Modena Cathedral Complex (3/3) – Piazza Grande & Municipal Balsamic Vinegar Factory

In my previous two posts, I introduced in detail Modena Cathedral including its exterior and interior decorations by Wiligelmo and his workshop and by the Campionesi masters; Ghirlandina Bell Tower including its construction history, decorations and various chambers; the Cathedral Museums where eight metopes, which were originally located on the buttresses of the cathedral’s roof and portray various monstrous and imaginary beings taking up peculiar activities, St. Geminianus’ portable altar, the famous “Relatio” and many other precious objects can be seen; and five historic rooms in Palazzo Comunale, where not only the original “Stolen Bucket“, a war trophy and civic symbol of the Modenese, but also many furnitures and paintings can be admired. In this post, I’ll focus on Piazza Grande, which is part of the Modena Cathedral Complex World Heritage site, and talk briefly about the Traditional Balsamic Vinegar (TBV), which made Modena world-famous and is nowadays protected under the European Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) system. If you have read the previous posts, please click here to jump directly to the main content of this one. If not, the following chapters will be about the outstanding universal values of the complex, a brief introduction to the city of Modena, and the all-inclusive ticket which is the best choice for the people who are interested in the city’s historical and cultural heritage.

1. Outstanding universal value

As the UNESCO comments:

The magnificent 12th-century cathedral at Modena, the work of two great artists (Lanfranco and Wiligelmus), is a supreme example of early Romanesque art. With its piazza and soaring tower, it testifies to the faith of its builders and the power of the Canossa dynasty who commissioned it.


摩德纳的大教堂、市民塔和大广场: 位于摩德纳的宏伟的12世纪大教堂,是兰弗兰科(Lanfranco)和威利盖尔茨(Wiligelmus)这两位伟大艺术家的杰作,是早期罗马风格艺术的最杰出典范。这所大教堂和与之相配套的宏大广场以及耸入云霄的高塔一起,不但证实了建造者们对皇室的无限忠诚,而且还体现了命令建造这些建筑的卡诺萨王朝的非凡国力。

In order to be inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list, sites must be of outstanding universal value and meet at least one of the ten Criteria for Selection. Modena Cathedral Complex (including Cathedral, Torre Civica and Piazza Grande) meets

Criterion (i) to represent a masterpiece of human creative genius, because the cooperation between Lanfranco (the architect) and Wiligelmo (the sculptor) demonstrated a new dialogue between architecture and sculpture in Romanesque art;

Criterion (ii) to exhibit an important interchange of human values, over a span of time or within a cultural area of the world, on developments in architecture or technology, monumental arts, town-planning or landscape design, because the complex influenced greatly the development of Romanesque art in the Po Valley and Wiligelmo’s innovations had profound influence on Italian medieval sculpture. As commented on the World Heritage website, “At the European level, the sculpture of the Cathedral of Modena represents a privileged observatory for the understanding of the cultural context accompanying the revival of monumental stone sculpture. Only very few other monumental complexes, such as Toulouse and Moissac, can claim to be so important in this respect”;

Criterion (iii) to bear a unique or at least exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilization which is living or which has disappeared, because the busy urban life reflecting the beliefs and values of the citizens in Northern Italy in the 12th and 13th centuries is reflected on the history of the complex including its square and surrounding buildings;

and Criterion (iv) to be an outstanding example of a type of building, architectural or technological ensemble or landscape which illustrates (a) significant stage(s) in human history, because the cathedral, tower and square constitute one of the best examples of an ensemble in a medieval Christian town where civic (economic, political and social) and religious values were combined and both activities (most of the time) were carried out harmoniously.

Attributed to the architect Lanfranco and sculptor Wiligelmo, the magnificent cathedral and its bell tower (Torre Civica), which are consistent in terms of material and structure, are a supreme example of early Romanesque art, renowned for their exceptional architectural and sculptural quality. The foundation stone of the cathedral, home to the mortal remains of St. Geminianus (4th century), patron saint of Modena, was laid on 9th June 1099, replacing an early Christian basilica. The bell tower, whose construction began either together with the cathedral or at the beginning of the 12th century, was originally a five-storey building and was completed in 1319 with an octagonal section and additional decoration. In addition, the property includes the Piazza Grande, which is surrounded by the City Hall, archbishopric, and some other buildings.

