"We were very afraid, all the village went out into the street after the first shock, after the second many took shelter in their cars, but fortunately the damage was fairly limited, above all affecting churches," Umberto Mazza, the mayor of Ostiglia, near Mantua, told the Italian news agency ANSA.
First television footage showed half-collapsed houses with heaps of rubble on the roads. Several church steeples and towers also partly collapsed.
The region shaken by the quake is Italy's industrial heartland but also home to priceless architectural and art treasures. The historic center of Ferrara is classified as a world heritage site.
Hospitals were evacuated as a precautionary measure.
Telephone switchboards of emergency services were inundated with calls immediately after the quake.
Earlier a 4.1-magnitude quake shook the Lombardy region around Milan, Italy's financial and business capital, and was felt in the historic cities of Modena, Mantua and Rovigo as well as Ferrara.
Seismic experts said the relatively small size of the aftershocks meant the worst was likely over.