Modena Offers Culture Lovers Treasures

Updated on October 21, 2023 by Meg

With approximately 180,000 residents, Modena is about half the size of Bologna and bigger than Ferrara. Like Ferrara, Modena is another city in Emilia Romagna that boasts an ancient university, a history as a place of religious power and Este dynasty stronghold, and multiple UNESCO World Heritage sites. Yet, it has a different vibe from Ferrara. One local put it this way: “Ferrara has always been considered as a historic place with a tight relationship with its past. Modena is more connected to its more modern image related to the Ferrari and the Fiorano Circuit, a private racetrack owned by Ferrari.”

Laps Around Autodromo di Modena in a Ferrari

My husband Tom is a race car aficionado and when I learned of Modena’s Ferrari connection, I discovered I could enable him to celebrate turning another year older in style. We had made this trip at the time of our birthdays (four days apart!) and my gift to him was a few laps around the race track at Autodromo di Modena, which is in Marzaglia, about a 20-minute drive from Modena’s historic district. The race track has a relationship with Ferrari, luxury sports car manufacturer founded by Enzo Ferrari in 1939.

Autodromo di Modena Ferrari Drive

“The Ferrari “Prancing Pony” is probably the most famous marque in automotive history,” Tom observed. “The Scuderia Ferrari racing division is legendary from Le Mans to Monte Carlo. When I had an opportunity to drive an F430 in full racing trim in the birthplace and home of “ilDrake” Enzo Ferrari I couldn’t pass it up!”

Autodromo di Modena Ferrari Inside

“I arrived for my three laps at the Autodromo di Modena on a warm, sunny afternoon and after a short introductory video I headed to the track where my car and co-pilot awaited,” Tom recalled. “I was given some instructions and we set off. Despite exhortations to “Go for it” it took a lap before I had the courage to push the pedal to the floor. It is a short track so speed was restricted but it was the thrill of a lifetime. It seemed as if it was all over just as I was feeling like I might know what I was doing. Next time I’ll opt for the 5 or 7 lap package but it is still a drive I’ll never forget!”

Autodromo di Modena Ferrari View
Autodromo di Modena Ferrari View

While I was delighted to make Tom’s day special, cheering him on would’ve been too anxiety-provoking for me, so he dropped me at Modena’s centro storico, and went on his way.

Modena’s Ducal Palace

I started my exploration of Modena at its Ducal Palace, and was delighted with a “carpet” of very shallow water that extended out from it baroque exterior and into the big piazza in front. Two young boys waded barefoot in the unique fountain, cooling off from the heat.

“The veils of water in the square recall the path of the canals that are now under the ground,” Francesca Soffici explained. “The square was a parking lot until a few years ago!”

Courtyard Palazzo Ducale Modena Italy
Courtyard at Palazzo Ducale Modena Italy. - Photo: KgboCC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

I received an education on many of Modena’s cultural attractions from Francesca, a native of the city who is responsible for strategic planning for Modenatur, an incoming tour operator for the area.

“The Ducal Palace of Modena was designed by Roman architect Bartolomeo Avanzini, and construction began in 1634,” she continued. “The Palazzo housed the Este Court for more than two centuries and is today the headquarters of the Italian Military Academy. The elegant façade has three windows placed side-by-side and crowned by balustrades with statues.”

Cathedral of Modena

A must-see in Modena is Cattedrale Metropolitana di Santa Maria Assunta e San Geminiano, thankfully known simply as the Cathedral of Modena. This UNESCO World Heritage site, built in 1099, is considered one of the most important Romanesque buildings in Europe.

Lions Head Porta Regia Duomo di Modena

“The Regia di Piazza is often referred to improperly as ‘Porta Regia'”, Francesca said. “‘Regia’ is a term derived from medieval Latin which in the common vernacular meant “main door of the church'”.

Lion Porta Regia Duomo di Modena
Lion - Porta regia duomo di Modena. Photos: Meg Pier

“The two lions that support the columns here are depicted in the act of devouring their prey,” she noted. “Unlike the stately poses of the lions at the main Portal and the Porta dei Principi, the architectural function of these lions is to convey power.”

