Pia de’ Tolomei

Portrait of Pia’s English painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882).
More and more involved in the lesson of Dante, who is a model of inspiration for him with regard both to art and life, Rossetti created beautiful works inspired by the Vita Nuova and the Divine Comedy, such as Beata Beatrix (1864 – 1870) and Pia de ‘Tolomei (1868)

« “Deh, quando tu sarai tornato al mondo,e riposato de la lunga via”, seguitò ‘l terzo spirito al secondo, “Ricorditi di me, che son la Pia; Siena mi fé, disfecemi Maremma: salsi colui che ‘nnanellata priadisposando m’avea con la sua gemma”. »(Purgatorio V, 130-136)

Pia: a name which still echoes amongst the words sung by folksingers (which are still around today) from the Tuscan Maremma, a land of legends and secrets whispered around the fireplace. Among such tales there are many which tell of the dramatic and moving story of Pia de’ Tolomei: a ancient unsolved murder mystery which, if it weren’t for Dante Alighieri and his Purgatorio, we would know nothing about.
The beautiful Pia was born in Siena to one of the most important and richest families of the city. Among the members of this household of rich bankers, there were also blessed descendants of the first Order, including Bernando who went on to found the great Monastery of Mount Oliveto Maggiore, in 1319, on the Sienese marshland.
The house where Pia de’ Tolomei was born can still be seen today in via S.Pietro, at the heart of the city of Palio, just a few steps away from Piazza del Campo.
Like all descendants of noble, respected families, she was expected to enter into an arranged marriage and, already the young widow of a knight, she was forced to marry a member of another important family, Nello dei Panocchieschi. A very important surname indeed, belonging to powerful lords who own land in the richest part of the Maremma, included Massa Marittima, and whose castles and palaces still stand today on the hills which rise just a few steps away from the sea of this part of Tuscany. However, the marriage was never going to be a happy one, a fact which, although Dante does not tell us in so many ways, we know all the same from other sources and legends telling of the poor Pia and which are still told today around the fireplaces of the Maremma.
Although the entire story is still not known for sure, what is certain is that Pia was killed by her husband, be it with his own hands or with the help of a another party. Some say she was poisoned, some say she was strangled whilst others claim that she was thrown from the window of the Castel di Pietra which still stands today, now called the The jump of the Countess.
In any case, her death was dismissed as an unfortunate accident and seeing as the way in which she was killed was such a mystery, the motive for her killing was even more obscure. Maybe the beautiful Pia was guilty of betraying her husband? Or perhaps she was just the unfortunate victim of malicious attacks made by a certain Ghino, with whom her husband left her, when he went off to war, who wanted to revenge against the poor Pia who refused to go to bed with him? Another explanation would be that it was the same Nello who was said to have fallen in love with another woman, Margherita, and as a result decided to get rid of his wife. Some even suggest that her murder was actually his way of punishing poor Pia for not having given him any sons. However, there are those who have come forward with yet another theory. It seems that someone saw a suspicious shadow of a man coming out of Pia’s bedroom, hugging her, and informed Pia’s husband of the incident. So another possible reason behind the murder of young Pia is simply that of an angry husband taking revenge on his unfaithful wife. However, as we learn that the mysterious man with whom Pia was engaged in a suspicious embrace was in fact her brother, who had no choice but to visit her in secret, as he was a member of the Pannocchieschi family’s rival political party, we can come to the conclusion that Pia was sadly just the victim of unfortunate tragedy.
Perhaps there is some truth in these tales, however we will never know for sure.
Dante himself, did not want to be precise with the details, probably because the event had, at this time, only just occurred and so everybody was already pretty well informed on what had happened and so a lot of detail was not required of him.Alternatively, perhaps his reluctance to go into too much detail was for fear of antagonizing the powerful Pannocchieschi household, as, due to his already precarious political situation, having been sent away from Florence and forced to set up home in another city, he was in no position to get on the wrong side of such a politically strong family.
If the Pannocchieschi Palace remains in Massa Marittima, not much remains now of the Castel di Pietra and its mysteries, only the parts of the walls which have been eroded by vegetation and by time. Many swear that they have seen the ghost of Pia appear amongst the ruins of the building which was once her home, a vision which is always accompanied by a metallic sound, like ring being dropped onto the pavement. However, there are also those who claim to have seen the ghost of Pia inexplicably appear upon an ancient bridge, situated near the village of Borgo di Rosia just outside of Siena, which is now appropriately known as Ponte della Pia. Perhaps because she too has had enough of the castle which reminds her so much of her tragic end. Here, her white figure stands completely still and sad, staring at the water of the stream below which gently flows through the Oak forests whilst the wind collects the whispered words of her pain.

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