Pia de Tolomei

A medieval murder mystery

La Pia by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Italian legends from Maremma. The most common told legend of the "gentile donna senese", Pia de Tolomei, is that, although innocent, she was charged with infidelity and on the order of her powerful husband and Lord in Maremma, Nello d'Inghiramo Pannocchieschi, thrown from a window of her home Castel di Pietra in order that he could marry his lover Margherita Aldobrandeschi, Contessa of Sovana and Pitigliano.

But was Pia de Tolomei really an innocent in a loveless marriage or a fiction? Her story has attracted much scholarly attention and debate over the centuries and cast doubt upon the simplicity of the tale. And yet there is still no conclusive evidence... but that is the intrinsic nature and attraction of legends.

I have collected together as many pieces of the mystery that I could find. Decide for yourself what you believe to be the most convincing story...


The players in this Italian legend

Pia de Tolomei

The Tolomei family of Siena was one of the oldest members of the nobility of Siena and amongst the richest. The origin of the Tolomei name comes from the Egyptian Tolemaica dynasty and it is believed that the ancestors of the Tolomei family are descendants of the Dardanidi and Macedone family, which became the Lagidi or Ptolemaic dynasty. And that they probably arrived in Italy with Carl Magno.

The first certain documentation of the Tolomei family is in the "Balddistricca" of 1121. By the mid 12th century they were rich and influential bankers and amongst Siena's five dominant families owning tower-houses and palaces in the square of their name - Piazza Tolomei - with lordships in the part of Maremma controlled by Siena - the Sienese Maremma.

The family's life was not without difficulty, however, as their active engagement in politics from the 13th century onwards, led them open to exile and expropriation. Their exile from the city in 1262 for a year was reversed in 1263 but only upon payment of a large ransom.

It was during this time that Giovanni Tolomei, latterly Saint Bernardo Tolomei, was born (1272–1348). (An Italian theologian and the founder of the Roman Catholic Congregation of the Blessed Virgin of Monte Oliveto, he was canonized by Pope Benedict XVI in 2009.)

And it is widely believed Pia. Probably in or near the Palazzo Tolomei.

Palazzo Tolomei, Siena
Palazzo Tolomei. Photo courtesy of albiero2006

(The present Palazzo Tolomei was built around 1270-72 and replaced an earlier palace of the Tolomei family that had been demolished after the family had been exiled from the city.

It is still a bank today.)

The only other mentions of Pia before that of her story with Nello d'Inghiramo Pannocchieschi is that she married a Knight with whom she had two sons. Thence widowed and her life with Nello began.

But there are no records of Pia in the history of the Tolomei family and 20th century scholars have suggested that Pia was of the Malavolti family: one of the other five dominant Sienese families. Married in Maremma to Tollo (Bertaldo) di Prata, who was murdered in 1285.

Or, the daughter of Buonconte Guastelloni and wife of Baldo d'Aldobrandino Tolomei, who died in 1290. That she then married Nello Pannocchieschi... but then there is documentary evidence that Pia Guastelloni never re-married and that she was still alive in 1318.


Nello d'Inghiramo Pannocchieschi

Nello d'Inghiramo Pannocchieschi was born in Volterra around 1270 into a not inconsequential medieval family but, nonetheless, considered as vassals to the Aldobrandeschi family of Siena.

He was Lord of the Castel di Pietra, Podesta (Chief Magistrate) of Volterra in 1277 and Lucca in 1314, and Captain of the Tuscan "Taglia Guelfa" in 1284. He apparently had an infamous temper.


Margherita Aldobrandesca

Born circa 1255, Margherita Aldobrandesca was the daughter of Count Ildebrandino Aldobrandeschi of Sovana and Pitigliano and Tommasia di Baschi. Known as "Rosso", the red Count, he was the most powerful man in southern Tuscany.

Heiress to Sovana and Pitigliano she was married five times. First aged 15 years on 10 August 1270 to "il conte" Guido (or Guy) di Monfort, Count of Nola, in the papal city of Viterbo. The marriage had King Charles' consent and was contrived by her father to prevent a potential entanglement with another - attractive - suitor. Stripped of his titles and ex-communicated for the murder of Henry of Almain, Guido died in a Sicilian prison in 1291.

Margherita married for the second time to Orso (Orsello) Orsini, who died in 1295. And then to Loffredo Caetani III nephew of Pope Boniface VIII. Her marriage to Loffredo (or Roffredo) was subsequently annulled: either because she was living with Nello, but more probably because Orso was found to be still alive.

There followed a marriage to her cousin Guido Aldobrandeschi di Santafiora, and then Nello d'Inghiramo Pannocchieschi.

It is clear that Nello was her lover for some time (there is some evidence that she was with Nello whilst her first husband was held captive by the Spanish) and there is speculation that she was a notorious and seductive woman. But this strikes me as too romanticized a contrast to a sweet and innocent Pia.

It is more probably that, as the Countess and heir to prized, extensive and safe lands she had little control over her choice or number of husbands. Firstly determined by her father under considerable papal influence and, then, upon his death in 1284 - leaving her the only heir - her determination to retain her lands and those inherited by her first daughter Anastasia de Monfort as suo jure Countess of Nola from her father Guido di Montfort. Again under and heavy papal control.


The marriage of Pia de Tolomei
and Nello dei Pannocchieschi

It is commonly held that an arranged marriage took place between Pia de Tolomei and Nello dei Pannocchieschi, a then powerful lord of the Sienese Maremma. Although there is no documentation of one ever having taken place. Perhaps, as Dante makes reference to a union, it was not a grand ceremony, but rather a closed family affair?

