An ancient town, it is the seat of an archbishop, but is now known as "the capital of engines", since the factories of the famous Italian sports car makers Ferrari, De Tomaso, Lamborghini, Pagani and Maserati are, or were, located here and all, except Lamborghini, have headquarters in the city or nearby. Lamborghini is headquartered not far away in Sant'Agata Bolognese, in the adjacent Province of Bologna. One of Ferrari's cars, the 360 Modena, was named after the town itself. One of the colors for Ferraris is Modena yellow.
The University of Modena, founded in 1175 and expanded by Francesco II d'Este in 1686, has traditional strengths in economics, medicine and law and is the second oldest in Italy, sixth in the whole world. Italian military officers are trained at the Military Academy of Modena, and partly housed in the Baroque Ducal Palace. The Biblioteca Estense houses historical volumes and 3,000 manuscripts. The Cathedral of Modena, the Torre della Ghirlandina and Piazza Grande are a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1997.
Modena is well known in culinary circles for its production of balsamic vinegar.
Famous Modenesi include Mary of Modena, the Queen consort of England and Scotland; operatic tenor Luciano Pavarotti (1935–2007) and soprano Mirella Freni, born in Modena itself; Enzo Ferrari (1898–1988), eponymous founder of the Ferrari motor company; the Catholic Priest and Senior Exorcist of Vatican Gabriele Amorth; renowned chef Massimo Bottura and the rock singer Vasco Rossi who was born in Zocca, one of the 47 comuni in the Province of Modena.
The territory around Modena (Latin: Mutina, Etruscan: Mutna) was inhabited by the Villanovans in the Iron Age, and later by Ligurian tribes, Etruscans, and the Gaulish Boii (the settlement itself being Etruscan). Although the exact date of its foundation is unknown, it is known that it was already in existence in the 3rd century BC, for in 218 BC, during Hannibal's invasion of Italy, the Boii revolted and laid siege to the city. Livy described it as a fortified citadel where Roman magistrates took shelter. The outcome of the siege is not known, but the city was most likely abandoned after Hannibal's arrival. Mutina was refounded as a Roman colony in 183 BC, to be used as a military base by Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, causing the Ligurians to sack it in 177 BC. Nonetheless, it was rebuilt, and quickly became the most important centre in Cisalpine Gaul, both because of its strategic importance and because it was on an important crossroads between Via Aemilia and the road going to Verona.
In the 1st century BC Mutina was besieged twice. The first siege was by Pompey in 78 BC, when Mutina was defended by Marcus Junius Brutus (a populist leader, not to be confused with his son, Caesar's best known assassin). The city eventually surrendered out of hunger, and Brutus fled, only to be slain in Regium Lepidi. In the civil war following Caesar's assassination, the city was besieged once again, this time by Mark Antony, in 44 BC, and defended by Decimus Junius Brutus. Octavian relieved the city with the help of the Senate.
Cicero called it Mutina splendidissima ("most beautiful Mutina") in his Philippics (44 BC). Until the 3rd century AD, it kept its position as the most important city in the newly formed Aemilia province, but the fall of the Empire brought Mutina down with it, as it was used as a military base both against the barbarians and in the civil wars. It is said that Mutina was never sacked by Attila, for a dense fog hid it (a miracle said to be provided by Saint Geminianus, bishop and patron of Modena), but it was eventually buried by a great flood in the 7th century and abandoned.
As of December, 2008, Italian researchers have discovered the pottery center where the oil lamps that lit the ancient Roman empire were made. Evidence of the pottery workshops emerged in Modena, in central-northern Italy, during construction work to build a residential complex near the ancient walls of the city. "We found a large ancient Roman dumping filled with pottery scraps. There were vases, bottles, bricks, but most of all, hundreds of oil lamps, each bearing their maker's name", Donato Labate, the archaeologist in charge of the dig, stated.
Its exiles founded a new city a few miles to the northwest, still represented by the village of Cittanova (literally "new city"). About the end of the 9th century, Modena was restored and refortified by its bishop, Ludovicus. At about this time the Song of the Watchmen of Modena was composed. Later the city was part of the possessions of the Countess Matilda of Tuscany, becoming a free comune starting from the 12th century. In the wars between Emperor Frederick II and Pope Gregory IX Modena sided with the emperor.
The Este family were identified as lords of Modena from 1288 (Obizzo d'Este). After the death of Obizzo's successor (Azzo VIII, in 1308) the comune reasserted itself, but by 1336 the Este family was permanently in power. Under Borso d'Este Modena was made a duchy.
Enlarged and fortified by Ercole II, it was made the primary ducal residence when Ferrara, the main Este seat, fell to the Pope in 1598. Francesco I d'Este, Duke of Modena (1629–1658) built the citadel and began the palace, which was largely embellished by Francesco II. In the 18th century, Rinaldo d'Este was twice driven from his city by French invasions, and Francesco III built many of Modena's public buildings, but the Este pictures were sold and many of them wound up in Dresden. Ercole III died in exile at Treviso, having refused Napoleonic offers of compensation when Modena was made part of the Napoleonic Cispadane Republic. His only daughter, Maria Beatrice d'Este, married Ferdinand I, Archduke of Austria-Este, son of Empress Maria Theresa of Austria; and in 1814 their eldest son, Francis IV, received back the estates of the Este. Quickly, in 1816, he dismantled the fortifications that might well have been used against him and began Modena's years under Austrian rule which, despite being just, constitutional and fair, nevertheless had to face another foreign-inspired rebellion in 1830, this time happily unsuccessful.
His son Francis V was also a just ruler and famously tended the victims of war and cholera with his own hands. However, he too had to face yet more foreign-inspired revolutions and was temporarily expelled from Modena in the European Revolutions of 1848. He was restored, amidst wide popular acclaim, by Austrian troops. Ten years later, on 20 August 1859, the revolutionaries again invaded (this time the Piedmontese), annexing Modena into the revolutionary Savoyard nation of Italy as a territorial part of the Kingdom of Italy.