After visiting Fellini’s hometown of Rimini, our journey through the cinematic roots of the Emilia-Romagna region leads us to the city of Ferrara. Besides being known as one of the “capitals” of the Italian Renaissance, as well as because of its Po River Delta, in more recent times Ferrara happened to be the birthplace of one of the most celebrated and influential film directors of all times: Michelangelo Antonioni, author of such timeless classics as Blow-Up, The Passenger (Professione: reporter), Zabriskie Point, Red Desert (Deserto rosso), and the “existential trilogy” that includes L’avventura, La notte and L’eclisse.
Born in 1912 in his parents’ home along Via Carlo Mayr, located in Ferrara’s city center, Antonioni and his family of wealthy landowners would soon move to the neighborhood of San Giorgio, where the future filmmaker spent most of his youth. Antonioni lived in Ferrara until the end of the 1930s, when – just like Fellini – he eventually moved to Rome to pursue his career as a director: but even so, he remained attached to his hometown for all of his life.
Director Michelangelo Antonioni
It is not by chance that Antonioni’s very first film was shot in Ferrara: as a matter of fact, after his early attempts at filming in the local madhouse, Antonioni returned to his native city in 1943 – not much far from where Luchino Visconti was shooting Ossessione, the first Italian neorealist film – to direct the short documentary titled Gente del Po (People of the Po Valley, 1947), about the lifestyles of the poor fishermen living and working along the banks of the Po. After all, the wide river that surrounds Ferrara had left a big mark on Antonioni’s cinematic imagination, if already in 1939 he had written an essay titled Per un film sul fiume Po (For a film about the Po River).
Whereas Ferrara’s Po was the main focus of Antonioni’s earliest short film, the city proper – with its streets and corners – features more prominently in his first full-length film, Story of a Love Affair (Cronaca di un amore, 1950). Even though set for the most part in Milan, the film includes a few meaningful scenes that were shot instead in Ferrara, where the love story of the two protagonists begins: thus, Antonioni managed to immortalize on the silver screen some important locations from his young years.
First of all, we notice in this film a glimpse of the high school Antonioni attended in Via Borgo dei Leoni, that is the Liceo “Ludovico Ariosto” (named after the Renaissance poet who wrote the famous romance epic Orlando furioso here in Ferrara, at the court of the House of Este). Story of a Love Affair also includes views of some of the city’s most beautiful historical palaces, Palazzina Marfisa d’Este and Palazzo Prosperi-Sacrati, as well as a brief appearance of Ferrara’s main street, the cobbled Corso Ercole I d’Este. In addition, the film references the local newspaper called “Corriere Padano”, where Antonioni used to work as a journalist and film critic before he became a filmmaker: among his first articles, the one titled Strade a Ferrara, an early homage to the foggy streets of his hometown.
In 1957, Antonioni would turn his camera eye to Ferrara and the Po Valley once again for his film Il grido (The Cry): in particular, he would stop in the nearby towns of Francolino, Pontelagoscuro, and Mizzana, but also in other locations of Emilia-Romagna (such as Ravenna, where he would also set Red Desert) and of Veneto (that is, just on the other side of the Po). By now come to international prominence, Antonioni kept talking and writing several times about his hometown in the following decades: for example, by describing Ferrara’s well-preserved Renaissance city walls in his essay Fare un film è per me vivere. However, it was only in 1995 – the same year he received a honorary Academy Award – that the director got back to the city, already ill, to shoot what would be his last full-length film, Beyond the Clouds (Al di là delle nuvole).
Piazza Trento e Trieste in Ferrara. The city was the birthplace of one of the most celebrated and influential film directors of all times: Michelangelo Antonioni. Photo by enrico_lapponi
The first episode of the film, “Story of a Love Affair that Never Existed” (Cronaca di un amore mai esistito), explicitly links back to Antonioni’s first feature not only because of its title, but also because of its setting. In it, Ferrara’s most famous symbols appear one after another: the Castello Estense (Este Castle), with its drawbridge and towers, the Palazzo dei Diamanti (Diamonds Palace), covered with thousands of spiky diamond-shape blocks of white marble, and the local Cathedral, with its majestic facade and loggias. Yet there is even more that Antonioni managed to capture: namely, the Ducal Palace overlooking Piazza del Municipio and the Sala Estense theater, but also the Loggiato dei Cappuccini (Colonnade of the Capuchins) in the enchanting lagoon town of Comacchio, near the Po Delta.
Even though Antonioni had to leave Ferrara to become a filmmaker, this is the place he returned to at the end of his career. Following his last wishes, upon his death in 2007 the director was buried next to his parents in the Certosa of Ferrara, the city’s ancient churchyard. Since then, his co-citizens have given his name to a local street and plans have been made to re-open a museum celebrating his life and works.