Delving into the Details at the Modena Cathedral in Northern Italy

The Modena Cathedral offers an elegant canvas onto which to watch the world go by in this enchanting northern Italian city. Commuters pedal past its weathered walls on bikes; a gentleman reads a newspaper on its stairs, made smooth from hundreds of years of wear; children ride sculpted lions, which appear to blush at times because of their pink marble composition; and a couple embraces.

It’s also enjoyable to change perspective and look at the bustling piazza and lively cafés while sitting atop the cathedral’s foundation. We did just that one sunny afternoon while enjoying a picnic of twisted breadsticks, Sicilian cheese, and Pesto Genovese — all procured from Modena’s nearby Albinelli Market.

The Romanesque cathedral’s construction began in 1099, but modifications continued until the 14th century. The product of this patient construction are stunning decorations that have stood the test of time. Today, they continue to tell biblical stories through imagery of saints, flora, fauna — even imaginary creatures.

Modena’s cathedral was designed by Lanfranco, and features work done by sculptor Wiligelmo. Since the cathedral took more than 200 years to complete, Lanfranco and Wiligelmo were succeeded by a series of other workmen. The cathedral was added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 1997. Inside, its crypt houses the remains of St. Geminianus, Modena’s patron saint.

Modena Cathedral Detail Exterior
The cathedral’s main entrance. On the left, you can see the The Ghirlandina Tower, which was completed in 1319. In Italian, its nickname means ‘Tower of the Garlands’ because of its elegant decorations. It provided the vantage point for guards to watch over Modena’s town hall as well as its city center.
Duomo di Modena Cathedral exterior architecture

Modena Cathedral Detail

Piazza Duomo Modena Italy
On the right, Shawn mingles with one of two sculpted lions which support columns on the cathedral’s entryway. The lion pair dates back to the 2nd Century AD, and it’s believed they were incorporated into the cathedral’s design after being unearthed. Present-day Modena grew out of a former Roman colony named Mutina.
Duomo di Modena Italy Details
A boy plays hide & seek with a black balloon sword in hand. On the right, one of many saints carved into the cathedral’s exterior.
Duomo Modena Cathedral Architecture

Duomo Modena Cathedral Lion
Detail of the 1,900+ year-old lion sculpture.
Duomo di Modena Exterior
The cathedral’s details, such as these wedding-cake like carvings are incredible. On the right, a girl sits atop a lion on the south-eastern side of the cathedral, known as the Porta Regia.
Duomo di Modena Lions Children Playing

Modena Cathedral Detail Exterior

Duomo di Modena Cathedral architecture

Duomo di Modena Italy
The cathedral’s rose window, which dates back to the 12th Century.
Duomo di Modena Crucifix Interior
A gold crucifix dating back to the 14th Century. The Duomo’s crypt houses the tomb of Geminianus, Modena’s patron saint.

Where in the World?

Planning Pointers:

  • Determine opening hours and other details on the Modena Cathedral website.
  • While in Modena, we spent 3 nights at the elegant, historic, and centrally-located Hotel Canalgrande. One of our favorite memories from Modena, in fact, was sitting out on our hotel room balcony just before sunset, looking out over Modena’s rooftops, while enjoying goodies that we’d procured at the Albinelli Market earlier in the day.
  • Peruse the Emilia-Romagna Tourist Board and Modena websites for more details about Modena’s and the region’s rich offerings. The tourist board just recently released a free e-book that chronicles Emilia-Romagna’s Art Cities. I wish it’d been published when we were in the region, yet it’s since presented even more excuses to return to this stunning part of Italy.
  • If you’d also like to “eat, feel and live local in Italy” as we did in Modena, check out the BlogVille project website.
  • Need more inspiration? This link contains an index of all my posts from Italy.


Disclosure & Thanks:

Our Modena visit was supported by the Emilia-Romagna Tourist Board, to which we extend thanks.

An extra special thank you to Nick and Francesca for coordinating the details and making us feel so welcome in Emilia-Romagna.

Photography & text © Tricia A. Mitchell. All Rights Reserved.

Published by Tricia A. Mitchell

Tricia A. Mitchell is a freelance writer and photographer. Born in Europe but raised in the United States, she has lived in Valletta, Malta; Heidelberg, Germany; and Split, Croatia. An avid globetrotter who has visited more than 65 countries, she has a penchant for off-season travel. Tricia has learned that travel’s greatest gift is not sightseeing, rather it is the interactions with people. Some of her most memorable experiences have been sharing a bottle of champagne with distant French cousins in Lorraine, learning how to milk goats in a sleepy Bulgarian village, and ringing in the Vietnamese New Year with a Hanoi family. She welcomes any opportunity to practice French and German, and she loves delving into a place’s history and artisanal food scene. A former education administrator and training specialist, Tricia has a bachelor’s degree in elementary education and a master’s degree in international relations. She and her husband, Shawn, married in the ruins of a snowy German castle. They’ve been known to escape winter by basing themselves in coastal Croatia or Southeast Asia. Her writing has appeared in Fodor’s Travel, Frommer’s, and International Living.

10 thoughts on “Delving into the Details at the Modena Cathedral in Northern Italy

  1. Tricia, I do love these details – weathered, yet intricate. Romanesque has always been such an appealing style to me. I find the lions they carved to be almost from the Wizard of Oz with their luxuriant manes and downturned mouths. Truly beautiful photos. Are you and Shawn still in the area, or have you moved on? ~Terri

    1. Terri, I hadn’t made that connection with the Wizard of Oz lion, but I absolutely agree! If I read the brochure correctly, the lion that Shawn’s petting was actually sculpted by the Romans, later unearthed, and ‘borrowed’ by the designers of this cathedral. Pretty fascinating!

      As for us, I regret that I haven’t been able to keep up with all your adventures on Gallivance lately, or my site. It’s been a bit of a wild summer, and you know how it is setting up new ‘systems’ in your temporary home away from home. After Italy, we had a brief stop in Germany, then on to Serbia, then to Spain and France to visit Shawn’s parents, then back to Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia again, and now Bulgaria. Bulgaria is our home for at least the next few weeks and we’re loving living in a tiny village. Hopefully more on that soon.

      Where does this weekend find you two?

  2. Such amazing detail in the marble! I wonder if there was a grand plan of those intricate carvings before they started or if the craftsmen made it up as they went along?

    1. Melinda, that’s an intriguing question. Considering that the construction of the cathedral took so long, there must have been some varying interpretations taking place. :) In a region that’s seismically-active, it’s also impressive that these churches have stood the test of time.

    1. Gerard, Modena has a plethora of wonderful architecture and history, and that’s why I couldn’t resist highlighting this grand cathedral. I’m glad you enjoyed the images. :)

  3. ciao Tricia, i love the picture of kids on the lions of the Porta Regia.. you know, each kid in Modena has a picture on those lions:) it’s a tradition for us :)

    1. Francesca, thanks for sharing that fun tidbit from Modena. As we people-watched by the duomo, it did seem that the lions are a favorite attraction for the children! I wonder how many kids have sat atop them over the centuries? :)

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