Palazzo Schifanoia (sans souci) was built in 1385 for Alberto V d'Este. The palazzo includes frescoes depicting the life of Borso d'Este, the signs of the zodiac and allegorical representations of the months. The vestibule was decorated with stucco mouldings by Domenico di Paris. The building also contains fine choir-books with miniatures and a collection of coins and Renaissance medals.
The City Historical Archives contain a relevant amount of historical documents, starting from 15th century. The Diocesan Historical Archive is more ancient, mentioned in documents in AD 955, and contains precious documents collected across the centuries by the clergy. Other sites include:Palazzo Massari (site of Contemporary and Modern Art Museum and its sculpture garden)
House of the poet Ludovico Ariosto, erected by him after 1526 and in which he died in 1532.
Palace of Ludovico il Moro
Palazzina di Marfisa d'Este
The Corpus Domini Monastery contains tombs of the House of Este, including Alfonso I, Alfonso II, Ercole I, Ercole II, as well as Lucrezia Borgia, Eleanor of Aragon, and many more.
The Ferrara Synagogue and Jewish Museum are located in the heart of the medieval centre, close to the cathedral and the Castello Estense. This street was part of the Jewish Quarter in which the Jews were separated from the rest of the population of Ferrara from 1627 to 1859.
Other sites include:Cathedral of San Giorgio
Church of Santa Maria in Vado
Church of San Luca
Church of St Benedict
Church of San Carlo
Church of San Cristoforo
Church of San Domenico
Church of San Francesco
Church of St Paul
Church of St Roman
Sant'Antonio in Polesine Abbey
In 2007, there were 135,369 people residing in Ferrara, of whom 46.8% were male and 53.2% were female. Minors (children ages 18 and younger) totalled 12.28 percent of the population compared to pensioners who number 26.41%. This compares with the Italian average of 18.06% (minors) and 19.94% (pensioners). The average age of Ferrara residents is 49 compared to the Italian average of 42. In the five years between 2002 and 2007, the population of Ferrara grew by 2.28%, while Italy as a whole grew by 3.85%. The current birth rate of Ferrara is 7.02 births per 1,000 inhabitants compared to the Italian average of 9.45 births. Ferrara is known as being the oldest city with a population over 100,000, as well the city with lowest birth rate.
As of 2006, 95.59% of the population was Italian. The largest immigrant group was other European nations (mostly from the Ukraine, and Albania: 2.59%) North Africa: 0.51%, and East Asia: 0.39%. The city is predominantly Roman Catholic, with small Orthodox Christian adherents. The historical Jewish community is still surviving.
The Jewish community of Ferrara is the only one in Emilia Romagna with a continuous presence from the Middle Ages to the present day. It played an important role when Ferrara enjoyed its greatest splendor in the 15th and 16th century, with the duke Ercole I d'Este. The situation of the Jews deteriorated in 1598, when the Este dynasty moved to Modena and the city came under papal control. The Jewish settlement, located in three streets forming a triangle near the cathedral, became a ghetto in 1627. Apart from a few years under Napoleon and during the 1848 revolution, the ghetto lasted until Italian unification in 1859.
In 1799, the Jewish community saved the city from sacking by troops of the Holy Roman Empire. During the spring of 1799, the city had fallen into the hands of the Republic of France, which established a small garrison there. On 15 April, Lieutenant Field Marshal Johann von Klenau approached the fortress with a modest mixed force of Austrian cavalry, artillery and infantry augmented by Italian peasant rebels, commanded by Count Antonio Bardaniand and demanded its capitulation. The commander refused. Klenau blockaded the city, leaving a small group of artillery and troops to continue the siege. For the next three days, Klenau patrolled the countryside, capturing the surrounding strategic points of Lagoscuro, Borgoforte and the Mirandola fortress. The besieged garrison made several sorties from the Saint Paul's Gate, which were repulsed by the insurgent peasants. The French attempted two rescues of the beleaguered fortress: the first, on 24 April, when a force of 400 Modenese was repulsed at Mirandola. In the second, General Montrichard tried to raise the city-blockade by advancing with a force of 4,000. Finally, at the end of the month, a column led by Pierre-Augustin Hulin reached and relieved the fortress.
Klenau took possession of the town on 21 May, and garrisoned it with a light battalion. The Jewish residents of Ferrara paid 30,000 ducats to prevent the pillage of the city by Klenau's forces; this was used to pay the wages of Gardani's troops. Although Klenau held the town, the French still possessed the town's fortress. After making the standard request for surrender at 0800, which was refused, Klenau ordered a barrage from his mortars and howitzers. After two magazines caught fire, the commandant was summoned again to surrender; there was some delay, but a flag of truce was sent at 2100, and the capitulation was concluded at 0100 the next day. Upon taking possession of the fortress, Klenau found 75 new artillery pieces, plus ammunition and six months worth of provisions.
In 1938, Mussolini's fascist government instituted racial laws reintroducing segregation of Jews which lasted until the end of the German occupation. During the Second World War, ninety-six of Ferrara's 300 Jews were deported to German concentration and death camps; five survived. The Italian Jewish writer, Giorgio Bassani, was from Ferrara. His celebrated book, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, was published in Italian as Giardino del Finzi-Contini, 1962, by Giulio Einaudi editore s.p.a. It was made into a film by Vittorio de Sica in 1970.
During WWII, the Este Castle, adjacent to the Corso Roma, now known as the Corso Martiri della Libertà, was the site of an infamous massacre in 1943.
The Renaissance literary men and poets Torquato Tasso (author of Jerusalem Delivered), Ludovico Ariosto (author of the romantic epic poem Orlando Furioso) and Matteo Maria Boiardo (author of the grandiose poem of chivalry and romance Orlando Innamorato), lived and worked at the court of Ferrara during the 15th and 16th century.
