We all talk about breaking the glass ceiling like it is a new thing, but there were some (yes, few) that smashed the ceiling in history. Take Matilde di Canossa, also known as Matilde of Tuscany, was one of the most powerful women in the medieval era. A political figure, army commander and strategist, she took control of her life and held heavy political and religious influence in the day. We even may thank her for the growth and cultivation of one of our favorite sparkling wines, Lambrusco!
First, let’s delve into the amazing life and long surviving legacy of the admirable Matilde di Canossa. Born in 1046 into the wealthy Canossa family of Tuscany, Matilde was the youngest of three children. The huge landholdings owned by the Canossas at its peak stretched from Verona and Lake Garda in Northern Italy well into Tuscany, south of Florence, in Central Italy.
With this wealth at her disposal, we can imagine Matilde passed a relatively well-to-do childhood, studying Latin, German and French… perhaps even literature and military strategy. This was helpful as she suddenly found herself the heir to her family lands at very young age after assassination of her father and the deaths of her older siblings. Matilde inherited and ruled over her vast lands in Italy.
A devout Catholic and friend of the papacy, she received her most fame for her dealings to broker peace between Emperor Henry IV and Pope Gregory VII in 1077. A loyal friend and supporter of the Vatican, even when not actively fighting, she would send troops and money to be used at the Vatican’s disposal.
Matilde is also the woman we can thank for all that delicious Lambrusco we love to sip. One of the truly native grapes to Italy, the Lambrusco plant was a wild vine found in the Po River Valley. Most likely used in antiquity. But it was she who told the monks at the monastery San Benedetto Po that the wild Lambrusco grape had potential. She told the friar ‘Why do you not cultivate this vine for wine?’ So as history goes – Lambrusco is one of the top selling wines of Italy. Today sweet and dry, spumante and sparkling, red or rosé, Lambrusco has many nuances thanks to the innate versatility of the three main varieties of grapes used to produce it: the elegant and clear Sorbara, intense and vinous Salamino, and the fruity and full-bodied Grasparossa. The traditional sparkling and sweet versions of Lambrusco are due to spontaneous re-fermentation and rudimentary techniques.
But she has another association with Lambrusco, Matilde is also famous for her legendary victory at the Battle of Sorbara in 1084, all with the cunning use of good wine. The enemy soldiers of Henry IV had besieged the Tower of Sorbara, holding the city and fort in unshakable positions. Clever Matilde decided to trust in the insatiable Lambrusco wine to help break this siege and had her men discreetly deliver barrels of wine and carts of food to the enemy soldiers. Waiting until after nightfall when Henry IV’s soldiers had thoroughly enjoyed the wine and food, Matilde, some say dressed in armor and riding astride a horse, sent her men in to attack the inebriated enemy soldiers. Easily overcoming the drunken soldiers, it was a resounding victory for Matilde.
Before her death, she founded multiple churches, monasteries, nunneries and gifted much of the wealth of the Canossa family to the Catholic Church. Matilde died in 1115 and was buried in her beloved Benedictine monastery in San Benedetto Po. Inside the majestic basilica, rebuilt in the 1500s by Raphael’s leading pupil Giulio Romano, one can still see the tomb where she was interred. In the 1600s, her remains were moved to St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican, and she remains one of only six women to ever be interred in the famous basilica. In fact, her tombstone in the basilica was designed by the famous Bernini himself. “Matilde was an extraordinary woman for her time,” says Molly Bourne, an art historian who specializes in the history of Mantua. “Whenever I take students to visit San Benedetto, or Saint Peter’s in Rome, I make sure to tell them about Matilde, since her life is still so inspirational today.”
Additionally, to honor her historical love of Lambrusco, Reggio Emilia holds an annual blind-tasting to select the best Lambruscos, appropriately titled ‘Concorso Matilde’ (The Matilde Awards). Yes, 900 years later to we still raise a glass to a strong, smart, and resourceful woman who went right to the top breaking that glass ceiling.