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Modena lies between Venice to the northeast and Florence to the southwest. This puts it in the "northern" Italian locale, where innovation was slow, and tradition held fast. There was some independence of thought, though, regarding design, but not a lot. Yet the fact that it was the townspeople who insisted that a new Cathedral be built - without even having a Bishop on the job - seemingly represents the first such instance of civic will in the region. This should give some of us today the incentive to speak out and speak loud when architecture is not what it should or could be.

An existing Cathedral was in very poor condition in the 11th century, and even though there was no bishop, the townspeople decided to build a new Cathedral, commencing in 1099. The architect was Lanfranco. Consecration took place in 1184.

The Cathedral of Modena is not mentioned to any great length in most texts, but small references occur on a steady basis, and Modena suddenly appears as a typical northern Italian Romanesque church. Its town Internet site calls it "one of the more important Italian Romanesque creations." Let's take a look.

The western façade is divided into three parts corresponding once more, in good Romanesque fashion, to the interior layout.

There is a 12th century rose window. An interesting bit of research would be to find the first rose window in the entrance façade of a Christian church.

The rose is said to be symbolic of the Virgin Mary, and might be the reason for the name of the round opening. Another thought could be that the multiple divisions in the windows resemble rose petals.

Directly below the rose window is a highly decorative sculptured Portale Maggiore (main door) by Wiligelmo, who also created four major stone carvings. Actually, references to the Cathedral remark on the collaboration and joint efforts by both the architect and the sculptor; again, the integration of art and architecture through the efforts of artist and architect. Sources indicate that the sculptor did not merely provide accessories for the Cathedral, but created an integral and essential part of the building.

The south façade shows stonework and marble designed by Lanfranco. Apparently, some material was borrowed from Roman buildings in the city. There are applied columns culminating in arches, which in turn have three open arches within. If this looks familiar, it should. We saw very similar treatment in the complex at the Cathedral of Pisa, when we mentioned the Pisan School characteristics. And back in Caen, the Abbaye aux Dames as well as the Abbaye Aux Hommes had similar characteristics.

On the north side, the entrance is known as the Porta della Pesheria. The arched opening contains sculptures of sacred subjects, the months of the year, and bestiaries. This integrated art was undoubtedly intended to impart communication to people who could not read.

The apse also features the applied columns culminating in arches, with their three smaller arched openings within.

While the exterior was covered with stone and some marble, the interior is of brick construction, and conceivably manifests a Lombardian characteristic, in that clay is plentiful in Lombardy, as opposed to the abundance of stone in Tuscany.

What we seem to have is a conglomeration of materials and effects. Some historians state with authoritarian conviction that there are specific and definite characteristics for each Romanesque region of Italy - the North, Central, and South. These are the basics:

Northern Italian designs featured flat, severe entrance facades masking the interior nave and aisle configurations, and those exteriors were rough, and without marble facing. Internally, the naves had ribbed vaults.

Central Italian designs sported classic details (proximity to Rome, of course), and multiple arcades one on top the other.

Souther Italian designs (especially in Sicily) featured Byzantine, Muslim, and Norman details, while stripes and stilted pointed arches dominated.

In general the basic ingredient of Italian architecture was horizontality. Verticality, or a reaching to the heavens, manifested itself in free-standing bell towers, known as campaniles.

These towers abounded, often serving as watch towers, but just as often as symbols of power (and money). Baptistries were also free-standing.

The above are pure generalities, often being exceptions as opposed to rules. As we're already seeing, materials slipped through these "borders".

Back to Modena where the walls are heavy, with minimal openings, resulting in a very dark interior.

The windows are of alabaster, and are translucent, admitting a golden glow. Many churches in this time frame - the Middle Ages - used alabaster instead of glass. What ever happened to the abundant use of glass in Roman times? Most museums of Roman Antiquity exhibit large glass vases, goblets, and pitchers, which would indicate certainly, that if glass was so readily available and extended in size, then it would have been used for windows. I have been told in museums and in Medieval buildings that glass had become very expensive – could there have been an OGEC (Organization of Glass Exporting Countries), which would have driven up the price of glass? Please explore.

The ceiling of the nave shows diaphragm arches dividing the nave into bays. Those arches are original, and a wooden ceiling and roof construction were replaced in the 15th century with brick vaults, showing a quadripartite design.

The nave features a double bay system with Corinthian capitals so authentically done that some classical scholars thought they were of Roman origin. Here we have a touch of the Florentine school, with its Roman detailing - so we continue to see a potpourri of ingredients. Dogma just doesn't work in architecture - it's in the eye of the beholder. The beauty of the carving of the podium is attributed to Wiligelmo, the sculptor. The unusual placement, well within the nave, certainly brought the priest closer to his congregation, yet a part of that congregation would have their backs to the speaker. Try to research the history of what became fairly standard in many religious structures – the centralized placement of the podium.

There is a real three-part triforium gallery above. I say "real" because though triforium was the name used to describe the gallery itself, based on early constructions, you will often find just two arches within the one bay, and occasionally four.

Here we can see three!

The vaulting features a perfect example of a quadripartite vault.

The Cathedral has a major campanile, better known locally as the Ghirlandina Tower.

It soars skyward beside the cathedral, on the north side. Almost 90 meters high (290'), it is a combination of two architectural styles: the square base section is the same age as the cathedral and is in Romanesque style, while the octagonal and pyramidal upper parts are later and clearly Gothic in character. Work on the upper part began in 1261 and was completed in 1319. The tower was designed by Arrigo da Campione.

The tower known as “Ghirlandina,” perhaps takes its name from the two rows of garland-like balustrades which crown it, is viewed by the people of Modena as the symbol of their city. This is no coincidence: although this fact is no longer retained in the collective memory, the Ghirlandina did not only have the religious function deriving from its status as cathedral tower, but was also a defensive tower used to store important civic documents and charters.

A bit of comic relief, which is going to sound like a contemporary frat house prank, but here's the scoop. The tower is tied to Modena's identity with one important symbol that is in a way still preserved in the first room of the Ghirlandina: it is a wooden bucket which is actually a kind of trophy stolen from the Bologna army by the Modena forces during the war between the two cities in 1325. It provided the inspiration for the mock heroic poem written by Alessandro Tassoni in 1622, entitled "La secchia rapita." or "The Stolen Bucket." The monument to the north of the Tower, overlooking the Via Emilia, is dedicated to Tassoni. Every so often, the bucket returns to the headlines when young people from Bologna stage an attempt to steal it back again (I warned you about this). However, the bucket in the tower is only a copy, since the original is stored in the Palazzo Comunale.

On a very sad note, in the Piazza della Torre, between the monument to Tassoni and the Ghirlandina, a small plaque known in the local dialect as "Al tvajol ed Furmajin" is dedicated to the memory of the eminent Jewish publisher Angelo Fortunato Formiggini, who committed suicide by flinging himself from the Ghirlandina in protest against the racial laws during the Fascist period.

It isn't just local pride, it's really true that the Cathedral of Modena is one of the high points of the Italian Romanesque period.

© Architecture Past Present & Future - Edward D. Levinson, 2009

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