The Cathedral, Torre Civica and Piazza Grande in Modena are supreme examples of early Romanesque art.
These 12th-century structures are the result of the close collaboration of an architect (Lanfranco) and a sculptor (Wiligelmo). Ancient remains were reused in the rebuilding of the Cathedral. The monumental complex, which took over a century to be completed, combines religious and civic functions.
Community Perspective: The first impression of almost every reviewer is: “it’s all quite small”. But, as Michael states, size should not matter. The Cathedral stands out for its rose window, reliefs and fine sculptures, which can also be admired on the outside.
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It would be easy to dismiss Modena Cathedral as just 'another European church' on the World Heritage List, but I actually found it to be very interesting. It's the fusion of art and architecture that makes it stand out from many of the others - particularly the way the original sculptures are incorporated into the fundamental design of the cathedral, with the ones added later inspired by the same ethos.
Obviously the cathedral is small but there are a lot of details to take in. It's not about the grandness of the site so its size should not matter. In fact, it's the smaller and more intricate features that are the most impressive, particularly the pontile with its carving of the Last Supper.
In hindsight, I made a mistake by not going equipped with a list of the church's artistic treasures because it was only later, when I was writing an article about the site, that I realised I had missed a couple of important ones. When it's these artworks (and how they blend with the architecture) that are the most interesting thing about the cathedral, it's a shame not to see them all.
Modena itself is a lovely town, and it's easy to spend the day doing a balsamic vinegar tasting, seeing a few of the other historic sights, and even visiting the Enzo Ferrari Museum. Although I did it as a day trip from Bologna, you could happily spend the night here or use it as a base to see other parts of Emilia-Romagna.
If you were to compare Modena to the other World Heritage Sites in Emilia-Romagna, I don't think it's as impressive as Ravenna's churches with their dazzling mosaics. But I did find it more interesting than Ferrara, which didn't really stand out to me as particularly different to many of the other cities in the region. (And the porticoes of Bologna, well, I'm not sure there's a fair comparison there...)
Read more from Michael Turtle here.
To be honest my experience was tainted with my personal negative view toward this World Heritage Site, another Italian Romanesque cathedral in another Italian old beautiful renaissance city, everything seemed to be similar with what I already saw in many corners of Emilia Romagna and Tuscany. As expected Modena and its Piazza Grande, main square around the cathedral, were pretty lovely, I decided to have salad and bread with one of the glorious ingredient that Modena gave to the world, Balsamic Vinegar, in one of the café around the piazza while looking at the leaning bell tower named Torre Civica, another UNESCO listed element of this World Heritage Site.
The Cathedral, the bell tower or even the Piazza looked dazzling clean and white, hard to believe that these structures were one of the oldest church in Italy. After another cup of cappuccino, it was time to explore the famous cathedral. I walked around the cathedral, tried to find entrance. The portal main gate at Piazza was quite interesting with pinkish lion (?) statues, the carving was quite unique with knots and unknown symbol of bull, I really regretted of no guide to explain the meanings. Another portal gate nearby had similar lions but the craving around door were really impressive with plants and men motifs. I finally found the entrance which was actually the front door of the cathedral. The main front door had guardian lion statues again, was I at Chinese shrine or Italian cathedral? The interior was really dark, I hardly saw anything, due to some restoration, shades were put to block the light. Inside was really plain, nothing much to see, no wall paintings, I tried to see the mosaic at the apse as well as the crypt but the priest not allowed me to go inside as there was certain private ceremony. The only thing I found interesting inside was the ray of light from the front rose window directly shrined at the hanging golden cross, really evoking spiritual feeling. I came out and found that this exit door has unique lintel craving of chicken, dog and mythical animal, very interesting. After looked at the leaning bell tower again, I decided to go back to my car and drove to Florence.
Even I found some nice and interesting cravings and strange shape guardian lions, these could not help me to change my idea toward this World Heritage. I could not find anything that really stand out from Modena Cathedral. Its old age as one of earliest Romanesque building of Italy was fine enough to illustrate its Universal Outstanding Value or not? Well unless Italy don’t add more standalone Romanesque or Renaissance cathedral in the list, I am still OK with this Modena exceptional position among UNESCO World Heritage Site.
I spent a week in Modena in June 2019 and did short trips to other interesting places around (Parma, Mantova, Bologna, Ferrara, etc.). Despite warnings and quite low ratings by other travelers, I found Modena very nice town and a good place to stay. Luciano Pavarotti would agree with me. It was very pleasant week in Modena, and I would imagine even living there for some time. The town center is quite compact with picturesque streets, porticoes and ochre facades of houses. The traffic is limited in the center that also helps making Modena good place for living.
The Duomo with Ghirlandina tower and Piazza Grande are situated in very center. The tower can be seen from everywhere and it is the tallest structure in Modena. The Duomo is rather small but it is an exceptional structure, which deserves a status of WHS. I must laugh when reading the comments of some travelers: they know what to expect in Modena, but eventually they were disappointed that it is only/just a church – I cannot understand that. The Duomo has exceptionally rich decoration of exterior with several porticoes flanked by lion statues. There are so many details and exceptionally elaborated features. The interior is darker than shiny exterior. The vaults in aisles and the large rosone in the west wall were modified in 13th century, but it is still very compact structure with fine details from period around 1100.
