On Matilde`s tracks
The countess and the city, The country parish churches and the monastery
On Matilde`s tracks
The countess and the city
The historical trail of Matilde di Canossa in the Mantuan territory begins in the city of Mantua itself. Here, in all probability, the Comitissa, daughter of Bonifacio di Canossa and Beatrice di Lorena, was born in 1046. Her parents dwelt in Mantua for its strategic importance within the Canossa`s estates and there is proof of the existence in Mantua of a residential palace of the court, but unfortunately no trace of it remains. In the same year, 1046, Beatrice ordered the construction of a monastery dedicated to St. Andrea, on the occasion of the second finding of the Most Precious Blood of Christ. This relic is still kept in the crypt of the Basilica of St. Andrea, re-built by Leon Battista Alberti in 1472 on the wishes of the marquis Ludovico II Gonzaga. After the death of her father in 1052 and of her brothers, the six-year-old Matilde became the sole heir of the feudal estates of the Canossa. These estates extended from Lucca, to Ferrara and Brescia, and included, of course, Mantua. The relationship between the Virgilian city and the countess was never easy; the people didn`t particularly love her, whereas Matilde was attached to Mantua. Her counsellor and spiritual guide was the bishop of Lucca, Anselmo da Baggio. To this day he is the patron saint of Mantua, where he was proclaimed saint by popular acclaim shortly after his death in 1086. The preserved body of St. Anselmo is kept in the Duomo (Cathedral) and is displayed to be venerated by the faithful on 18th March every year. A tangible sign of the presence of Matilde in Mantua is the most ancient church of the city: the Rotonda di S. Lorenzo (Rotunda of S. Lorenzo), a sacred, charming place, laden with symbols. This monument, dating back to 1083, was almost certainly desired by the countess. It seems that her aim was to create a real Palatine chapel, taking Aquisgrana as a model. The building is circular and contains a women`s gallery and traces of frescoes.
The country parish churches and the monastery
The countryside was the most suitable terrain for the settlement of religious communities, which were favoured by the countess through continual donations. The parish churches supported by Matilde are concentrated in the south of the province of Mantua, and splendid traces of the past can still be observed in them. These churches were points of transit, serving waterway and road, for pilgrims heading for Rome, and they often became a destination of spontaneous pilgrimage. To visit these churches take the s.s. 62 "della Cisa" road south from Mantua. Shortly after Suzzara, you come to the small village of Palidano, the ancient Lectum Palludanum, where you can see the church dedicated to St. Sisto, which was donated to the monastery of Polirone as early as 1105. Today, of the original Romanesque appearance, only the pilaster strips and the small pensile arches of the bell-tower remain.
Three kilometres from Palidano another Canossa estate, which some centuries later gave rise to the Gonzaga dynasty, is Gonzaga. In the very heart of this town, in the same place where today evidence of the Renaissance abode of the Gonzaga remain, there appears to have stood a castle belonging to the Canossa family. At a short distance, there is the church of St. Benedetto, Abbot, which has very ancient origins: it is documented that as early as 967 a chapel dedicated to the saint existed there. Matilde allotted the church to the monastery of Polirone and made it into a monastic priorate. The Romanesque building, erected between the eleventh and the the twelveth century, underwent several alterations, but recent restorations have at least partially brought it back to its original appearance. Further important evidence of religious art in Gonzaga is represented by the remains of the fifteenth century Convent of Santa Maria, around which the famous agricultural fair originated. The Fiera Millenaria (Millenary agricultural fair) is still a major event today. A few metres from the border with the province of Reggio Emilia, on the road leading from Gonzaga to Bondeno, a sign indicates the del "Bondanazzo di Reggiolo" farm, not far from the Monastery of Polirone and the place where Matilde probably spent her last days. It seems that, shortly before her death, Matilde built a chapel dedicated to St. Giacomo. Today nothing of it remains. The house, which is today inhabited by a farming family, has not kept its original appearance. However if we look carefully we can see, even from outside, that this isn`t a simple farm house like all the others. In the main entrance there is a beautiful ceiling and, partly hidden by a starcase, traces of precious religious frescoes, perhaps from the fifteenth century. We can easily imagine far greater sections of painted walls. Unfortunately, the farm house cannot be visited, as it is a private residence. The route continues towards Pegognaga (follow the directions for the A 22 motorway), where already in the distance you notice the country Parish church of St. Lorenzo, dating back to the early twelfth century. Works carried out at the beginning of the twentieth century have altered its nature, despite trying to restore its previous appearance. Original elements are the three apses and the north head of the transept. The church is subdivided into a central nave and two side aisles. These are in turn separated by cylindrical pillars with capitals with angular foil. The presbytery is raised and built over a recently renovated crypt. From Pegognaga we continue towards San Benedetto Po, where in 1007 Tedaldo di Canossa founded the Benedictine monastery of San Benedetto di Polirone, also known as the "Montecassino of northern Italy". Matilde was extremely fond of this place. In the eleventh century the Po had two branches, the Po and the Lirone, both of which embraced the island where the monastery was later built. Bonifacio had already given the monks large extents of land, and they did their best to reclaim it from water. Matilde herself also made donations, which rendered the monastery one of the richest in Italy. The Canossa family reserved the right to nominate the abbot, and his actions were subject to supervision by the lord, who always had the last word. The monastery was outstanding as a centre both of culture and of work, and in it marvellous manuscripts with miniature paintings were produced, many of which have been passed down to us.
