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In Michelangelo Antonioni’s first feature film of 1950, Una Cronaca di un amore (‘Story of a love affair’, but better in Italian), the private investigator commissioned by the husband of Paola Molon to find out more about her and her past, spends time in her home town of Ferrara. He goes to the liceo, Ferrara’s notable school,

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he goes to the tennis club to talk to the caretaker,

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he is seen strolling along Corso Ercole I

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then round the corner,

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and the camera follows him to look up Corso Rossetti.

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This last shot is cinematic dead time because it tells us nothing about the story. On the other hand it tells us a great deal about its mood, and foreshadows the end, that this love story will lead to a fruitless, unconsummated, unredeemed end.

Antonioni was born (1918) and brought up in Ferrara, a city of long streets, high walls and the formidable Castello Estense, moat and all, at its centre.

castello-2     dscn8083

He went to the Liceo Ludovico Ariosto (on its old site, in Via Borgo dei Leoni);

old Liceo Ginnasio

he frequented the tennis club in Via Saffi (made famous in Giorgio Bassani’s novel, ‘The Garden of the Finzi Continis’);

Club Marfisa

he also must have liked to stroll up the Corso Ercole

Corso Ercole I

to the crossroads with Corso Rossetti, past the Palazzo dei Diamanti and the Palazzo Prosperi-Sacrati (below).

Pal. Prosperi Sacrati

Another important Ferrarese denizen in his mind must have been Giorgio De Chirico, who while not a native was invalided there from 1915 to 1918, and painted some notable pictures there. ‘Le Muse Inquietanti’ [s.v. Wikipedia] of 1918, for example, features the Castello Estense. His imagination made something quite new out of empty streets, shadowed porticos, statues in the piazza, and lone figures. The bleak absence of the ordinary living human must have informed Antonioni’s own imagining of cities, explored in several of his films, and most famously in the final sequence of L’Eclisse (1961).

The shot of Corso Rossetti in the winter light of an evening is powerfully imagined. This image

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is crucially different from the one above, since it shows a person stepping, like a figure from a De Chirico painting, into the building on the right, defined as much by his shadow as by his figure.

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Intriguingly, it echoes the comments of English visitors found in the Blue Guide to the Romagna, which I was using on my visit. Hester Piozzi wrote in 1789: “My pen was just upon the point of praising its cleanliness . . . till I reflected there was nobody to dirty it.” In 1826, William Hazlitt wrote in his ‘Notes of a journey through France and Italy’: “You enjoy the most perfect solitude, that of a city which was once filled with ‘the busy hum of men’”; in his ‘Pictures from Italy’ of 1846, Charles Dickens described old Ferrara as “more solitary, more depopulated, more deserted than any city of the solemn brotherhood”.

It’s not like that now. Here is the Corso Rossetti from a position close to the one above. (If you took the photo from the middle of the road you risk being run over.)

Pal. dei Diamanti     Corso Rossetti

The extensive pedestrianisation of Ferrara, preserving cobbles where possible, and the high prevalence of bicycles preserve the poetry of the city but in parts that poetry has been put paid to by the ubiquity of the car whether driven or parked, and the fact that cobbles have given way to asphalt. The city seems to be economically prosperous and there are coachloads of tourists, indeed I was one myself, which drains the poetry of solitude away. I wonder if Antonioni ever regretted this.

Next post: ‘Ferrara made me (2): Giorgio Bassani’

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