Antiquity and Middle Ages
The first documented settlements in the area of the present-day Province of Ferrara date from the 6th century BC. The ruins of the Etruscan town of Spina, established along the lagoons at the ancient mouth of Po river, were lost until modern times, when drainage schemes in the Valli di Comacchio marshes in 1922 first officially revealed a necropolis with over 4,000 tombs, evidence of a population centre that in Antiquity must have played a major role.
There is uncertainty among scholars about the proposed Roman origin of the settlement in its current location (Tacitus and Boccaccio refer to a "Forum Alieni"), for little is known of this period, but some archeologic evidence points to the hypothesis that Ferrara could have been originated from two small Byzantine settlements: a cluster of facilities around the Cathedral of St. George, on the right bank of the main branch of the Po, which then ran much closer to the city than today, and a castrum, a fortified complex built on the left bank of the river to defend against the Lombards.
Ferrara appears first in a document of the Lombard king Desiderius of 753 AD, when he captured the town from the Exarchate of Ravenna. Later the Franks, after routing the Lombards, presented Ferrara to the Papacy in 754 or 756. In 988 Ferrara was ceded by the Church to the House of Canossa, but at the death of Matilda of Tuscany in 1115 it became a free commune. During the 12th century the history of the town was marked by the wrestling for power between two preeminent families, the Guelph Adelardi and the Ghibelline Salinguerra; however, at this point, the powerful Imperial House of Este had thrown his decisive weight behind the Salinguerra and eventually reaped the benefits of victory for themselves. In 1264 Obizzo II of Este was thus proclaimed lifelong ruler of Ferrara, Lord of Modena in 1288 and of Reggio in 1289. His rule marked the end of the communal period in Ferrara and the beginning of the Este rule, which lasted until 1598.
In 1452 Borso of Este was created duke of Modena and Reggio by Emperor Frederick III and in 1471 duke of Ferrara by Pope Paul II. Lionello and, especially, Ercole I were among the most important patrons of the arts in late 15th- and early 16th-century Italy. During this time, Ferrara grew into an international cultural centre, renowned for its architecture, music, literature and visual arts.
The architecture of Ferrara greatly benefited from the genius of Biagio Rossetti, who was requested in 1484 by Ercole I to draft a masterplan for the expansion of the town. The resulting "Erculean Addition" is considered one of the most important examples of Renaissance urban planning and contributed to the selection of Ferrara as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
In spite of having entered its golden age, Ferrara was severely hit by a war against Venice fought and lost in 1482–84. Alfonso I succeeded to the throne in 1505 and married the notorious Lucrezia Borgia. He again fought Venice in the Italian Wars after joining the League of Cambrai. In 1509 he was excommunicated by Pope Julius II, but was able to overcome the Papal and Spanish armies in 1512 at the Battle of Ravenna. These successes were based on Ferrara's artillery, produced in his own foundry which was the best of its time.
At his death in 1534, Alfonso I was succeeded by his son Ercole II that in 1528 married Renée of France, the second daughter of Louis XII, thus bringing great prestige to the court of Ferrara. Under his reign, the Duchy remained an affluent country and a cultural powerhouse. However, an earthquake struck the town in 1570, causing the economy to collapse, and when Ercole II's son Alfonso II died without heirs, the House of Este lost Ferrara to the Papal States.
Late modern and contemporary
Ferrara as it appeared in 1600
Ferrara, a university city second only to Bologna, remained a part of the Papal States for almost 300 years, an era marked by a steady decline; in 1792 the population of the town numbered only 27,000, less than in the 17th century. In 1805–1814 it became briefly part of the Napoleonic Kingdom of Italy, a client-state of the French Empire. After the 1815 Congress of Vienna, Ferrara was given back to the Pope, now guaranteed by the Empire of Austria. A bastion fort erected in the 1600s by Pope Paul V on the site of and old castle called "Castel Tedaldo", at the south-west angle of the town, was thus occupied by an Austrian garrison from 1832 until 1859. All of the fortress was dismantled following the birth of the Kingdom of Italy and the bricks used for new constructions all over the town.
Downtown Ferrara around 1900
During the last decades of the 1800s and the early 1900s, Ferrara remained a modest trade centre for its large rural hinterland that relied on commercial crops such as sugar beet and industrial hemp. Large land reclamation works were carried out for decades with the aim to expand the available arable land and eradicate malaria from the wetlands along the Po delta. Mass industrialisation came to Ferrara only at the end of the 1930s with the set-up of a chemical plant by the Fascist regime that should have supplied the regime with synthetic rubber. During the Second World War Ferrara was repeatedly bombed by Allied warplanes that targeted and destroyed railway links and industrial facilities. After the war, the industrial area in Pontelagoscuro was expanded to become a giant petrochemical compound operated by Montecatini and other companies, that at its peak employed 7,000 workers and produced 20% of plastics in Italy. In recent decades, as part of a general trend in Italy and Europe, Ferrara has come to rely more on tertiary and tourism, while the heavy industry, still present in the town, has been largely phased out.
After almost 450 years, another earthquake struck Ferrara in May 2012 causing only limited damage to the historic buildings of the town and no victims.