Who Was Matilde Di Canossa?

Those who have crossed  the amazing Ponte della Maddalena (more colloquially known as the ponte del Diavolo – see my post on it at https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2014/09/24/river-diversion/) near Borgo a Mozzano will realise that the old story of the devil requiring the heart of the first living soul crossing the bridge if he completed it on time (and getting a dog’s heart instead) – a story oft repeated in many other parts of the world such as Pontarfynach (Devil’s bridge) near Aberystwyth in Wales – isn’t quite correct!

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(An old print, in the current BdL library exhibition  showing the Ponte della Maddalena )

In fact, the bridge was ordered to be built by an extraordinary woman, someone even more astonishing considering she lived at a time when women were usually still considered as chattels – the Countess Matilde di Canossa. She built the bridge as a means of helping travellers across the Serchio river along the Via Francigena pilgrim route which connects Canterbury with Rome.

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Matilde di Canossa is to be placed among that divine hierarchy of mediaeval women which includes Hildegard of Bingen, Berengaria of Navarre and Eleanor of Aquitaine.

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The fact that Matilde is closely associated with our part of the world is an added bonus and a good reason to dedicate a study afternoon to her by the industrious Fondazione Michel de Montaigne, the historical and cultural association which operates within the comune of Bagni di Lucca.


After the initial traditional hand-cannon (technical term gonne) blast-off by members of the Vicariato della Val di Lima

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the conference was opened by the chair, Bruno Micheletti vice-president of the Fondazione and director of our section of the Lucca Historical association. There were prefatory remarks by the Mayor of Bagni di Lucca, Massimo Betti. The president of the Michel de Montaigne Institute, Marcello Cherubini, then gave an introduction to the great figure that Matilde was.

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In case you didn’t know why Matilde is such an amazing mediaeval woman here’s a summary of her life.

Matilde (in English, Matilda) was born in Lucca in 1046 and died at Bondeno Romagna in 1115. In 1076 she came into the possession of a large territory that included present day Lombardy, Emilia Romagna and Tuscany with its centre in the town of Canossa. In 1111 Matilde was crowned as deputy Queen of Italy by the Emperor Henry III at the castle of Bianello.

As grand countess of Tuscany, Matilde lived during turbulent times of battles, plots and ex-communications (Pope versus Holy Roman Emperor). Despite the age she lived in Matilde showed immense qualities of leadership, courage and compassion towards her subjects.

Her father, Bonifacio of Canossa, was assassinated in 1052. With the deaths of her siblings Matilda was left as the only heir of the house of Attoni. In 1054 Matilde’s mother married Godfrey Duke of Upper Lorraine who hated the Emperor Henry III, who captured Beatrice and Matilde as hostages in 1055. However, after reconciliation with Godfrey the two ladies were released.

Godfrey died in 1069 and Matilde married his son, Godfrey the Hunchback. They had one son who died in infancy. In 1076 her mother died and Matilde took the reins of the kingdom, siding with the Pope against the Emperor.

It was at Matilde’s castle at Canossa that the famous event took place in 1077 when Pope Gregory received the Emperor’s penance after making him wait three days, barefoot and bareheaded, in the castle courtyard’s snow, before giving the hypothermic Emperor the papal absolution. The phrase “going to Canossa” has since come to mean an act of submission or humiliation.

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In 1089 43-year old Matilde married 17-year old Welf, duke of Bavaria and Carinthia. Their marriage only lasted six years. Further conflicts occurred between Emperor and Pope but in the end Matilde signed a peace treaty with the Emperor gifting him her territories. Since she had previously donated these to the Papacy the way was set for the subsequent quarrels which, in Florence, became an irreconcilable battle between Guelfs and Ghibellines.

The esteem in which Matilde was held was so high that her remains were translated and reinterred in St Peter’s Rome in 1634 where I saw this monument to her when our choir sang there last year (see my post at ). https://longoio.wordpress.com/2014/03/27/our-choir-sings-at-romes-and-the-worlds-greatest-church/ ). To this day Matilde di Canossa remains the only woman buried in St Peter’s basilica,.

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The first talk was given by Ilaria Sabbatini on the subject of the routes Matilde would take over the Apennines between her two main sections of territory, Emilia Romagna and Tuscany. The variability of these routes was conditioned by the climate and also by the adjoining territories which were under Longobard domination. Ilaria Sabatini introduced the concept of ‘route areas’ stating that a definite route was not easily mapable. The presence of ‘ospedali’ and ‘ospedaletti’ did give an indication of the places travellers and pilgrims would stay for the night to received shelter and food but the way between them was not strictly defined. I thought of my experiences in Mongolia (in 2008) where road travel is rather like navigating on a terrestrial ocean. There are no defined roads in most of that country and drivers find their way by locating landmarks like mountain peaks and river crossings. Routes from A to B can thus be multifarious and cover a very wide area. There is no doubt, however, that one of the routes Matilde would take is over the Foce a Giovo pass which she would traverse on a mule as described in my post at https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2015/09/18/foce-a-giovo/

The second talk by Valentina Capellini concentrated on the documentary evidence relating to Matilde’s presence in Lucca’s diocesan archives. This was more of a specialised subject and, frankly, unless one was a devotee of bibliography, I felt it would be only of interest principally to specialists in the field. However, I was fascinated by Matilda’s monogram with which she would sign documents.

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The study afternoon was rounded off by an introduction by Tommaso Rossi,  a brilliant young archivist who had organised an exhibition of documents relating to Matilde in three of the library’s showcases. The mediaeval parchments were, of course, just represented by photocopies. The books relating to the Countess and her subsequent elevation to a myth were represented by original examples. In the more modern section I was glad to find out  that even I owned a part of the literature relating to the great woman as a copy of ‘ A famous corner of Tuscany’ by Evangeline Whipple (see my post mentioning her at https://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/06/29/some-corner-of-a-foreign-field/) was displayed..

The conference was incredibly well-attended with standing room only for some of the audience. This is clearly a good sign as it shows increasing interest by Bagni di Lucca’s citizens in their local history. Well done to all those who pulled together to produce this fascinating study afternoon!


One thought on “Who Was Matilde Di Canossa?

  1. From the President of the Fondazione Michel de Montaigne Marcello Cherubini:

    ‘La ringrazio! I Suoi commenti alle iniziative della Fondazione sono davvero encomiabili.
    L’aspetto insieme alla Sua signora al Concerto di Natale. Si prenoti presso la Bibliotecaria!
    Cordiali saluti’

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