Poppi Castle and the Murderous Madam Matilda
Poppi Castle is a medieval castle overlooking the Casentino Valley in the province of Arezzo in the Italian region of Tuscany. This castle is said to have been built around the second half of the 13 th century AD, though some sources claim that references to Poppi Castle can be found in documents dating back to the end of the 12 th century BC. Today, Poppi Castle is commonly considered to be one of Tuscany’s best preserved castles.
Poppi Castle was built by the Guidi family, and remained in their possession until the 15 th century. The Guidis were a feudal family that is said to date back to the 10 th century, and were in control of the Casentino Valley. Apart from Poppi Castle, the Guidi family had other strongholds in the Casentino Valley, as well as in regions further up north. A popular legend is that using a system of lights and mirrors, the Guidis could send a message from Poppi to the French border in less than 8 hours.
The original core of the castle was its high square tower. This structure dominated, and still does even today, the rest of the castle, as well as the underlying valley. However, that the present tower is a reconstruction of the original, as restoration work had to be carried after it was damaged by a lightning strike. The original tower was higher, and had machicolations (an additional defensive mechanism, from which stones and boiling liquids could be dropped on attackers via openings in the floor) on its top. According to legend, this impressive structure was used as a model for the construction of the tower of the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence.
A view of Poppi Castle. Photo source: (CC BY 2.0)
Around the tower is a walled enclosure, from which the other parts of the castle developed. There are only two gates that allow access into Poppi Castle. The main gate is reached by ascending a steep ramp of access, and is situated on the side towards the valley and the suburb of Ponte a Poppi, the town’s ancient market place. The other gate is located on the side towards the town square.
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The castle also possesses a keep, which contains, from lowest to highest floor: a jail, a deposit and a residential area. The keep was once separated from the tower (connected only by a drawbridge on the highest floor), so as to make it more difficult for attackers to occupy both structures. Today, the keep and the tower are linked by a curtain wall.
Poppi Castle Viewed from the north. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
One of Poppi Castle’s most infamous residents is said to have been a woman by the name of Matilda / Matelda. According to some sources, Matilda was the wife of an elderly Count Guidi, whilst others claim that she was a daughter of that ruling family. In any case, Matilda was unhappy with her marriage, and sought the company of the young men from the town. After inviting one of them to the castle, she would spend the night with him. Before the sun rose, however, she would send the man home.
Matilda is said to have used the back door, so as to avoid being caught in adultery. To ensure that her reputation was not soiled, she would silence her lovers, for good. Unbeknownst to them, the path shown to them by Matilda contained a trapdoor, which sent the lovers falling to their deaths. The disappearance of young men soon raised the suspicion of the townspeople. In the end, an angry mob stormed the castle, caught Matilda, had her walled up in the tower, and left to die. According to some sources, the ghost of Matilda still haunts the castle.
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End of the Guidis Rule
In 1440, the Guidi family lost Poppi Castle, which fell into the hands of the Republic of Florence. It is recorded that the Guidi family had supported Milan during one of their conflicts with Florence. When the Milanese were defeated by the Florentines, the Guidi family was forced to surrender. Poppi Castle was seized by the Florentines, and the Guidis were exiled, thus bringing an end to their rule in the Casentino Valley.
View of Gothic tower and merlons at Castle of Poppi (CC BY 2.0)
Top image: Palazzo Vecchio by night. (CC BY-SA 4.0)
By Wu Mingren
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