The place where the Palazzo Comunale stands nowadays is the same in which, since the birth of the City-Republic in the XII century, the public authorities have had their seat. Thanks to this hystorical continuity, the whole square, and not only the Cathedral, has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage.
The vast edifice is the result of numerous modifications over the decades.
The area, between the XI and XV centuries, was occupied by no less than twelve palaces: from the ancient Palacium Urbis Mutinae to the Palatium Vetus, from the Palazzo dei Notai (where the original arches in the left section on Piazza Grande are still well visible nowadays) to the more recent Palazzo del Marchese d’Este. The Town Hall is therefore approximately divided into three parts, between Piazza Grande and via Emilia°°, via Scudari and via Castellaro.
The facade on the via Emilia°° is divided into two wings by the Piazzetta delle Ova. The first one, through the Ghirlandina, was designed by Pietro Termanini in the second half of the XVIII century; the other one (on via Scudari and via Castellaro) by Giovan Battista Massari at the same period, but with a more evident eighteenth-century taste.
The above-mentioned Piazzetta delle Ova takes its name from the eggs (‘uova’ in Italian) which were sold here during the ancient daily market and it is dominated by the transparent clock (1868). Its mechanism is a true miracle, invented by Ludovico Gavioli: it shows the time also in Piazza Grande, even though between the two faces there are fourty metres of distance, many metres of drop and transversal surfaces!
Under the right portico, a mosaic represents the ancient coat of arms of Modena (XII century) and plaques on the walls commemorates the Modenese troops on the Mincio in 1848, the fellow townsmen killed during the Wars of Independence and Pietro Giannone.
About the middle of via Scudari (the eastern wing of the Palazzo), there is the oldest part of the construction: the Medieval courtyard with the statue of the Perseus (once in Palazzo Campori). The marble handrail to the first floor and the wooden beams give, even nowadays, a really Medieval taste to this entrance.
However, the main front of the Town Hall is on Piazza Grande, characterized by marble arches according to the project by Raffaele Rinaldi known as the Menia. The imposing tower with the clock, formerly ‘arengario del popolo’, was built between the end of the XV and the beginning of the XVI century (the small dome was designed in 1508 by Bartolomeo Bonascia and ends with a weathervane of an angel over four faces). In the tower one can admire the superimposition of the orders of stone columns, the work of Antonio Tagliapietra, and the big clock by Ludovico Gavioli (surrounded by nice sculptures representing the winds). The balcony is dominated by the Immacolata (Giuseppe Mazza is its sculptor), placed here during the visit of Pope Pius VII in Modena (on the pedestal which formerly belonged to the equestrian monument to the Duke Francesco III in Piazza Sant’Agostino°°). From this balcony also King Vittorio Emanuele III of Savoy appeared while he was in Modena, in 1929.
On the left of the tower, the sort of roof ridge in bricks is all that remains of an ancient tower (now called ‘mozza’), where the most important documents were conserved and where the executions were also carried out. Seriously damaged by the 1501 earthquake, it was demolished some years later, however it is represented in many ancient paintings of Modena.
Along the portico, under the huge arch which leads to Piazzetta delle Ova and then to Piazza Mazzini°°, on the right, there is the Tourist Information Office (IAT). On the ground, some ruins show that ancient buildings once stood here; the ceiling is wonderfully painted with the constellations over the sky of Modena.
Then, the main monumental staircase opens on the square, built with a single flight in 1563 by Pellegrino Rinaldi, with a beautiful gate with the municipal coat of arms on it. On the first floor, where this staircase crosses the other medieval one from Via Scudari, on the walls of the loggia one can admire several marble plaques. One is dedicated to the Gold Medal for Military Valour given to Modena for the Partisan Resistance movement; another to Raimondo Montecuccoli, unconquered general of the XVII century who, leading the Imperial troops, stopped the Ottoman advance. Two plaques commemorate the martyrs of the First World War; the bulletin of victory – signed by general Armando Diaz – is reproduced in a fifth one. Francesco Guicciardini, governor of Modena in the Papal period (XVI century) is remembered as a Florentine aristocrat; Ferruccio Teglio and Alfeo Corassori were mayors in the first half of the past century; Alessandro Coppi president of the provincial commettee of liberation; the last plaque is dedicated to Enrico Cialdini, Modenese general of many battles during the Italian Risorgimento.
On the left there is the entrance to the most historic rooms of the Town Hall.
