The Italian expression “andare a Canossa”. What is it?

The Italian expression “andare a Canossa”. What is it?

The Italian expression “andare a Canossa” was born in the 11th century. Today Canossa is a tiny village in the province of Reggio Emilia, but nine centuries ago the name was reflected in one of the most dramatic periods of Italian history. Let us recall the events of that time.

Christian Europe awaited the year 1000 (“Anno Mille”) with horror, for there were many predictions of the end of the world. The looming date passed, however, and the Apennines, too, breathed a sigh of relief. In Europe, which had emerged from the darkness of previous centuries, trends toward a renewal of various aspects of life were outlined. This included the religious sphere as well, for in the preceding period the Church had greatly discredited itself. Deep divisions also separated the adherents of the Western and Eastern, that is, of the Latin and Greek-Byzantine branches of Christianity, respectively, supporters of Rome and Constantinople, which eventually led to a split of the Church into Catholicism and Orthodoxy. Formally, this happened exactly 950 years ago, in 1054, although in fact the confrontation between them was outlined much earlier, when Rome began to form the institution of the papacy.

The Italian expression is “andare a Canossa. What is this?

A new era demanded new people, and so in 1073, the Tuscan Guildebrando (Ildebrando di Soana), named Gregory VII, was put on the papal throne at the urging of the Roman crowd. He was a powerful figure, one of the most important in the history of the Catholic Church. He had been at the papal court for twenty years and knew all its kitchens. As soon as he became pope, Gregory VII immediately began to implement the reform, which had already been planned before, which was called by his name – the Gregorian. At the Synod convened the following year, he threatened the clergy with severe penalties for simony (sale and purchase of church positions), for violation of the priests’ vow of celibacy (celibacy), and the faithful were strictly forbidden to receive communion from priests seen in such sins. But the actions of the new Pope were not limited to internal church affairs, but led to great upheavals of an international character.

In 1075 Gregory VII drew up a document called “The Pope’s Dictate” in which he declared that secular authority should be essentially subordinate to spiritual authority and that only the Pope had the right to ordain (investiture) or remove bishops. This could not fail to provoke a strong reaction from secular sovereigns and especially from the Pope’s strongest opponent, the German king Henry IV (1050-1106), whose power extended from Central Europe to Northern Italy.

He was no less ambitious than the Pope. And when Henry IV learned that Gregory VII had deprived him of his right to appoint bishops, he called a council of German bishops at Worms in 1076, and they, also dissatisfied with the Gregorian reform, announced the deposition of the pope. The king himself was proclaimed head of the German bishops. The response of Gregory VII was no less harsh, in addition fraught with dangerous consequences for Henry IV: he was excommunicated and his subjects were exempted from the oath he had taken. This meant that the feudal German feudal lords could withdraw their support from the king at any time. A new candidate for the royal throne also appeared. And then, realizing the fragility of his position, Henry IV decided to reconcile with the Pope, and on very humiliating terms.

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The Italian expression is “andare a Canossa. What is this?

According to medieval lore, the king went to Italy to ask the Pope for forgiveness for the deeds he had committed. The mediator was the 30-year-old Countess Matilde di Bonifacio of Canossa, a relative of Henry, but who was on the Pope’s side. She suggested that a meeting be arranged between the pope and the king in the castle of Canossa, which belonged to her. Such a meeting took place on 27 January 1077, and in anticipation of it Henry IV was subjected to a severe physical and spiritual test. In cold dank weather, humble in his pride, clad in the garb of a penitent sinner, on foot with his wife and child, he went up to the castle of Countess Matilda and for three days obediently awaited an audience with the pope. After enjoying the humiliation of his enemy, Gregory VII deigned, at last, to receive the “prodigal son”. He repented, begged forgiveness, and the Pope, having mercy on the defeated king, absolved him of his sins.

Thus Canossa itself took on a figurative meaning. “To go to Canossa” means, depending on the situation, to humble oneself, to repent, to humiliate oneself, to agree to unconditional surrender, etc. The castle of Countess Matilda has survived to this day, although over the centuries it has been significantly rebuilt. The author of these lines had a chance to be there many years ago, and most of all I remember the weather at that time. It was snowing heavily that day, the car was sliding, wrestling with the mountainous, snow-covered road, and the tortures of the German king in these parts were involuntarily recalled.

