The earliest artifacts from the area date to the Bronze Age and were part of
an inhabited site near Bondeno. The next settlement of any important was the
Etruscan town at Spina, along the coast near
Comacchio, which was founded in the 6th century B.C.
and enjoyed a flourishing trade with Greece.
In the following centuries, the area was to be ruled by the Gauls and then the Romans, who established settlements at Voghenza, Maiero and Gambulaga.
The ``ducatus ferrariæ'' proper was founded along the main course of the Po river at the point where the Primaro tributary branches off from the Volano. There is some controversy as to the original settlement that would develop into Ferrara. There are in effect two sites, and the archaeological record has been unable to establish which one was precedent.
One area lies between and near the confluence of the two branches; it was built around the Cathedral of San Giorgio, which had become the new bishopric following decline of Voghenza. The other so-called ``castrum bizantino'' (the San Pietro district) situated on the opposite northern bank, was originally a fortified military border camp.
Thereafter, the duchy came under the rule of the Longobards first and then the Church. In 986 Pope John XV awarded it to Thebald of Canossa. The city's outstandingly favourable position - situated on a major waterway, at a natural crossroads or hub between the all-important Adriatic Sea and the Po plain, and between Romagna and the regions to the North - and hence its strategic and commercial interest, made it the object of continual disputes between the Empire and the Papacy.
In this climate internal struggles arose between the more powerful families, divides along traditional lines into the Ghibellines and the Guelphs. But from the conflict there also emerged trends favoring the development of local city-based autonomy.
On the instigation of the Guelph faction, the Este family entered the fray and - thanks in part to assistance from the Venetians - soon became the city's most powerful family. They therefore took control of the city, and in 1264 Obizzo II was proclaimed Lord.
For over a century the rule of the Este family was marked by internal strife and disputes with the Papacy. At the end of the fourteenth century, however Nicoló II had the castle erected (1385) and Alberto won from Pope Boniface IX the establishment of a lasting consolidation which was to make Ferrara a lively and famous city.
Niccoló III, Leonello and Borso all supplied further lustre to the Signoria: Niccoló III by transferring the Ecumenical Council of 1438 to Ferrara, Leonello by surrounding himself with a highly cultured and refined humanistic, literary circle, and Borso by obtaining the title of Duke of Modena and Reggio from the Emperor in 1452 and that of Duke of Ferrara from the Pope in 1471.
In the meantime the city itself, the walled ring of which had already been extended to include the walls of what are now Viale Cavour and Corso Giovecca, under Ercole I (1471-1505) was further fortified in grandiose style, extended and embellished with the famous ``Addizione Erculea'' built by the court architect Biagio Rossetti.
Alfonso I, Ercole II and Alfonso II were less fortunate in their rule of the duchy, finally losing it in 1597, since no legitimate heir had been born.
The Papacy then returned to exert its power directly over a territory that had been impoverished by the squandering pomp of the Este family, and undermined commercially by the northward shift of the main course of the Po, which benefited the Venetian merchants. There began therefore a phase of severe civil and cultural stagnation.
Ferrara became a frontier province of the powerful Papal State, the principal piece of work of the 17th century being the construction of the Fortress, demolished in 1859.
In 1796 the city came under French occupation and was later incorporated into the Cisalpine Republic, the Cispadane Republic and the Regno Italico before being reannexed by the Papal State in 1815.
With the plebiscite of 18 March 1860, the city became part of the kingdom of Italy.
In more recent times the city was the scene of strikes organized by the
labourers around the turn of the century.
Particularly remembered was the strike of Ponte Albersano in 1901, which ended in clashes with the armed forces and numerous casualties. These events bear witness to the determination of the peasants who faces the land owner with a strong sense of political awareness.
Against this background the Fascists developed a strong following in Ferrara under the leadership of Cesare Balbo.
During the last war members of the Resistance fought courageously, incurring heavy losses, while the city came under bombing raids during which a number of important buildings and monuments were damaged or destroyed.