The ancient village of Castelvetro

Castelvetro di Modena: historical notes on the ancient village


The hilly territory of Castelvetro has been inhabited since ancient times since it represented a better alternative to both the inhospitable and unhealthy plains located further north and the insidious and highest mountains of the Apennines. Its agricultural vocation was equally early: the first remnants of settlements date from immediately after the Neolithic revolution (about 6500-6000 years ago) when local populations became sedentary and their parasitic economy of gatherers and hunters became a productive economy based on agriculture and livestock.

The most interesting testimonies, however, concern the Etruscan finds, found, around the mid-nineteenth century, in the necropolises of Galassina and Nosadella, now largely preserved in the Archaeological Museum of Modena.


The Etruscan domination was followed by that of the Gauls and the Ligurian Friniati to which the Romans took over. Their presence, starting from the second century BC, is evidenced by the remains of villas, farms, furnaces, and necropolises scattered throughout the territory, by the closets of coins and by the toponyms themselves, first of all, Castelvetro, derived from “Castrum Vetus” then transformed into Castro Vetere as stated in a document dated 988. This very name tells us that Castelvetro was to be a Roman encampment, castrum, whose orthogonal structure is still today, in part, legible in the upper part of the town, the Castle.


With the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, the period of a serious crisis of the barbarian invasions also began for these territories. In the 5th and 6th centuries, the territory of Castelvetro was put on fire several times by hordes of barbarians who decimated and dispersed the population and ensured that the name of the village was also forgotten. Only after a long period of time did new inhabitants fix their homes there.

Local history scholars believe that, already in the 8th century, Castelvetro was to be a castle and that, in any case, at the beginning of the 9th century it was already a vast and important court. In the late Middle Ages Castelvetro was often the center of episodes of wars and sieges, such as that of 1326, when Vesurzio Lando’s militias, long rejected by the strenuous resistance of the Castelvetresi, brought death and destruction inside the conquered Castle. Starting from 1330 the territory became a fief of the Rangoni family and Castelvetro was its capital.

In the Renaissance period, with the extension and strengthening of the domains of the Rangoni house, Castelvetro increased its importance. Tragic events characterize the first years of the sixteenth century, in particular earthquakes and above all that of 1501, which affected the whole territory of the Modena area and caused extensive damage and epidemics. In the following centuries, until the end of the dominion of the Marquises Rangoni, which coincided with the French occupation of 1796, the representative function and the character of a pleasant and welcoming stay in the center of Castelvetro was consolidated, where illustrious personalities such as Carlo Sigonio were hosted and, above all, Torquato Tasso (1564).

After the French domination in Italy, in 1815 the Estensi, Lords of Modena, and Reggio who also belonged to the Rangoni fiefdom, regained possession of their Duchy, aggregating Castelvetro to Vignola. This situation remained unchanged until 1859 when, after the expulsion of the Este family and the subsequent plebiscite, the lands that had belonged to the Este house were annexed to the Kingdom of Italy and Castelvetro regained its municipal autonomy.

A Damier square in the hills

The profile of the historic center (also referred to as Castello), characterized by suggestive towers and bell towers that stand out on the lush surrounding hills, welcomes those who reach Castelvetro in the distance. The village, formerly surrounded by walls, has maintained a compact form that preserves, like a casket, treasures of rare beauty.

Remains of the ancient wall fortifications are located in the south-east and south-west part of the village, a short distance away you can see the Oratory of S. Antonio di Padova, built in the seventeenth century by the Rangoni family for the Franciscan friars. The brick facade has Doric capitals and a small bell tower with four windows rises on the gable roof.


Accessing the historic center along via Cialdini, you immediately find yourself in front of the massive Torre delle Prigioni, built in the second half of the 16th century and more than 20 meters high. Initially, it was used as a prison, later it was renovated and used for different uses until the restorations of 1998 which brought the structure back to its former glory. In the entrance hall, there is a trap door from where, it is said, a tunnel leads out of the castle; interesting is the graffiti of the prisoners still visible today on the walls.


A few steps ahead, Piazza Roma opens, the true heart of the town, from which you can enjoy an extraordinary view of the plain below. An unmistakable sign and a source of pride for all Castelvetresi is the paving with black and white slabs that form the singular chessboard: this peculiarity makes Piazza Roma also known as “Piazza della Dama” and is used as a game base for a very popular game of living checkers, historical re-enactment held in even years.


Picturesque buildings frame the square: the Town Hall was inhabited until the Napoleonic era by a member of the noble Rangoni family, then with the advent of Bonaparte the fiefdoms were suppressed and Castelvetro was established in the Municipality, dependent on the central administration of Modena; Palazzo Rinaldi has a neo-Gothic-medieval facade, in harmony with the Palazzo Comunale, and Ghibelline battlements. Inside the Palace, now a private residence, you can still see remains of the apse of the old Parish Church of S.S. Senesio and Teopompo.


The Clock Tower dominates the square and is, without doubt, one of the symbols of Castelvetro. Built between the 11th and 12th centuries, it represents what remains of the ancient fortified structure on the east side of the castle. At the time of the Italian Comuni, it was probably equipped with a bell with the function of summoning the population to the square. Furthermore, a sundial, clearly visible from the south side, still indicates the passage of time.


Leaving the square along via Tasso, you reach the imposing Parish Church, built in 1897 in honor of the Holy Martyrs Senesio and Teopompo and unmistakable example of neo-Gothic architecture. On the facade, there are three doors surmounted by rose windows and a frieze with hanging arches, while the interior has three naves with pillars, an Carrara marble altar, and various paintings, from other churches and oratories in the area. The slender bell tower, in style with the main building, rises towards the sky with its 48.5 meters high and is certainly one of the most beautiful in the province of Modena.


In front of the church is Palazzo Rangoni, erected with the castle and of which we have news already in 1564 when it hosted the poet Torquato Tasso, a young student fleeing from Bologna. The building is characterized by a large entrance with a decorated atrium, an internal courtyard, the grand staircase and a balcony that connects the two wings of the building. During the Renaissance it was enriched with decorations attributed to the Scaccieri that can still be admired in the ceilings of some rooms: in the “Sala del Tasso” the monochrome medallions that refer to known works of the poet are worthy of note, and four canvases representing various moments of his life.