The lovely bell tower in Modena is attached to the duomo and is known as the Ghirlandina. It makes a very impressive first glance when framed by the ubiquitous arcades of the city.
Standing alongside the apse of the cathedral, 89.32 meters tall, is the Ghirlandina bellt ower, the symbol of the city of Modena. The Ghirlandina was given this nickname by the city’s inhabitants due, perhaps, to the double ring of parapets that crown its steeple, “as light as garlands.” The word for garland in Italian is ghirlanda.
Built as the belltower for the cathedral, this tower has however played an important civic function since its origins: the ringing of its bells marked the time for life in the city, it announced the opening of the gates in the city walls and acting as a warning for the people in situations of alarm and danger.
Its mighty walls guarded the so-called “Sacristy” of the Municipality, which was home to the strongboxes, public documents and objects of great symbolic value like the famous fourteenth-century “Secchia rapita” or Stolen Bucket (a copy is currently on display). This humble yet supreme object of contention between the people of Modena and Bologna in the enflamed historic battle of Zappolino (1325) was raised to fame in the mock-heroic poem of the same name by Alessandro Tassoni.
Debate regarding the chronology of the Ghirlandina is still open because direct historic sources are missing for the initial building stages. By about 1160 the foundations were being dug and the tower was built to a height of 11 metres. Between 1167 and 1184, after a brief pause due to settlement of the site, building reached the fifth floor, topped by four corner turrets. In 1260 the sixth storey was built, which incorporated the turrets. In 1319, the tower was completed with the octagonal pinnacle, exquisitely gothic and originally decorated by numerous spires, to plans by Enrico da Campione.
The outside of the Ghirlandina is characterised by a rich array of sculptures and by stone cladding, the material salvaged from the Roman town know as “Mutina,” as revealed by scientific investigations carried out during the recent renovation work, started in 2007 and completed in 2011.
Inside the Ghirlandina, on the fifth floor there is the so-called Stanza dei Torresani, once lived in by the tower custodians and where important capitals can be admired.
Together with the cathedral and Piazza Grande, the Ghirlandina belltower has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1997.
When the tower was finished as we see it today in 1588, a solemn ceremony was held during which, 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 Populus Que Mutinensis, which in Latin means ‘Senate and People of Modena’).
One of the most interesting things to me about the bell tower is this memorial from WWII placed on its base and dutifully commemorated with the wreath with ribbons the color of the Italian flag. This is a distinctive memorial form that I have noted in other places in Emilia-Romagna, such as in Bologna. I’ve not seen this form in other regions. Certainly not in Tuscany.
Pictures of those who lost their lives in the war are included.
Under the memorial wreath, on the day that I visited, were these little sprigs of mums with a tag that says they are symbols of ending domestic violence. I saw them in other places around town.