Though the exterior of the cathedral and tower appears in general white and a bit yellow during sunset, if you take a close look, you will notice that it’s made of stones of different types and colors. In fact, these areancient Roman stones recycled from Mutina, the Roman Modena. Besides the outstanding values I mentioned above of the complex, there are two other aspects which shouldn’t be neglected. First, these two buildings are a documented example of the reuse of ancient remains, which was common practice in the Middle Ages before quarries were reopened in the 12th and 13th centuries. Secondly, between the 11th and 12th centuries, the cathedral was one of first buildings where collaboration between an architect and a sculptor was recorded by explicit inscription, which can be found on the west façade (as you can see in the 6th picture above). As commented by the UNESCO, “It also marked the shift from a conception of artistic production emphasizing the quality of the buildings as a masterpiece of the munificence of its founder, to a more modern concept in which the role of the creator is recognised.” I still remember when I was watching and reading about the west façade, a local grandma passed by and talked to me in Italian. Sadly I didn’t understand her at all because I don’t speak Italian but I saw she was pointing at the stone plaque and I realized it must be of particular importance. Later I found out why she was so excited about it. That was the first time I experienced the enthusiasm of the Modenese and I’m really glad that the locals are aware and proud of the treasure that they have.

Between the end of the 12th and beginning of the 14th centuries, the cathedral’s and tower’s decorations developed greatly under the influence of the Campionesi masters, who always took into consideration the principles of the post-Wiligelmo Emilian Romanesque School and the innovations of Benedetto Antelami. What’s more, the documented presence of them provides a significant amount of information about how the works were managed on a well-organized medieval construction site.

2. The city of Modena

First, what do you know about this ancient city? For me, besides the cathedral complex, which meets four out of the ten Criteria for Selection although only one is needed to be inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list, as a food lover, I knew it was famous for its production of balsamic vinegar, and as an opera lover, I knew it was the hometown of Luciano Pavarotti, who was born and died here. If you love cars, in particular sports cars, you probably know already that Modena is also known for its automotive industry since the factories of the famous Italian sports cars such as Ferrari, Lamborghini, and Maserati are, or were, located here, and both Ferrari and Maserati have their headquarters in the city or nearby. However, do you know that Enzo Ferrari, founder of Ferrari, was actually born in Modena and one of Ferrari’s cars, the 360 Modena, was named after the city itself?

Modena is, in my opinion, so Italian because of its “broken” buildings, “dirty” façades and “messy” streets. Please don’t think negatively of those words because without them, Italy wouldn’t be Italy. The city itself isn’t as clean as Zurich or as developed as New York but that’s why it’s lovely and special. It presents traces of history which are reflected on architecture, artworks and public spaces, and allows the curious and respectful minds to have a conversation with it.

3. Visit to the World Heritage site

Inscribed in 1997, this site has been managed and protected properly for more than 2o years. Therefore, its tourism has developed and matured and the visits are very well-organized nowadays. Why do I say so? In fact, this is one of the few cities I’ve been to in Europe where an all-inclusive ticket,which is entirely dedicated to the attractions related to their World Heritage, is available. In Modena, the ticket gives you access to the Ghirlandina Bell Tower (Torre Civica), Cathedral Museums, the historic rooms in Palazzo Comunale and the Municipal Balsamic Vinegar Factory and it only costs 6 euros per person. On the ticket, you can see the opening hours of the attractions. Please note, if you are visiting Modena on some bank holiday in Italy, I recommend you checking the news and events on the official website because adjusted opening hours may apply. The cathedral is not listed on the ticket because it can be visited free of charge. It’s open every day from 7:00 to 12:30 and from 15:30 to 19:00, but visits are not allowed during religious services or on Sunday mornings.

Unfortunately, during my visit, the interior of the cathedral was under restoration, but I visited the crypt and saw most of the artworks in the nave and aisles. In three posts, I’ll give you a detailed introduction to the property as well as some buildings in the buffer zone. The first post will be about the cathedral and Cathedral Museums, the second will be about the bell tower and the historic rooms in Palazzo Comunale, and the third will be about Piazza Grande and the Municipal Balsamic Vinegar Factory.

4. Piazza Grande

Piazza Grande was called Piazza del Duomo when it was founded in the 12th century and got its current name around the second half of the 17th century. Surrounded by the cathedralarchbishopric, building of a bank (where the Hall of Justice once stood) and town hall, the square witnessed the interweave of religious and civic lives of the Modenese.

