|Courtyards beyond the entrance passages: glimpses of private gardens|
As so many photographs show, at first sight Modena from above looks like a mass of red roofing tiles through which the streets snake their way. But if one looks carefully, in the centre of the large built-up blocks there are the "black holes" of the inner courtyards, and lots of green patches of garden. So even the city centre has plenty of vegetation, but it is tucked away, and easily overlooked by the hurried passer-by who may be afraid of trespassing on private property. With a little of the curiosity that is such a good trait in a tourist, this hidden world is soon revealed.
Corso Canalgrande n. 81
The passageway which used to lead to the City Library before its move to its new premises in Palazzo S. Margherita also gives access to an inner courtyard with grandiose aspirations reflected by the two large statues in the niches on the far wall. The matron resting her foot on a bucket and the bearded giant in a strange pose that looks like a dance step are probably intended to represent the Secchia and Panaro rivers.
The figures stand out against a background of wrought iron vegetation, with a sycamore behind the woman and tufts of long pointed leaves behind the man, which is the work of Malagoli, the wrought iron craftsman-artist active in Modena in the XVIII Century.
Corso Canalgrande n. 88
Two staircases lead up from the majestic entrance. The one on the left is the more imposing, and at the end of its first flight, on the balustrade there is the striking figure of a laughing serving girl who seems to be about to slide down to light the new arrivals' way with the candle she is holding. The XVIII Century's delight in make-believe has given the wall fake windows, beyond which the painter has created the illusion of non-existent outdoor views. The entrance passage itself has marble "trottatoi", strips of flags intended for carriage wheels, laid through the more usual Modena paving of cobblestones taken from nearby riverbeds. At the far side of the courtyard, an iron gate gives on to a green corner with an unexpectedly rural air.
Corso Canalgrande n. 90
The entrance passage with stucco columns imitating marble gives onto a restored courtyard that has nothing in common with the XVIII Century palazzo. However, this clash of styles is masked because the walls have been cleverly covered with Virginia creeper. Except for a tall rus typhina and a small horse chestnut, all the courtyard's abundant greenery is growing in pots, and yet we seem to be in the rich old inner garden typical of the aristocratic palazzi of Modena's city centre. Different eras have left their mark on the staircase on the left of the entrance. The XVIII Century fake round window, festooned with stucco oak branches, gives way to medallions of warrior heroes in the emphatic style of the Fascist period, until we reach a door surmounted by a stone plaque commemorating Ciro Menotti, leader of a failed revolt against the Austrians in 1831.
Corso Canalgrande n. 96
What is now known as "casa Tardini" is not as tall as the buildings which surround it, and above its gateway there is a round window surrounded by a garland. Alongside the modern street number, the old numbers 45 and 47 remind us that the building used to be divided in two, housing the chapel of the "Stigmata" religious order, which has now been demolished, and the adjoining hospital, also run by the nuns. The rather dark entrance passage leads to a quiet mossy courtyard, paved with riverbed cobbles.
Via Cesare Battisti n. 85
Passing under the head of a lion surrounded by garlands, we enter an austere passage-way overlooked by busts in classical style. In the paving, cobbles alternate with bricks laid in geometrical patterns. The staircase on the left has fake oval windows overlooking invented scenes, given credibility by the panes of glass in wooden frames. The large courtyard, with all the ostentation of so much open space, reminds us that the Ducal Palace is nearby, and of the effort made to give the whole of this area the splendour worthy of the Este capital.
Piazza San Domenico n. 6
Do not be deceived by the small opening in the humble-looking doorway; everything inside is intended to give an impression of luminous opulence. The dark grey of the mouldings and the stucco shells which decorate the corners of the ceiling stand out against the light coloured walls of the entrance passage.
Here the light, which pours into the courtyard from above, filters through the wide openings in the wall, the gateway, and from the balustrade which gives the staircase an airy feel. The courtyard in beaten earth contains an ivy-covered flower-bed with large magnolias, as well as ailanthus which have seeded themselves in like weeds. The greenery is enough to create the desired effect, since only the part of the courtyard which contains the flower-bed is visible from the street.
Via Ganaceto n. 134
The large dark ochre building that looks almost like a factory does not seem to offer so much internal space, but here in "Terranova" (the northern part of the city, between Corso Cavour and the railway station, which Duke Ercole II d'Este added to the pre-existing walled city) courtyard size was very much a status symbol. Now housing Modena's Chamber of Commerce, the building bears witness to the idea of "restoration for use" current in the 1970s. Everything is new, clean and functional, the palazzo's basic structure has not been changed, and the materials are those traditionally used in the city. However, it is as if the yellow and ochre colours, the cobbles and the marble details had all been mixed together in the top-hat of a modern conjurer, who then pulled out a palazzo which is both up to date and traditional. On the left of the first courtyard, a flattened triple arcade on low columns leads to a second, even larger courtyard, where parking spaces for cars alternate with large beds of shrubs and various trees, all carefully planned by man. In a niche on one of the perimeter walls, a statue of Bacchus holding a bunch of grapes, placed there by who knows which Conte Molza, pays solitary homage to the pleasure of wine.
Via Caselle n. 20
A long wall, topped by tall ailanthus, paulownia, horse chestnut and Judas trees, opens to give access to a very large courtyard with a monumental ash tee in its centre so large that three people are unable to touch hands round it. The base trunk splits in two and soars high into the sky, while the crown half smothers several surrounding limes and yews. This ancient ash certainly reflects the age of the complex itself, which was originally the seat of a monastic order before housing
A passage leads to an inner courtyard dominated by a huge ilex, its shadow reaching to the surrounding walls. Beyond the cloister there is a glimpse of another small courtyard, with a flower-bed dominated by a banana tree, a tropical intruder in a Modena scene of well aligned bricks and plastered walls.
The San Paolo complex forms part of a very large block of buildings, which also includes a high school for those specialising in psychology, sociology and teaching, and the San Geminiano experimental theatre. In this jigsaw of buildings, cloisters and passages, ancient premises still play a vibrant part in the life of today's city.
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