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Medieval Urban Design

The Art of City-Building

Piazzas Around the Cathedral

Few people notice it, but Modena's cathedral and its surroundings make up an exceptionally skilful ensemble of medieval urban design.

Don’t think for a minute there is anything accidental in the cathedral’s seemingly random placement. People in the Middle Ages built cathedrals as the maximum expression of their faith and art. They were outrageously expensive, but their designers had the ability to combine aesthetics with practicality in ways that made the investment go as far as possible to embellish the town.

Like so many in medieval Europe, and particularly in Italy, this cathedral is sited to define and dominate three separate piazzas: the small one at the end of Corso Duomo in front of the façade, the Piazza Torre to the north, where the Ghirlandina is on display, and the Piazza Grande. To reduce the total cost, one or more sides of a cathedral would usually be set into a block of buildings, as in Parma or Modena, or else a side would run along a little alley, as in Ferrara. Either way, the town would save by cutting down the costly sculptural decoration required, and at the same time their cathedral would appear more an organic part of the city, woven into its fabric, instead of just a pretty objet d’art isolated in the middle of a square.

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Medieval Art and Architecture

Text © Dana Facaros & Michael Pauls

Images by Office of Tourism, Sitte/The Art of Building Cities