Known in ancient times as Mutina, the city began as a settlement of the Celtic Boii. The Romans took it in 183BC, and it made little account of itself until the end of the empire, when it had the honour of being sacked by both the Huns and the Lombards.
Medieval Modena grew back to prominence as part of the ‘Canossiana’, the state founded by Atto Adalbert in the 10th century and made glorious by Countess Matilda, powerful ally of the pope; under her rule the city began its great cathedral (1099). When it became an independent comune, however, like most of Italy the city got caught up in the endless factional strife between the Guelphs, backing the popes, and the pro-imperial Ghibellines.
As was so often the case among the contentious free cities, Modena's Ghibelline party came to dominate simply because the Guelphs held power in the city’s chief rival, Bologna. Throughout the long campaigns of Emperor Frederick II in the north, Modena was to remain one of the emperor’s most faithful allies.
In 1288, after a long spell of fierce factional conflict, the city came under the control of Obizzo II d’Este, the powerful signore of Ferrara. A revolution of the popolo seized control of the city in 1306, but it lasted only a year. So frightened were the nobles by this outbreak that they put aside their differences and decided to put an end to the comune forever. With only a few brief interruptions, the Este would rule Modena for the next 553 years.
After the pope threw the Este out of Ferrara in 1598, Cesare d’Este was able to keep Modena and Reggio Emilia. The Este Duchy of Modena endured, though it no longer played a prominent role in Italian history or culture. Not that the Este didn’t try. Francesco I (1629–58) was a fervent patron of the arts (Velazquez and Bernini left memorable portraits of him), and he successfully kept his little state afloat in the treacherous currents of the Thirty Years’ War, finally dying on the battlefield against the Spanish. (Francesco’s daughter Maria Beatrice, or ‘Mary of Modena’, married James II in 1673, and played a small role in British history simply by being Catholic and thereby increasing James’ subjects’ distrust of him. She fled the country with her husband after the Glorious Revolution of 1688.)
Francesco and his successors transformed the face of the city; with the building of the Ducal Palace, the Corso Canalgrande and other projects, Modena became a thoroughly up-to-date Baroque city, a capital fit for a Duke. Despite their efforts, however, the resources necessary to support the pretensions of the House of Este just weren’t available in Modena, and the charms of a long, pleasant slide into decadence—like Venice's—proved too strong to resist.
Through the long reigns of Rinaldo I (1694–1737) and Francesco III (1737–80), the duchy remained a sleepy though reasonably well-run backwater. Rinaldo oversaw his duchy like a fond but grumpy paterfamilias, poking his nose in everyone’s affairs and tossing adulterers into prison; he made his duchy the joke of Europe by forcing everyone in Modena to be in their houses by ten o’clock so that they wouldn’t disturb his sleep.
Francesco II, except for building one of Italy’s most impressive poorhouses (now the Palazzo dei Musei), generally left his subjects in peace, and devoted his life to eating; he grew so fat he had to be carried upstairs. When Napoleon’s armies arrived at the gates, the good-natured Ercole III (1780–96) simply left town. Ercole had only a daughter for an heir, and she was forced into marriage with an Austrian archduke as part of the Habsburg schemes to solidify their control over northern Italy. Their son Francesco IV (1814–46) was propped back on his throne by Metternich after Napoleon’s defeat. He proved as reactionary and useless as any Habsburg, distinguishing himself only by the bloody suppression of a revolt in 1831.
His subjects found comfort in food. ‘The existence of Modena sausage makes up for the existence of the Duke,’ as their satirical poet Giuseppe Giusti put it. Francesco V was the last of the line; the Modenesi booted him out in 1859 in favour of Vittorio Emanuele II of Piedmont, soon to become the first King of Italy. The Este-Habsburgs, incidentally, are still around, and if aristocracy ever makes a comeback there is a pretender, Archduke Robert, who could claim the thrones of both Modena and Parma.