In and Around Modena on the Trail of the House of Este

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For history buffs or anyone who can’t get enough of the lives and times of royals long past, this excursion has more than a few thrills in store. Two days to discover the Dynasty of the House of Este, whose rule extended over much of the Po River valley. The focus of this itinerary is the history of the Estes in the City of Modena, where Duke Cesare Este arrived in 1598. Let’s explore, one stop at a time.

  • Length
    48 hours
  • Interests
    Art & Culture
  • Target
  • First Stop: Piazza Grande Modena

    We begin our journey in the soul of Modena: the Modena Cathedral, the Ghirlandina Tower, and Piazza Grande. As a group, these buildings were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997. The “wow factor” is guaranteed.

    Construction of the Modena Cathedral began in 1099, and it remains one of the most significant examples of Romanesque-style art in Europe. The Cathedral is a rare and beautiful gem designed by the great architect, artist, and builder Lanfranco, who incorporated the work of another master, the sculptor Wiligelmo. The Cathedral is often called a “book in stone,” and, on its fascinating exterior, you’ll see exquisitely sculpted depictions-in-relief of stories from the Bible.

    Connected to the Cathedral by two arches is the Ghirlandina Tower, the Cathedral’s bell tower and the symbol of Modena. Elegant and proud, this splendid structure, beloved by Modena’s residents, soars to a height of eight-nine meters.

    From its earliest days, the bells of the Ghirlandina Tower told the city’s residents the time and called people to safety when danger threatened.

    Be sure to include a climb up the 200 steps of the Ghirlandina Tower in your plans. From the top you’ll enjoy a spectacular 360° view of the city—a truly special experience!

    The Museums of the Cathedral are next to the entrance to the Ghirlandina Tower. The Museums are closely tied to the history of the Cathedral and are divided into two sections: one contains fragments of sculpture from the Modena Cathedral and earlier structures and the other conserves art works and furnishings that bear witness to the Cathedral’ s vitality over the centuries.

    Admission to the Cathedral is free.

    The Palazzo Comunale is also located on Piazza Grande, where you can visit the historical rooms of the Palazzo and the city’s vinegar cellar. It’s a great opportunity to get a glimpse into the history and culture of balsamic vinegar, considered the “black gold” of Modena.

    When it’s time for lunch, there’s nothing but choice in the city center.

    Numerous restaurants offer local Modena specialties made with PDO (protected designation of origin) and PGI (protected geographical indication) products. Or consider a pleasant stop at the historic Albinelli Market, housed in an Art-Nouveau-style building and frequented by Modena’s residents. Here, in addition to buying local specialty products, enjoy a tasty meal at one of the many restaurants inside.

    Albinelli Market is a great way to immerse yourself in the real Modena!

  • Second Stop: Este Gallery Modena

    From the medieval heart of the city, head toward downtown, at one time the fulcrum of life for the Este duchy.

    Following historic Via Emilia, which the Este dukes transformed into a primary city artery, you’ll arrive in Largo Porta Sant’Agostino, where Este Duke Francesco III had a Hostel for the Poor built, designed by the architect Pietro Termanini. The “albergo” was intended to provide employment and support for the dispossessed as well as to unite the city’s charitable services under one roof. Work began in 1764 and was completed in 1771.

    The building was used for various purposes until 1881, when the City of Modena purchased a part of the property and set it aside for what is now the Palazzo dei Musei, home to many of the city’s cultural institutions.

    The fifth floor of this imposing building is dedicated to a demonstration of the Estes’ passion for collecting: the Este Gallery, among the most important and oldest Italian national galleries.

    The Gallery is home to an impressive array of paintings, sculptures, and decorative arts as well as various niche collections including drawings, bronzes, majolica, medals, ivories, and musical instruments.

    The Palazzo dei Musei also houses the Este Library. Founded by the Estes at the end of the 14th century, the library conserves an impressive number of illuminated books and manuscripts along with other works of enormous literary, historical, and artistic importance. One of the most spectacular pieces is the Bible that belonged to the Este Duke Borso.