First and foremost, the piazza functioned as a marketplace, where stalls were laid out and locals could sell and purchase goods. The local authority established the time of trade, which has been observed by “La Bonissima” since its erection in 1268. The mysterious female figure was first placed on the square in the Middle Ages and then moved to the arcade of Palazzo Comunale. Nowadays, it stands at the corner on Via Castellaro (as you can see in the 1st picture above). Tradition has it that she (Bona) was a kind Modenese noblewoman, who was always generous to the poor, but many people believe that the statue, which probably once held a scale in its hand, now lost, is the symbol of precision in measurement and scale, and therefore, fair trade. Even nowadays, the square still plays the ancient role and you can see and buy handicrafts, antiquities, old books etc. here. Secondly, as I saw and heard during my visit, on the square, in front of Porta Regia and Porta dei Principi, and under the arcade of the town hall, people met and chatted with their friends, exchanging their views on politics, religion and social events. Can you imagine how many secrets and how much gossip “La Bonissima” has heard over more than seven centuries? Thirdly, besides being a trading center and a meeting point, the square was where justice was administered. In the 4th picture above, at the corner of the arcade you should be able to spot a large stone slab (it looks small in the picture because I was a bit far from it), which is called the “Preda Ringadora” (Speaker’s Stone). It probably came from an ancient Roman building and was used in the Middle Ages not only as a stage for speakers, but also as a place for insulting the indebted, executing death sentences and displaying corpses so that someone could identify them.

Besides being the heart of civic life, it was from here that solemn religious processions started, which continued on the main city streets. Sometimes, even the City Council organized sacred precessions and performances in honor of the city’s patron saint, St. Geminianus, mostly because of his high popularity among the locals. In these cases, the roles of the sacred and the secular overlapped. During big events such as the birth of princes and election of an illustrious citizen to the cardinalate, the square became the center of celebration, crowded with numerous people. Although on most occasions both the political and religious powers shared the square harmoniously, inevitably there were conflicts. For example, between the 16th and 17th centuries, they couldn’t agree on the payment for restoring the Ghirlandina Bell Tower and even worse, there were many disputes over the balance of keeping the holiness of the square and developing local economy (opening of shops and stalls etc.).

At the beginning of the 20th century, restoration work was carried out on the cathedral, which was then isolated from the archbishopric and some other buildings. They marked the first sign of renovation on the ancient piazza. In the early 1950s, the piazza turned to be a parking lot, and in 1963, the Hall of Justice was destroyed to make space for the Cassa di Risparmio bank, which can still be seen nowadays. Since the second half of the 20th century, culture has been playing a vital role on Piazza Grande, where art exhibitions, concerts, lectures and debates were and are still being held. I remember during my visit, there was a campaign promoting communism. Advocating such an “exotic” system in front of an important catholic church and of a city hall in a capitalist country seemed rather unexpected to me, but I did admire the courage and enthusiasm of the advocators and the right to free speech.

Now let’s enter Palazzo Comunale and in its loft (attic), we will find the Municipal Balsamic Vinegar Factory.

5. Municipal Balsamic Vinegar Factory

The factory is located in the loft of Palazzo Comunale and is not open to individual visitors. You can only visit it in a guided tour, which illustrates the history and production of Traditional Balsamic Vinegar (TBV) accompanied by tasting sessions, but unfortunately is only in Italian. Is it worth joining if you can’t speak Italian? Although the admission is included in the all-inclusive ticket and by the end you can taste the authentic TBV, I found it boring sitting in the loft for an hour without understanding a word. Therefore I don’t recommend it, but I do hope in the future, such tours can be arranged in English as well so that more and more people around the world can gain insights into this particular tradition of Modena. The factory is run by the Traditional Balsamic Vinegar Consortium, which takes care of its management, maintenance and guided tours, and of the production, protection and promotion of this traditional, local product.

As you might have noticed above, I always wrote Traditional Balsamic Vinegar (TBV) beginning with capital letters. This is because this specific name, brand and product is protected under the European Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) system. Compared to the Balsamic Vinegar of Modena (BVM), which is protected under the European Protected Geographical Indication(PGI) system, TBV is much more expensive and exclusive. It must contain only grape must, and has to be aged for at least 12 years while the production of BVM allows the use of grape must (even if it is not from the provinces of Modena and Reggio Emilia) in percentages between 20% and 90% and wine vinegar between 10% and 80% and the use of caramel up to 2%.

