The Cathedral, the Ghirlandina Tower and Piazza Grande, declared a World Heritage Site by Unesco in 1997, are the starting point of this itinerary through the Romanesque soul of Modena, from the white and imposing Cathedral to the small parishes of the Apennines, in their intimate light, immersed in suggestive landscapes where architecture and simplicity intertwine harmoniously with the surrounding environment.
Countless churches, abbeys, hospices and parish churches have flourished in this territory, historically an important crossroads between the Po Valley and central Italy, intersected by the Via Emilia and numerous pilgrimage routes - such as the Via Romea Nonantolana, the Via Romea Germanica Imperiale and the Via Bibulca.
Our itinerary sets out from the heart of Modena, Piazza Grande. Construction of the cathedral, dedicated to San Geminiano, began in 1099, when Wiligelmus' sculptural work was harmoniuously grafted onto the pre-existing structure designed by the architect Lanfranco. Wiligelmus and other sculptors working on the cathedral building site contributed to the many sculptures that we can still admire today, a perfect blend of sacred and profane, celestial and monstrous, lions, dragons, centaurs, elapsing time, the seasons and the human workforce. Stone narratives thus manage to encapsulate the entire spiritual world of the average medieval man, depicting the continuous opposition between good and evil in the search for salvation. Next to the apse of the Cathedral, the Ghirlandina Tower, the symbol of the city, rises proud in all its height.
The Cathedral Museums, located under the bell tower’s shadow, are custodians of priceless masterpieces between art and spirituality.
Moving towards Nonantola, our second stop is the Abbey of San Silvestro, a primary cultural reference point in medieval Europe. It was the Benedictine monk Anselm, at the behest of the Lombard king Astolfo, who founded the Abbey in 752. The splendid portal bears a reflection of Wiligelmus in its Romanesque reliefs, while the vast crypt astounds the visitor with its impressive dimensions. Next to the Abbey stands the Benedictine and Diocesan Museum of Sacred Art, where the Abbey Treasury is on display featuring precious objects, reliquaries, extremely rare textiles, parchments and illuminated codes from the ancient monastic scriptorium.
Our itinerary now takes us to Carpi for a visit to the Pieve di Santa Maria in Castello, said to have been founded in 752 by the Lombard king Astolfo. Rebuilt by Mathilda of Tuscany, it was consecrated by Lucius III in 1184 and henceforth known as "Sagra". The 16th-century façade still retains the ancient portal, with a Crucifixion in the lunette by a disciple of the artist Antelami. The interior features an ambo sculpted by Nicolò, a pupil of Wiligelmus, as well as frescoes from the 13th to 15th centuries.
This second day is dedicated to Pieve di Trebbio, in the heart of the Parco Regionale dei Sassi di Roccamalatina, a breathtaking viewpoint over the surrounding rocky spurs.
The parish church, dedicated to St John the Baptist and built in its present form in the 11th century, is mentioned in an ancient parchment of the Nonantola Abbey as early as 996.
The sacred building retains its typically Romanesque appearance, with a three-nave plan and crypt, while the bell tower stands on the foundations of a pre-existing fortified turret.
Worth noting are also the sculpted portal on the south side, the original capitals, the sculptures in the presbytery and the 9th-century baptismal font with bas-reliefs in the baptistery. Finally, the church's interior preserves paintings and sculptures of considerable value.
We head towards Pavullo nel Frignano to discover the parish church of San Giovanni Battista in Renno. In 1157 the bishop of Modena, Enrico Montecuccoli, appointed this parish church as the reference centre for a vast network of 30 chapels. Its interior opens out into three naves supported by pillars, four of which feature a curious octagonal shape. The Verona red marble stoup was donated in 1609 for the baptism of the famous military leader and writer Raimondo Montecuccoli.
The last stage of our itinerary through the gems of Romanesque architecture is Ponte del Diavolo (Devil's Bridge). Located on the border between the municipalities of Pavullo, Lama Mocogno and Polinago, this curious formation is also known as Ponte Ercole (Hercules Bridge) for it consists of an arch-shaped natural monolith, about 33 metres long and a couple of metres wide, in whose vicinity archaeological evidence has been found dating from the protohistoric era to the Middle Ages. The Hercules Bridge is also depicted in the frescoes of the Sala delle Vedute of the Spezzano Castle in Fiorano Modenese, the work of Cesare Baglione from the late 16th century.
Furthermore, the famous and supposedly medicinal "Brandola water" used to flow nearby.