History of Modena

La Guida di Modena

History of Modena

A 2000-year tale


Those who are in a hurry could read the short version


Prehistoric Modena

The area nowadays occupied by the Province of Modena has been inhabited since the prehistoric era by various races, whose traces are in the archaeological finds (like the Venere di Savignano). Near the hills of the Appennines, the so-called terramare (the end of the Bronze Age, II-I millennium BC) was a civilization distinguishable for its habit of living on piles. In Montale an interesting museum illustrates this fact.
In more recent times, according to some Roman historicians and to archaeological finds, the area was occupied by Ligurian, Etruscan and Celts, at least to the III century BC.

Roman Modena

It is from the beginning of the II century BC that Modena was first mentioned. It was the period of the great Roman expansion north: in 187 BC, the great arterial route of the via Emilia, from Rimini to Piacenza, was built. Four years later, in 183 BC, the Roman colony of Mutina was founded. Like all the Roman town of the period, it was square, with two perpendicular main streets. Compared with the present city centre, the urban area was just a bit toward the east. Certainly, it was a really flourishing town: Cicerone defined it splendidissima et floridissima. There was also an amphitheatre, probably near via Canalino.
In 78 BC Modena was besieded by Pompey, during the civil wars raging amongst the Romans. Just six years later, in 72 BC, Spartacus won a battle against Cassio Longino there. However, the most important historical event that occurred in Roman Modena is certainly the battle of Modena, a crucial moment for the Second Triumvirate. After Caesar’s assassination, Brutus decided to take refuge in the city and to resist to Mark Anthony and Octavian. It was in 43 BC and Brutus could do nothing against the army sent from Rome.

Modena in the early Middle Ages

A really dark age began for Modena in the centuries after Christ’s birth, suffering like many other Italian cities after the fall of the Roman Empire. At the end of the IV century, the bishop and Patron Saint of Milan, Ambrogio, passing through the area near Modena, could not help noticing the dacay of the previous thriving community.
The end of the IV century, however, was also the period when the bishop of Modena was Geminiano, its Patron Saint. He still remains a mysterious figure: his death is maybe one of the few certain things we know about him: he died on the 31 January 397, the day solemnly celebrated every year in Modena. According to the relief carved on the Cathedral, Geminiano also went to the East to exorcize the daughter of the Emperor of Constantinople and once defended Modena by bringing down a fog which prevented the Barbarians from conquering the city. His tomb was in the place where the Romanesque Cathedral stands today.
The centuries between the V and the IX, a part from the Byzantine conquest, were dark for Modena, devasted by floodings and famines. The major part of the population was forced to move to the nearby centre of Cittanova, leaving the area of the old Roman town.
Only in the VIII century conditions improved: Imperial concessions to churches, the foundation of Nonantola abbey, Ludovic the Pius’ diploma for the church of Modena.
The true rebirth was at the end of the IX century, when another bishop, Leodoino, with the consent of the Emperor, built city walls around the cathedral.