As you can see in the 2nd picture above, I had chicken salad served with warm tigelle in a restaurant close to Piazza Grande for lunch and I have to say, that was one of the best salads I’ve ever had. First of all, the restaurant was so Italian because when some guests asked to sit outside but there wasn’t enough space anymore, the waiter just moved a table to the nearby square and served them there. Similar to that of the Spanish, the free spirit of the Italians never fails to attract me. Secondly, the tigelle (also called crescente), which are thin, 10cm round bread from the Apennines in the Modena area of Emilia-Romagna, were interesting and tasty. With salad, I ate them like normal bread, which was crunchy outside, soft inside and a bit salty. However, I saw that for some other people, the tigelle were cut half open so that they could stuff some ham or other dishes inside, which looked like naan in Xinjiang Province in China. Last but not least, as introduced on the menu, the balsamico used for the salad was PGI BVM, which was aged in wooden barrels for eight years. How did it taste? It was thicker and a bit sweeter than the balsamico I normally buy in supermarkets and I don’t know whether it was due to psychological factors or its actual high quality, it matched perfectly with the olive oil and vegetables. Please note, the vinegar I had on the salad was PGI BVM and the ones (aged 12 and 15 years respectively) I tried in the Municipal Balsamic Vinegar Factory were PDO TBV, which isn’t much served in normal restaurants because of its high price. How much does it cost? If I remember correctly, it was around 130 Euros/100ml. In general, PDO TBV is the most expensive and then there is PGI BVM, which is much cheaper and can be found easily in the supermarkets in Europe. The third category is “other balsamic condiments“, which depending on the recipes, can be even more expensive than TBV. Since we are visiting Modena, PDO TBV is certainly the best choice as an authentic and original souvenir, but please make sure to buy it in an official shop, one of which is located close to the tourism office. During my visit, I noticed many shops as well as bakeries selling balsamic condiments of various brands. Their bottling looked very nice but as a tourist, it was difficult for me to decide whether the products were worth the prices or not.

Because the TBV tour was in Italian, I didn’t understand much. Later I checked Wikipedia and gained some insights into TBV production. Now, I’ll give you some information and soon you will realize why it’s so expensive and yet much favored by gourmet lovers.

  • TBV is produced in two different geographical areas in the Emilia Romagna Region so that two different designations were granted by the European Council, that is to say, Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena (TBVM) and Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Reggio Emilia (TBVRE). The two products are very similar as the overall making procedure is the same.
  • Basic steps of making TBV include cooking of the grape must, alcoholic fermentation by yeasts, acetic oxidation by acetic acid bacteria, and slow aging within a barrel set.
  • During aging, the vinegar needs to go through a barrel set which is a series of at least five wooden casks arranged from big to small sizes. The casks are made of different kinds of wood such as oak, mulberry, ash, chestnut, cherry, juniper, and acacia, and each of them has a hole on the top, which is designed for inspection and maintenance activities. As time goes by, the vinegar concentrates as water evaporates through staves and that’s why the casks are getting smaller and smaller.
  • The making of TBV requires annual refilling, which consists of withdrawing a part of the vinegar from the smallest cask and topping it with the vinegar coming from the previous cask in the barrel set, and so on. The biggest cask receives newly cooked and acetified must. The refilling compensates not only for TBV withdrawn for bottling, but also for water evaporation, and possible vinegar leakages from the staves.

If you are curious, please click here and then click section 6, which shows a table making comparisons between TBV, BVM and other balsamic products in terms of production (starting materials, making procedure), presentation (legal aging, bottling, pricing), and characteristics (minimum density, minimum of total acidity, color, viscosity, sensory evaluation).

This is my last post about Modena Cathedral Complex and in it I focused on Piazza Grande, which was the focal point of the civic and religious lives of the Modenese. In addition, I introduced to you another treasure of the city, that is to say, the Traditional Balsamic Vinegar (TBV), which is protected under the European Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) system and is the only condiment in the world produced starting from cooked grape musts without the adding of other substances. If you think TBV is too expensive, I strongly recommend you trying PGI BVM aged in barrels, which is usually available in the restaurants in Modena. Besides the cathedral complex, if you are interested in culture and art, Galleria Estense is another attraction in Modena that you should not miss. It exhibits the “Bust of Francesco I d’Este” by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, “Madonna and Child (Madonna Campori)” by Correggio (Antonio Allegri), the Portable Altarpiece by El Greco, Fourteen panels illustrating Ovid’s Metamorphoses by Tintoretto (Jacopo Robusti), Four oval paintings of mythological figures by Annibale, Agostino and Ludovico Carracci, and many other masterpieces. As a painting lover, I’ll dedicate two posts to the artworks and their creators.

Modena Cathedral Complex (3/3) – Piazza Grande & Municipal Balsamic Vinegar Factory was last modified: April 23rd, 2020 by Dong

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