In 1077, following the famous episode in Canossa between Emperor Henry IV and Pope Gregory VII, with Matilde as a go-between, she donated the abbey to the Pope, who in turn placed it under the jurisdiction of Cluny. The Romanesque church of Santa Maria was later incorporated into the late Gothic building that we know today (between 1437 and 1448 circa) and into the present church, abundantly restored by Giulio Romano (between 1540 and 1544). In the sixteeenth century, the abbey saw its utmost splendour; Giulio Romano, Correggio and Antonio Begarelli worked there, and renowned guests were Martin Luther, Teofilo Folengo, Palladio, Giorgio Vasari and Torquato Tasso, besides Pope Paolo III. Of great artistic value are the three late Gothic cloisters, the large refectory, the Basilica restored by Giulio Romano and the remains of a magnificent Romanesque floor mosaic in the oratory of St. Maria. Before her death, on 24th July 1115 at the age of 69, Matilde expressed the wish to be buried in this abbey, and that her body be dressed in the habit of the Benedictine nuns. Her body, after being moved several times within the abbey complex, was laid in the sacristy of the basilica, and the funeral monument was adorned in the sixteenth century by a canvas by Orazio Farinati, which represents the Comitissa as a warrior on horseback, holding a pomegranate, a symbol of wisdom and prosperity. The corpse of Matilde was purloined from San Benedetto Po in 1632 on the wishes of Pope Urbano VIII and is now kept in St. Peter`s in the Vatican, so far from the place she loved. The origins of another church in San Benedetto Po, the country parish church of St Floriano, are connected to the Canossa family, as it was founded by Matilde`s father in the first half of the eleventh century. Of its ancient splendour only a remarkable bell-tower, dating back to the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, remains. Leaving San Benedetto and going towards Quistello, you`ll find a road on the right, leading to the little church of Santa Maria di Valverde, which is privately owned. Its structure is Gothic (the bell-tower) and Romanesque (the apse) and it was restored in 1445. Inside, above the apse and the triumphal arch there is a large fresco, probably painted by late Gothic artists.
Following the course of the Po, we reach Pieve di Coriano, where Matilde, in 1082, ordered the building of a church dedicated to Our Lady of the Assumption, originally known as Santa Maria della Rotta. According to legend, the name evokes the battle that took place there, and in which Matilde defeated the troops of Enrico IV, but more probably it refers to a "rotta" (where the Po broke its hanks) in 1085. Also this Romanesque country parish church underwent transformations during the sixteenth century. In 1911, on the foundations of the remaining original structure, it was again restored, unfortunately for the worse. Today it has three naves and two aisles as well as three semicircular apses. The bell-tower also dates back to the years 1930-34, and is in Romanesque style.
The last stage of the route is on the border near the province of Rovigo, at Felonica, keeping to the right bank of the Po, on the extreme eastern point of the province of Mantua. There is a country parish church, again dedicated to Our Lady of the Assumption. It is situated near the bank, in a charming landscape. It was built in 1074, in accordance with Matilde`s wishes. In the past it was altered, bombed and rebuilt. Today its façade presents a bell-tower in Gothic style on the right and on the left a thin spire. Inside, the apse has been completely rebuilt. There are valuable frescoes: a Madonna and Child, perhaps by Giulio Romano, and representations by a contemporary of Giotto.
We would like to thank for photos Toni Lodigiani and archivio fotografico APT