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Peace and conflict in the seventeenth-century funerary monument of the medieval heroine Countess Matilda of Canossa.

The extraordinary deeds of Countess Matilda of Canossa (1046-1115) in defense of the papacy conferred upon her the right to permanent remembrance in the history of the Church, as well as to a select burial place in St. Peter's (fig. 1), and enhanced her to a special status as a female combatant. (1) Destined to rule over a large part of central Italy, Matilda had assumed the position of a Christian ruler by fighting, pacifying, founding religious establishments, endowing altars, and donating her material goods to the Church. Countess Matilda, along with her territory, came to represent a buffer between the popes in Rome and the Holy Roman Emperors from Germany. Over time, her role in reconciling Pope Gregory VII (1073-1085)--the most famous among the popes she served--and future Emperor Henry IV by mediating their encounter at Canossa in 1077 consolidated as Matilda's most momentous political intervention. While Matilda's determination of seeking peace to the benefit of the papacy could not be belied, the tendency to hyperbolize this deed led to neglecting her equally significant bellicose exertion. (2) Visually, this tendency favored an imagery tributary to the Canossa episode that created a picture of Matilda "in negative" with regard to her military feats. Records testify that she had fought against the imperial forces up to the Canossa encounter and after when disputes between emperors and the papacy resumed. To emphasize Matilda's intense military campaigns would have implied to make her the topic of study, whereas to prioritize her intermediating task between the papacy and the emperor would have meant to channel the interest towards the struggle between the two at the expense of Matilda. Creators of major narratives on the history of the Church were evidently more interested in the latter, practically in focusing on the emperor's humiliation in front of the pope during the critical period known as the "Investiture Controversy," than to analyze Matilda's military campaigns. (3) Both the traditional political and gender hierarchy imposed such a view. Matilda was a female ruler whose military feats were overwhelmingly considered atypical for the gender category to which she belonged. This paper looks at how her deeds, especially her military actions, were evaluated in the papal milieu not in Matilda's own times but centuries later in the 1630's-1640's when Pope Urban VIII decided to honor her mortal remains with a funerary monument in the most venerated sanctuary of the Church on whose behalf she had fought, St. Peter's (fig. 1). (4)

The seventeenth-century monument celebrates Countess Matilda's most acclaimed deeds in the papal milieu (1633-1637; fig. 1). Incorporated in the second pier of the north nave of the Basilica of St. Peter, the monument is defined by an architectural setting that hosts two main sculptural components: a larger-than-life-size statue of Matilda and a sarcophagus. In 1633, Urban VIII (Maffeo Barberini; 1623-1644) entrusted his favorite artist, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, with creating a tomb that would illustrate the pope's own efforts in revivifying Matilda's legendary deeds to the benefit of the Church. Bernini designed the whole project and sculpted on the statue of the Countess, whereas Stefano Speranza, one of Bernini's assistants, carved the sarcophagus relief. (5) The statue shows an idealized portrait of Matilda whose noble facial features, pose, the all'antica garb and the diadem make her look similar to a classical statue. Notwithstanding the breastplate and the energetic grip of the scepter, Bernini's statue captures Matilda in a classical allure that does not convey eminent martial readiness like the ancient female deity of war Bellona or the personification of Rome. (6) Her right arm is outstretched in a vigorous gesture with the corresponding hand clenching the scepter, whereas her other arm advertizes the papal insigna by supporting a tiara against her body and the keys in her hand. The opposition between the expansive gesture of the arm denoting her ruling capacity and the contained posture of the arm protecting the papal insignia creates a rhetorical effect whose message meant to elucidate the viewer that Matilda's secular actions as a leader and combatant had been prompted by her desire to defend the papacy. Additionally, the very famous proskinesis scene during the encounter at Canossa illustrated by Speranza on the frontal side of the sarcophagus reinforces the idea on Matilda's role in supporting papal preeminence. Henry IV knelt in front of an enthroned Pope Gregory VII is about to kiss the pope's foot in the presence of Matilda. Besides the elevated position of the pope, the spatial arrangement of the protagonists with a centrally displayed pope flanked in the foreground on each side by Henry IV and Matilda respectively designates the visual focus of the scene. The selection of this episode for the sarcophagus stresses out that Matilda's mediating role at Canossa, with the evident implication of imperial submission to the pope, represented for the papacy the major episode in Matilda's life. The Barberini bees inserted in the decorative motif of the sarcophagus and of the tiara vouch not only for the advertisement of Urban VIII as the patron of the monument but also for the vividness of Matilda's deeds for the same pontiff.

