It is situated 50 km north-northeast of Bologna, on the Po di Volano, a branch channel of the main stream of the Po River, located 5 km north. The town has broad streets and numerous palaces dating from the 14th century and 15th century, when it hosted the court of the house of Este. For its beauty and cultural importance it has been qualified by UNESCO as World Heritage Site.
In 1146, Guglielmo II Adelardi, the last of the Adelardi, died, and his property passed, as the dowry of his niece the Marchesella, to Obizzo I d'Este. There was considerable hostility between the newly entered family and the Salinguerra, but after considerable struggles Azzo VII Novello was nominated perpetual podestà in 1242; in 1259 he took Ezzelino of Verona prisoner in battle. His grandson, Obizzo II (1264–1293), succeeded him, and he was made perpetual lord of the city by the population. The house of Este was from henceforth settled in Ferrara. In 1289 he was also chosen as lord of Modena, one year later he was made lord of Reggio.
Niccolò III (1393–1441) received several popes with great magnificence, especially Eugene IV, who held a council here in 1438. His son Borso received the title of duke for the imperial fiefs of Modena and Reggio from emperor Frederick III in 1452 (in which year Girolamo Savonarola was born here), and in 1471 was made duke of Ferrara by Pope Paul II. Ercole I (1471–1505) carried on a war with Venice and increased the magnificence of the city.
During the reign of Ercole I, one of the most significant patrons of the arts in late 15th and early 16th century Italy after the Medici, Ferrara grew into a cultural center, renowned for music as well as for visual arts. The painters established links with flemish artists and their techniques, exchanging influences in the colors and composition choices. Composers came to Ferrara from many parts of Europe, especially France and Flanders; Josquin Des Prez worked for Duke Ercole for a time (producing the Missa Hercules dux Ferrariæ, which he wrote for him); Jacob Obrecht came to Ferrara twice (and died during an outbreak of plague there in 1505); and Antoine Brumel served as principal musician from 1505. Alfonso I, son of Ercole, was also an important patron; his preference for instrumental music resulted in Ferrara becoming an important center of composition for the lute. The architecture of Ferrara benefitted from the genius of Biagio Rossetti, who was asked in 1484 by Ercole I to redesign the plan of the city. The resulting "Addizione Erculea" is one of the most important and beautiful examples of renaissance city planning and contributed to the selection of Ferrara as UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Alfonso married the notorious Lucrezia Borgia, and continued the war with Venice with success. In 1509 he was excommunicated by Pope Julius II, and he overcame the pontifical army in 1512 defending Ravenna.
Gaston de Foix fell in the battle, in which he was supporting Alfonso. With the succeeding popes he was able to make peace. He was the patron of Ariosto from 1518 onwards. His son Ercole II married Renée of France, daughter of Louis XII of France; he too embellished Ferrara during his reign (1534–1559).
His son Alfonso II married Lucrezia, daughter of grand-duke Cosimo I of Tuscany, then Barbara, sister of the emperor Maximilian II and finally Margherita Gonzaga, daughter of the duke of Mantua. He raised the glory of Ferrara to its highest point, and was the patron of Tasso, Guarini, and Cremonini – favouring, as the princes of his house had always done, the arts and sciences. He had no legitimate male heir, and in 1597 Ferrara was claimed as a vacant fief by Pope Clement VIII, as was also Comacchio.
During the reign of Alfonso II, Ferrara once again developed an impressive musical establishment, rivaled in Italy only by the adjacent city of Venice, and the traditional musical centers such as Rome, Florence and Milan. Composers such as Luzzasco Luzzaschi, Lodovico Agostini, and later Carlo Gesualdo, represented the avant-garde tendency of the composers there, writing for gifted virtuoso performers, including the famous concerto di donne — the three virtuoso female singers Laura Peverara, Anna Guarini, and Livia d'Arco. Vincenzo Galilei praised the work of Luzzaschi, and Girolamo Frescobaldi studied with him. Visitors came to hear the spectacular productions of the Este musicians, the activities of which mostly ceased in 1598 with the demise of the Este court.
A fortress was constructed by Pope Paul V on the site of the castle called "Castel Tedaldo", at the south-west angle of the town. The town remained a part of the states of the Church, the fortress being occupied by an Austrian garrison from 1832 until 1859, when it became part of the kingdom of Italy. All of the fortress was dismantled following the birth of the Kingdom and the brick used for construction sites in town.
The town is still surrounded by more than 9 kilometres of ancient walls, mainly built in the 15th and 16th centuries They are best preserved renaissance walls in Italy along with those of Lucca.
