Mesola castle Delizia Este duchy Emilia Romagna, from the feudalism of Matilda of Canossa to the papal state. Domain of the lords of Ferrara
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Matilda and the Papal state

Matilda of Canossa to the Papal state, the Middle Ages of the region. We are at the heart of the Northeast countryside of Italy with many historic, artistic and culture sites. This is one of the peculiarities of the Emilia Romagna where the fortresses and the castles stretch from Piacenza to Rimini. As well as lovely towns, picturesque villages, and beautiful parish churches that extend from the sea to the river Po and the Apennines.

From the plain of the Po valley to the Apennines.

However, in this land, the castles are the scene of important events of the Middle Ages. The Duchy of Parma and Piacenza Boasts 300 years of history, but the fortresses and the castles that punctuate the surrounding hills date back earlier times. First of all, in the High Middle Ages, we find an absolute foreground person, a powerful feudal leader that dominated all the Italian territories on the north of the Papal States. Her name was Matilda of Canossa.

Countess Matilda and the impenetrable castles

Fortified walls were built to protect all the feudal state that the great Countess Matilda of Canossa ruled between the XI and the XII century. They built castles between the rivers Taro and Reno in order to defend her domain. As a result, today we can see a thick network of fortifications between the towns of Reggio, Modena, and Bologna.

Who was Matilda of Canossa

She was a powerful woman, but alone. These two words, perhaps, enclose the fundamental lines of the portrait of Matilda of Canossa. First of all, between the XI and XII century, she was the leader of the Lombard domain. Matilda was so powerful because she got from her father Boniface an immense inheritance. In the detail, a domain that extends from Brescia to the north Latium region. And she was alone in administering and controlling it at a time, moreover, where the feudal power slowly crumbled, leaving the place to the communes and the cities. A feudal power that only she recognized, with that of the Church.

From the valleys to the mountains

But Matilda of Canossa was, above all, woman. However, a woman discussed and criticized in a masculine society that, except for a few exceptions, they couldn’t accept the female exercise of the power. And how Matilda could do this, if not making her presence concrete and tangible? Thus, the itinerant Countess moves in her immense lands in summer and winter. Even under the snow and the blazing sun. As well as along the steep mountain roads and the wide valleys. She administers justice, inaugurates churches, meets the pope and the political representatives. Furthermore, she soothes the riots and, last but not least, she organizes the war against the enemies.

Matilda and the humiliation of Canossa

As a result, these events marked this third millennium with an intense and dramatic past. In those lands, now called “matildic”, we can find indelible traces that today are of great interest to those who are going to visit them. But a first itinerary proposal must focus on a circumscribed area: the green Enza valley. In fact, this valley was the witness of the main event of the figure of Matilda of Canossa that will remain over the centuries. The humiliation of Canossa, imposed in 1077 to Henry IV, the Emperor of Franconia by Ildebrando Aldobrandeschi, that became pope in 1073 with the name of Gregory VII.

From the feud of Matilda to the communal society

But Countess Matilda died in 1115, and she was the last exponent of the Canossa dynasty. Hence, there is the development of the communes, an expression of the mercantile and the military classes. After the struggle against the Emperor Barbarossa, there is a population growth that in Italy is unstoppable. As a result, in the region of Emilia Romagna, we find important market centers in the cities due to the richness originated in the countryside. And also, in this period, there is the foundation of the University of Bologna that soon begins to attract young students and personalities from all over Europe.

The war for the investitures

Consequently, this creates the conditions to affirm Bologna as the most important center of the region. Followed by Ferrara and Parma, that both grow in population and wealth. But of all the art cities of the region, Ravenna undergoes an opposite process, also due to the progressive removal of the sea. As a result, the history becomes more complex and rich in new protagonists. In the background of that war of investitures, we see the various powers deployed on the part of the Church of Rome or that of the emperor. In conclusion, everyone contended the region of Emilia Romagna as the center of the whole event.

From the communes to the lordships

In 1249 Bologna was in a war against the town of Modena. Hence, they succeeded to capture Enzo, that was the king of Sardinia, and son of the Emperor Frederick II. In the meantime, the castles and the fortifications start to dotted all the region. In this period, the tensions, even within the same commune, often divided into factions, are continuous. However, they have found a way out, passing through the stage of the government of the podestà, in the birth of the Lordships.

The Seigneuries

Hence, some of them are the Bentivoglio in Bologna, and the Este in the towns of Modena, Reggio, and Ferrara. Well, this last family is for sure the great protagonist of the XV and XVI century in the region of Emilia Romagna. Furthermore, other powerful feudal dynasties are the Pallavicino in the area between Cremona, Parma, and Piacenza. As well as the Visconti and the Sforza in the north of the region.

Ferrara and the Este

The Este family gained the government of the small but strategic town on the Po valley already in the 13th century. But it is in the next century that they laid the basis of the Renaissance splendor of Ferrara. Hence, at the end of the 14th century, they built the Este Castle, they founded the University and they consolidated the fortifications. As a result, in the fifteenth century, Ferrara affirmed itself as a politic and, above all, culture center. In conclusion, we find clever and refined politicians, as well as cultured, intellectual, and unscrupulous. The Este will host at their court the most important artists and writers of the time.

The Herculean addition

Among the writers, there is Ludovico Ariosto, who was born in Reggio Emilia, as well as Torquato Tasso. As a result, they will realize their masterpieces to the Este family: the “Orlando Furioso” and the “Jerusalem Delivered“. However, the peak of the splendor of Ferrara is the end of the fifteenth century. This is the time that Ercole I d’Este commissioned Biagio Rossetti the remaking of the city, a work that passed through the history as the “Herculean Addition”. The architect has enlarged Ferrara that presents itself as a model city from the urban and the architecture point of view.

Delizie Estensi

Worth a note the so called Delizie Estensi along the course of the river Po, the residences of the Dukes of Ferrara. Now, they are part of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Because they “illustrate the influence of the Renaissance culture on the wide landscape in an exceptional manner“.

The Malatesta and the Montefeltro

Furthermore, most of the gentle hills of Imola and Faenza have imposing fortresses of the Middle Ages. Hence these were the domain of the Malatesta and the Montefeltro. For sure, their residences mark the watershed between the north and the thriving south, a land between Rimini and Cesena.

The sixteenth century

But the strategic and economic importance of Emilia Romagna is such that the pressures become unsustainable, even for the powerful lordships. It is the Pope State that takes control of most of the region. First with the annexation of Bologna (1506) and then of all the Romagna region. Furthermore, with the creation of the Duchy of Parma and Piacenza (1545) assigned to Pier Luigi Farnese, son of Pope Paul III.

The stability in the region

The occupation will be virtually complete in 1598 when also Ferrara will pass under the direct control of the pope. Therefore, he leaves to the Este only an ephemeral sovereignty in the town of Modena and Reggio. Worth a note, the Este elected Modena as the new capital of their lordship. Most of all, during this period, in the region of Emilia Romagna we find three domains that are the Duchy of the Farnese, of the Este and the Papal Legations. The population settles, and Bologna was, after Rome, the second city of the papal state, a population that had grown progressively in previous centuries. An event that made the region one of the most densely populated, as well as the wealthiest, in Europe.

Castles and fortresses map

There are about 150 castles and fortresses in the region of Emilia Romagna. For sure, enchanting places rich in history and tradition. Hence in the map below you will find just some of them. In particular, the ones of Matilda of Canossa fiefdom and the domain of the Malatesta. As well as the “Delizie” of the Este lordship.

Emilia Romagna, castles and fortresses

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