Portico del Collegio

Portico Del Collegio Modena
Portico del collegio. Photo: Meg Pier

“Portico del Collegio, which has 31 columns, is a characteristic element of Modena’s urban planning, and for centuries it’s been a place for meeting, walking and shopping,” Francesca said. “An integral part of the building’s original architectural is a mix of private space for businesses with areas created specifically for public use.”

Synagogue of Modena

“The synagogue is located inside the area that comprised the city’s ancient Jewish ghetto,” Francesca said. “The building was designed by Ludovico Maglietta in 1873 and has a double façade in Via Coltellini and Piazza Mazzini.”

Synagogue Modena Italy
Sinagoga monumentale. Photo: Meg Pier

“The temple has an elliptical plan with twelve columns topped by a cupola,” she continued. “This is circled all the way around by the Women’s gallery and a wrought iron gate surrounds the area housing the sacred texts and the cabinet containing the Torah scrolls. The interior was decorated by Ferdinando Manzini.”

The Ghirlandina

“Alongside the apse of the cathedral, standing 291 feet tall, is the Ghirlandina belltower, the symbol of the city of Modena,” Francesca said. “The Ghirlandina was given this nickname by the city’s inhabitants due to the double ring of parapets that crown its steeple, “as light as garlands”, ghirlanda in Italian.”

“This tower has played an important civic function since its origins,” she continued. “In Medieval times, the ringing of its bells announced the opening of the gates in the city walls and also acting as a warning for people in situations of alarm and danger. Its mighty walls guarded the so-called “Sacristy” of the Municipality, which was home to the strongboxes, public documents and objects of great symbolic value like the famous fourteenth-century secchia rapita or “stolen bucket”.

Piazza Torre Ghirlandina Tower Modena
Piazza torre Ghirlandina Tower. Photo: Meg Pier

Francesca went on to say that according to legend, during a war between Bologna and Modena over who ruled certain towns, Modena forcibly took possession of a wooden pail from Bologna.

“This humble object became a supreme symbol of contention between the people of Modena and Bologna in the enflamed historic battle of Zappolino of 1325,” she said. “The dispute was raised to fame in the mock-heroic poem of the same name by Alessandro Tassoni.”

Statua di Alessandro Tassoni Piazza Torre Modena Italy
Statua di Alessandro Tassoni - Piazza torre. Photo: Meg Pier

“Just below the Ghirlandina in Piazza Torre is a monument created in 1860 by the artist Alessandro Cavazza,” Francesca said. “It is dedicated to Alessandro Tassoni, the 16th century poet from Modena who penned the famous poem “La secchia rapita” that tells of the historic conflict between Modena and Bologna.”

San Dominico Church

San Dominico Church Modena Italy
Chiesa di san domenico. Photo: Meg Pier

Just to the left of the Ducal Palace is the Dominican Church, which opened its doors in 1731, replacing its Medieval predecessor, which was demolished in 1707 to make way for the Ducal Palace. The new church was built according to a design by Giuseppe Torri and is elliptic in shape. Its interior is covered by a dome, supported by coupled columns which surround the statues of the Evangelists by the Bolognese Giuseppe Maria Mazza. Paintings include the Saint Peter Martyr by Francesco Meuti and the Saint Thomas Aquinas by Cignaroli. The baptistery is home to the 1823 “Christ in the House of Mary and Martha” by Antonio Begarelli.

Monumento alla Liberta

In Piazza San Domenico, there is a striking statue of a beautiful woman in Roman-style robes, her arms outstretched to show her freedom from the shackles that dangle, broken, from her wrists.

Monumento Alla Liberta Modena
Monumento Alla Liberta Modena - Photo: Meg Pier

Francesca explained that the bronze figure was created by Modenese artist Marino Quartieri in 1972 to replicate one that had stood in the same spot until 1942. The original monument had been conceived to represent a “redeemed” Italy that was free after the uprisings in 1821 and 1831 that led to a unified Italy. During the period of unrest, conspiracies within the duchy of Modena led to heads rolling, literally, with various executions by guillotine in front of the ducal palace. The original statue had been made by Silvestro Barberini and was destroyed in the Fascist period to be melted down to create weapons for the war.

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