From My Tuscan Window

Chapter 23
The Countess Matilda
(11th Century A.D.)

The year was 1067. The entire populace of Gioviano must have been terribly excited by the news that Countess Beatrice and her daughter Matilda would soon be passing along the Via Clodia. They were to travel from their castle in Canossa to the city of Lucca for the opening of the remodeled Cathedral of San Martino.

The Giovianini probably hung their brightest banners from the various towers in the castle as well as from the towers along the perimeter walls, which form the foundations of both of our homes, Capanna Susanna and Palazzo Margherita. Gioviano in those days must have looked like a miniature version of San Gimignano.

Dignitaries from afar would either be traveling in the company of Beatrice or would be passing below Gioviano with their various entourages. Included in the group was Robert, Duke of Normandy (brother of William the Conqueror) who came to seek the Pope’s approval of William’s victory at the Battle of Hastings in 1066.

Pope Alessandro II, was a very close friend of Beatrice, even before he had become Pope. Alessandro had been known as Bishop Anselmo of Lucca, and since he had such strong ties with Lucca, he bade the Papal Court to spend six months of the year in that city.

It was he, who promoted the cult of the Volto Santo throughout the Christian world, which resulted in Lucca becoming a highly important pilgrimage center. The magnetic draw of the Volto Santo would have, of course, intensified travel along the Via Clodia. Thus the comings and goings of Popes, Kings, Lords and Ladies would have become so commonplace that it seems inevitable that, in later years, the citizens of Gioviano would have would have looked down upon the passing throng while picking grapes, washing clothes or gathering chestnuts.

In later years and upon the death of her mother, Beatrice, Matilda found herself in possession of huge family territories including Lucca. Therefore, she also became the Countess of Gioviano and its surrounding territory. She was apparently especially fond of the Bagni di Lucca (thermal baths) and so, in 1101, she had the Ponte della Maddalena or “Devil’s Bridge” built at Borgo a Mozzano to make her passage from Lucca to the Bagni easier. She also built a villa just outside of Borgo, which incidentally has been restored and is now available for rent by visitors to the area.

There were many conflicts during the period of Matilda’s reign of power. Henry IV was too young to rule after the death of his father, and so his mother, Anne of Poitiers, took charge of the affairs of state. In 1076, Henry had come of age and thus became The Holy Roman Emperor.

There had long been conflict between the Holy Roman Emperor and the Papacy. Matilda, who had always supported the Pope, wanted to see an end to the strife. She must have been one of the most powerful women in the history of Western Civilization, for she was able to persuade both the Pope and the Emperor to meet at her castle in Cannosa, which is a considerable distance north of Lucca.

Matilda’s desire was to bring peace to both the Holy Roman Empire and to the Papacy. The Pope had the upper hand since he was already in Matilda’s nice warm castle before the Emperor arrived. The Pope then played a game of freeze out with Henry. The Emperor was so cold after three days of waiting outside the castle to be allowed entry that he found himself kneeling before the Pope after being allowed entry.

I don’t think Henry was very happy about this treatment, and so in 1081 he gave Lucca many privileges that he hoped would break Matilda’s power over Lucca. The Lucchesi, with their newfound imperial concessions, changed their allegiance from the Pope to the Emperor and attempted to rid the city of Matilda’s rule.

Even her dear friend and ally, the Bishop of Lucca, had to flee to one of her houses in Mantua, yet Matilda held on. Finally, she was able to win the people back over to allegiance to the Papacy when Pope Urban II came to Lucca in 1094. The Pope came to the city to appeal to the people to join him in the First Crusade to the Holy Land.

By sending a contingency of soldiers to the Holy Land, Lucca was to gain huge fame and fortune, for when the soldiers returned they brought with them silk worms. These worms formed the basis of a silk empire that spread even to Gioviano where the Barsanti family raised the productive little beasts in a stone building on the outskirts of the village.

As Matilda had no heir, her death left a vacuum in the power equation. Thus, Lucca was in a position to become an independent city-state, which of course would affect the status of Gioviano as well.

Revised March 3, 2008
Copyright 2005-2006 George H. Russell
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