Supplementary decorative elements of the funerary monument complete the characterization of Matilda. The arch around the niche that frames Matilda's statue exhibits martial and triumphal attributes. A combination of military and pacific decorative elements inhabits the register of the niche above the statue: a helmet, a shield, and palm leaves. The palm, a known attribute of peace, had been associated with Matilda from the first visual representations of her actions. (7) At the top of the monument, two hovering putti sustain her coat-of-arm, with its accompanying motto TUETUR ET UNIT, and a crown. An epigraph in a cartouche supported by two other putti connects the visual fields of the statue and the sarcophagus. (8) Following conventions of the genre, the inscription communicates details about the creation of the tomb, in this case also acknowledging the translation of Countess' human remains from the Monastery of San Benedetto Po near Mantua to St. Peter's, and about the occupant's unique qualities. In addition to enlisting Matilda's munificence toward the Church, the epigraph eulogizes her as Virilis Animae Foeminae and Sedis Apostolicae Propugnatrici. Pointing out Matilda's gender seemed a necessity but associating it with virilis confers a masculine connotation as if explaining the unusual behavior of a female ruler. The laudatory epithet "Propugnator of the Holy See" refers to Matilda's military deeds. Here the contention is that despite the fact that Matilda was promoted as "Propugnator" and her tomb refers to her martial acts, the emphasis remained on her quality as a "woman of peace." Such an interpretational framework accentuated her reconciliatory task at Canossa, and implicitly the supremacy of the papacy, and did not challenge the stereotypes on the distinction between social spheres dictated by gender. The funerary monument presents a hierarchy of visual elements that reflects preconceived notions on gender. In contrast with the two major elements that define Matilda's tomb--the statue and the sarcophagus--the visual correspondents of martial activity traditionally associated with men are subordinately incorporated.

Matilda's memorable public activities as a ruler had been occasioned by her exercise of political power either peacefully or martially. (9) After the premature death of her father Boniface, she had joined her mother Beatrice in administering the dominion and started ruling by herself in 1076. Even though she had married twice, she had preserved her status as a leader over her fief. (10) She had never produced offspring, which permitted future biographers to speculate on her virginity. (11) Unlike many of her female contemporaries who had chosen the contemplative conventual life for professing their devotion to God, she had found her vocation in the active fight for Christ and defense of the Church. (12) Her numerous military campaigns that extended up to her last year of life had resulted in both victories and defeats. However, she had managed to obtain crucial triumphs such as the liberation of Pope Gregory VII or the defeat of the imperial troops of Henry IV at Canossa in 1092--forcing the emperor to withdraw from Italy--that secured her an indelible legacy.

The relationship between women and power has lately captured substantial attention. Considering the variegated socio-political circumstances, the types of power exercised by women expand beyond a definition of rulership. In term of political power, women occasionally, or as Merry E. Wiesner put it when "dynastic accidents" occurred, acted as rulers or regents for their minor male children. (13) Scholarship on European female rulers has primarily focused on famous potentates such as Elizabeth I and Isabel of Castile but recently unearthed less familiar figures. (14) Inevitably, many female rulers had to deal with spinous political situations that frequently ended up in military conflict. However, the scholarly field of military women, even though it intersects the problem ignited by the equation woman-power, has been very little explored. The exclusion of women from power in general has been seldom seen as synonymous with their absence from the military. (15) But current "history from bellow approaches" to women involved in warfare not as fighters but as companions have shown that the presence of women in the non-combative body of the army was not only significant but also deemed essential for a long time. (16) Alerting to the historiographical lacuna regarding female military history, Reina Pennington has proposed the study of military women from both women's and military history perspectives. (17) Similarly, in Countess Matilda's case, David Hay, who has innovatively taken the task of analyzing Matilda's military leadership, has pointed out that her military actions invite to a reconsideration of the relationship between military and gender history. (18) Indeed, the results of digging up historical evidence on female rulers and combatants on a larger scale will urge scholars to question more profoundly the state of abnormality with regard to women fulfilling these functions in a predominantly patriarchal society.

Although Matilda's life had spread over decades of the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the focus of this paper on the usage of her image in the seventeenth century imposes a consideration of her actions in parallel to the perception of women in the early modern period. (19) Many of the ancient discourses on the role and attributes of women had preserved both male authorship and old conceptions throughout the centuries. The gynecocracy debate often unveiled misogynistic criticism of woman leaders and fighters. Influential medieval men such as Albert the Great, Thomas Aquinas, Giles of Rome expressed their negative opinion about female rulers and combatants. Ancient women as well as biblical exempla of Esther, Judith, and Deborah offered precedents to which certain contemporary female rulers exhibiting an unconventional comportment could be compared. However, the same sources could supplant plenty of negative exempla, which helped male authors to reinforce opinions about the exceptional status of exemplary women. In the sixteenth century, due to the unprecedented political circumstances that led to a proliferation of women holding positions of political power, the gynecocracy debate intensified. (20) Even though some females expressed opinions on the issue as well, men secured the dominant voice. The preeminent perspective is worth considering here as a general social backdrop against which the exploitation of Matilda's historical female figure by male individuals occurred.

