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La Ghirlandina (Modena)

And the Stolen Bucket

La Ghirlandina

Modena’s pride and symbol is the mighty, if slightly askew campanile called the Ghirlandina. This, like much of the sculpture in the Cathedral, is a creation of the Campionese masters. They got the lower part up in a single year (1169), and then left their grandsons the job of finishing the octagonal spire (completed 1319), built to ensure the campanile would be taller than any of the towers of Bologna. The spire accounts for almost half the tower’s 282ft, making it the third-tallest campanile in Italy, after those of Cremona and Venice.

The tower’s name is often explained as referring to the ‘garland’ of arcading around the base of the spire, though another version says that the tower was originally La Ghiraldina, and that the Modenese were comparing their work to the most famous tower of the medieval world: La Giralda, the minaret of the Great Mosque of Seville.

The Campionese sculptors were able to follow their fancy in medallions at the corners, and in the capitals of the tower windows, where few would ever see them: more fantastic beasts and mysterious figures, along with the story of a corrupt Modenese judge and, in the fifth-level Stanza dei Torresani, where the tower guardians would keep watch over the city for fires, scenes of King David with dancers and musicians. More sculptures were discovered here in the restoration of the tower, completed in 2011.

Of the four great bells, one goes back to the year 1350; they still ring it. At the base of the campanile is a photo memorial to Modena’s martyred partigiani, like the one in Bologna. The tower itself might seem a worry, with its rakish tilt, but the Modenesi keep a close watch on it. They have twelve 'accelerometers' in place to measure every millimetre it might shift, and a whole team of Japanese experts from the University of Nagoya City who have made the Ghirlandina their special case.

The Stolen Bucket

The Ghirlandina houses a famous trophy – an ancient wooden bucket stolen from the town well of Bologna, during a raid in 1325, when the two cities were at war. It is the subject of Alessandro Tassoni’s mock-heroic epic, La Secchia Rapita (1622), in which every episode starts out in total seriousness and gradually deteriorates into total absurdity, while the gods of Olympus take sides and interfere, as in Homer. The Bolognesi make periodic attempts to steal back their bucket; according to rumour, they have it now, and the one you see is only a replica. Actually, it is a replica; the real one is in the Palazzo Comunale, where it is kept safe from the evil Bolognesi. There’s a statue of Tassoni in the Piazza Torre, next to the tower.

Near this, there is also a plaque in honour of Angelo Fortunato Formiggini, who between the wars was one of Italy's most important publishers and a popular satirist in his own right. Formiggini threw himself off the Ghirlandina in 1938, shouting 'Italia!', in protest at the antisemitic 'racial laws' that had just been promulgated on the insistence of Hitler. No Italian newspaper dared record the event.


Open end April–end Sept weekdays 9.30–1 and 3–7, Sat and Sun 9.30-7; Oct-Mar weekdays 9.30-1, 2.30-5.30, Sat and Sun 9.30-5.30.

Adm or €6 combination ticket with the Palazzo Comunale, the Acetaia and Museo del Duomo

Text © Dana Facaros and Michael Pauls

Images by: Città di Modena, PD Art, Bergonzc, GNU Free Documentation License