The most prominent building is the square Castello Estense, in the centre of the town, a brick building surrounded by a moat, with four towers. It was built after 1385 and partly restored in 1554; the pavilions on the top of the towers date from the latter year.
Near it is the hospital of Santa Anna, where the poet Torquato Tasso was confined during his attack of insanity (1579–1586).
The Palazzo del Municipio, rebuilt in the 18th century, was the earlier residence of the Este family. Close by it is the cathedral of San Giorgio, begun in 1135, when the Romanesque lower part of the main façade and the side façades were completed. According to a now lost inscription the church was built by Guglielmo I degli Adelardi (d. 1146) , who is buried in it. The sculpture of the main portal is the signed work of the "artifex" Nicholaus, mentioned in the lost inscription as the architect for the church. The upper part of the main façade, with arcades of pointed arches, dates from the 13th century and the portal has recumbent lions and elaborate sculptures above. The interior was restored in the baroque style in 1712. The campanile, in the Renaissance style, dates from 1451–1493, but the last storey was added at the end of the 16th century.
A little way off is the university, which has faculties of law, architecture, pharmacy, medicine and natural science; the library has valuable manuscripts, including part of that of the Orlando furioso and letters by Tasso. Its famous graduates include Nicolaus Copernicus (1503) and Paracelsus. The university's botanical garden is the Orto Botanico dell'Università di Ferrara.
Ferrara has many early Renaissance palaces, often retaining terracotta decorations; few towns of Italy as small have so many, though most are comparatively small in size. Among them may be noted those in the north quarter (especially the four at the intersection of its two main streets), which was added by Ercole I in 1492–1505, from the plans of Biagio Rossetti, and hence called the Addizione Erculea.
Among the finest palaces is Palazzo dei Diamanti, so named for the diamond points into which the facade's stone blocks are cut. It houses the National Picture Gallery, with a large collection of the school of Ferrara, which first rose to prominence in the latter half of the 15th century, with Cosimo Tura, Francesco Cossa and Ercole dei Roberti. Noted masters of the 16th century School of Ferrara (Painting) include Lorenzo Costa and Dosso Dossi, the most eminent of all, Girolamo da Carpi and Benvenuto Tisio (il Garofalo).
The Archivio Storico Comunale contains a relevant amount of historical documents, starting from 15th century. The Archivio Storico Diocesano is more ancient, mentioned in documents in 955, and contains precious documents collected across the centuries by the clergy. Many libraries also enrich this town, which possesses a cultural heritage of extraordinary importance.
Other sites include:
Synagogues and a Jewish Museum are located in the heart of the mediæval centre, close to the cathedral and the Castello Estense. This street was part of the ghetto in which the Jews were separated from the rest of the population of Ferrara from about 1627 to 1859.
As of 2006, 95.59% of the population was Italian. The largest immigrant group was other European nations (mostly from the Ukraine, and Albania: 2.59%, North Africa: 0.51%, and East Asia: 0.39%. Currently, one-tenth of all births has at least one foreign parent. The city is predominantly Roman Catholic, with small Orthodox Christian adherents.
Apart from the geniuses of Tasso and Ariosto, another notable Renaissance writer Matteo Maria Boiardo worked here. Ferrara was also able to develop its own lineage or School of painters and artists. The astounding list of painters and artists living and working in Ferrara includes the names of Andrea Mantegna, Giovanni Bellini, Leon Battista Alberti, Pisanello, Piero della Francesca, Rogier van der Weyden, Battista Dossi, Dosso Dossi, Cosmé Tura,Francesco del Cossa and Titian. Their works can be seen in the many city museums, in particular the Pinacoteca Nazionale.
Ferrara was the setting of the famous novel Il giardino dei Finzi-Contini (The Garden of the Finzi-Contini) by Giorgio Bassani and of its movie adaptation by Vittorio De Sica in (1970). Wim Wenders and Michelangelo Antonioni's Al di là delle nuvole in (1995) and Ermanno Olmi's Il mestiere delle armi in (2001), a film about the last days of Giovanni dalle Bande Nere, were also shot here.
The Palium of St. George is a typical medieval feast held every last Sunday of May The Buskers Festival is a non-competitive parade of the best street musicians in the world. In terms of tradition and dimension it is the most important festival of this kind.
Additionally, Ferrara is becoming the Italian capital of hot air balloons, thanks to the ten-day-long Ferrara Balloons Festival, the biggest celebration of balloons in Italy and one of the largest in Europe.
Ferrara is the birthplace and childhood home of the well-known Italian film director, Michelangelo Antonioni who died in July 2007. The Mayor of Ferrara has announced that his museum, which was closed for renovation, will not reopen and no museum dedictated to Antonioni's cinema work will be opened.