Other places in Modena are not such exceptional as the cathedral is: Piazza Roma with Palazzo Ducale (now used for military purposes), Galleria Estense with an extraordinary bust of Francesco I d`Este by Bernini and an oil of the very same person by Velazquez, and also Museo Enzo Ferrari – I know nothing about cars, but the brightly yellow museum with car-inspired shape was designed by Czech architect Jan Kaplicky (the museum can be seen from train hen traveling from/to Bologna).
After many years of renovations, this site is finally accessible again. I first went to Modena in April 2011, only to find the cathedral and the bell tower completely covered in scaffolding - 6 months after the original due date that was still posted on the site. A second visit in October 2013 finally enabled me to see more than just the piazza (a nice one with an impressive Town Hall, but nothing outstanding - not sure why it is specifically mentioned in the WH name). The bell tower is completely renovated and also fully accessible - I did the climb up to the top to enjoy a nice view of the city. Except for a small part of the façade, the cathedral is also fully renovated and can be visited again. I went inside only briefly, as there was a Mass going on, but I'm still glad that I could finally tick off this site. Modena is easily accessible from Bologna and Milan, and the train station is quite close to the city centre. It's not a city where I would spend more than a day, though.
I visited this WHS in September 2006. The main square with the cathedral and tower is a great example of early Romanesque art. The rose window was the highlight of my visit coupled with the divine buffet and wine-tasting in a nearby restaurant. Salute!
I visited Modena on February 23 and 24, 2012 and guess what?
The outside of the cathedral is still covered with scaffolding.
The inside, however, is quite impressive, with its high altar and the variety of sculptures, columns, and brickwork. Unlike many churches in the area, it has been spared most of the "updating" from style to style over the years so even the neophyte art historian can get a sense of the Romanesque style without the distraction of Renaissance, Baroque and modern "add-ons"
The city itself has a small historical district which is pleasant enough but pales in comparison to the porticos of Bologna and the streets of Parma. However, do plan to have at least one meal here--the food is some of the best in Emilia-Romagna.
I'm Italian (from north Tuscany) and I've visited most of the historic centres of northern Italy medieval towns.
I reached Modena only because is on the List and, after visiting, I could say that this is, by far, one of the most poor and totally overrated WHS.
The Duomo is nothing special, very small and under refurbishment by decades, although the inside is nice (and free, not so usual in Italy).
The Piazza is one of the ugliest of italian's "comuni": there is NOTHING, not even a nice Town hall, so common in this part of Italy.
For me it was a short ride from home, but for foreign visitors, allow maximum half an hour to visit Modena.
In conclusion, I still don't understand why that church and that piazza are on the list, assuming that Lucca, Parma, Sarzana, Pietrasanta ect. are, by far, more impressive and with more historical and architectural significate.
Modena's 85m high bell tower Ghirlandina can be seen from afar. So we noticed right away that it is hidden under construction material at the moment. Unfortunately, that also proved to be the case for large parts of the Cathedral. Only the Preda Ringadora (from where orators spoke to the public) was completely visible (though easily overlooked).
We first settled down for a cappuchino at the Piazza Grande, trying to get over the disappointment. The square itself I found not nearly as impressive as I had imagined it. The other buildings look plain and have been taken over by various commercial companies. The cathedral and its tower are the real landmarks here.
The interior of the cathedral and its museums were closed too. We had to make do with a slow circumambulation of the famous cathedral. Both facades in the front and the back were still visible, as well as the Porta della Pescheria with its very early carvings of a King Arthur scene. These reliefs and fine sculptures are what this Cathedral does stand out, and fortunately, some were still left out in the open to admire.
