There’s more to Modena than cars and churches, but Ferraris and the UNESCO-listed cathedral tend to dominate most first visits. They certainly did on our day trip, which happened to coincide with filming of a Hollywood movie about Enzo Ferrari. Most business owners shut their doors while residents watched period cars race around the streets. Unfortunately for us, the filming incorporated the cathedral, and in spite of our best efforts to infiltrate the set, we never did make it inside.
On the other hand, the cathedral’s closure encouraged us to enjoy the rest of Modena. The historic center’s sunny palette unifies buildings spanning a thousand years, while its perfectly-scaled streets invite strolling. A foodie mecca, the city brims with renowned restaurants, balsamic vinegar tastings, and delectable-looking shop displays. We explored the culinary stalls at the Art Nouveau Mercato Albinelli, then headed to the Palazzo dei Musei for Renaissance paintings and Roman artifacts.
Modena’s gridded streets date to Roman times, when the Via Emilia passed through the middle of town on the way from the Adriatic Sea to Milan and the Alps. Today the city is less than 30 minutes’ ride from Bologna or Parma by train. The rail station lies on the historic center’s northern edge, near the Enzo Ferrari Museum.
Walking to the Piazza Grande takes about 15 minutes. Most monuments cluster in the center, near the cathedral or the Via Emilia. We picked up a map and information at the helpful tourist information office in the Palazzo Communale, across from the cathedral. Major sites in central Modena are shown on our Google map.
UNESCO lists the Piazza Grande along with the cathedral and adjacent tower as a World Heritage Site. The “Grande” refers more to its central importance in city life than its actual size.
Duomo di Modena
Widely regarded as a masterpiece of Romanesque architecture, Modena’s cathedral influenced churches throughout Europe for centuries. After 900 years, the design still stands out for its refinement and fantastical carvings.
The Duomo was built quickly; largely complete after just 85 years of construction, there wasn’t time for styles to change. Details added over the next few centuries – such as the rose window – deliberately coordinated with the 12th century structure.
Modena’s cathedral is exceptional in its celebration of the designers. Most medieval artists and architects worked collectively, and it’s rare to find individual names before the Renaissance. Yet the Duomo features inscriptions and documents commemorating the architect Lanfranco and sculptor Wiligelmo. Even the later additions can be traced to a specific workshop, the ‘Campionesi Masters’.
The marble sheathing the cathedral’s brick walls came from Roman ruins in the area, while one of the lion pairs (shown above) was probably discovered while digging the foundation.
Because of the filming, we only got to approach the building once, in a quick walk down the side street. Wiligelmo’s famed carvings wrap around the building. Fantastic plants and bestiaries mingle with reliefs depicting episodes from Genesis and door frames representing months of the year in agricultural scenes. A particularly famous series over the Porta della Pescheria depicts Arthurian legends. Wiligelmo likely started the trend of positioning lions under entryway pillars, now found all over Italy. Modena’s cathedral has at least three sets, including a pair on the front portal which date to Roman times.
Tuesday-Sunday 7-7, Monday 7-12:30 & 3:30-7.
Musei del Duomo & Museo Lapidario
Across the lane from the cathedral, a pair of small museums provide a closer look at the cathedral’s decorations. The Museo Lapidario contains sculptures and reliefs from the Roman era through various versions of the building, including a series of eight creatures from Wiligelmo’s era. The Musei del Duomo showcases the Cathedral Treasury with its religious artifacts, texts, artwork, and tapestries.
Admission €3. Via Lanfranco, 4: Tuesday-Friday 10-2 & 3-6, Saturday-Sunday 10-2 & 3-7. See website for more information.
Torre della Ghirlandina
Besides views, the Torre della Ghirlandina contains 15th century frescoes and a very special bucket.
Also known as the Torre Civica, the Ghirlandina rises about 285 feet (87 m) over Modena. The lower section dates to 1179, and the octagonal top portion was added a few centuries later. Some sources say the city was competing with the towers of neighboring Bologna. The Ghirlandina’s vantage allowed guards to watch over the treasury and to signal the opening and closing of the city gates. Today visitors can ascend the 200 or so steps to admire the views, as well as some 15th century frescoes. The tower also holds a replica of the Secchia rapita (“Stolen Bucket”) which inspired the War of the Bucket between Ghibelline Modena and Guelph Bologna in 1325.
Reserve tickets (€3) at the tourist office in person or on the website.
Synagogue of Modena
The Piazza Mazzini stretches back from the Via Emilia, culminating with a long reflecting pool lined with marble slab benches. On either side, massive trees frame the Sinagoga di Modena, which sits at the end of the piazza. Erected in 1873, the eclectic building sits on the site of the city’s former ghetto.
Jews thrived in the city during the Middle Ages, often rising to prominent positions with the Este dynasty. During the Counter-Reformation, when nearby cities like Bologna and Ferrara expelled Jews outright, Modena created a ghetto for them instead. Napoleon granted Jews full citizenship when he conquered Italy, and the community resisted Mussolini’s Fascist regime in the 20th century.
Piazza Giuseppe Mazzini, 26. Tours are offered Monday-Thursday 9-12, by appointment only. For more information, see the Jewish Community of Modena website.
The illustrious Este dynasty, including some of the most important patrons of the Renaissance, began the Palazzo Ducale in 1634. The Baroque palace became the Este’s primary residence after they ceded control of Ferrara to the Papacy. Most of the family’s artistic and scholarly collections had to be sold in later centuries, and the building now houses a military academy.
Piazza Roma, 15. One-hour tours on weekends can be reserved through the tourist office at least three days in advance.
Palazzo dei Musei (Galleria Estense & Musei Civici)
The Palazzo dei Musei combines multiple museums into a single site. The Este family’s art collection in the Galleria Estense focuses on northern Italian paintings from late-medieval through the 18th century, but also includes works by El Greco, Velázquez, and Bernini. Other branches feature Roman sarcophagi and reliefs, pre-Roman archaeological finds from the area, and the Civic Museum, which traces Modena’s history through objects from the Neolithic Age to the present.
Largo Porta Sant’Agostino, 337. Galleria Estense: Tuesday-Saturday 8:30-7:30 Sun 10-6, €8.
Enzo Ferrari Museum
We watched classic cars racing during the filming of “Ferrari”.
There are two Ferrari museums in the area. The Enzo Ferrari Museum in central Modena focuses on the man himself and the company’s history. The complex includes the house where Ferrari grew up, with lots of memorabilia. Nearby, the spectacular modern building with a swooping yellow roof holds a rotating collection of cars from various eras. A shuttlebus from the train station takes visitors to the high-octane extravaganza at the Museo Ferrari in Maranello.
Enzo Ferrari Museum: Via Paolo Ferrari, 85. For visiting information, see website.
Modena’s Ferrari museums are just the beginning for car enthusiasts. “Motor Valley” refers to the area around Modena, home to Maserati, Lamborghini, Pagani, and Ducati. Each company offers factory-showroom tours through their website, while independent tour operators can arrange excursions to multiple venues. For more information, see the tourist information office’s Motor Valley webpage. Prices start at around €15 for basic museum entries or €50 for factory tours. Multi-site tickets cost several hundred euros, or upwards of €1,000 with add-ons like a test drive.
Besides factories, classic car fans can visit a handful of museums – including the Panini Motor Museum, located on a dairy farm. One can admire classic Maserati racecars, as well as scooters and motorbikes, before visiting cows and perhaps buying some Parmiggiano Reggiano cheese. Although tours are free, the farm is not easily accessible by bus; taxis runs around €40 round-trip.