img_4109 In my book ‘Queen of the Vatican’ the legend of Matilda’s 99 churches is an important theme. The legend, which is quoted in many books about la Grancontessa, says that she wanted to say Mass, and asked permission for this to the Pope. He consented, but only after she would have built 99 churches. That’s why she built so many of them, the story continues. But unfortunately after the 99th church she passed away. In my book I use the legend as an argument that now, 900 years after her death, it becomes time this her wish is fulfilled, and that women can become ordained priests in the Catholic Church. I never felt tempted to explore where this church actually was situated. Until, in 2015, I discovered that there is also a 100th Church built by Matilda, the Pieve di Sasso, a beautiful church in a forest near Canossa. An extended local legend tells what happened there. It made me curious to find her 99th Church. So I found it, near Suvereto in Tuscany. Time for a new journey…

Suvereto comes out to be a beautiful Medieval town, in the Tuscan Maremme, near the seaside of Piombino. I visit several churches, but the one of Matilda is outside Suvereto, and not so easy to find. Luckily I know that it’s called the Santissima Anunziata, and I find an old sign in the direction of Sassetto with the name of this church. After many, many curves through the typical Maremme landscape I find the church, just feeling tempted to give up. It stands in a sharp curve of the road, in a small valley, obviously made by a brook. The Church is deserted, and the grounds around it are used for storing the woods that are cut for heating the houses in the neighbourhood. But the church is beautiful nevertheless, and it touches me deeply to be here.

img_4110Next to the church is an ancient well, and the remains of what seems a house. Later on I will find on the Internet that it was probably a hospice. Peeping through the gate of the Church it strikes me that the Church has a sloping floor, like the one in Sasso. There I was told that the reason for this was that the visitors of the Church had to climb a mountain before reaching the altar, following the path of Christ. Obviously Matilda built this church for the pilgrims, to protect them and provide them with lodging and care, like she did in so many other places. But why here, I am wondering, in such a remote place, and where does the legend fits in that this was the last church before her passing away?

I decide to continue my journey in the direction of Sassetto (meaning ’Small Stone’), a little town about 10 kilometres further away. Slowly the secret begins to unveil itself. Sasseto comes out to be a typical Maremme hilltop town that made history through the production of red marble. You can find beautiful red marble sculptures all through the town. It gives me a clue about the position of Matilda’s church. The sanctuary is built on a transition point from the Colle Metalliferi – the hills that are full of rich metals – to the seaside of Piombino. The water of the brook comes down from a high mountain, the Monte Ceci, that produces small hot streams and several natural sources. Since long these were places where people were purified and healed. It gives me the feeling that Matilda’s church is built on an ancient sacred mountain. It reminds me of Casciana Terme, not too far away from here, where Matilda protected the thermal baths, because they helped her in her own healing process.

But there is more to be said here. In Matilda’s time the area of Suvereto belonged to the Aldobrandeschi family, that reigned a large part from the Tuscan Maremme, from here to Piombino and further down to Sovana, the place of birth of pope Gregory VII, with whom Matilda lived in a strong alliance. The Aldobrandeschi were from Longobard origin, and came here starting from Lucca, the place of origin of Matilda’s ancestors in the paternal line. Like in many other places they protected ancient sacred places of Etruscan origin. I begin to suspect that this might have been also the case here. Suvereto is not far away from the Baia del Baratti, the place where the Etruscans first set foot on Italian ground, after they had occupied Elba for its rich mines. The road from Suvereto to Sassetto and further land inwards must have been an important route for them. If this is true, Matilda again built a sanctuary on an ancient sacred place of the feminine. When I realize this it is as I can feel the nymphs and the sirena’s dance in the sacred waters here.

But yet, I still don’t understand the legend that tells that she passed away after building this church. Suvereto is far away from the area near Mantova where she spent her last years, and built still many churches before passing away. Food for further thought…

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