In spite of the fact that Matilda's confessor Donizo (Vita Mathildis) had composed her detailed biography in the last years of her life, Matilda's name did not appear in the emerging genre of writings on famous women very early. For instance, neither Boccaccio (On Famous Women) nor Christine of Pizan (The Book of the City of Ladies) mentioned her. (21) At the same time, except for a few letters, Matilda herself had left no writings that could augment her chances to become a popular personage. On the other hand, fourteenth-century authors dedicated attention to her deeds: major poets like Dante and Petrarch and relators of historical events. (22) In the sixteenth century, Matilda became increasingly present in writings dealing with aspects of regional history of the territories she had once ruled over or with genealogies of local women, especially the Modenese. (23) Nevertheless, Urban VIII distinguished himself for revitalizing Matilda's image at an international scale once with the incorporation of her new funerary monument in St. Peter's.

Urban VIII's concern with the Countess was principally motivated by her defense of the papacy as well as by the donation of her goods to the Church and stimulated by the need to offer vivid exempla to contemporary secular rulers. His evident cognizance of women's more recent involvement in European politics may tempt one to conclude that the pontiff targeted exclusively a female audience but the institutional benefit for the papacy resulted from her deeds signals the suitability of her exemplum to both male and female rulers. The eulogy attached to Matilda's tomb refers to both her defensive mission and her donation. An application of the papal rights guaranteed by her donation manifested in Urban VIII's instrumentalization of annexing the Duchy of Urbino in the aftermath of the disappearance of any legitimate heir in the dukedom. In addition, personal affiliations between Urban VIII and the Countess such as her control over pope's native Tuscany and her obedience to the pope's eleventh-century homonymous antecessor Urban II could be cultivated as supplementary reasons. Supposedly, Maffeo Barberini found inspiration in Matilda's awesome deeds even before becoming a pope and dedicated to her an ode published for the first time well into his pontificate, in 1635, as part of a collection entitled Poesie Toscane. (24) Besides, Maffeo did count on the implications of adopting the papal name Urban for promoting a renewal of Matilda's vows toward the papacy. Maffeo's actions indicate that he was well prepared to glorify Matilda at his advent as a pope in 1623. In 1632, Urban VIII commenced negotiations for transporting the countess' human remains from the Monastery of San Benedetto Po near Mantua to St Peter's. Matilda's human remains reached Rome the next year--the same year Bernini received the commission for Matilda's funerary monument--but its final destination only in March 1644. (25) While Urban VIII's political interest in reviving the memory of Countess Matilda emerges as evident, it remains to examine how Urban VIII negotiated Matilda's military feats with contemporary conventions on gender.

Prior to Urban VIII, other popes of the early modern period had enlivened visually a few of Matilda's acts. According to Vasari, Raphael and his assistants had depicted her amongst the benefactors of the Church in the inferior register of in the Stanza dell'Incendio in the Vatican (1514-1517). (26) Notably, she was the single female ruler in the series of eight. Unfortunately, the effacement of the image due to subsequent architectural modifications of the room does not allow noting whether she was portrayed in armor like the male rulers of the series or not. Later in the century, Gregory XIII, a devout of his famous predecessor Gregory VII, commissioned from Federico Zuccari the beloved episode of Henry IV's submission to the pope Gregory VII at Canossa (1573) for the Sala Regia. Gregory XIII's gesture becomes self-explanatory when considering the principal function of the room, to receive potentates and their ambassadorial missions. During the pontificate of the same Gregory XIII, an illustration of Matilda's act of donation appeared germane to be integrated in a cycle with episodes from the history of the Church on the ceiling of the Galleria delle Carte Geographiche (ca. 1578-80; fig. 3). Reinforcing visually the existence of such a document was a critical strategy employed by the papacy in reasserting its rights to territorial possession. Similar motivations led to a new frescoing of her act of donation during the papacy of Paul V (ca. 1612-14). In these donation scenes, a humble Matilda presents the document that records her donation to the Pope or to the papal legate. However, none of these extant representations in papal art illustrates her military deeds.

Although interested parties outside the papal court could expand on Matilda's iconography, the gender factor remained decisional in what could become part of Matilda's visual repertoire. In the 1580's, a portrait of the Countess commissioned from Paolo Farinati for adorning her tomb in the Monastery of San Benedetto Po explored innovatively Matilda's figure by showing her astride. (27) Although the Countess' attire lacks military features, the statue of a winged Victory incorporated in the architectural backdrop alludes to Matilda's martial triumphs. According to the artist himself, an equestrian portrait like Matilda's was specific to men. (28) Honoring victorious commanders through equestrian statues located in important public spaces or at the tombs of the respective individuals was an established practice. In more recent times, the equestrian portraits of famous condottieri such Donatello's Gattamelata, Verrrochio's Bartolomeo Colleoni, and the Paolo Savelli monument offered telling exempla (fig.4, 5). Equally, the portraits of illustrious male commanders of the papal troops like the instrumental generals of the Battle of Lepanto always included military attributes; the protagonists appear in armor regardless of their posture astride or not. During the sixteenth century--as above-mentioned a century that witnessed a large number of female rulers--the (self)fashioning effort of female European leaders put forward equestrian representations modeled on the available male version. Elisabeth I showed keen interest in this sort of representation and promoted the diffusion of engravings with her equestrian portrait. (29) Even though the Protestant Elizabeth I could not provide a good reference for a devout Catholic like Matilda, a standard visual representation of female leadership based on gender could be transposed to Matilda's portrayal. However, unlike many other female rulers, Matilda's public actions included active participation in the military. Despite the fact that Farinati presents Matilda "astride like a man," the painter avoided alerting the viewer to her military actions that would have been grasped even more pronouncedly as an incursion into the issue of cross-gender.

