Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Walking with Matilda, spinning with Old Nick

Made to last in the mountains - hobnailed boots and wooden clogs
Nearly a thousand years ago, high on the Apennine ridge that separates the Tuscan provinces of Lucca and Modena, a hospice was established at the little village of San Pellegrino in Alpe to give shelter and sustenance to travellers on the difficult and dangerous road across the mountains, a route known from pre-Roman times.  Today the hospice is a museum of rural life and the village trattoria and bars provide shelter and sustenance for the hikers, bikers and skiers who flock to the area, including us (part of our holiday regime is a daily 90 minute walk).

 A rake for gathering myrtles
The museum is a beautifully arranged homage to the way people in this rugged landscape lived and worked for centuries, before the dramatic changes in agriculture and crafts of the 1960s. Local priest Don Luigi Pellegrini spent 20 years gathering out-dated tools and objects from attics and store rooms in the local villages, arranging them in a series of thematic rooms from cobbler to weaver, wine-maker to miller and then in 1987 handing the whole museum over the Province of Lucca to run and promote.

A striking aspect of the collection is the use of wood, particularly a huge wine vat hewn from a single chestnut trunk, pasta presses, spinning wheels and what looked like giant combs for Afro hairstyles but which were used by villagers to gather wild myrtles (bilberries). 

Emerging from the museum along the old mule track we stop at a large sign showing the original map of the hospice round 1110, and which tells us that in the Middle Ages the road travelling through San Pellegrino became a ‘great communicating artery between the north and south of the pensinsular, and along which Matilde di Canossa wielded her power over the Tuscan territories.’  Who was Matilda of Canossa, I wonder, making a note to consult Google on return to the house.

Then off we stride through the sun-dappled beech woods, which open into lush alpine meadows filled with flowers and thick carpets of those myrtle berries, still providing rich harvests of vitamin C. More surprisingly there are also swathes of sweet and juicy wild raspberries as far as the eye can see,  and promise of a rich harvest of blackberries too.

Giro del diavolo
The track twists and turns higher until we find ourselves on a peak that gives a spectacular panorama of the Apuan Alps. According to the fingerposts, we are 1,636 metres above sea level and have reached the Giro de Diavolo (the Devil’s Spin).  Legend has it that when St Pellegrino (the rather vague founding figure of the village who is not recognized by the Church) was tempted in vain by the devil, Old Nick gave him such a slap that the saint whirled round in a spin three times. Subsequently pilgrims visiting the site would crawl round the field three times, in addition to the ritual of carrying large stones in penance to mark the spot. 

We stick to our own ritual -  never returning on the same route - and make our way down the mountain on another track, emerging into the village by a shop selling chestnut flour biscuits,  dried mushrooms and, irrestistibly, punnets of freshly gathered myrtle berries. We also succumb to cold beer and a plate of bruschetta. Next to the trattoria is a shop selling foraging equipment on an impressive scale, including myrtle berry rakes, but unlike the beautiful hand carved wooden ones saved by Don Luigi Pellegrini, these efficient and rather grim tools are factory punched out of aluminimium. 

Matilda of Canossa, 1046-1115
And what about Mathilde di Canossa?  Quite a woman, I discover.  Known as the Tuscan Countess, she outlived her father, brother and older sister to inherit the title at the age of six and became an ardent defender of the extensive family lands in the Po Valley against the attacks of Henry IV.

Educated and cultured (she could speak several languages) she was also skilled in military arts,   successfully fighting a number of battles. She was a key player in the dramatic struggle between Church and State, known as the Investiture Controversy.  She had two politically chosen husbands, first her step brother Godfrey the Hunchbacked, and then at the age of 43 she married the 17 year old Welf V of Bavaria - a union that lasted only six years.

But her real love, which was consummated according to some scholars, was for Pope Gregory VII. During one of the most famous and episodes in the war between Church and State, Henry IV travelled across the Alps in a bitter winter of 1077 to do penance before the Pope Gregory at Matilda's fortress at Canossa - where he was made to wait three days in the snow before being admitted. Henry never recovered his influence in Italy after this humiliating defeat.

The Investiture Controversy diminished after the death of Pope Gregory and Matilda turned to governing her territories, donating lands to churches and monasteries, supporting building projects (including the beautiful Ponte della Maddalena bridge across the River Serchio, which we pass often on our way to Lucca)  and supporting the developing school of canon law at Bologna.

In 1635, some five hundred years after her death, her remains were removed from the cathedral in Mantua to St Peter's Basilica in Rome (one of only five women to be interred there) and her tomb marked with a monument by the great Baroque sculptor, Bernini.  I am sure that if the devil had met Matilda rather than St Pellegrino on that mountain top, he would have been the one sent round in a spin.
Matilda, The Countess of Tuscany. Bernini's sculpture in 1635)

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