It rises solitary in the midst of a flat country more rich than picturesque. When one enters it by the broad street which leads to the square, the aspect of the city is imposing and monumental. A palace with a grand staircase occupies a corner of this vast square; it might be a court-house or a town hall, for people of all classes were entering and departing through its wide doors.
The castle of the ancient dukes of Ferrara, which is to be found a little farther on, has a fine feudal aspect. It is a vast collection of towers joined together by high walls crowned with a battlement forming a cornice, and which emerge from a great moat full of water, over which one enters by a protected bridge. The castle, built wholly of brick or of stones reddened by the sun, has a vermilion tint which deprives it of its imposing effect. It is too much like a decoration of a melodrama.
It was in this castle that the famous Lucretia Borgia lived, whom Victor Hugo has made such a monster for us, and whom Ariosto depicts as a model of chastity, grace and virtue; that blonde Lucretia who wrote letters breathing the purest love, and some of whose hair, fine as silk and shining as gold, Byron possest. It was there that the dramas of Tasso and Ariosto and Guarini were played; there that those brilliant orgies took place, mingled with poisonings and assassinations, which characterized that learned and artistic, refined and criminal, period of Italy.
It is the custom to pay a pious visit to the problematical dungeon in which Tasso, mad with love and grief, passed so many years, according to the poetic legend which grew up concerning his misfortune. We did not have time to spare and we regretted it very little. This dungeon, a perfectly correct sketch of which we have before our eyes, consists only of four walls, ceiled by a low arch. At the back is to be seen a window grated by heavy bars and a door with big bolts. It is quite unlikely that in this obscure hole, tapestried with cobwebs, Tasso could have worked and retouched his poem, composed sonnets, and occupied himself with small details of toilet, such as the quality of the velvet of his cap and the silk of his stockings, and with kitchen details, such as with what kind of sugar he ought to powder his salad, that which he had not being fine enough for his liking. Neither did we see the house of Ariosto, another required pilgrimage. Not to speak of the little faith which one should place in these unauthenticated traditions, in these relics without character, we prefer to seek Ariosto in the “Orlando Furioso,” and Tasso in the “Jerusalem Delivree” or in the fine drama of Goethe.
The life of Ferrara is concentrated on the Plaza Nueva, in front of the church and in the neighborhood of the castle. Life has not yet abandoned this heart of the city; but in proportion as one moves away from it, it becomes more feeble, paralysis begins, death gains; silence, solitude, and grass invade the streets; one feels that one is wandering about a Thebes peopled with ghosts of the past and from which the living have evaporated like water which has dried up. There is nothing more sad than to see the corpse of a dead city slowly falling into dust in the sun and rain. One at least buries human bodies.