There is something so exquisite about being familiar with a place far from home. I’ve been visiting Italy, the Emilia Romagna and the City of Ferrara for over 30 years and always find it enchanting and inspirational – a landmark in my life like no other. I just came back nine days ago and I’m still there in heart and part. Italy has a true sense of its glorious past; it’s all there in its language, its architecture, its food, art and music. In the split second that I stepped off the plane and got that massive hit of white, sunny heat, and the perfume of the dust, I stepped into that place of timelessness that prevails. History is an issue of massive pride to the Italians. It affects the images on their predominantly crummy TV programmes, it’s part of their cities, and its spun into the very fabric of Valentino’s designs – it is here, there and everywhere, in sights both sophisticated and unexpectedly vulgar. This powerful language of the past affects everything Italian. Ferrara is beautiful and old. It is embraced by six miles of five hundred year old ancient walls; it is dominated by an elegant castle, a great Cathedral, fine streets, many ‘palazzos’ and lots of lovely shops, although sadly an increasing number are cloned.
This month I was treated to a trip in time like no other. On the day when Ferrara’s Museum of Archeology (Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Ferrara) was closed, I was taken round the Palazzo Costabili, which houses the museum, and would be an astonishing building on its own, but is made even more extraordinary by the artifacts it holds. My guide was none other than the director of the museum, Dr Caterina Cornelio who generously revealed this fabulous museum with justifiable pride. Most of the exhibits come from Spina, an Etruscan trading port on the Adriatic, South of Venice that was doing its thing around the 6th Century BC. Being a trading City it was rich and busy and full of the stuff of life – jewellery, pottery and the bits and pieces we all need and use, some of which were local but a great quantity were imported from Greece.
There are always some very particular images and impressions that stay in the mind of a ‘traveller in time’; one was the two giant ‘pirogues’ – dug-out canoes that are thought to be late Roman (3rd C AD). They are simply two vast trees that have been carefully scooped out to hold people and stuff.
In the room where they are displayed, one can almost imagine them in their place of birth and use, slowly making their way thought the muddy waters of a reedy canal. The museum brought so many of its exhibits to life – a wonderful showcase of pottery, full of light and animation, revealing the joie de vivre of the artists and the people of the time, the necropolis displaying greatly differences in lives and deaths. Other delights included some fabulous gold jewellery, and just a lovely ‘touch’ – a space to chill out where visitors to the museum can touch and examine exhibits with their hands. This is a museum that brings the past ‘up close’ in every way.
I wish (in this country) we could emulate that loving way that history seems to be eaten, worn, lived and breathed by the Italians. Yes we have our museums, but our history is not a great source of pride, apart from our TV dramas. I close with two quotes that just remind me of the massive importance of the past… If you don’t know history, then you don’t know anything. You are a leaf that doesn’t know it’s part of a tree… according to Michael Crichton… Study the past if you want to define the future… Confucius.