The turning point of the 11th century and the City-Republic

The symbol of the vitality of the Modenese community was the decision, with great economic sacrifices, to build a new Cathedral.
Curiously, the beginning of the construction was on 9th June 1099, when the See of Modena was vacant (remaining so until the following year, with the arrival of Dodone). This was the sign of a popular and not authoritarian wish. So, on 8th October 1106 the consecration of the church was celebrated, at the presence of the most powerful feudal lady of Italy, Matilde di Canossa, and of  Pope Pasquale II.
In those years of the early XII century the free City-Republic first appeared (1126), the most common form of government in Italy of the period.
The following vicissitudes are very complicated, because of European political instability and of civil wars which divided even the city. In the middle of the XII century Modena twice received Emperor Frederick Barbarossa (Redbeard). After joining the Lombard League, in 1173 a congress of the League was held in the Cathedral. In those years (1175), thanks to the influence of nearby Bologna, a University was founded, the fifth most ancient in the world.
In 1188 the city walls were considerably extended, and which still influence the shape of the town. Right after Saint Francis’ death, one of the first Franciscan communities in the world was established in Modena (beginning of the XIII century).
In that period, when the battles between Ghibelline and Guelph divided the population (in general, the former were prevalent), the first statutes of the Guilds were written down. In 1289 it became necessary to stop those disputes with an extraneous arbitrator, the Marchese of  Ferrara Obizzo d’Este. From then, until 1859, apart from short interruptions, Modena was linked to the Estense family.
The early years were turbulent: in 1306 an ephemeral popular Republic was declared. The town was placed under the domain of the German Emperor (who nominated Francesco Pico della Mirandola as his deputy) and then of the Lord of Mantua Passerino Bonacolsi (1312). Passerino was a bloody despot, who repressed all internal dissidence; but was responsible for the building of some important civil edifices, like the new city walls. In 1325, the Modenese defeated the Bolognese at the battle of Zappolino, whose symbol is the bucket that the latter stole and the former heroically won back (nowadays, it can be seen in the Town Hall). In 1327, Passerino was definitively driven out of the town; in that year the first Modenese statute was ratified. Finally, from 1336, the Este family was definitively re-enstated.
And so came about the ‘diarchia imperfetta’, which was represented on one side by the Marquis (after 1452, Duke) of Ferrara in the castle which stood where the Ducal Palace°° is today, and on the other side by the city authorities in the Town Hall.

Modena in the Renaissance

In 1510 Pope Julius II conquered the town from the Este: Modena became a city within the Papal States, until the sack of Rome in 1527 (the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V passed through). One of the most important figures in this period, Francesco Guicciardini, was the papal governor, actually supporting the interests of the Florentine Medici, who controlled the Vatican at the time.
In the 1530s, Modena gradually returned under the control of Ferrara. Duke Ercole II decided to enlarge the town to the north, the so-called ‘Addizione Erculea’ or ‘Terranova’, whose planned urbanization is still visible today.
The Renaissance was for Modena, as for the rest of Italy, a period of great cultural liveliness: intellectuals and artists such as Carlo Sigonio, Guido Mazzoni, Antonio Begarelli, Orazio Vecchi, the cardinals Giovanni Morone (member of the Council of Trent) and Egidio Foscherari animated the town. The Inquisition worked at full ritm, and the religious edifices were renewed according to the indications of the Catholic Counter-Reformation.

