Italian architecture is timeless, the soft colours and pleasing structures to very little to offend and always leave an impression on you. Modena is a city situated in the mid north west of the Italian peninsula and is most famous for being the home town of the Ferrari but it’s also right in the middle of the Italian food corridor which runs from Bologna, the father of Italian food to Parma, the home of ham and down to Modena. As well as these claims to fame Modena is also the home to one of the most beautiful Italian cathedrals and some wonderful architecture.
Modena has numerous claims to fame, not only is it the hometown of Ferrari (the Italians other great passion), it was also the hometown of the late and great world famous Italian tenor, Luciano Pavarotti and it’s also one of the Emilia-Romagna region’s great gastronomic cities, producer of the most beautiful vinegar in the world, balsamic among other things. If you are into your food Emilia-Romagna has to be the Italian region to visit.
But what is the real Modena like? Having visited Bologna many years ago and been overcome by its beauty I’d always promised myself I’d get to Modena one day. Other than the obvious things about Modena I knew very little about it so was looking forward immensely to finding out more about the cities Italian architecture.
As soon as I arrived I headed for the main square, when ever you arrive in an Italian city for the first time the main Piazza is always a good starting point. Piazza Grande is the main Piazza in Modena, and a very grand Italian Piazza it is too, being home to the beautiful cathedral. It has to be one of the most beautiful churches anywhere in and one of the most beautiful I’ve seen any where in the world.
Building started on the cathedral in 1099. At the time Modena was without a bishop as the one chosen by the Pope was not approved by the locals, hence the citizens of Modena managed and paid for the cathedral to be completed, some achievement. The beautiful white stones covering the outside of the cathedral were discovered, during renovation work to be Roman tombstones, this was a surprise to the restoration workers and historians who even found inscriptions on the stones. The doorways are adorned with life-like sculptures and these really set the cathedral apart from older cathedrals that generally have flatter one dimensional sculpture’s. The sculptures look magnificent in their white stone but they have a somewhat eerie appearance to them due to the use of lead as eyes, the black eyes staring down at you from the beautiful white figures is strange.
Standing proudly at either side of the main entrance to the cathedral are two magnificent Roman lions, the doorway to the Piazza Grande is also guarded by two magnificent lions, this time made from an Italian pink marble.
I could spent hours inside cathedrals just looking at the reliefs and carvings, I always feel slightly disappointed when leaving a magnificent looking cathedral that isn’t regaled with historical reliefs that tell a story. I certainly wasn’t disappointed in Modena. On one side of the church, beneath an arch linking it to a tower there are some wonderful carvings believed to be King Arthur and his knights as well as scenes from Aesop’s fables. My favourite of all was a calendar showing the months of the year complete with an agricultural task for the Italian farmers that would be carried out in the given month. This reminded me of a similar carving I saw at the Palazzo Ducale in Venice.
A later section was added to the cathedral in the 13-14th centuries, this was made out of a beautiful Italian pink marble and is of a more Gothic appearance than the earlier parts of the cathedral but it still links nicely with the older section, rather than looking like a bolt-on.
As with all Italian cities the main Piazza is the focal point of the city and Piazza Grande is no different. Up until 1931 the Piazza held the city market but this was moved to a purpose built covered site where it is still held today. Although not the site for the market any longer the Piazza is still very much the place to meet people, take a stroll or just sit and enjoy an espresso.
Modena’s buildings are a wonderful terra cotta colour, the sort of colour that lends itself wonderfully to Italian architecture, so warming and gentle on the eye. The good thing about Italy is that is still so in touch with its heritage, the citizens of Modena have to respect their heritage to the degree that the colour of all buildings must fall within local council guidelines to keep the aesthetics of the city.
Walking through the narrow atmospheric cobbled streets into the sleepy piazzas you can really get lost in the sense of Italian history that Modena exudes through its architecture.
Modena has had an up and down history. Modena flourished under Roman rule but then went into steady decline as a power hub until the end of the 16th century when the ruling d’Este family made it their home. The family saw how Modena had fallen into declined and realised that it had potential and set about modernising the city to make it one of the Italian greats.
The d’Este family built their home, the Palazzo Ducale (not to be confused with the Venetian palace of the same name) on top of Modena’s existing castle. The spectacular Palazzo still stands today; still in all its original glory, the unfortunate thing is that it is now an impregnable Italian military academy with no access for to the public.