A recent trip to Modena…


A bird’s eye view of Modena. Handy to have. Having spent a hot June day in this intimate gem of Emilia-Romagna, the city’s main sites-to-see are easily picked out. Quite typical of Italy, Modena has two poles: its religious center in il Duomo, the city’s church anchoring the trapezoidal piazza and paired with the white marble campanile, la Torre Ghirlandina, is literally in the center of town; and, its secular is housed in the formidable complex of the D’Este family’s HQ to the NE, il Palazzo Ducale, today a military academy. The palazzo’s Baroque facade dominated the large rectangular piazza in front. Most coming upon il Palazzo Ducale first come upon its back door.

There are three other pin-points of interest to Modena, the powers of Art, Industry and the city’s unavoidable mark of excellence, Food. The four courtyard-ed Palazzo dei Musei on the West side of town, its compatriot on the opposite corner and outside the traces of the city walls, the yellow roof-ed Enzo Ferrari Museum… stream-lined like the hood of one its own automobiles… and below il Duomo, the five varied off-white corrugated roofs of il Mercato Albinelli.

I have to say, of all these points-of-interest in Modena, I was most anxious to visit the Ferrari Museum. The last time I was in Modena, the museum did not exist! Yeah, yeah… I hankered for the cars but, even more so for the building’s contemporary Italian architecture. A huge clam shell structure is contrasted with the old brick factory sheds around it. The exterior is a yellow roof shaped with air vents and inside an enormous ribbed white and antiseptic vault. It did not disappoint.

But to the order of the tour…

The heat & humidity were hard to bear, ricocheting off the low stucco buildings of Modena’s Centro Storico, a Roman grid of streets pierced by the Via Emilia bisecting the town East-West. Any shade depended upon the angle of the sun to the street or, the off chance of a sun-blocking loggia. It got worse in the afternoon, like an oven once heated, it takes awhile to cool off.

The visit left its lasting impressions and tidbits to savour from its history…

It was Saturday. Plenty of couples and families with strollers chatting outside bars or running errands, some already sporting grocery bags. A good sign of being near il Mercato Albinelli. Follow the people and you will automatically end up at the market’s front door or, its back door too. A human-scaled building of wrought-iron and metal covered arches hovering above three long corridors of stalls and three short ones lined with enclosed shops of mostly butchers, bakeries and assundries. The building was just as the website stated: a clean, orderly market for the city of Modena. Spic ‘n Span, as if the date of its inauguration, in 1931, was yesterday. The hustle & bustle & noise of the crowd was the perfect concerto for buying a small bottle of Acetto Balsamico di Modena, trying out the local mostarda, the local cheeses and munching a mid-morning snack of a tigelle stuffed with vegetables.

Out the back door and off to il Duomo. A UNESCO World Heritage site. The Piazza Grande, where the food market once had its daily home until il Mercato Albinelli was erected, lends itself to capturing the perspective of the strikingly Italian Gothic facade of multi-arches, and is one of the flanks of the church… often the most used entrances to churches in Italy are side doors, leaving the main entrances for grand ceremonies. The cast of the cathedral’s marble is blazingly white at mid-day, toning down to a mildly caramel color in the waning light of early evening.

Churches were encyclopedias since, few could read when they were constructed. The edifice’s sculptor, Wiligelmo, produced reliefs telling the stories from the Christian Bible: Adam & Eve, their expulsion from the Garden of Eden, the tragedy of Cain & Abel and so on. The reliefs were placed at a height so people could actually see, learn and enjoy them. Many are side companions to the entrances.

Inside, the simple and masculine architecture of heavy masonry and the few small windows is a bit arresting. Also took time to adjust to the low light. Italian architecture is all about shade. Creates a decidedly refreshing & cool interior from the heat on the piazza outside. The Official Title, the dedication of il Duomo, is Santa Maria Assunta in Cielo and San Geminiano. Geminiano was a bishop of Modena, he was sainted after his death and was also made the Patron Saint of Modena. His remains are in the large crypt below the High Altar.

Il Duomo’s campanile… or, bell tower, la Torre della Ghirlandina is as wonky as the one in Pisa. Medieval builders seemed to disregard the need for solid foundations. They placed big blocks of stone on a cleared site for what would become a symmetrical building and as the structure grew, settling would automatically be balanced by the general and even weight. Not so with Pisa’s campanile and it happened too for Modena’s. Only the first six stories of the bell tower were built with architect Lanfranco’s architectural word on the cathedral’s aspect, when the tower began to lean. And it sure did. To compensate the unwanted trajectory, the final part of the tower, the last three floors and decorated with a simplified garland motif, and thus its name, La Ghirlandina, was purposely leant in the opposing direction to lend a bit of balance to an unbalanced situation. More catty-wampus but stable, I suppose.

Lunch was outside the city center in what appeared to be an anonymous single story building off a main artery. The taxi driver confirmed the locale… Franceschetta 58… the poor relation to the elder restaurant considered by many in-the-know on food to be The Best Italian Restaurant In The Entire World. Couldn’t say. Not a fan of precious food, as art, design. Looking good often does not correspond to tasting good. But many enjoy the game of descerning the ingredients or, ooo-ing & aw-ing over the presentation. Guests cannot complain but, only to enjoy the pleasure of what was put down on the place-mat before one. Mine was a flea-market plate of octopus draped across a braised green pepper and touching its tip in a puree of bright green peas. The last gave a helping dose of green to the pepper’s nearly exterminated green color. The only Italians were the help. Every other nationality or, at least, those of the four main continents, was represented in what was an intimate and sparse space, much akin to Modena. In balance, in scale, affordable.

The Ferrari Museum is a must. Its an icon. A monument to Italian ingenuity, the superb co-ordination between their eyes and hands. In Ferrari’s case, engines and bodies. The space, its architecture and the cars displayed within causes drooling. And, it is very, very difficult NOT TO TOUCH the body work of many. That admonition was the first thing growled by the ticket-taker. The early beauties of Ferrari’s design & engineering… models from the 50’s to the late 60s… were gorgeous, sexy, sculptural and expensive in their day but, not in proportion to prices of today’s more computer generated and homogenized models. An Instagram post got the most likes of any ever posted. Since the museum is automotive, the not unexpected quotient of boys to girls was a predictable 90 to 10. Of any nationality.

How wonderful! One enormous air-conditioned palazzo full of museums, il Palazzo dei Musei. Time was short so, quickly passing the Bernini bust of one of the D’Este dukes, and a few works by Guido Reni, Caracci e Correggio, Dosso Dossi was the artist to see. And, the work of art? Why his Madonna and Child with Saints George and Michael, of course. Schooled under the tutelage of Ferrara’s artistic & court tendencies, and aligned with the leading edge of Art with the ruling Venetians, Dossi’s artistic bent was for allegory and myth. Colorful fantasies ranging over figures of disproportionate yet, mythological dimensions. Women with arms of stone masons, large heads topping stout bodies and in oddly and unexpected fey poses. A hoot, in other words. Must’ve been good and respected too for Dosso Dossi was the court painter to the d’Este dukes for all his life.

Dashed for the train. Not a bad day’s time spent in Modena. Must go back more often. Perhaps in the Fall, when it is cooler.


Forrest Spears and Your Italian Concierge is a concierge and travel planning service. If you would like our help, please contact me or, visit our website www.youritalianconcierge.com