But the story of his relationship with the pope did not end at Canossa. After the humiliation he had endured, Henry IV began to think of revenge, directing his efforts to form an anti-papal coalition. In 1080 he reconvened the German bishops who, rejecting the incumbent pope, announced the election of a new high priest – the Parmesan Vibert (Guiberto), archbishop of Ravenna, who took the name of Clement III. But in the history of the Catholic Church he went down as the “antipope. And the real pope, Gregory VII, again resorted to the tried and tested method – excommunication of the German king. This time Henry IV did not go to Canossa but, having accumulated forces, rushed with his armies directly to Rome. In 1084 he took the city, put Clement III on the throne of St. Peter, who crowned his patron with the imperial crown.

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The Italian expression is “andare a Canossa.” What is it?

Meanwhile the present Pope Gregory VII, who had taken refuge from the enemy in the Castel Sant’Angelo, called on the militant Normans who had settled in southern Italy to help. Despite difficult relations with the papacy, they responded to the call, drove the Germanic emperor and antipope out of Rome, and at the same time looted the city. The Normans took the freed pope with them, and his last years he spent in Salerno, where he died on May 25, 1085. Gregory VII was buried in the Cathedral of that southern city, and in the early seventeenth century he was canonized.

With the death of Gregory VII, however, the struggle between secular power and the papacy of the German emperor did not end. It continued, especially on the issue of investiture, involving more and more characters in its orbit. The divide between the supporters of the pope and the emperor was so deep that it caused a split in Italy itself, where the Guelphs and the Ghibellines were formed respectively. But that is another story.

The Road to Canossa

The humiliation of Canossa ( Italian : L’umiliazione di Canossa ), sometimes called the Walk of Canossa ( German : Gang Canossa nach / Kanossa ) or the Road to Canossa , was the ritual presentation of the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV to Pope Gregory VII at the Castle of Canossa in 1077 during a dispute over investiture . The emperor went to Canossa, where the pope was staying as a guest of the margravine Matilda of Tuscany, to ask for absolution and the lifting of his excommunication.

According to contemporary sources, he was forced to plead on his knees, waiting for three days and three nights at the front gate of the castle while a snowstorm raged. Indeed, this episode has been described as “one of the most dramatic moments of the Middle Ages. It has also sparked much controversy among medieval chroniclers and modern historians, debating whether the walk was a “brilliant masterstroke” or a humiliation.

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Historical background.

Pope and Holy Roman Emperor challenged over the primacy of ecclesiastical or secular authority since the scattering of Gregorian reforms in the 11th century. When Gregory VII, known to the Pope by the people of Rome in 1073 , tried to carry out reforms , to the investiture process of his Dictates of the Pope, he was met with resistance from Henry IV. The king insisted that he should retain the traditionally established right of previous emperors to “invest” bishops, abbots and other clergymen , despite the papal edict .

The conflict worsened after Henry was able to crush the Saxon rebellion at the Battle of Langensaltz in June 1075. In September he appointed a new bishop of Milan, which irritated Gregory, who openly demanded obedience. Soon afterwards the pope was attacked while holding a Christmas celebration in 1075, and was imprisoned by a mob. The next day his followers surrounded the prison and returned him to the church, where he began Mass from where he had stopped. On January 24, 1076, Henry assembled several German bishops in a synod at Worms, where the church dignitaries renounced all obligations to the pope. In the end the king demanded Gregory’s abdication, referring to the rules of papal elections according to the bull In nomine Domini of 1059.

Gregory responded by excommunicating Henry and deposing him at the Lenten Synod of 1076 in Rome. In addition, he declared that a year from that day the loss of the kingdom would be irrevocable.


Gregory also declared the loyalty oaths sworn by the princes invalid, which proved more dangerous to Henry’s rule, since the development was in the interests of several territorial rulers of the Empire . When the Patriarch of Aquileia and the papal legate met with the German princes at Trebur in October, they vowed not to recognize Henry unless the ban was lifted within a year. Fearing a further revolt by the German aristocracy, Henry felt he had to get rid of his excommunication. He was still popular with the common people, but the princes threatened to elect a new king . He had to secure his position in the church before the rapidly approaching term set by the pope.

At the suggestion of his advisers he arranged to meet with the pope, who set out on the trail across the Alps toward Augsburg . Henry began his journey at Speyer and as he traveled south along the Rhine found his position precarious. Because the Swabian nobility refused to open the way to the Alpine passes, the king had to pass through Burgundy and cross the Alps on the steep Mont-Senis. According to Lambert of Hersfeld’s chronicles, Henry, his wife Bertha of Savoy and their young son Conrad risked their lives crossing the Alpine ridge in harsh winter conditions. After a long journey, they reached Gregory’s dwelling at Canossa on January 25, 1077.

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In the castle.

