The Life of Matilda of Canossa

Abbot Donizo narrates the life of the saint

Matilda of Canossa (as the Countess Matilda of Tuscany is known in Italy) was born in 1046, and was the last member of the great House of Canossa, margraves of Tuscany. In less than fifty years, she came to rule a domain in Italy of strategic and decisive significance in the struggle for power between the emperor and the pope.

Some documents wrongly relegate Matilda to a marginal role in European history. That is why Donizo’s “Life of Matilda of Canossa” has come to have extraordinary significance for our present-day view of the relevant events and individuals.

She devoted her life to high politics, which was characterized in her day by the ongoing struggle for power between the papacy and the Holy Roman Empire.

In 1056 Matilda and her mother were taken captive by the German Holy Roman Emperor, Henry III, but they were released when he died a year later. (He was succeeded by his six-year-old son, Henry IV.) Since her two siblings (an older brother and sister) had died, Matilda was the sole heir to her family’s patrimony and vast territorial lordship.

To support the reforming papacy, she eventually transferred all her personal property to the papal state, waiving all her rights over it. She was widowed at the age of 29. She remarried at the age of 43 for political reasons (to strengthen a coalition formed against Henry IV). The groom was the future Duke of Bavaria, a seventeen-year-old boy named Welf.

At that time, Matilda’s future biographer, Donizo (also known as Donizone), was a Benedectine monk of the monastery of St. Apollonius in Canossa. He later became the abbot of that monastery, and, during the last years of her life, Matilda’s friend and confessor. On the dedication page, the first of the full-page miniatures included in the manuscript shows Donizo handing it to Matilda as she sits on her throne. This scene is imaginary, because Matilda did not live to see the manuscript completed. She died in 1115, at the age of 69, in Bondeno di Roncore.


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Matilda of Canossa

An unusual woman between dogma and church

Vatican Latin Codex 4922 (De Principibus Canusinis, or Vita Mathildis) is the original manuscript containing the poem on the life of Countess Matilda written in 1111-1115 by the monk Donizo, who belonged to the monastery of St. Apollonius in Canossa and later became its abbot.

The poem narrates the history of the House of Canossa and the life and deeds of Countess Matilda; it includes a description of Henry IV’s humiliating “walk” to Canossa and an ode on Matilda’s death.

The translation of the manuscript follows as closely as possible the original Latin verses (most of them were composed in hexameters).

The codex is a very elegant piece of craftsmanship. The initial letter of each verse is written in red and black, and detailed miniatures enhance the manuscript.


An element appearing in many of the miniatures is the throne of Canossa, whose style recalls that of portals of Romanesque cathedrals, thus demonstrating the strong cultural, artistic and social ties between the architecture of the time and the miniatures contained in this manuscript.

This codex presumably remained in Canossa until the end of the fourteenth century.

At some point in the sixteenth century it came into the possession of the great scholar, cardinal Guglielmo Sirleto. After his death, in 1585, it changed hands several times over the following two decades or so, until it was acquired by the Vatican Apostolic Library.

Technical characteristics

Exact replica of the 180-page manuscript completed in 1115, in its original format (16.7 x 22.3 cm).

  • Eight precious miniatures in bright colors and gold leaf.
  • Hand-bound entirely in leather.  
  • Limited worldwide edition:
    2000 COPIES, of which 600 intended specifically for German-speaking countries.

Reference: Vat. Lat. 4922

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