Modena Estense Capital. The Dukes

The destiny of Modena was entirely transformed in 1598. The Duke of Ferrara Alfonso II was childless: on his death, the Pope was able to claim ancient rights over Ferrara and to take over control. So, in the night between the 29th and the 30th January 1598, the new Duke, Cesare I and the whole Court, one of the most influencial of the Italian Renaissance, had to move to Modena, which became the capital of the State.
Cesare I married Virginia de’ Medici, daughter of Cosimo I: a long (1598-1628) but ‘provisional’ dukedom, as it was necessary to settle the court in the new capital. In 1599, however, a cannon shot in via Farini° from the Ducal Palace eliminated Marco Pio, lord of Sassuolo, eliminating a ‘troublemaker’ in the Estensi territory towards the hills. In the first years of the XVII century a victorious war against Lucca was conducted and the city waged.
Cesare’s successor was Alfonso III, husband of Isabella of Savoy, who governed only for a year, as in 1629 he chose to become a friar and to leave the State to his son.
Francesco I was probably the best Duke of Modena. He reigned from 1629 to 1658 and first married Maria Farnese, then Vittoria Farnese and finally Lucrezia Barberini, by whom he had many sons. He is remembered for a lot of reasons. Apart from the wars he directed, trying to enlarge the Dukedom allying with France and Spain (which awarded him with the order of the Golden Fleece), he was actually a patron of the arts. He built the wonderful Ducal Palace°° (as big as his own megalomania), the ‘delicious’ Palace of Sassuolo, the fortified citadel of Modena (but also the Jewish ghetto). The best works of the Galleria Estense°° are those that portray him: the painting by Diego Velasquez and the bust by Gian Lorenzo Bernini. Thanks to him, Modena became a town worthy of a European capital: palaces, new streets and sumptuous churches. During his dukedom, in 1630, a terrible plague broke out Modena (the church of the Voto° was so built).
His son Alfonso II governed for only four years, until 1662. His wife is more famous than he is: Laura Martinozzi, niece of the French Cardinal Mazzarino, became an excellent regent of the State, on the death of her husband until the 14th birthday of her son Francesco II, (Duke from 1674 to 1694). His daughter, Mary of Modena is well know: thanks to Estense diplomacy, she married James Stuart, Duke of York, and became Queen of England. However, she was  Catholic in a protestant country. When she decided on the Roman baptism of their son, the ‘Glorious Revolution’ exploded: they were expelled and the House of Orange took over the throne. The ‘Bill of Rights’ was one of the most relevant consequences of these events.
The Dukedom of Francesco II was influenced by the awkward presence of his cousin Cesare Ignazio, and is remembered expecially for the rich cultural life: the Collegio San Carlo°° and the ‘Accademia dei Dissonanti’ (see Palazzo d’Aragona°) were founded. When Francesco died without sons, the throne passed to his uncle Rinaldo I, a cardinal until the beginning of his dukedom, in 1694.
The reign of Rinaldo I lasts until 1737 and was upset by the European wars of Succession, which forced him to leave Modena twice. His wife was Carlotta Felicita di Brunswich-Lüneburg (daughter of Benedetta of Hannover, hence the name of the square).
Rinaldo’s son was Francesco III, Duke from 1737 to 1780, husband of Carlotta Aglae d’Orlèans and, morganatically, of two widows. Even if he didn’t stay permanently in Modena (he had a role in the government of Lombardy), the second half of the XVIII century was for Modena a period of urbanistic (Piazza Sant’Agostino°°, the University°) and cultural (Ludovico Antonio Muratori, Bernardino Ramazzini – the inventor of the modern industrial medicine) revival. In 1771 a code of law was approved. In these years the Military Academy°° was founded, from which even Napoleon took inspiration. It was also a period of economic prosperity: Modenese products were sold throughout Europe, in particular the fabrics. A great political victory was the marriage between the son of the Duke and Maria Teresa Cybo Malaspina, so that the State could obtain Massa and Carrara and the access to the Tyrrhenian Sea.
The successor of Francesco III was Ercole III (Duke from 1780 to 1797), remembered for his outgoing personality: he loved to participate in the Carnival (at the time Modena had the second biggest Carneval in Italy after Venice), and he morganatic married the woman of the people Chiara Marini, whose palace is on Corso Canal Grande°°.
Modena had become a real European Capital, boasting many connections with all the most important European Courts, and as a Dukedom was highly regarded and taken seriously in wars and politics. It was the centre of perhaps the geatest of the minor Italian States, occupying a large part of the Emilia Region.

Revolutionary Modena and Napoleon

For this reason, when, after the French Revolution, Napoleon conquered Italy, he chose Modena as his headquarters for several times, and returned here frequently. So, in 1796, the Duke Ercole III had to leave the town. It was a period of great upheaval: liberty-trees, repressions of ancient religious orders, loans forced out of the people. In Modena the Congress of the Cispadane Republic was held, federating Bologna, Ferrara, Modena and Reggio, followed by the approval of the Constitution and by elections. Here, for the first time the Italian flag as we know it today (green, white and red) was raised. Modena then was incorporated in the Cisalpine Republic, as the capital of the Panaro district. Then the Military Academy°° was founded, similar to the present one. When even this Republic fell, in 1799, Modena was conquered by the Austrians and then re-occupied by the French. In fact, Napoleon himself returned in the city as Emperor, with Josephine in 1805.