The entrance gallery, once seat of the municipal notice board, is now embellished with classical canvases by local artists who were able to participate in the award set up in 1872 by the great Modenese architect Luigi Poletti (they are Giovanni Muzzioli, Eugenio Zampighi, Massimiliano Prandini, Ernesto Parmeggiani).
The door on the right leads to the Torre Mozza room, where parts of what was the ancient municipal tower, destroyed in 1501, can still be seen. On the walls, paintings by artists of the XX century. The next room conserves portaits of the most famous Modenesi by Girolamo Vannulli (XVIII century) and beautiful settles painted with the municipal symbols. Here the most important rooms of the palace begin.
The first one is the so-called Camerino dei Confirmati, a communicating room decorated with a trompe l’oeil (1770) by Giuseppe Carbonari and busts by Girolamo Vannulli representing Bartolomeo Schedoni, Francesco Vellani, Ercole dell’Abate and Francesco Vaccari. In front of the window is collocated the famous Secchia Rapita (that is the “Stolen bucket”), a war trophy captured against the Bolognesi in the battle of Zappolino in 1325. Conserved for 650 years in the Ghirlandina tower, now it is substituted by a copy there. Its history inspired to Alessandro Tassoni to write the famous mock-heroic poem “La Secchia Rapita” (1622).
The Sala del Fuoco is on the right, the name originated from the huge fireplace where street traders could get embers to warm themself. On the walls, one of the most important cycles of paintings on a of historical theme of the XVI century. Niccolò dell’Abate (dying in Fontainbleau, where he worked for the King of France, in 1571) painted the decorations representing the Battle of Modena (44 b.C.) following the project of Ludovico Castelvetro. Starting from the left of the window in front of the entrance, Brutus prepares for the battle against Antonius, who had besieged Modena; the two armies fight; Antonius, Octavian and Lepidus meet; Brutus and Octavian on the Lavino river. On the chimney piece, Hercules kills the lion. The ceiling is surrounded by a Doric frieze with the city coat of arms, and a wonderful coffered centre with a big yellow and blue shield, the colours of the city (by Giacomo Cavazza, Alberto Fontana and Ludovico Brancolini, XVI century).
Coming back to the Camerino dei Confirmati, a sting of historic rooms starts.
The first is the Sala del Vecchio Consiglio, where the government of Modena met, before moving to another wing of the Town Hall. The twelve wooden high backed chairs were made in the XVI century; the walls are decorated with gold coloured silk. In front of the windows, there is the imposing canvas by Ludovico Lana Madonna con Bambino e San Geminiano (1633). Formerly, it was a processional standard: the Patron Saint of Modena offers the city to the Virgin (interesting to note that the “Torre Mozza” is represented). The rich ceiling was painted by Bartolomeo Schedoni and Ercole dell’Abate (a descendant of Niccolò) in 1608. In the centre the Ducal symbols (the eagles) and the municipal symbols (the drills) unite; in the lateral pictures, Coriolano, Mencio Tebano, Ercole Gallico and the Sette Armonie Greche. In the frieze, by Francesco Vellani, The story of San Geminiano (1766).
Then, the Sala degli Arazzi, once the archive, seat of the “Conservatori” and the Mayor’s office. In spite of the name (“arazzi” means tapestries), on the walls there are mural paintings by Girolamo Vannulli and Francesco Maria Vaccari. They represent the Peace of Constance, at the origin of the free City-Republic in the years of the Lombard League. The treaty is prepared, the ‘podestà’ (chief-governor) is surrounded by his hencemen, the treaty is finally signed. On the chimney piece, Abundance; in the centre of the ceiling, Charity. Well done are the tempera paintings, with the urns over the doors. The drop-leaf table was made in 1767 by Giacomo Manzini.
The last room is the Sala dei Matrimoni, the ceiling is occupied by the symbol of the Municipality, held up by two angels. Once the room was used as an archive. In a corner, the little organ was made in 1861. On the walls, canvases by the most famous Modenese painter of the XIX century, Adeodato Malatesta (1806-1891); among them, Filottete, Adorazione del Bambino and many classical portaits of the most important families of the period.
Among the other rooms of the Palace, the Sala delle Bifore with what is left of the ancient Palazzo dei Notai (or della Ragione); the prison, where prominent patriots were locked up, such as don Giuseppe Andreoli and Antonio Morandi; the Sala dei Passi perduti, for the last moments of those sentenced to death, decorated with delicate XVIII century-frescoed trompe l’oeil; the ‘acetaia comunale’ (town vinegar store), built in 2003 to protect, even in the Palazzo Comunale, the precious Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena.
[Images by the Author with the kind permission of the Town Hall]