Modenesi are sure with good reason that the Ghirlandina is the best bell tower in the world.
Its history is as old as the one of the Cathedral. Undisputed symbol of the town, for nearly one thousand years it rises 86.12 metres over the roofs of Modena. The light stone covering the Ghirlandina make it rich and bright; its proportions are harmonic and elegant.
The name derives, according to some, from the garlands which decorate the spire (the ballustrade in the octagonal part); for others, from the Giralda in Seville (Spain), the tower that a certain numbers of Jewish people in Modena recognized as similar.
Two parts are clearly recognizable. The first six floors are square and are contemporary with the Cathedral: the first five were finished by 1184, the sixth has a window with three lights and was realized within 1261. Then, the bell tower remained unfinished, also for serious stability problems: subsidence causing an inclination still visible through the Cathedral.
The Modenese, sensitive to the Gothic style of the time, called Arrigo da Campione to finish the Ghirlandina. He decided to create a high octagonal spire decorated with two balconies with pinnacles (now removed), inclining in the opposite direction, to correct the slant. The work was finished in 1319. Another event of subsidence caused the two arches connecting the tower to the Cathedral to be built, probably in 1338. Only in 1588 was the tower finished off as we see it today. With a solemn ceremony, using an external ladder, the cross was put on the top, soldered to the golden sphere where an urn contains relics of the Patron Saint of the city, Geminiano (on the outside, S.P.Q.M. is written, that is Senatus PopulusQue Mutinensis, which in latin means ‘Senate and People of Modena’).
The tower has not only bee used for religious purposes, but also for civil and defensive ones. Looking at the detail of the reliefs, a part from the Roman ones and human and natural figures, one can see subjects connected with this purpose. For example: Medusa petrifing enemies, a Triton taming marine monsters, frightful lions, an eagle flying from the second floor, a crow warning of danger, two warriors saving a girl, another killing a kid, King David playing a harp.
The interior is extremely interesting. After a short stairs, one comes to the bare atrium, formerly used, like other spaces of the Ghirlandina, as an archive. These rooms were once accessible only from the arches of the Cathedral: so they were really safe.
The room of the Secchia Rapita, was painted with frescoes in the XIV century with stars and draperies. The original war trophy taken from the Bolognese in the battle of Zappolino (1325) is now in the ‘Camerino dei Confirmati’ in the Town Hall.
After a few more steps, the dizzy staircase climbs to the top, passing through arches in the thick walls. Almost 200 steps up to the Stanza dei Torresani (that is the ‘Room of the tower inhabitants’), once used by those who had to signal possible danger for the town. On a wall, the Modenese coat of arms is surmounted by an Estense eagle. Amongst the windows, a pair of beautiful capitals: the one for the Judges warns about the goodness of magistrates (and probably recalls when an ill-intentioned intruder penetrated the tower, in 1224); the other one, dedicated to David, represents the King with dancers. From one of the windows on the north side, on the 29 november 1938, the editor Angelo Fortunato Formiggini, inventor of the famous “Laughs’ series”, threw himself off to protest against the Jewish racial laws. A plaque on the Town Hall remembers his sacrifice.
From the windows there is also the best view of Modena, in particular on Piazza Grande, the Town Hall, Piazza Mazzini°°, the church of the Voto°, the Palazzo Ducale°°.
On the top floor, the bells (the biggest weights more than two tons), strike the hours everyday. Then, the spiral staircase built in wood in the XVII century leads to the balconies and to the top of the Ghirlandina.
[Images by the Author with the kind permission of the Duomo]