The rearrangement of Matilda's sepulchral setting in both the 1580's and 1630's stimulated endeavors to illustrate the Countess' deeds textually. Almost simultaneously with the completion Farinati's equestrian portrait, Benedetto Luchino, a monk from the Monastery of San Benedetto Po, had composed a biograpy of Countesss Matilda (Cronica della vera origine et attioni della illustrissima et famosissima contessa Matilde, 1592). Like the painter Farinati, Luchino categorized the equestrian portrait as pertaining to the representation of men. (30) Luchino's well informed account, supplemented subsequently by Cesare Baronius' section on Matilda in his monumental official history of the Church (Annales, 1600), could offer readers abundant details on Matilda. Even so, Urban VIII inspired his contemporaries eulogize Matilda and his own grandiose effort to incorporate her human remains in St. Peter's. In the direct papal orbit, Felice Contelori, the custodian of the Vatican Library, assumed the task of producing an encomium in Matilda's honor. However, Contelori's Mathildis Comissae Genealogia was posthumously published in 1657, more than a decade after the death of Urban VIII. (31) At the same time, Fiorentini, who had the chance to become part of the papal entourage but preferred to remain in his native Lucca, published a laborious history of the Countess and dedicated it to Urban VIII (Memorie di Matilda, la Gran Contessa d'Italia, 1642). Fiorentini's personal goal was to demonstrate the Lucchese origins of the Countess. Away from the papal court but close to it in spirit as we shall see, the Ferrarese Francesco Berni dedicated to Matilda one out of five lives in his De gli eroi della Casa d'Este (1640). Berni's work does not treat exclusively Matilda, but his desire to publish the first part of his work-inprogress--the one that contains the section on Matilda--may be explained by the urge to imprint a sense of topicality to his preoccupations in the years following Urban VIII's decision to transfer Matilda's burial place to Rome. (32) Berni's treatment of the material shows that he was familiar with Maffeo's Ode in lode della Contessa Matilda. The similarities are especially noticeable in the discourse pattern, alternating the discussion of historical facts with that on vices and virtues pertinent to the topic under scrutiny. The two books written concomitantly with the construction of the Roman tomb belong to two different genres: one a historical work totally devoted to the deeds of Matilda, the other a genealogy of d'Este heroes that accommodates Matilda as well. Both of them address Matilda's military actions but the latter deals more pregnantly with her feminine nature. Evidently, the pope could not have been more elated by these initiatives, as he was naturally tempted to have news about his own undertaking disseminated.

Urban VIII showed propensity for eulogizing faithful female rulers who acted as political mediators. Not long after his election as a pope, in the Jubilee year of 1625, Urban VIII canonized Queen Elisabeth of Portugal, another medieval female ruler renowned for political conciliations between the kings of the Iberian Peninsula. As the head of an institution that excluded women, Urban VIII's initiatives indicate his approval of female secular rulers if not with regard to any woman at least of those who served the Church. (33) Not only did Urban VIII's Ode in lode della Contessa Matilda sing the Countess' praises, but its insertion in the volume of Poesie Toscane, a collection of poems mainly dedicated to religious subject-matter, demonstrates that an "odore di santita" enveloped the Countess. (34) Although contemporary writers emphasized that Matilda was regarded as the most saintly ruler of her time, or simply called a saint, and often referred to her human remains as relics, no miracles had ever been associated with her to permit Urban VIII to advance her case for canonization or at least beatification. (35) In addition to erecting a new tomb for her in St. Peter's, Urban's deep admiration of Matilda motivated the pope to commission from Francesco Romanelli a fresco cycle dedicated to her in a space of the Vatican Palace destined to be transited by visiting rulers in their way from their apartments to the pope's reception room. (36) Matilda remained part of the visual repertoire of the Barberini even after the death of Urban VIII. Two episodes of the Life of Urban VIII tapestry set commissioned and supervised by Urban VIII's nephew, Francesco Barberini, illustrate Matilda allegorically interacting with Urban VIII. (37) In conclusion, the high esteem she enjoyed in that period explains why her human remains received such an exclusive burial place.

