From far and wide they came for a last glimpse of Pavarotti

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The Independent Online

Plunged into mourning by the death of its most famous son Luciano Pavarotti, the city of Modena is bracing itself for a huge influx of devotees of the great singer for his funeral this afternoon.

The coffin bearing the singer's body was brought to the city's Romanesque cathedral at nine o'clock on Thursday evening, 14 hours after his death. The crowd that had gathered in the cathedral piazza accorded it – together with the singer's widow, Nicoletta Mantovani, and Pavarotti's three daughters by his first marriage who accompanied it – a long, solemn round of applause.

In death as in life Pavarotti wore his concert platform uniform: a black dinner jacket with white bow tie. In one hand he held a rosary, in the other the oversize white handkerchief that was one of his trademarks. Soon a long line had formed outside the cathedral and by midnight more than 9,000 people had paid their respects. A city-wide state of mourning was declared.

Modena is famous for several things, the magnificent cathedral itself, a Unesco world heritage site, the factories of Ferrari and Maserati on the outskirts. But Pavarotti's fame dwarfed them all.

Yet he was not always so popular. Less than four years ago, in December 2003, the singer married his ex-assistant Ms Mantovani in Modena's civic theatre. Despite the big billing it was a surprisingly low-key affair.

Journalists outnumbered members of the public craning for a glimpse of celebrities outside the theatre. Several of the stars Pavarotti had introduced to the local public from the stage of his "Pavarotti and Friends" concerts and who were expected to grace the event, including Sting and Elton John, failed to show up. Pavarotti himself, incapacitated by chronic knee problems remained stubbornly out of view throughout. And Modena people interviewed on the street seemed diffident about the local hero.

There was the question of his long battle with the Italian tax authorities. He had won a trial for tax evasion only by dint of claiming that his true home was not in Modena but Monte Carlo and that offended local civic pride. He had also put Catholic noses out of joint by ditching his wife of more than 30 years, Adua Veroni, in favour of his nubile young assistant Nicoletta.

The insult to Ms Veroni, who was not merely his wife but also his manager through all those years, seemed a more lively presence on the Modena streets than the singer's new wedded bliss. Asked why they were not outside the theatre cheering, Modenesi spoke sniffily of the singer's "peccadilloes".

How much difference a death makes. Now that he's gone, Pavarotti can do no wrong. On Thursday, hours after his death, the city mayor, Giorgio Pighi, announced his wish that the civic theatre where Pavarotti married be renamed in his honour. He also revealed that, in collaboration with La Scala, the city will sponsor a singing course for new voices and that the opera school Pavarotti and the city's other great contemporary singer, Mirella Freni, had wished to give Modena will come into being, also named after him.

Yesterday the crowds continued to stream into the cathedral to sign the condolence book in their thousands. Two of the singer's daughters by his first marriage, Cristina and Giuliana, remained next to their father's coffin in the cathedral all morning, acknowledging the greetings of mourners. They were joined at 12.30pm by Ms Mantovani and four-year-old Alice, the surviving twin who was Pavarotti's last child. Inside the cathedral a photography ban was rigorously enforced: the image of Pavarotti in death remained as strictly screened from the media's prying cameras as he had been for the last two years of his life, after being diagnosed with cancer.

In the late afternoon the Italian head of state, President Giorgio Napolitano, arrived to pay his respects, adding the final lustre of state recognition to the overwhelming flood of tributes from all over the world. During his life Italy was slow to give Pavarotti his due: he was a celebrity in London and New York before La Scala made room for him. But now he is dead, that mistake has not been repeated.

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