The architectural structure stands on a historical area of the city, today a fully restored urban space, which on one hand provides a new entranceway to the old town, of which it stands along the northern side, while on the other hand it unites indelible memories with the contemporary urban fabric.
Founded in 1513 as the Monastery of St. Mary Magdalene, later of St. Ursula, in the 18th century in was transformed firstly into a hospital, then a saltpeter warehouse, and lastly a tobacco-processing plant.
The earliest traces of activity linked to tobacco processing date back to the 17th century. Initially referred to as ‘la fabbrica del tabacco’ (‘the tobacco factory’), in 1788 it was moved to the suppressed Capuchin monastery in via Ganaceto under the title ‘Ferma ducale per l’Appalto dei tabacchi, acquavite e rosoli’ (‘Ducal Tender for the Provisioning of Tobacco, Spirits and Liqueurs’). From then onwards, the factory workers were known in dialect as the ‘paltadóri’ (from ‘appaltatori’, i.e. tenderers), because they worked for the tobacco tender. ‘Paltadóri’ is a word still frequently used in Modena to refer to the many members of Modenese families who worked in those buildings near the station.
As we may read in the volume ‘Manifattura Tabacchi Modena. Fotografie di Daniele Poltronieri’ (2009, published by L’Atelier) “The high number of women, in line with the official request for laborers with long slim fingers, best suited to the rolling of cigars, was in actual fact due to their tacit willingness to receive decidedly lower pay than that offered to men.” A context within which a series of union battles took place, bringing to light the conditions of hard labor and the exploitation of the workforce.
In 1850, the tender was transferred from the Duke to the State, and the factory was temporarily moved to the ex-convent of St Mark. A paddle wheel was installed as well as a steam machine for the production of energy, and thus by 1898, it had become the main industrial center of Modena with almost 1,000 workers (of whom 90% were women).
In 1902, the building was again enlarged and improved with new lighting and ventilation systems, a sick bay, a workers’ canteen and a ‘kindergarten’ ante litteram.
In 1921, the factory had more than 1,500 employees.
The last construction prior to its current renovation with a new structure designed by Portoghesi dates back to 1969, and indeed the plant was productive up until 2002.
After more than 150 years of activity, in January 2011 work started on the restructuring of the entire complex, thus making it possible to reopen a connection between the old town, the central railway station and the northern area of Modena, as well as providing the city with a group of buildings which constitute an example of industrial architecture recognized and protected by the Superintendency of Architectural and Landscape Heritage, with archaeological restrictions and protection of the underground structures given the presence of historical watercourses.