The epithet Sedis Apostolicae Propugnatrici mentioned in the sepulchral epigraph strongly recommended the Virilis Animae Foeminae Matilda for a glorification close to the institutional epicenter of the Church. The expression of Virilis Animae Foeminae derived from the trope of analogizing female rulers and combatants to their male counterparts. More directly, seventeenth-century authors could import the expression from Matilda's own time when she had been mentioned as faeminam virili anima in the Chronicon Uspergense and compared to a powerful prince. (38) While Fiorentini refers to it uncritically, for Berni, the very comparison with great men entitled him to include Matilda in his series of d'Este heroes. (39) In Berni's book, the parallel between a male and a female ruler surfaces equally from the prefatory pages to each life that host the portrait of a hero and a poem in his/her honor. (40) Matilda's femaleness is discussed on two levels: once in the poem that accompanies her life and secondly in Berni's exposition of the life itself. The poem, penned by Berni's collaborator Francesco Tonti, prepares the reader on the themes explored by Berni himself (fig. 6). Tonti remarked Matilda's refusal to profess actions considered specific to her female condition and option for fighting in the name of faith and her country instead.41 Concomitantly, Berni's effort to situate Matilda amongst male heroes, to wit rulers with resounding military careers, makes his whole project precocious in terms of challenging constitutive elements of the gender debate. However, Berni's position with regard to Matilda's femalenesses appears ambiguous. One the one hand, Berni engages himself with the gynecocracy debate stressing out the limitations of male argumentation to the natural right of preeminence. On the other hand, he considers Matilda's deeds as well as her succession to power exceptional and attributes them to the intervention of Divine Providence. Therefore, Berni's discourse emerges as a combination of causes with roots in the accessible earthly debate on female leadership and in the incomprehensible divine work. To explain Matilda's out-of-norm existence from a secular societal perspective, Berni aptly presented the main points of the gynecocracy debate: men proclaiming that women are not capable of leadership with women replying that they are capable but are not allowed to practice it and, thus, prove them wrong; it is contrary to man's nature (Sesso de gli Huomini) to recognize a women superior to him; a woman's propensity for commanding is not unnatural but restricted by men; and, the marginalization of women in military actions and rulership is a male problem generated by men's desire to command. (42) Although apparently sympathizing with the female cause, Berni sharply concludes that not many women are capable of ruling and emphasizes the divine intervention in Matilda's case. (43) Calling her "the perfect error of Nature," Berni, characterizes her existence, and of those alike her, as the embodiment of God's will to provide exemplary men with her service. Indubitably, Matilda's luminaries were her contemporary popes. In Berni's words, Matilda's defense of Gregory VII was an action that transcended not only the female gender but even humanity itself. (44) Even though Matilda reached the status of being compared with or even more audaciously inserted in an array of illustrious men like in Berni's group of heroes or the series of rulers from the Stanza dell'Incendio, her acts could not defeat the prejudice on the supposedly innate servitude of women to men and could not stand as her merits as long as she owed them to God.

Regardless of the interpretative key adopted when dealing with Matilda's military deeds, one could not neglect them. Her recognition as "Propugnator of the Holy See" in the epigraph attached to her tomb signals a clear acknowledgment of her role on the battlefield. (45) Already in his Ode in lode della Contessa Matilda, Urban VIII called the Countess a brave female fighter (prode guerriera) and shield (scudo) to the papacy. However, Urban attributes her success in military campaigns to her wise decision to accept council in general and to found her hope in God. In the same vein, Berni's narrative lacks a detailed historical treatment of the battles, but his resort on the Divine Providence for explaining Matilda's actions eliminates the possibility of any military merit to be granted to Matilda. Instead, Fiorentini's narrative of the historical events includes numerous references to the military conflicts in which Matilda found herself involved. Even in Fiorentini's scenario, Matilda's primary quality lies in her capability to take advice from clergymen. In order to gain plausibility, the unusual actions of a female combatant had to become subordinated to male decision-makers.

The different purposes of Fiorentini's and Berni's text reflect in the images associated with them (fig. 6, 7). In Berni's book, Matilda's portrayal is consistent with those of the male heroes' to whose category she belongs according to the author. The scepter denotes her function as a ruler, but there is no indication of military attributes (fig. 6). The exhibit of the voluptuous body refers to Matilda as rather crafted on the prototype of a beautiful woman. (46) In contrast, the frontispiece of Fiorentini's book (fig. 7) displays an episode from Matilda's life connected to military preparations in the proximity of Fiorentini's hometown Lucca. On the outskirts of the city, Matilda in front of her army meets the local Bishop Anselm. (47) Matilda herself wears civilian clothing, but the pieces of military accoutrement, the helmet and the shield, held by the putto in the middle foreground act as indicators of her bellicose activity. The engraving attached to Fiorentini's book, like the author's direct textual references, echoes the papal undertaking of Matilda's funerary monument. Her military activity though embedded in the image remains allusive in comparison with her stance that expresses deference for ecclesiastical authority.

