From Famous Castles & Palaces of Italy, Illustrated in Colour from Paintings, by Edmund B. d’Auvergne, London: T. Werner Laurie, [undated, 1911]; pp. 121-130.


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IN Lucera and Castel del Monte we see the bulwarks and pride of the imperial power; thence the memory travels northward to Canossa, the place of an empire’s humiliation — “that great rock, almost round, that juts out, high, detached, severe, above the valleys of the Apennines, south of the city of Reggio. It is naked, squalid, desert, and from the east the mountains descend in deep ashen-hued and dark precipices, horrid and fearful to see. All is silence and ruins, cliffs and precipices, and wooded and rough places. The defiles abruptly become lower, and with their rigid and sharply pointed flanks seem like the headquarters of the army of death. Here gushes forth no fount of fresh water, no silver brook murmurs here, no grasses or flowers are reflected in the stream; here is not heard the warbling of birds nor the song of the shepherdess who leads her flock to pasture on the verdant slope; here no husbandman guides the plough, and no oak receives beneath the shade of its leaves the oppressed wayfarer.”1

Sombre indeed is the site where in the middle of the tenth century the first foundations of the famous fortress were laid by Azzo Adalberto, the son of a nobleman of Lucca. Espousing the cause of the Emperor Otto, Azzo was rewarded by the title of marquis and the 122 lordship of Modena and Reggio. Those were the days when Italian lords looked on themselves as feudatories of the emperor, and the Alps were merely a geographical expression. Boniface, the grandson of Azzo, combined an ardent devotion to the Church with fervent loyalty to his liege lord, and was vested by the Emperor Conrad with the marquisate of Tuscany. His wealth and power, however, awakened the jealousy of Henry III., who next wore the imperial diadem. Many traps were laid for the lord of Canossa, but these by craft and daring he avoided. At last a poisoned arrow in the woods of Spineta rid the emperor of his formidable vassal, in the year 1051.

From that hour the house of Azzo turned against the emperor, and the Castle of Canossa became the centre of resistance to his authority. Boniface’s infant son died a prisoner in the hands of Henry, who held the mother, Beatrice, also captive at Mantua for four long years. Matilda, the heiress of Boniface, was taken by her friends to her ancestral and impregnable fortress, and lived to become la gran donna, the best friend the Church ever had in Italy. In her gloomy home she was trained by her mother in all the arts that became a sovereign lady; by her captain, Ardnino della Palude, she was instructed in the use of the sword and spear. The girl in these mountain solitudes grew tall, sturdy and self-reliant. All her emotions were absorbed by religion. To her Italy was a battleground between God and the devil, personified in her mind by the Pope and the emperor.

When the Normans menaced Rome, in the year they conquered England, Matilda, it is asserted, accompanied 123 the army that her stepfather, Godefroi of Lorraine led to the Pope’s assistance. She was affianced three years later to her stepfather’s son and namesake, afterwards called Il Gobbo. The only child of the union died in infancy, and the noble pair lived estranged and generally separated by vast distances. It is not likely that any attempt to reconcile them was made by the new Pope, Gregory VII., who was dissatisfied with Godefroi’s lukewarmness in the defence of the Church, and to whose interests Matilda had become completely subservient. Those were dark days for the Pope. He had been dragged away from the very altar by Cencio, the conflict between him and the Emperor Henry IV. had reached an acute stage. In the struggle that followed the devotion of Matilda never wavered. She was present, it is stated, at the council in 1076 at which the Supreme Pontiff pronounced sentence of deposition and excommunication against Henry; she provided the escort that was to conduct Gregory northwards from Rome to his meeting with the German bishops. At Mantua the news reached them that Henry had crossed the Alps and was on his way south. Doubtful whether this meant peace or war, the Pope and the Countess of Tuscany hastened back and threw themselves into Canossa. The plains of Lombardy were covered with snow, the mountain passes must have been well-nigh impassable. Yet, painfully, deviously, bishops and laymen came up the paths, exhausted by their long journey from Germany, hungry for the Pope’s absolution.

It was given grudgingly. The bishops were confined in cells on a diet of bread and water, while fitting 124 penances were appointed to the others. Soon word was brought that the emperor, defeated and terror-stricken, was on his way to the castle. Matilda met him at Bianello, one of the four castles which she had built to guard the approach to Canossa, and which still exist, though ruined, under the name of the Quattro Castella. Henry came as a humble penitent, not as an emperor; he craved to be relieved from the anathema, which was weighing his soul down to hell. His prayer was repeated by Matilda to the Pope. Gregory declared that he must wait for the decision of the Council of Augsburg; Henry entreated and entreated again. He implored Matilda to prevail upon the Pope, vowing that he would never use shield and sword in battle till he was absolved. On the fourth day the countess returned and told him that his prayer was granted. Let him go as a penitent to ask pardon of his injured pastor.

Three walls girded Canossa. At the outer gate the emperor took leave of his retinue. Within he was stripped of his knightly array, and clad only in a woollen shirt. On bare feet he crept up to the door of the keep and knocked. No one opened. The snow was on the ground. All day long the emperor stood and shivered and knocked. He realised now the penance that was demanded of him. The nest day and the day after he stood there, faint with cold and hunger, still knocking.

