Le notti di Santa Caterina…
…or so Sarah’s book is called in Italian. Over the last two days, every so often we’ve looked at each other and said, “I can’t believe this is happening,” or something similar. So many mind-bending instances that took both our experiences of Ferrara, as researchers/tourists/women, to a different level. The generosity of the Ferrarese is immense, and I have felt this when I’ve been there before, but this time I was an invited guest rather than a welcome outsider.
It seems everywhere we turned there was someone who had something new to show or tell us. As we stood in the lobby of the Ariostea, Elisabetta – one of the lovely women who welcomed us – gestured to a man bending over the catalogues and said, “This is the gardener at San Antonio in Polesine.” While I was talking to the librarians trying to find an elusive manuscript, I kept overhearing the most jaw-dropping nuggets of history that could only have been recounted by someone on the inside. And he complimented Sarah on getting her details almost completely right (one small quibble regarding the architecture, feh, but it was offered as an example of how well she really did). The next day we were strolling down the street, and Elisabetta called a fellow over and said, “Here’s the guy that knows most about the interior of Corpus Domini,” and he introduced himself as a graphics teacher in the school housed in a former wing of the convent. He’d made a DVD-rom on the artworks there, and promptly dashed off to get us a couple. The extraordinary Giuliana Berengan – author, playwright, literary activist, singer, personality – showed us around the shady but still airy fourteenth-century house where she was born and which has been in her family for centuries. We took pictures in the cloisters of San Antonio – something that is not normally allowed; we were fed specialties from the tradition of Jewish cooking in Ferrara by a woman who has done a great deal to record and conserve them. Elisabetta promised to look something up for me that I didn’t have time to pursue, and emailed me this morning with the references. All so generous, it’s really rather overwhelming.
At the session in the morning, in the courtyard of San Antonio, in front tof he President of the Provincia (finally, Elisabetta said, we have a woman as a President), chic in grey jeans and a bolero jacket, the Sindaco, a rather more traditional man, and Professoressa Berengan made a presentation to Sarah. Sarah prepared her speech in Italian, but then suddenly turned to me, and I spluttered along in a desperate and foolish way until I finally gave up and allowed Lucia Bevilacqua, the official interpreter, graciously to find the words for me. But I didn’t need her help to catch the Sindaco lauding Sarah as the next in an illustrious line of writers who have captured the soul of the city – Ariosto, Bassani, Dunant. It’s a measure of how much the city esteems the book already.Then late yesterday afternoon there was a session at the Castello. Thrilled that Sacred Hearts, Secret Music got an airing there (yes! I mentally punched the air, Musica Secreta are finally heard within these walls!) and hugely relieved that our host for the afternoon managed to talk for most of the allotted time, so that there was no time in the end for me to say anything. More prosecco at the Brindisi – the oldest bar in Ferrara and apparently an estwhile hangout of Ariosto’s – and later we walked in the quiet streets, marvelling at the lack of tourists and the eerie beauty of the medieval buildings arching over the road.
We had time then to think about what we have achieved (I feel slightly abashed here, but Sarah is adamant that this is all a joint effort) and we came to the conclusion that as much as we have tried to get right, there seems always more to know. But on the other hand, our distance from the culture can allow us to ask questions of the narrative that might not occur to us were we native Ferrarese.
As always, I’m sorry to come home to the wet and the cold, and Network Rail hasn’t helped the situation, making me nearly two hours later home than I would be if they could be bothered to do their job properly. But I’ll get there eventually.