View of the Castello di Rossena from Matilda’s castle

For seven months I have lived in the tower under Matilda’s castle: the photo above shows you the view from my balcony – and it nicely captures the mystical atmosphere that characterizes the area. It was not only a very special place to stay – an historical site of enormous historical importance – , my tower also was a excellent base for little journeys of discovery in the area around Canossa.

Driving and walking through the small roads in this part of the Apennines I developed a deeper understanding of Matilda’s attachments to the land she governed with such love and dedication. I was not only struck by the incredible beauty of the large and the small valleys, but also by the stillness that one can find here. Ancient castles, borgo’s and medieval mills are easy to find here. Beautiful little churches, some still used, and others downtrodden by time. Sometimes they are marked on the regional maps, but often I also found them just by going around, hidden in tiny meandering valleys.

And then there were the pearls that cannot be mapped: the little streams and sources, the ancient standing stones, the old Madonna statues, the symbols on the small churches – flowers of life, green men, celtic nods, enigmatic faces, women’s breasts, and more. At times it was as if I could see Matilda on her horse driving through her territory – alone or together with the ones near to here – , enjoying and overseeing her lands, visiting her vassals, praying for Divine protection of what she loved, engaging in strategic deliberations about how to protect it.

Going around I discovered something else: there is a system in the places protected by Matilda, they are often laying on significant alignments. That was important for reasons of Medieval strategic communication. People in those times communicated primarily with fires and mirrors, messages could travel very fast in that way. But also an older grid unfolded before my eyes. Many of Matilda’s churches are built on ancient power places, above the remains of ancient sanctuaries and along what I tend to see as leylines. It is if I found on a smaller scale what I had discovered in my research for ‘Queen of the Vatican’.

Matilda and her ancestors protected an entire sacred area of ancient origins, with the Pietra di Bismantova as a central altar mountain. Their castle in Canossa was crucial in guarding this ancient territory, and it was aligned with other castles on the boundary between the Appenines and the Po Valley. Often this system is only interpreted in militairy terms, as a way of protecting the Canossa possessions and feuds. But I believe that there is more to said about it, and that it was also a way of ‘sacralizing the earth’, continuous with much older systems…

To be continued.