According to many, the Palazzo Ducale of Modena is the number one Baroque palace in Europe, the first place where the rules of the XVII century art were fully applied. It is imposing and extremely rich in art and history, a jewel worthy of the ambitions of its creator. For dimension and pomp it can be considered among of the greatest residences of the continent.
The Palazzo is built where once an ancient castle stood, built in 1291 by Obizzo d’Este, Marchese of Ferrara, and then rebuilt half a century later. Here the many Modenese canals flowed and still flow underground. They flowed south towards the Po, joining round the moat of the castle and then flowing together out of the back along where viale Vittorio Emanuele II° is now.
When, in 1598, the capital of the Estense Dukedom became Modena (Ferrara had been forcedly passed on the Pope), Cesare I set himself up in the fortress. However, it was unfit for an European court, one of the richest of the Italian Renaissance. So, Francesco I, maybe one of the best Dukes that Modena ever had, decided to build a new and wonderful palace, more than twice as big as the former one. He trusted the project to the most famous architects of the period: first Girolamo Rainaldi in the years 1631-2, then Bartolomeo Avanzini looked after the construction. Gian Lorenzo Bernini designed the grand staircase and the large windows at the top of the facade; Francesco Borromini was consulted as he was a rival of Gian Lorenzo; finally Pietro da Cortona.
The work begun with the east wing, where the ancient castle stood, and continued until the XIX century.
The facade is solid but harmonious. It is characterized by the lateral towers, reminescent of the previous building, and by the central bigger one. There are coupled windows, made in marble on the right and painted on the left. The floors are marked with cornices; the freize has Estense eagles between oval windows. The top crowned with statues: of the XVII century on the left and in the centre (from the right: Mercury, Pallas, Juno, Hercules; Time, Strenght, Virtue and Mars); on the right, by Giuseppe Graziosi, created in the early XX century (from the right: Venus, Bacchus, Ceres, Vulcan).
The central tower is extremely rich, decorated with five orders of columns placed on the top. Next to the portal (which is surmounted by an eagle), the two XVI century statues by Prospero Spani with Hercules and Marcus Aemilius Lepidus. A huge window with caryatid open on the balcony where Kings and Popes showed themselves over the centuries. The higher floors take up the theme of the lateral wings. The clock on the top was built in 1757, according to the new French vogue.
After the main portal, the Memorial stands, inaugurated by the King of Italy Vittorio Emanuele III in 1929. On the walls, the names of the dead in the wars fought by Italy (most of all, the two world wars). On the gate, two writings (one of them in Latin «Una acies») recalls the function of the Palace. It is in fact the most prestigious Military Academy in Italy.
Beyond the gates, there is certainly one of the best international example of a Baroque courtyard: it is quadrangular and has a succession of Palladian arches (“serliane”) in the Doric and Ionic style. Among them, the statues which decorates the loggias.
On the left of the court, open the grand staircase. Its flights are projected to mount up through a square perspective. Along the stairs, stand some statues from Villa d’Este in Tivoli (among them, Minerva was put in the square outside the palace during the French revolution, as a symbol of Liberty). It is said that the staircase could be mounted on horseback. It is very similar to the one in Palazzo Barberini in Rome.
From the loggias of the first floor, one can reach the historic rooms of the Palazzo Ducale. Some are occupied by the Museum of the Military Academy°°, others were the apartment of the court, and are nowadays the officers club.
The first one is the Noble Guards’ room, anteroom to the Private Audience room. The ceiling is coffered, in gold and silver, typical of the XVII century style. Then, the Stringa’s gallery takes its name from Francesco Stringa, the Modenese artist who painted the ceiling in the XVII century. Successively, the rooms which were the private study of the Duke Francesco IV and its private registry. The Private Audience room has one of the best and most ancient coffered ceiling in the palace, in pure gold with a huge, rich frieze. The Coffee room has decorations in magnificent purple. The so called golden room has a surprising golden ceiling with mirrors. The Oval room of columns was once used as a dining room.
The Galleria dei Bronzi and the Colleoni room come next: the latter conserves a big table under which a dwarf spy could hide to listen to what people said and then tell the Duke. On the walls, portraits of the Estense family. The Stringa room is decorated by a fresco on the ceiling by Francesco Stringa, representing the wedding of Cupid and Psyche (medallion by Antonio Traeri).
From here, the Ball room or of the ceremonies, the biggest room in the palace, finished in the XVIII century thanks to the Duke Francesco III. The wooden ceiling was painted by Marcantonio Franceschini in 1695 with Jupiter who crowns Bradamante, claimed to be the founder of the Estense dynasty. The panels are by Enrico Haffner.
The rooms in the right wing of the palace are decorated with symple rococo friezes. One of them, the Throne room, leads to the extraordinary Gold drawing room. It is the little room built by Francesco III according to the project of Francesco Salvadori in 1756. It is entirely covered by removable panels decorated in pure gold leaf: one of the most remarkable works of European XVIII century art. Here, Duke Francesco IV signed the death warrant of the patriot Ciro Menotti (1831).
Going out, on the right is corso Canal Grande°°, the east side of the Ducal Palace can be seen (there is a huge garden and a terrace with gabled windows). From corso Cavour, the north wing has a wonderful XIX century courtyard, decorated with Estense eagles. Then, the side along via 3 Febbraio 1831 is the most recent and uniform (from here, a good view of one of the tower and on the Ghirlandina).
[Images by the Author with the kind permission of the Academy]