Together with the Cathedral and the tower Ghirlandina, since 1997 also Piazza Grande has been declared UNESCO World Heritage. It has aways been the heart of the town, the place where the religious and civil power meet (the Palazzo Comunale - Town Hall - is also here). All the historic events of Modena took place here, from the burial of the Patron Saint Geminiano in 397 to the building of the church, from the birth of the free City-Republic to executions, from the “liberty-trees” during the Revolution to the High Masses, finally to the market which made the place a ‘Piazza delle erbe’ until the beginning of the XIX century.
Originating from the XII century, the square was called ‘Grande’ in the XVII. Its shape has changed many times during the dacades. Nowadays it is a big space, widened by the adjacent Piazza Torre°° and by Corso Duomo, making an open space around the Cathedral.
The scene is dominated by the southern side of the Duomo, enriched by two portals, the pulpit and inscriptions. Behind it, the wonderful Ghirlandina is the symbol of the city. The north-eastern corner is occupied by the Town Hall, with the spacious XVII century-portico and the tower (with the big clock and the balcony with the statue of the ‘Immacolata’).
On the west side stands the Palazzo dell’Arcivescovado stands, a sober building in brick. The plaques celebrate the sacrifice of the Modenese martyres executed in the square in 1944.
In front of the Cathedral, the southern part of the piazza housed from 1883 to 1967 the Courthouse, built with porticoes, columns and statues. Nowadays, however, it has been substituted by the building planned by the famous architect Giò Ponti. Straight ahead, the street on the left is via Albinelli, which leads to Piazza XX Settembre and to the charming Covered Market°°; on the right, via Selmi goes to via dei Servi°° (from here one can get the best view of the Piazza Grande).
Apart from these principal elements, in the square there are also some Modenese peculiarities.
Behind the apses of the Cathedral, the so-called Preda Ringadora is a big block of Veronese limestone. During the Middle Ages, it was used as the stone of shame (one whose business was fraudulently bancrupt had to wear a hat with a C –condensing the latin cedo bonis – and to walk for three times around the piazza followed by a trumpeter; then to put his bare backside on the stone where stinging turpentine has been spread: so he could be assolved); as a platform to harangue the crowd (from this the dialectal name); as a place to show those who died of a violent death and could be recognized; probably as a place of execution (for example the so-called ‘lingua di giova’: great blasphemers had a nail driven in their tongues).
Near the Preda Ringadora, on the ground, besides the plaque dedicated to UNESCO, there are the painted black stars with Garibaldi’s face, the symbol of the ‘Fronte Democratico Popolare’, the left-wing party in the important political elections of 1948.
Every Carnival, on the Thursday before Lent, the city masker, Sandrone (with his wife Pulonia and their son Sgurghighelo) addresses a speech (the so-called ‘sproloquio’) to the Modenese. It is maybe the only case in Italy of political satire from the balcony of the Town Hall itself, possible thanks to the ancient tradition that Carnival has in Modena.
Another detail of the Piazza is built into the corner of the Town Hall with via Castellaro: it is the statue of the so-called Bonissima, one of the symbols of Modena. The versions about its history are many, but certainly it was carved before 1268, probably in the same years as the metopes of the Duomo. This woman, simply dressed, with a long ponytail down to her shoulder, could be Matilde di Canossa, whose lands Modena belonged to; for others, she is a benefactress, Bona, who donated wheat during a famine. The most likely version, however, is that she is the symbol of the ‘Buona Stima’, the Municipal Office that had to guarantee the correctness of weights and measures (like the ones carved in the apses of the Duomo).