At the same time, contemporary depictions of Matilda destined to a more restricted viewership challenge the appreciation of the Countess' martial activity based on gender criteria. The above-mentioned cycle of Matilda frescoed by Romanelli for the same Pope Urban VIII includes not only triumphal decorative elements similar to those that adorn the tomb but also two small battlefield episodes, the Conquest of the Castel Sant 'Angelo and the Battle of Sorbara. Another portrayal of Matilda in the Salone of the private palace of one of Urban VIII's collaborators Bernardino Spada exhibits Matilda astride, dressed as a warrior, and holding a spear in her hand (fig. 8). These instances substantiate that awareness regarding Matilda's profound participation in the military campaigns existed in the period.

Nevertheless, Matilda's funerary monument situated in the most revered and frequented space of the Catholic world exhibits military triumphal elements only secondarily. The gynecocracy debate informs us that even if exceptions from the rule sporadically appeared, a general positive opinion about the women's implication in political matters failed to exist. In these circumstances, a representation of Matilda as a woman of peace emerged as more appropriate. Fiorentini excellently captured the contradiction of portraying Matilda as a peacemaker at the expense of her bellicose acts by affirming that even though Matilda was such a fighter that not even fiction can invent she was naturally inclined towards peace. Similarly, Berni underlined her efforts to protect peace. (48) Out of her actions in the name of peace, the Canossa episode stood out. It embodied her intermediary role in seeking peace and her subservience to the papacy. In addition, the episode conveniently demonstrates the submission of the emperor in front of the pope. In the end, the relationship between the papacy and secular rulers was the focus of political strives for which Matilda was brought as exemplification. Her female condition mattered much less, or differently put, helped even more those who wanted to explore her figure as a messenger not as a protagonist.

The process of resurrecting Matilda's memorable deeds initiated by Urban VIII for addressing to secular rulers about their duties to the papacy also included the aspect of Matilda's military feats. Her funerary monument in St. Peter's displays martial attributes, but the dominant pieces of the tomb characterize Matilda as a ruler, protector of the papacy, and mediator of peace. The visual hierarchy of the defining elements of Bernini's project is established not only by criteria such as location and size but also by contemporary generic considerations on gender. It is active in how the beholder interacts with the monument, first paying attention to the statue and the sarcophagus relief and then to the architectural setting and its adornment. The martial Matilda succumbed to an idealized portrait of a woman of peace. Describing one of the possible representations of the personification of Peace, Cesare Ripa (Iconologia, 1613) emphasized the apparent antagonistic attributes of Peace: the palm and the spear. The palm promises prizes to those who deserve it, whereas the spear castigates the delinquents. The application of the two maintains peace and quietude. (49) Therefore, according to Ripa's definition, the goal to reach peace triggers the usage of the weapon. Comparatively, the coexistence of the shield, helmet, and palm leaves on the top panel of the arch surrounding Matilda's statue epitomizes the perception of her actions: even though bellicose, inclined toward peace.


1. Gian Lorenzo Bernini and assistants, Tomb of Countess Matilda, 1633-1637, Marble, St. Peter's, Vatican City (photo: the author).

2. Gian Lorenzo Bernini and assistants, Tomb of Countess Matilda, 1633-1637, Marble, St. Peter's, Vatican City. Detail: The Reconciliation between Pope Gregory VII and Henry IV at Canossa (photo: the author).

3. Cesare Nebbia, The Donation of Countess Matilda, Sala delle Carte Geografiche, the Vatican Palace, fresco, 1581 (photo: the author).

4. Donatello, Gattamelata, 1453, Bronze, Piazza del Santo, Padua.

5. The Paolo Savellli Monument (Jacopo della Quercia?), first half of the15th century, Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, Venice.

6. Matelda, in Francesco Berni, De gli eroi della Casa d'Este, Ferrara, 1640.

7. Francesco Maria Fiorentini, Memorie di Matilda, la Gran Contessa d'Italia, Lucca, 1642, frontispiece. Courtesy of the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, University of Toronto.

8. Angelo Michele Colonna and Agostini Mitelli, Countess Matilda, 1635, Gran Salone, Palazzo Spada, Rome. (photo: the author).


University of Michigan, Ann Arbor


(1.) In Anglo-Saxon literature she is often called Matilda of Tuscany.

(2.) Even today, scholars tend to underline that Matilda's military actions were conducted exclusively for defense purposes (See Paolo Golinelli. "Matilde di Canossa. Toujours Matilde. La perenne attualita di un mito," in Matilde di Canossa. Il Papato. L'impero: storia, arte, cultura alle origini del romanico, ed. Renata Salvarani and Liana Castelfranchi (Milano: Silvana Editoriale, 2008, 243-253.) However, her participation to plans for a crusade indicates that the situation may have been different.