The Restoration in Modena

When the Napoleonic era ended, in 1814 the Austro-Estense Duke Francesco IV, (son of one of Ercole III’s daughter), solemnly entered in Modena to govern the period of the Restoration, according to the Congress of Vienna. His wife was Beatrice Vittoria of Savoy, first daughter of Vittorio Emanuele I.
Those years were, all things considered, a good time for Modena, though the conservatism (or even reactionarism) of the Duke repressed cultural life. Many edifices were built (the Palazzo del Foro Boario°°, the Teatro Comunale°°, Vandelli street), still embellishing Modena today. The only great defect of his reign was the misunderstanding over his paternalistic role.

The Risorgimento in Modena

The events of the Modenese Risorgimento are well-known, as they were really significant in the Unification of Italy. On the 3rd February 1831, the patriot Ciro Menotti was caught in his house, in Corso Canal Grande°°. He was planning an insurrection with others (like Enrico Misley) against the Duke. He was executed on the 26th May, when, after a brief period of exile, Francesco IV took control of the town again.
The successor of Francesco IV was his son Francesco V, Duke from 1846 to 1859, husband of Adelgonda Augusta Wittelsbach of Bavaria. Only two years after the beginning of his dukedom, however, he had to leave Modena for some months because of the revolutionary insurrections throughout Italy (the First War of Independence, the provisional government of Giuseppe Malmusi). The town was annexed to the Kingdom of Italy, under King Carlo Alberto of Savoy (who himself some years before had to take refuge in Modena from Turin).
Because of the failure of the War, from 1848 to 1859 Francesco V was able to reign. The terrible cholera epidemic, in 1855, the new law code and the visit of Pope Pius IX in 1857 are the most relevant happenings of these years. The Pope, in particular, had created Modena a metropolitan archibishopric extending form Bologna to Milan, and still existing nowadays.
However, with the Second War of Independence, in 1859, the Este had to leave Modena forever, after 261 years of domination. They were substituted by the Emilian ruler Luigi Carlo Farini, and the decision to annex Modena to the Kingdom of Italy was confirmed by a plebiscite.

Italian Modena

With the Unification of Italy, the ancient glorious Capital of the Estense State was downgraded to a city of medium dimensions in the big new country. A less interesting period began for Modena – where traces of a capital city still survived.
In 1862 the first State Archives°° of the United Italy was founded in Modena; in 1867 King Vittorio Emanuele II visited the town, in particular the Military Academy°° was confirmed here; in 1878 King Umberto I and his wife Margherita visited Modena.
At the end of the century, the wonderful city walls were destroyed, creating the viali di circonvallazione°.
In the First World War, 7000 Modenese died: the Tempio Monumentale commemorates their sacrifice with the names written in the crypt.
In 1929 Enzo Ferrari founded, linked with the Alfa Romeo, the racing car stable which would become the most famous in the world. During fascism lots of public edifices were built, but in 1938 the racial laws forced many Jews to flee or face death (the editor Angelo Fortunato Formiggini killed himself by jumping off the Ghirlandina tower).
The Second World War brought poverty and bombs: in 1944 the city centre was hit – fortunately without any structural damage: the Medieval and Reinassance areas and palaces were saved).  The German headquarters were in a tower of the Ducal Palace°°. In the province of Modena was Fossoli, one of the biggest Italian sorting camps, for sending off Jewish prisoners to the German concentration camps. Thanks to the Resistance of the Partisans, Modena was freed just a few days before of the entrance of the Allied Forces (22 april 1945): the Gold Medal was so awarded to the whole town.
Modena in the postwar period is a medium-sized and wonderful Italian city, hard-working and rich. It is always one of the first in Italy for the quality of life. Centre of big industries, it is knwon worldwide for its excellence: mechanics (Ferrari, Maserati and so on, see land of motors) and food (Balsamic Vinegar, Parmesan cheese and so on, see typical cooking). It is also famous for the bel canto of Mirella Freni and Luciano Pavarotti.
In 1997, its Romanesque Cathedral, the Ghirlandina tower and Piazza Grande were declared World Heritage by UNESCO.


[Images marked with 'laguidadimodena.it' are by the Author. The other ones are courtesy of the respective Institutions: copyrights at the end of thier pages. None of the images from this website is freely available]