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A Giant Piazza and a Third of a Church

Piazza dei Martiri, Carpi

North of Modena is Carpi, a wealthy, workaholic town with an illustrious past, one of the few small towns in the region worth going out of your way for. It is also one of the few towns not founded by the Romans or earlier. Carpi, named for the groves of hornbeam (carpinus) that once stood here, grew up as a fortified settlement under the Lombards in the 8th century. In the Middle Ages Carpi grew into a prosperous city and established a comune, but its greatest days came between 1331 and 1525, when it was governed by the Pio family, clever fellows who could keep their little city independent while doing great service as patrons of the arts. Like so many other minor signori around Italy, the Pio lost control in the Wars of Italy. After a two-year Spanish occupation, Carpi and its contado ended up in the hands of the Este.

The city centre is dominated by the vast Piazza dei Martiri, formerly called the Borgogioioso. At least once in Carpi you will be reminded that this is the third-largest piazza in Italy; whether or not this is true would be hard to say, but it is nearly a thousand feet long, and it leaves an unforgettable impression. With a crowd receding into the distance, it seems like some perspectivist Renaissance painting of the ‘ideal city’; without them it becomes positively oceanic, and crossing it on a still Sunday afternoon one feels tempted to stop the lone passer-by and ask for news from land.

The piazza is bordered on one side by a long portico, and the view is closed on the short end by the Cathedral of S. Maria Assunta (open Mon–Wed, Fri, Sun and hols 7.30–12 and 3.30–7.30, Thurs and Sat 7.30–12.30 and 3.30–7.30), with a sumptuous Baroque façade. Begun by Alberto III, the last and greatest Pio, in 1515, the original plan was by Baldassare Peruzzi. Work stopped when the Pios lost power though, and the city didn’t get it completely finished and decorated until the 1800s, with plenty of changes along the way. The cathedral was severely damaged in the earthquakes of May 2012. Parts of the dome and façade collapsed, but restoration work was completed in March 2017, and Pope Francis came to visit.

On the other long side stands the 16th-century Castello dei Pio, www.comune.carpi. Everyone from the Lombards to the Spanish contributed something to this huge complex, but it was Alberto III who tied it all together with an elegant Renaissance façade. Inside, Carpi keeps its impressive collection of museums, starting with the Musei Civici, t (059) 649 977. There is an archaeological section, with finds from the four Terramare villages around Carpi and from Roman times, as well as a small Pinacoteca, exhibits on the history of Carpi, ceramics, fabrics and terracotta, but the real reason for coming is to see the rooms of Alberto III’s residence, frescoed by Bernardino Loschi and others in the early 1500s. Besides the beautiful chapel, there are works in the Stanza dei Trionfi (a series of ‘triumphs’ like those in Ferrara’s Palazzo Schifanoia), the Salone dei Mori, the Studiolo of Alberto II and other rooms.

Next comes the Museo della Xilografica, t (059) 649 968 (open Thurs, Sat and Sun 10–12.30 and 3.30–7; adm a2), devoted to the woodcuts of Ugo da Carpi (1481–1532), who invented the chiaroscuro woodcut, using multiple blocks to create tinted shading and make the woodcut something closer to painting. Ugo was the father of a major revolution in art – not so much for his own talents, but because he made his living by copying the paintings of Raphael, Titian, Parmigianino and others as woodcuts for the artists to use as advertising, sending them around to the courts of Europe. For the first time, people could get an idea of what the great artists of the day were up to without travelling.

In the passage to the palace courtyard, the Museo al Deportato, t (059) 649 968 (open Thurs, Sat and Sun 9–12.30 and 3–6.30; adm), remembers the prisoners and civilians deported to Germany from a Nazi camp that stood outside the town during the Second World War. Ask at the museum to make arrangements for a free guided tour; the Campo di Concentramento di Fossoli, now largely in ruins, was the place where most of Italy’s Jews and other Nazi victims were kept before their trip to Germany.

The church of the Crocefisso, nursing mother with a brigade of stucco angels by Antonio Begarelli.

Next to the Castello, the pretty 1860 Teatro Comunale replaced an original built by Gaspare Vigarini for the Este; in the opposite corner is the old grain market.

Carpi’s real treasure is one-third of a church. It sits hidden away behind the Palazzo del Pio, the Pieve di Santa Maria in Castello, usually just called ‘La Sagra', t (059) 688 317 or 649 955 (open Thurs 10.30–12.30, Sat and Sun 10.30–12.30 and 4–6.30; no visits during mass). The city’s centre of gravity changed when the Palazzo del Pio was completed in the 1400s, and the Borgogioioso was laid out next to it. Before that, the Pieve and the little square in front of it made up the centre. Pieve means a country church, and this one was the nucleus around which Carpi took shape some time in the 8th century. Later on the old walled medieval quarter became known as the ‘Castello’; except for the church, almost all of it has disappeared.

The first church on this site may have been part of a Roman villa. This was rebuilt in 752 by the Lombard King Aistulf, or Astolfo; the current incarnation was begun around 1120, one of the many churches financed by Countess Matilda of Canossa. After the city was recentred, Signore Alberto III decided to tear the old church down. In the end, however, he left the rear third standing, building a new, plain facade (1514) designed by Baldassare Peruzzi, and incorporating into it the portal from Matilda’s church. Other survivors from the original church are the sculptural decoration of the apse, by the followers of Wiligelmo, and the tall, tilted campanile, built in 1221.

The entrance is through the adjacent Cappella di Santa Caterina, with an excellent cycle of quattrocento frescoes on the Life of St Catherine by unknown artists, followers of Giovanni da Modena. Catherine of Alexandria was a favourite subject of medieval Emilian artists; her cult came back with the Crusaders. Her story is mostly fairy tale (she was one of the saints tossed out of the book by the Second Vatican Council), and you can follow all the episodes in the frescoes here: Catherine meets the Emperor Maxentius, converts the empress, argues with the pagan philosophers, and is finally martyred on her wheel, while the empress is decapitated; in the background note Mount Sinai, where the saint’s supposed relics are still kept in an Orthodox monastery.

In the church proper is the Cappella di San Martino, with frescoes by the Ferrarese Antonio Alberti (1424) of the Adoration of the Magi and the Doctors of the Church. Fragments of medieval frescoes can be seen around the vaulting of the church, along with two fine sculptural works: a 12th-century ambone, the work of a follower of Wiligelmo named Nicolò, and the 1351 sarcophagus of Manfredo Pio.

Text © Dana Facaros and Michael Pauls

Image by Andrea Lodi