(3.) The well-known "Investiture Controversy" (or "Contest") has generated a vast literature. It is worth noting that currently, due to the difficulty to encompass the complexity of the issue within a single denomination, scholars tend to refer to it in quotation marks.

(4.) It is possible that intentions to move her human remains had manifested earlier as an inspection of her tomb took place in 1613.

(5.) Bernini relied heavily on his assistants. Besides Stefano Speranza, Niccolo Sale worked on the figure of the Countess, whereas Andrea Bolgi, Luigi Bernini, Matteo Bonarelli, and Lorenzo Flori worked on the putti holding the inscription, the coat-of arm, and the crown. See John Beldon Scott, "Papal Patronage in the Seventeenth Century: Urban VIII, Bernini, and the Countess Matilda," in L'age d'or du mecenat (1598-1661) (Paris: Centre National de le Recherche Scientifique, 1985), 119-127; Stefano Andretta, "Matilde di Canossa nella Roma dei Barberini," in I mille volti di Matilde: immagini di un mito nei secoli, ed. Paolo Golinelli, (Milano: Federico Motta Editore, 2003), 87-104.

(6.) For a different opinion, see Scott, 120-2. In addition, she appears rather echoing the personification of Liberta (for instance, in the illustrated editions of Cesare Ripa's Iconologia beginning with 1603).

(7.) The first known representations are conserved in the illustrated manuscript of Donizo's biography of Matilda (VitaMathildis: Vat. lat. 4922).


(9.) For a summary of her military actions, see Matilda of Tuscany, in Reina Pennington (and Robin Higham) (2004), Amazons to Fighter Pilots: A Biographical Dictionary of Military Women, Greenwood Press, 289-294.

(10.) She had outlived her first husband and separated from the second at the recommendation of Urban II on the basis the two's close kinship.

(11.) Francesco Maria Fiorentini, Memorie di Matilda la Gran Contessa d'Italia (Lucca: Pellegrino Bidelli, 1642), 320-1.

(12.) Vito Fumagali has opined that even though Matilda had fought, her profound aspiration was toward monastic life. See Vito Fumagali. Matilde di Canossa. Potenza e solitidine di una donna del Medioevo (Bologna: Mulino, 1986).

(13.) See Merry E. Wiesner, "Women's Authority in the State and Household in the in Early Modern Europe" in Women Who Ruled: Queens, Goddesses, Amazons and Renaissance and Baroque Art, ed. Annette Dixon (London: Merrell Publishers, 2002), 30 (with further references to previous usage).

(14.) See Annette Dixon (ed.), Women Who Ruled: Queens, Goddesses, Amazons and Renaissance and Baroque Art (London: Merrell Publishers, 2002); Mary Carpenter Erler and Maryanne Kowaleski, Gendering the Master Narrative: Women and Power in the Middle Ages (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003); and Anne J. Cruz and Mihoko Suzuchi, The Rule of Women in Early Modern Europe (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2009).

(15.) Such an argument should be reassessed, see Pennigton, XI; Mady Wechsler Segal, "Women's Military Roles Cross-Nationally: Past, Present, and Future" Gender & Society 9.6 (1995): 757-775.

(16.) See John A. Lyn II, Women, Armies, and Warfare in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008).

(17.) Pennington, X. The editors called the historical field of military women "noman's land."

(18.) The author has also drawn attention to the fact that the history of combatant women in the Middle Ages remains to be written. See David J. Hay, (2008), The Military Leadership of Matilda of Canossa, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 239-256.

(19.) For Matilda in her own time, Rosalind Jaeger Reynolds has studied Matilda's efforts to construct authority for herself. See Rosalind Jaeger Reynolds, Nobilissima Dux, Matilda of Tuscany and the Construction of Female Authority, Ph. D. Dissertation, University of California Berkeley, 2005.

(20.) See Sharon L. Jansen (2008), Debating Women, Politics, and Power in Early Modern Europe. Palgrave: New York. See same reference for the usage of the term gynecocracy.

(21.) The original manuscript is preserved in the Vatican Library (Vat. lat. 4922; it was published in facsimile in 1984). For a modern edition of the Vita see Donizone, Vita di Matilde di Canossa, ed. and trans. Paolo Golinelli (Milano: Jaca Book, 2008).

(22.) Paolo Golinelli, 2008, 243-253.

(23.) See Alessia Alberti, "Matilde di Canossa nei ritratti a stampa dal XVI al XIX secolo," in Matilde di Canossa. Il Papato. L 'impero: storia, arte, cultura alle origini del romanico, Renata Salvarani and Liana Castelfranchi (eds.) (Milano: Silvana Editoriale, 2008), 460.

(24.) The Poesie Toscane were published only in 1635 but the signature of the author as "Card. Maffeo Barberino Hoggi Papa Urbano Ottavo" implies that they predate the papal election of Urban VIII.

(25.) Ironically, only a few months before the death of the pontiff.