The barons, the bishops, the countess herself stood by, scandalised, compassionate. Moved by their persuasions, the Pope ordered the door to be opened. The wretched sovereign threw himself full length 125 before the Pontiff. “Pardon!” he cried. And Gregory told him that he was forgiven.

I do not think Germany has forgiven the papacy for that humiliation to this day.

Then Henry entered into solemn engagements, his heart, as his limbs glowed once more with heat, beginning to glow again with resentment. Then he rode down the mountain paths to Reggio. Humiliation is best realised after it has happened. It needed not the fury of his followers to remind the emperor of his shame. He met the Pope again at Bianello and persuaded him to confer with him on the left bank of the Po. On the way to the spot appointed, Pontiff and countess were warned that a trap had been prepared for them. They retreated hastily to Canossa; and there, and in the strong castles with which Matilda had crowned the Æmilian Apennines, the Pope was able to defy the wrath of his unrepentant penitent.

A fresh contest between the temporal and spiritual powers was inevitable. In 1082 Matilda bestowed all the rich treasure of the church of Canossa on the dauntless Pope. The church ornaments were melted down, producing nine pounds of gold and seven hundred pounds of silver. Despite this assistance, Gregory was driven from Rome and took refuge at Salerno. The imperial troops invaded the countess’s own territories, and were defeated at Sorbara. An attempt upon Canossa itself was foiled in 1092. Hearing of Henry’s approach the prudent Matilda left a strong force to hold her ancestral castle and with a 126 numerous detachment threw herself into Bianello. On the road she passed within hearing of the enemy, pressing by another mountain path towards Canossa. They were instantly attacked by the garrison. Above in the fortress, totally hidden by the October mist, the monks invoked the wrath of God on their excommunicated assailants. A stone from a catapult laid low the emperor’s standard-bearer, and the imperial ensign was carried off by a foot-soldier of Matilda. Henry from a rock close by saw the discomfiture of his men, but not the fortress he had sworn to level with the dust. He retreated across the Po.

His fortunes were on the ebb tide. His wife, Adelaide, abandoned him and took refuge with the countess in the hated stronghold on the Apennines. There it was in the year 1102 that Matilda solemnly bequeathed her possessions to Holy Church, a legacy for which neither Italy nor the Catholic world had much reason in the long run to thank her. La gran donna lived twelve years longer, surviving her bitterest foe eight years. His son, the fifth Henry, came to Italy to be crowned by the Pope, and on his way back was entertained by Matilda at Bianello. She acknowledged his suzerainty, and he called her his mother.

Claiming, therefore, the rights of a son, he seized on all her fiefs after her death, and Canossa received an imperial lord. The new tenants took their name from the castle. In the year 1255 Bonifacio da Canossa was excommunicated for having intercepted some of the goods of his Holiness, Pope Alexander IV. The people of Reggio availed themselves of this 127 sentence to rid themselves of a troublesome neighbour. They blockaded the fortress. Bonifacio, vanquished by famine, surrendered; and the ancient castle that had resisted the might of imperial Germany, and seen an emperor on his knees, was levelled down to the naked rock.

But where a castle has once taken root it always grows again. In 1320 we find the Reggians in open warfare with the lords of Canossa, which had already grown strong enough to menace their liberties. A year later the stronghold was in their power, and by them was the warden appointed and paid. Thenceforward history has little to say about Canossa. It was assaulted and taken by Alfonso of Este in 1558, and conferred upon Count Bonifacio Ruggieri of Reggio by the Duke of Ferrara in 1570. Ruggieri seems to have restored the ruinous pile, which did not, however, remain long in the possession of his family. In the eighteenth century neglect and the enterprise of local builders had reduced it to a heap of ruins and it would probably have disappeared altogether by now had not King Humbert personally hoisted over it in the year 1880 the national flag of Italy.

The citizens of Reggio did their work well, and of the castle of Matilda hardly a trace remains. Broken walls, patched and repatched, a crumbling tower and masses of formless rubble constitute the stronghold of Canossa to-day. The entrance at present is by a path winding round the west and north-west of the rock, past the angle crowned by a three-sided tower of the thirteenth century. Professor Feretti2 is of opinion 128 that the primitive entrance was at the south-west corner, where he traces the outline of the courtyard of the Church of Sant’ Apollonio, the ruins of which he places farther east. The building extending north of the courtyard along the summit of the cliff, parallel with the path below, he identifies with the palace of Matilda. One of the three walls which are said to have existed in Henry III.’s time was probably that of the borgo or town that extended from the foot of the slope towards the south-east. The second wall would then have defended the castle at the point where the cliff rises from the slope, and the third wall would be that encircling the building on the platform of the rock. We must not look in these early strongholds for the regularity of the fortresses of the seventeenth century. On one side there might be three or four walls, converging elsewhere, and forming one, or disappearing, where the cliff rose sheer, altogether. Canossa in its prime was a collection of stout-walled houses, loopholed and crenellated, perhaps, at the summit of a steep rock, defended wherever the approach was easy by a series of walls. More than that we cannot say with certainty of the far-famed castle where Cæsar rendered tribute on his knees to Peter.


 1  Bresciani, “Matilde di Canossa.”

 2  “Canossa, studi e ricerche.”






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