Daughter of the Marquis Bonifacio di Canossa and Beatrice di Lorena, born around 1046 with the destiny already written: to govern the vast family dominance including the Tuscia brand, the duchies of Modena, Reggio and Mantua, as well as vast territories of Parma, Brescia, Bologna and del Veronese, and the city of Ferrara, first together with the mother, then from 1076, the year of the latter's death, alone. The father was treacherously killed in 1052, and in the following years the brothers Federico (the only male) and Beatrice disappeared, leaving Matilde a complex and heterogeneous legacy.
In 1056 the emperor Henry III died; his son Henry IV succeeded him with his mother Agnese regency. Three years later Pope Nicholas II indicated the Lateran Council, which established that the election of the pontiff be reserved for the college of cardinals. In 1061 Anselmo da Baggio was elected Pope with the name of Alexander II.
In 1069 Matilde married her half-brother Goffredo di Lorena, called the Hunchback, but the marriage does not last, even for the choice of Matilde to stand on the side of the Church, in contrast to that of her husband oriented towards the empire. From this moment on she is the key figure of intermediation in the struggle between the papacy and the empire, the greatest conflict of that time.
Matilde is at this point the absolute protagonist of the attempt at reconciliation between the Pope and the Emperor (of whom she is the second cousin), an extreme attempt at fidelity to the pro-imperial policy of her ancestors: this is demonstrated in 1077 by the meeting organized in Canossa Beyond the emphasis given to the humiliation suffered by Henry and beyond the dramatization imposed by the importance of the event, it makes it possible, precisely through the necessity of papal pardon, to re-launch the emperor's margins of maneuver.
In 1080, struck by the second excommunication, Henry IV deposed Gregory VII in the Council of Bressanone and had the bishop of Ravenna Guiberto elected as antipope, with the name of Clement III. Faced with the failure of his mediation, Matilde suffers the consequences of his choice when he is deprived of the sovereign of most of his lands, until he has to get inside the appennine castles loyal to him, from which he will succeed in inflicting a defeat at the emperor only in 1092. The main cities of the Matildic dominions rebel, first Mantua, then Lucca and then Ferrara, Modena, Parma, all cities governed by schismatic bishops and close to the party of the emperor and the antipope. The attempt of Matilde to oppose to Henry IV another emperor, first with Rudolph of Swabia (prematurely dead) and then with Corrado III (the firstborn of Enrico himself, perished in mysterious circumstances in 1101 in Florence) fails miserably.
In 1089 he also failed his second marriage with the very young Guelph of Bavaria, together with the hopes of assuring a descent to his dynasty. The resulting isolation explains the increased confidence in his major vassals, one of whom, Guido Guerra, is mentioned between 1099 and 1108 as his "adoptive son". But it is the new emperor, Henry V, to reopen the games: in exchange for a reinvestment of his jurisdictions in Northern Italy, Matilde is willing to give him the passage in his territories (1111), as well as the right of succession in his assets , in spite of a donation of all its heritage to the Church of Rome documented for the first time in 1080 and, according to the traditional documentation, later repeated (1102): this is an aspect that historians have recently shown to want to re-examine , since this becomes the subject of further contention when, at the death of Matilda (1115), the emperor descends to Italy to take possession of the Matilda legacy. Matilde had long ago rested in the mists, woods and marshes of S. Benedetto Polirone, in the place where, after having been for a long time in the front line, she had withdrawn and had chosen to live with the disease (perhaps gout) which weighed on the last years of his life.
The power of Matilda, like that of its ancestors, was based on a dense strategic network consisting of castles, outposts and isolated towers, a system that allowed close control of the communications network (roads, crossings, rivers). Not in itself sufficient, the network of castles joined the network of loyalty links established with the vassals distributed throughout the territory. Being able to govern a vast and articulated territory such as that of Matilde di Canossa meant being present, moving within a dense network of often conflicting forces, managing with equilibrium and caution relations with cities, with rural communities, with abbeys. The "presence" at 360 degrees of Matilda is widely witnessed by Donizone, who does not fail to underline how she herself, while surrounded by a chancellery and expert jurists, was a cultured and prepared woman, endowed with those rare skills that, at least in theory , could prevent insubordination and "surprises" within a strongly fragmented territory.
The Matildic dominions, close between the territories of the emperor and those of the Church, constituted a dangerous "buffer" zone, contested by both parties as an ally, or at least not as an enemy. The same marriage of Matilda's parents was part of a careful policy of alliance between great families of the empire supported by Henry III, and the same second marriage of the mother with a vassal with uncertain fidelity, Goffredo il Barbuto (favored by Pope Leo IX) , he saw the emperor's intervention and his resolution only after the reconciliation between Goffredo and the imperial house.
The Reformation in the Church was the dominant feature of the years of Matilda: a strong and decisive spiritual appeal to the clergy and the fidelity of the ecclesiastical hierarchy to their pastoral functions had been opposed to secularization for some decades, to the spread of the public role of the bishops and sovereign interference in the appointment of prelates. The hot point of the dispute, within these difficult relations between the papacy and the empire, was the claim by the reformers of the right to choose their own pastors (above all the popes) without conditioning by the civil power. Until Matilde, his family had been decidedly pro-imperial, despite some reason of friction had already manifested itself with his father Boniface. As long as it was in his ability, Matilda herself maintained a conciliatory position, as evidenced by the well-known episode of Canossa.
Matilde entered the heart of the Gregorian Reform of the Italian Kingdom with the military and financial support given to the reforming popes (Gregory VII indicated it in his writings as "dilecta filia Petri"). The greatest reformist thinkers of the time, such as Anselmo di Lucca, Hugh of Die, Bernardo degli Uberti, Placido di Nonantola, were protected by her, as were reformed churches and monasteries, first of all that of S. Benedetto Polirone ( Mantua), from Matilde aggregated to Cluny in 1077. This is the place where by his will he was buried; his remains remained there until 1632, when Pope Urban VIII first sent them to Castel Sant'Angelo, then to S. Pietro, to Rome, where an imposing tomb had been erected by Gian Lorenzo Bernini.
Like many great characters, Matilde too soon entered the myth as a champion of the Church and a symbol of the struggle against the stranger. His "hagiography" was based on the poem by Donizone, soon finding fertile ground for a progressive mythization. First, in the golden age of Italian Communes (XII-XIV century), his figure became the symbol of Italian freedom against the power of German emperors, in spite of the legitimacy of the Swabian domination in Italy, to the answer certainly not unequivocal of the same Municipalities (which often also defined pro-imperial alliances) and the ambiguity of the position of the Church, which often had in the sovereign the traditional legitimate interlocutor of its local powers. Later, after the Council of Trent, a second phase of Matildic "promotion" became part of the struggle between the Catholic Counter-Reformation and the Protestant Reformation: in a renewed context of instrumentalization in an anti-German key, the Countess's remains were moved to Rome to want of Urban VIII.
La sua figura di strenua sostenitrice della Chiesa venne esaltata attraverso le sue capacità guerriere, in linea con le caratteristiche delle eroine della Gerusalemme liberata di Torquato Tasso, inaugurando una strada che portava dritti all’Ottocento patriottico e risorgimentale, nel quale Matilde venne rilanciata quale fulgido esempio di lotta contro l’usurpatore straniero, ma anche all’interno di un più complesso, intimo e drammatico piano interpretativo nelle sue qualità di donna.