(26.) Vasari, Le vite de'piU eccelenti pittori, scultori e architettori, V (Florence: Sansoni, 1984), 56.

(27.) The circumstances of this commission are not very clear (the question would be why the painting was commissioned at that moment?).

(28.) Describing the painting, he says: "...sul quadro li e deta signora a caval da omo,..." quoted in Matilde di Canossa. Il Papato. L 'impero: storia, arte, cultura alle origini del romanico, Renata Salvarani and Liana Castelfranchi (eds.) (Milano: Silvana Editoriale, 2008), 454.

(29.) See Women Who Ruled: Queens, Goddesses, Amazons and Renaissance and Baroque Art, ed. Annette Dixon (ed.), London: Merrell Publishers, 2002, 25-41.

(30.) "Et questa la vediamo in San Benedetto, sopra il suo sepolcro dipinta a Cavallo da huomo," Benedetto Luchino, Cronica della vera origine et attioni della illustrissima et famosissima contessa Matilde, et de 'suoi antecessori, & discendenti, sin da Tedaldo primo fondatore del famoso Monastero di San Benedetto Mantovano. Insieme co'privilegi, a quello condeduti da molti sommipontefici, et imperadori con le donationi fatte da diversi signori, Mantova, 1592.

(31.) Stefano Andretta considers that Contelori finished the book in 1644. See Stefano Andretta, "La traslazione di Matilde e i Barberini," in Matilde di Canossa nelle culture europee del secondo millennio. Dalla storia al mito, P. Golinelli (ed.), Bologna 1989, 143-153.

(32.) The initial project had to include twenty-four d'Este heroes, but Berni's fear that he would die without seeing any part of the work published pushed him to send to press at least the first five.

(33.) Women played a role at the papal court sometimes. For instance, during the papacy of Urban's successor, Innocent X, Olimpia Maidalchini carried so much influence on the pope that contemporaries mockingly named her the Gran Papessa.

(34.) A poem dedicated to Elizabeth of Portugal was added to the 1637 edition.

(35.) Fiorentini, 320-1.

(36.) The space is the so-called Galleria Romanelli (named after the painter).

(37.) The tapestry set was woven in the Barberini tapestry workshop founded by Francesco Barberini not long after his uncle had become a pope.

(38.) Composed by Ekkehard of Aura (d. 1126?), subjected to subsequent interpolations, and printed in the early modern period.

(39.) "Matelda che doveva essere una Donna cosi Grande ben degna di occupare il posto degli uomini piu Grandi." Berni, 71.

(40.) The book deals with five heroes. The initial project had to include twentyfour d'Este heroes, but Berni's scare that he would die without seeing any part of the work published pushed him to send to press at least the first five.

(41.) "Tratar l'ingegno in feminile arnese/Matilde la magnanima non volle," Berni, 69.

(42.) "Par, che naschino tutte le Donne al servire non al comandare; Non gia, che non sono inchiante a questo, ma che sono sforzate a quello; Tra i Barbari furono della stessa condizione de'Servi; Tra gli Huomini sono pu'ancora della natura de'Servi, perche gli Huomini tutti vogliono essere Padroni." Berni, 71.

(43.) Accordingly, Berni was caught in a dilemma with regard to Matilda's exceptional status. What was more exceptional: a woman enhancing the fame of d'Este or d'Este producing a female hero?

(44.) Berni, 98.

(45.) In Italian the term is Propugnacolo which also means "shield."

(46.) Patricia Simons has proposed that profile portraits of women in the Renaissance produced the effect of disembodiment of the female gaze in confrontation with male viewership (see Patricia Simons, "Women in Frames: The Gaze, the Eye, and the Profile in Renaissance Portraiture" in The Expanding Discourse: Feminism and Art History, Norma Broude and Mary D. Garrard (eds.), 38-57). Her thesis has been subsequently expanded in David Allen Brown (ed.), Virtue and Beauty: Ginevra de Benci and Renaissance Portraits of women (Washington: National Gallery of Art, 2001). For more on female portraits, see Andrea Pearson (ed.), Women and Portraits in Early Modern Europe (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2008).

(47.) Bishop Anslem of Lucca was Matilda's confessor. After his death, she championed for his canonization.

(48.) Berni, 83.

(49.) This definition appears for the first time in the 1613 edition of Cesare Ripa's Iconologia at page 127: "Donna che nella destra mano tiene un ramo di palma, & nella sinistra un'hasta. La palma promette premio a meritevoli, l'hasta minaccia castigo a deliquenti, & queste due speranza, & timore mantengono gli uomini in quiete et in pace."

Silvia Tita is a Ph.Dc. at University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and History of Art. Her research focuses on European Art in the Early Modern period, with special emphasis on Italy and on the problematic of artistic and religious reforms produced in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
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Author:Tita, Silvia
Publication:Journal of Research in Gender Studies
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Date:Jul 1, 2014
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