    The Church of St. Augustine (Sant’Agostino) stands next to the Palazzo dei Musei. The church was rebuilt by Duchess Laura Martinozzi, the widow of Duke Alfonso IV, who hoped to transform it into an Este Pantheon, though that plan never materialized. Instead, the Church of St. Vincent (San Vincenzo) ultimately served that purpose, and one of its chapels became the final resting place for members of the Duke's family.

  • Third Stop: Ducal Gardens Modena

    The itinerary continues with a walk through the streets of the historical center. Once you reach Canalgrande, which the nobles of the time considered the official route for promenades, follow it until you arrive at the Church of St. Vincent (San Vincenzo). Inside, you’ll find the Este Funerary Chapel built by Francesco IV in 1836 to house the earthly remains of the Este dukes who, until that point, had been buried in various churches around the city.

    From there, continue to the Ducal Gardens and the elegant Palazzina dei Giardini. Built in the 17th century by Este Duke Francesco I as a recreation center for the Este court, today it hosts international exhibitions and programs sponsored by the Modena Foundation for the Visual Arts. Take a pleasant stroll in the gardens’ greenery in summer or, if you visit during colder weather, admire the fall colors of the centuries-old trees and enjoy the tranquility of this well-known city park.

  • Fourth Stop: Ducal Palace Modena

    Once you’ve caught your breath, it’s time to make an appearance in the royal court! 

    Once in Piazza Roma, no one can help being struck by the majesty of the Ducal Palace, now home to the Military Academy. The Este court once lived in this elegant and imposing building. The exterior alone is breathtaking, but the interiors are no less amazing for their harmony, their magnificent décor, and the splendor of their frescoes and furnishings. 

    We enthusiastically encourage a visit to the Ducal Palace, which is open to the public only on Saturdays and Sundays and exclusively through guided tours that require advance reservations.

  • Fifth Stop: The Ducal Palace in Sassuolo Sassuolo

    Continue your journey with a visit to the vivacious town of Sassuolo, which is also the capital of the ceramics district. The ancient House of Este castle in Sassuolo was transformed by Duke Francesco I into a modern suburban residence for the court.

    Today, the Ducal Palace in Sassuolo is one of the most important Baroque-style residences in northern Italy. With its murals, stucco work, and beautiful sculptures, it is a masterpiece of art and architecture that captivates anyone who visits its sumptuous rooms.

    Be sure to take note of the exterior as well and of the Peschiera, a phenomenal structure, powered by a hydraulic mechanism, that once served as the duke’s fish farm. Today, it recalls a spectacular stage set for a “theater of fountains.” The neighboring grounds were once much larger and served as a hunting reserve for the use of the Este dukes.

  • Sixth Stop: Spezzano Castle in Fiorano Fiorano Modenese

    From the graceful atmosphere of the Este “Delight” in Sassuolo, the itinerary moves on to Spezzano, a hamlet near Fiorano Modenese, and to its castle. This intriguing fortress is linked to the House of Este by history and by a mysterious crime that has never been solved.

    Beginning in the 14th century, the castle was the scene of bloody conflicts among the Della Rosa, Visconti, Este, and Pio nobles. These clashes came to an end only in 1599 when Marco III Pio of Savoia was assassinated with a harquebus (a 15th-century matchlock gun) by an unknown assailant. 

    Because there was no direct male heir, the castle fell into the hands of Cesare of Este, and remained in the House of Este for thirty years. In 1629, the fortress, along with the entire fiefdom, became the property of Marquis Guido Coccapani. 

    Spezzano Castle is also home to the Fiorano Museum of Ceramics and to the “Manodopera” installation, an innovative multimedia section that highlights labor history from the 19th century to the present. In four rooms, stories are told of the lives, work, and triumphs of the women and men who made the area’s ceramics industry great.

    Are you ready now to discover the majesty of the great duchy of the Estes of Modena?

Last update 27/07/2023

For more information

Editorial board Modena e pianura

Information offices

Modena Tourist Information Office
Piazza Grande, 14 - Modena (MO)
+ 39 0592032660 + 39 059 2032659 Opening: all year round
Sassuolo tourist information
Piazzale della Rosa - Sassuolo (MO)
+ 39 0536 880920 Opening: all year round
IAT Maranello
Via Dino Ferrari, 43 - Maranello (MO)
+ 39 0536 073036 Opening: all year round

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