Dux Femina Facti: Matilda di Canossa

Gabriel Kuhl |

Roman Law, the Modern University, the Papacy, and the Renaissance All Owe a Debt to This Power Broker Who Slumbers in a Little-Noticed Corner of St. Peter’s




The dead keep good company at Saint Peter’s. 91 of the Catholic Church’s 266 popes can be found here, including the Apostle Peter, from whom the basilica takes its name. These dead bishops of Rome brush shoulders with martyred church fathers, the occasional Holy Roman Emperor, exiled Catholic monarchs, and even the likes of Palestrina, one of the greatest composers of the Renaissance. Remarkably, however, one can count just three women among the over one-hundred people interred here; here being the greatest of the Major Basilicas and the largest church ever built. One, Maria Clementina Sobieski, had married into Great Britain’s exiled Catholic dynasty, the Stuarts, all of whom found Saint Peter’s as their resting place. Another, Kristina of Sweden, abandoned the Protestantism of her ancestors and abdicated the throne of Stockholm. A preeminent polymath of the 17th-century, she won international renown for her support of Catholicism, learning, and the arts; she could count even Bernini himself as one of her closest acquaintances. The third woman however, presents a remarkably different picture. She lived in the 11th-century, presided alone over almost the whole of northern Italy, commanded armies, revived Justinian law in the universities of the West, poured money into scores of churches, and was believed so worthy of a tomb in Saint Peter’s that her body was moved there in the years after her death. Her name was Matilda di Canossa.

Her tomb of marble faces south to the right of the nave, behind the statues of Saints Vincent de Paul and John Eudes. The monumental figure belongs to the workshop of Gian Lorenzo Bernini, the pre-eminent artist of the Baroque artistic movement that enraptured 17th-century Europe. Through Bernini, we find Matilda dressed in the robes of a Roman noblewoman and occupying a stark white niche, perhaps echoing design conventions of ancient funerary monuments. Clasped in her hands are a baton and the keys of Saint Peter, signifying a life of military command and service to the papacy. The bas-relief below the sculpture depicts Matilda’s victory in the to-be-explained “Walk to Canossa,” in which the Holy Roman Emperor received the forgiveness of the pope at Matilda’s castle. Above, in Latin, is the following inscription:












“Grateful Pope Urban VIII

set down this monument deserving of everlasting praises

to Countess Mathilda, a woman with the soul of man,

champion of the Apostolic Seat

renowned for her piety, celebrated for her generosity,

after her bones were moved here from the Mantuan convent of Saint Benedict

in the year 1635.”


The inscription provides a brief summary of Matilda’s life and explains the circumstances behind her tomb’s erection in Saint Peter’s. Urban VIII, it says, put down this monument deserving of everlasting praises, “aeternae laudis promeritum mon[umentum] pos[uit]” in 1635 after moving Matilda’s bones from Mantua to Rome, summed up neatly in the ablative absolute, “huc … ossibus.” Matilda is then labeled with the exceptionally rare word, “propugnatrix,” or guardian, of the Apostolic Seat in light of her military service on behalf of the Church.



Matilda was born in 1046 A.D to the Attonids, a dynasty of Lombard counts whose ancestral seat lay at Canossa, a quiet castle perched atop the northernmost crags of the Apennines. The Attonids had enjoyed a meteoric rise to power that, by the middle of the 11th-century, had transformed quiet Canossa into the capital of a dominion whose territories spanned twelve entire city-states and the whole of Tuscany. The family owed its good fortune to Matilda’s eminent father, Boniface, who had carved out a legacy as the greatest Italian statesman of his generation. In this position of power, Boniface did not hesitate giving his daughter, the youngest of three, a good education; Matilda spoke three languages, chiefly Latin, and was rumored to have been tutored also in soldiering and athletics. It was here in Canossa, therefore, where Matilda discovered her love of learning and penchant for command, both of which would serve the future countess well throughout her tumultuous life. After the death of her father and older sister, Matilda became the heiress to her family’s domains behind her brother Frederick, who himself was fated to die a young man. She enjoyed a bitter marriage to one Godfrey, a duke and lumbering hunchback from Lorraine; the two lived apart, with Matilda holding a joint court in Canossa with her mother, Beatrice. An opportune sword, however, found its place in Godfrey’s back while the duke was at the privy; his assassination by rivals and the death of Beatrice left the entire Attonid legacy to Matilda, who took her seat as Marquessa of Tuscany in 1076, just as a new crisis began to envelop the Italian peninsula.