The Ferrara Bible was a 1553 publication of the Ladino version of the Tanakh used by Sephardi Jews. It was paid for and made by Yom-Tob ben Levi Athias (the Spanish Marrano Jerónimo de Vargas, as typographer) and Abraham ben Salomon Usque (the Portuguese Jew Duarte Pinhel, as translator), and was dedicated to Ercole II d'Este. In the 20th century Ferrara was the home and workplace of writer Giorgio Bassani, well known for his novels that were often adapted for cinema (The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, Long Night in 1943). In historical fiction, British author Sarah Dunant set her 2009 novel Sacred Hearts in a convent in Ferrara.
During the Renaissance, the House of Este, well known for its partonage of the arts, welcomed a great number of artists, especially painters, that formed the so-called School of Ferrara. The astounding list of painters and artists includes the names of Andrea Mantegna, Vicino da Ferrara, Giovanni Bellini, Leon Battista Alberti, Pisanello, Piero della Francesca, Battista Dossi, Dosso Dossi, Cosmé Tura, Francesco del Cossa and Titian. During the 19th and 20th centuries, Ferrara hosted and inspired a number of important painters who grew fond of its eerie atmosphere: among them Giovanni Boldini, Filippo de Pisis and Giorgio de Chirico.
Ferrara gave birth to Girolamo Savonarola, the famous medieval Dominican priest and leader of Florence from 1494 until his execution in 1498. He was known for his book burning, destruction of what he considered immoral art, and hostility to the Renaissance. He vehemently preached against the moral corruption of much of the clergy at the time, and his main opponent was Pope Alexander VI (Rodrigo Borgia).
The Ferrarese musician Girolamo Frescobaldi was one of the most important composers of keyboard music in the late Renaissance and early Baroque periods. His masterpiece Fiori musicali (Musical Flowers) is a collection of liturgical organ music first published in 1635. It became the most famous of Frescobaldi's works and was studied centuries after his death by numerous composers, including Johann Sebastian Bach. Maurizio Moro (15??—16??) an Italian poet of the 16th century best known for madrigals is thought to have been born in Ferrara.
Ferrara is the birthplace and childhood home of the well-known Italian film director, Michelangelo Antonioni. The town of Ferrara was also the setting of the famous film The Garden of the Finzi-Continis by Vittorio De Sica in (1970), that tells the vicissitudes of a rich Jewish family during the dictatorship of Benito Mussolini and World War II. Furthermore, Wim Wenders and Michelangelo Antonioni's Beyond the Clouds in (1995) and Ermanno Olmi's The Profession of Arms in (2001), a film about the last days of Giovanni dalle Bande Nere, were also shot in Ferrara.
The Palio of St. George is a typical medieval festival held every last Sunday of May. The Buskers Festival is a non-competitive parade of the best street musicians in the world. In terms of tradition and dimension it is the most important festival in the world of this kind. Additionally, Ferrara is becoming the Italian capital of hot air balloons, thanks to the ten-day-long Ferrara Balloons Festival, the biggest celebration of balloons in Italy and one of the largest in Europe.
In 2017 Ferrara's local football team SPAL were promoted to Serie A, the first tier of Italian football, for the first time in 49 years.
The cooking tradition of the town is characterized by many typical dishes that can be traced back to the Middle Ages and reveals in some instances the influence of the important Jewish community. The signature first course is cappellacci di zucca, a kind of ravioli with a filling of butternut squash, Parmigiano-Reggiano and flavored with nutmeg. It is served with a sauce of butter and sage. The traditional Christmas first dish is cappelletti, small meat-filled ravioli served in chicken broth or with a white sauce made from cream and, optionally, local truffles. A peculiar first dish is the pasticcio di maccheroni, a domed macaroni pie, consisting of a crust of sweet dough enclosing macaroni in a Béchamel sauce, studded with porcini mushrooms and ragù bolognese. The second course that is a must of the Christmas table is the Salama da sugo, a one-year-old dry salami made from a special selection of pork meat, spices and red wine. Seafood is an important part of the town tradition, due to the vicinity to the sea, and grilled or stewed eel from the river Po delta is especially appreciated. In the Ferrara's pantry you can also find a kosher salami, made of goose meat stuffed in goose neck skin. The Christmas traditional dessert is a chocolat pie, the pampepato, and the zuppa inglese. The clay terroir of the area, an alluvial plain created by the river Po, is not ideal for wine; a notable exception is the Vini del Bosco Eliceo (DOC), made from grapes cultivated on the sandy coast line. The typical bread, called coppia ferrarese, has been awarded the IGP (Protected Geographical Status) label .
Ferrara railway station, opened in 1862, forms part of the Padua–Bologna railway. It is also a terminus of three secondary railways, linking Modena with Ravenna and Rimini, Suzzara, and Codigoro, respectively. The station is located at Piazzale della Stazione, at the northwestern edge of the city centre.
Ferrara is twinned with:
The last municipal elections was held on May 25, 2014, resulting in the election of Tiziano Tagliani (Democratic Party) as Mayor of the city of Ferrara. The division of the 32 seats in the city council is as followed:Democratic Party - 20
Forza Italia - 4
Lega Nord - 1
Fratelli d'Italia - 1
Movimento 5 stelle - 5
Giustizia, Onore e Libertà - 1
Giacomo Argente, 17th-century painter of miniatures
Ferrante Bacciocchi, 17th-century painter
Antonio Baruffaldi, 19th-century painter
Francesco Bovini, painter
Bruno Tonioli, choreographer, dancer, and TV personality