I have been many times in Modena to visit the beautiful cathedral, a stunning Romanesque masterpiece built under the family Canossa, from 1099 to 1184, on the project of Lanfranco, and modified by the Masters Campionesi from 12th to 14th century. It is made of Istrian stone to appear like an ancient temple and has on the façade and on the side walls embedded semi-columns linked to arches with arcades below, small columns, cornices and blind arches, all decorated with sculptures. The six portals along the wall have open lunettes and architraves and four of them are preceded by a two-storeyed canopy, supported by lions. The tripartite façade has pillars surmounted by octagonal canopies and a big Gothic rose window between them. The sculptures on the central and lateral portals, inspired on the sacred play of “Adam’s game”, made by Wiligelmus, suggest the promise of the salvation to the faithful, especially in the climbing stems decorated with figures of people and animals and fantastic creatures of the bestiaries, in the moulding of the intrados and in the jambs of the central portal, with figures of prophets, and in the frieze, with the events of the Genesis in four groups. The southern Princes’ Portal, dedicated to the New Testament, was sculpted by a master of Wiligelmus’s school, the Master of the Prince's Portal, with peopled climbing stems on the intrados, the twelve Apostles on the jambs and the story of the journey of St. Geminiano (on the architrave) to Constantinople to cure the Emperor’s daughter, the return to Modena and the death. Near that is the Royal Portal, sculpted by Anselmo da Campione, a pulpit and a relief made by Agostino di Duccio. The northern Portal of the Fish Market, made by the Master of the Fish Market, has a representation of the legend of King Arthur attacking a castle in which the Princess Guinevere is held prisoner, a climbing stem motive and a representation of the twelve months with their characteristic works on the jambs and humorous tales on the architrave. There are also subjects superimposed and located beneath the arches, later placed on the columns of the portals for the prophets and apostles and on the jambs or the plinths for the months. The bell tower Ghirlandina, built in Istrian stone and linked to the church by two arches, consists in six floors with small blind arches lit by openings and by two and then three windows on the upper floors. The Romanesque bottom half, projected by Lanfranco, is surmounted by an octagonal Gothic drum and a lantern, projected by Masters Campionesi. The interior, projected by Lanfranco and modified later, made of bricks (with also zigzag frets in the main arches clad in pointed brickwork as decorative motif), consists in a nave on which opens a gallery and tall windows, two aisles and a choir with a presbytery, that has a balustrade with a double row of columns, above a crypt, with nice Romanesque capitals, ending in three apses; the arches are supported by alternating supports with pillars and marble columns with Corinthian capitals, sculpted by Wiligelmus, and there are also semi-circular transverse arches and broken vaulting in the side aisles. The Masters Campionesi made the rood screen, built for the consecration of the church by Pope Lucius III, that has telamons, lions and in part polychrome relieves with five scenes of Christ’s Passion on the parapet, the ambo, that has figures of the Fathers of the Church and symbols of the Evangelists, the false transept, the groin vaulting of the nave, the frescos, the facing painted to resemble brickwork, on the arches, the pilasters in the bays and the disappeared friezes. In the cathedral are also two Roman capitals used as stoups, a pulpit, an altarpiece with relieves and frescos by Cristoforo da Modena, the sarcophagus of St. Geminiano (4th century), an old crucifixion, tarsia by Cristoforo da Lendinara, Renaissance paintings by Serafino Serafini and Dosso Dossi and sculptures, often in terracotta, by Antonio Begarelli and Guido Mazzone. The small Lanfranco Street was built on the northern side of the cathedral after the demolition (18th century) of the chapter buildings situated around a cloister and overlooks on it the Cathedral’s Stonework Museum, the chapter’s archive and the sacristy, linked to the cathedral by an elevated passage. The quadrangular Big Square (Piazza Grande) was built in the 12th century along a side of the cathedral. The old and new town hall were modified by connecting of the clock tower (13th to 16th century) and blending with new façades and arcades (17th to 19th century); inside there is the Fire Hall, with frescos by Niccolò dell’Abate. Ahead it is the women’s statue Bonissima, symbol of the administration which was responsible to trade, and the Pietra Ringadora, a pulpit used by orators to speak to the people. The Archbishop’s Palace, made of bricks and linked to the cathedral by a private passage, was modified in the 15th century and a floor was added in the 17th century. The Law Courts, built by Giò Ponti in 1960, replace the building projected by Luigi Giacomelli in 1892.
I liked very much this complex because of the quality of the architecture and of the decorations. It’s worth to be visited if you are in Emilia-Romagna but I think that only the cathedral justifies the inscription because the square is not outstanding.
Photo: Modena - Cathedral
The Cathedral and tower sit on the Piazza Grande so they can all be seen in one go. The Cathedral is the main sight and is a fine piece of Romanesque architecture. The interior of the cathedral is quite impressive with sturdy walls, the interior splits to two levels divided by the impressive tribuna. There was a service going on below, so I was not able to get to see the coffin of San Germiniano to whom the cathedral is dedicated. There is a very impressive mosaic above filling the rear niche and providing a focal point for the cathedral.
The Torre Civica is on the rear and is obviously leaning, it is accentuated by the lean in the opposite direction by the walls of the cathedral itself. It is possible to climb the tower but the opening times were a bit erratic.
The Piazza Grande is included more for the cultural/ historical relationship than its impressive architecture as there were not any real buildings of note. Modena seems like a nice city, quite small but probably has enough to keep you there for a night if you wanted to go out and see Ferrari's factory at Maranello about 15km away. Modena is ideally situated on the main north south rail line between Milan and Ancona, or could make a nice day trip from nearby Bologna.
While famous for its vinegar, racing cars, and tenors, it's the Romanesque Duomo and Torre that land Modena on the World Heritage List. They are considered to be among the finest examples of this period of architecture in Italy and justifiable so. Decorated with impressive reliefs along the facade and around the numerous doors, the Duomo is a 11th/12th century masterpiece, with most of the credit due to one Wiligelmus, a sculptor about whom still little is known. The Torre Ghirlandina is famous for its role in the centuries old rivalry between Modena and Bologna, involving the theft of a notorious and much-coveted wooden bucket. It is also notable for its beauty and its very obvious lean.
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extended from former TWHS Modena Cathedral (1982)
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