When Henry reached the castle of Matilda, the Pope ordered him to refuse entry. While waiting at the gate, Henry behaved like a penitent . He wore a shirt, the traditional clothing of the monks of the day, and allegedly walked barefoot. Many of his entourage, including Queen Bertha of Savoy and Prince Conrad, also allegedly removed their shoes. According to Lambert of Hersfeld and first-hand accounts (letters written by Gregory and Henry in later years), the king waited at the gate for three full days. All this time he allegedly wore only a penitential shirt and fasted .

Finally, on January 28, the gates of the castle were opened to Henry, and he was allowed to enter. Contemporary sources report that he knelt before Pope Gregory and begged his pardon. Gregory excused Henry and invited him back to the Church. That evening Gregory, Henry and Matilda of Tuscany shared communion in the chapel of Sant’Apollonio inside the castle, marking the official end of Henry’s excommunication.

Whether Henry was in fact formally penitent has not been definitively established. In any case, he regained his freedom of action and quickly returned to Germany, while Gregory remained with Matilda in the castle and elsewhere in Tuscany for several months.

Historical Influence.

A depiction of Henry in Canossa by the English Protestant John Fox in 1583 . The engraving depicts Henry as a dignified ruler, in contrast to Gregory’s scornful supporters and Gregory himself, identified as the Antichrist , depicted in the tricks of Matilda.

The immediate consequences of the meeting at Canossa were limited. Although Henry was returned to the Church, any hopes that the Pope would restore support for Henry’s right to the throne were soon dashed; In March, a small group of powerful Saxon and South German territorial magnates, including the archbishops of Salzburg, Mainz and Magdeburg and several bishops, met at Forchheim and, on the assumption that Henry had irrevocably lost his imperial dignity, he claimed the imperial crown by inheritance and, according to Bruno of Merseburg, who was present with his bishop, declared that “the king’s son, even if he be eminently worthy, should become king by a spontaneous election. The pope confirmed the agreement. His removal still in force, Henry was forced into a civil war with Duke Rudolf of Swabia . Gregory imposed a second excommunication on Henry, who eventually won the civil war, invaded Rome, and forced Gregory to flee, replacing him with the anti-pope Clement III .

But the significance in the great history of Germany and Europe was far greater. During the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, Heinrich was vaunted as a defender of Catholic rights and opponents of the Pope. Many German Lutherans considered him “the first Protestant” and looked to his example as a guide in their struggle against what they saw as a tyrannical and unjust institution. As early as 1728, when Gregory was canonized by Pope Benedict XIII, the papal decree caused offence among the European monarchs and its publication was forbidden by Emperor Charles VI.

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Later in history, the event took on a more secular meaning: the rejection of his example came to signify Germany’s refusal to submit to any external authority (though still especially, but not exclusively, to the Catholic Church ). The first incident was immortalized by the Austrian politician and poet Anton Alexander von Auersperg (Anastasius Grün) in an 1868 speech before the House of Lords on the introduction of civil marriage . After German unification, Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, when his paragraph on the pulpit and the Jesuit Law triggered the so-called “Kulturkampf” with Pope Pius IX, assured his countrymen in a Reichstag speech that “We will not go to Canosa – neither in body nor in spirit! ” This meant that Germany would stand up for herself and would not tolerate any outside interference in her politics, religion or culture.

On the other hand, Benedetto Croce recalls Canosa in Italy as the first concrete victory since the fall of the Western Roman Empire , because (from the perspective of a nineteenth century historian) the Pope represented the Italian people against the domination of the Roman Empire. Germans . Croce viewed Canossa as the original retreat of the Holy Roman Empire from Italy, beginning the Italian Renaissance, when the Germans lost control of northern Italy by the 15th century.

The modern use of the

In modern usage, “going to Canossa” means an act of repentance or submission. “Going to Canossa” is an expression describing repentance, often with the connotation that it is unwelcome or forced. For example, Adolf Hitler used this expression to describe his meetings with the Bavarian minister-president Heinrich Held after his release from Landsberg prison in his effort to lift the ban on the Nazi Party . In 1938 Sir Robert Vansittart called Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s meeting with Hitler in Berchtesgaden “as if Henry IV were going to Canossa again.

It is often used in German ( Gang nach Canossa ), Dutch ( naar Canossa gaan ), Danish , Norwegian and Swedish ( Canossavandring or Kanossagång ), Finnish ( ryömiä Kanossaan ), French ( Aller à Canossa ), Hungarian ( kanosszajárás ), Italian. ( andare a Canossa ), Slovenian ( pot v Canosso ) and Hebrew ( הליכה לקנוסה – halikha le’kanossa ).

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