In 11th-century Europe, a clean line between church and state did not exist. Kings enjoyed the privilege of appointing whoever they wanted to senior ecclesiastical positions in their land, a process called investiture. Because these church officials, namely bishops, commanded vast economic and political resources, it was advantageous for a ruler to fill these positions with loyal followers and often for a heavy price. The pope himself eventually found his office affected by this practice; Pope Nicholas II, elected in 1059, succeeded three consecutive appointees of Heinrich III, the Holy Roman Emperor. Under this new pope, therefore, the Church began to assert its primacy over secular rulers. The first step taken was the formation of a new and wholly ecclesiastical electorate body, the College of Cardinals, for the appointment of all later popes. The new reform movement struck again in 1075, when Pope Gregory VII declared that only the pope could appoint bishops. This particular ruling encountered furious opposition in the Holy Roman Empire, whose power and income were entwined with Church holdings. The firebrand emperor, Heinrich IV, denounced papal authority and continued placing his own candidates into Church positions. When Gregory responded to Heinrich’s behavior by excommunicating him, the emperor declared war on the papacy.


But in the heartland of the Empire, Heinrich’s vassals turned against him; the emperor’s expulsion from the Church had destroyed his reputation among the German lords and prompted many to clamor for a replacement. In October 1076, therefore, the German nobility delivered a firm ultimatum to the emperor: make amends with the pope or lose the throne. Pope Gregory, meanwhile, had received an invitation to meet with the German lords and was in Tuscany en route to Germany when, with alarming swiftness, Heinrich’s forces cascaded up the Rhine, scaled the Italian Alps, and swept through the Lombard hills in barely two months. The emperor’s plan was simple: capture the travelling pope and depose him. Matilda, no friend to Heinrich, immediately implored the desperate Gregory to take refuge in Canossa; Gregory accepted. This maneuver forfeited any initiative Heinrich may have had with his invasion; a swift capture of Gregory was no longer possible and the patience of the German nobles would not endure a protracted war in Tuscany. Bereft of options, Heinrich proceeded to Matilda’s capital in peace. There, he waited outside the walls of Canossa for three days in the piercing January mountain cold, begging for Gregory to rescind his excommunication. The pope remained adamantly opposed, until Matilda finally persuaded him to end the conflict. With the “Walk to Canossa,” the “Investiture Controversy” appeared to be at an end.

But this reconciliation hardly marked an end to the war between Church and state. In spite of Heinrich’s actions at Canossa, the great lords of Germany appointed a rival imperial candidate anyway. Heinrich defeated the pretender and subjugated his vassals in 1080, but not before being excommunicated once again by Gregory, who had backed the German rebels. Heinrich immediately declared Gregory’s pontificate invalid, nominated his own German candidate for pope, and marched on Rome. Matilda reacted quickly. During her retreat from Lombardy, where her forces had failed to curb the initial imperial advance southwards, she denied the emperor access through the Apennine Mountains. Though this maneuver brought considerable delays onto the imperial invasion, Heinrich nevertheless seized Rome in 1084 and planted his puppet, Antipope Clement III, on the apostolic seat. Gregory, meanwhile, fled to the Castel Sant’Angelo. Matilda immediately took to defending Gregory’s pontificate-in-exile by serving as the de facto papal emissary to the kingdoms of central Europe. And when forces of the victorious Heinrich encroached on Tuscan soil from their new Roman possession, Matilda crushed them. Upon Gregory’s death in 1087, Matilda spearheaded the retaking of Rome and entered the services of the new Pope Urban II, who excommunicated Heinrich (for the third time) and cleansed the city of Clement III. Then in 1090, the infuriated emperor invaded Italy once again. Matilda marshalled her forces towards Mantua, there inflicting such a devastating defeat against the imperial army that all of Heinrich’s Lombard vassals turned against him. An additional attempted stab into Tuscany in 1095 ended in imperial defeat at Matilda’s hands and snuffed out the last vestiges of Heinrich’s third and final Roman expedition. Matilda would spend the next decade eradicating defiant pockets of imperial support in Lombardy and Tuscany until word arrived in 1106 that her great rival was dead. Matilda met with the new Heinrich V and finally reconciled with the Holy Roman Empire; she donated long-contested land to the emperor, who in turn crowned Matilda “Imperial Vicar and Vice-Queen of Italy” in 1111. Matilda died four years later.




Matilda’s reign would affect the development of central Italy for the next five centuries. Her efforts against the Holy Roman Empire guaranteed the political independence of Tuscany and Romagna, provinces whose cities of Florence and Bologna, among others, would later become the stewards of the Italian Renaissance. Her patronage to University of Bologna established new faculties of canon and civil law there, both of which heralded the return of Justinian’s monumental Corpus Iuris Civilis to the intellectual landscape of Western Europe; the alumni of this institution, which became celebrated as one of the finest universities in the world, would include Petrarch, Erasmus, Alberti, Rodrigo Borgia, and Copernicus.


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Gabriel Kuhl

Gabriel Kuhl is a Paideia Rome Fellow.


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