One report says that she had two sons with Nello. But did she or were these the sons from her first marriage?


The motive

Well, what of the motive for Pia's murder? There are many hypotheses:


That Pia de Tolomei was flirtatious brought about her own demise...

That Pia had been seen embracing a man in her bedchamber and her death was ordered by an angered Nello before he had discovered the truth. That in fact the man was her brother who visited her in secret as he was a member of a rival political faction to that of the Pannocchieschi family and it was too treacherous to do so otherwise. Indeed, perhaps Nello had forbidden his visits.

There is a painting in the Palazzo Pitti in Firenze by Enrico Pollastrini entitled, "Nello alla tomba della Pia" (1851), which depicts a distressed Nello having to be restrained from flinging himself on Pia's body.


The Revenge of Ghino. That Nello places Pia in the care of his brother Ghino whilst he is absent. Ghino falls in love with Pia but she rebukes his advances and declarations of love. Full of anger a revengeful Ghino tells Nello that Pia has been seen with another man...


Nello's jealousy of Pia's continued love for her dead first husband gets the better of him and he orders her death.


Some commentators question whether Pia was murdered as punishment for not giving Nello sons.

Political advantage

A hasty first marriage? And now Nello wants seeks a much more advantageous match with Margherita.

None of the above!

There is no mention of Pia in Nello's well documented family history and so some believe that their marriage became part of the legend at a later time and that she was murdered by Nello for other reasons. Although there is no conclusive evidence, this would concur with a view that Pia, widowed following the death of her husband Tolla di Prata, was taken into the protective custody of Nello.


Pia's violent death

Pia de' Tolomei by Vincenzo Cabianca
Pia de' Tolomei is conducted to the castle of Maremma by Vincenzo Cabianca


How did Pia reach her untimely death in 1295?

The legend tells that Pia de Tolomei was imprisoned in the Castel di Pietra and then murdered by being thrown - some accounts say grabbed feet first - from a window.

After the assassination, the hill upon which the castle sits quickly became known as " Il salto della Contessa" - the Jump of the Contessa.

Other versions, however, tell of Pia being thrown from the cliff on which the castle sits, poisoned or strangled.

And one hypothesis is that Pia's story - married or not to Nello - was simply a tragic tale of a young woman wasting away from an attack of malaria, with which the lowlands in Maremma were rife.

Whichever account is closer to the truth, Pia's death was declared an accident and, whether by Nello's own hand or not, neither he nor any other person were ever brought to formal justice.


After her death

Notwithstanding how she died, Nello subsequently married Margherita Aldobrandeschi, but on all accounts it was not a long nor happy marriage.

They had one son who died in 1300 and whose gravestone tells that his untimely death was due to drowning.

Margherita died around the year 1313. And Annastasia de Montfort took the Aldobrandeschi fortunes into the Orsini family with her marriage to Romano Orsini.


Rocca di Gavorrano, MaremmaNello spent his last years in the Rocca di Gavorrano - the building in the centre of the photograph - and died in Pisa circa 1328.

The brass plaque on the wall of the Rocca reads:

"Dentro queste mura tracorse gli ultimi anni della propria vita il Conte Nello Pannocchieschi Duce Senese, signore della pietra e podesta di gavoranno marito sventurato della dolce pia de tolomei, fatta da lui uccidere nel vicino castello della pietra, immortalata da dante nella divina commedia."

My best translation in English:

"Inside these walls spent the last years of the life of Count Nello Pannocchieschi Duke of Siena, Lord of the stone and magistrate of Gavorrano, husband of the sweet Pia de Tolomei, whom he had killed in the nearby Castle of the Stone, she was immortalised by Dante in the Divine Comedy."


My thoughts...

Margherita and Nello were long time lovers, but Nello came from a family considered subservient to the status of the influential and rich Aldobrandeschi family and certainly not considered to be a suitable matrimonial match for Margherita.

Their liaison continued through four of Margheritas' marriages, when finally upon the death of her fourth husband Guido, she felt sufficiently secure as the well established "Red Countess" to choose to marry Nello. But he was already married to another senese lady: a good match at the time for the Pannocchieschi family as Pia brought with her the legacy of properties from her first marriage, but no where near the order of a Aldobrandeschi fortunes.

Nello's wedding had been a simple affair - the exchanging or rings witnessed by family members - and without grand ceremony. In the circumstances and without the production of sons, Nello sought Pia's agreement to annul their marriage, but she refused. What else was she to do? And angered at her denial of his long time desire to be betrothed to Margherita and more importantly to have control of the Aldobrandeschi family with which he had battled for years, their lands and wealth, he imprisoned her hoping she would relent. But she did not and so he disposed of her. Secure in the knowledge that as lord in Maremma and soon to be married into the Aldobrandeschi family, he would never be held to account.

But then I am a romantic at heart!


Pia de Tolomei immortalised

Thrown, strangled, or poisoned, adulterous or not, the story of Pia de Tolomei was well known and sufficiently evocative and, perhaps of political significance, to have captured the attention of the middle ages poet of the day Dante Alighieri. Dante was renowned for commenting on the events of the time by including reference to them in his works.

In this instance, Dante immortalises Pia in his poem the Divine Comedy as a tragic figure he encounters in Purgatory (Purgatorio V, 130-136):

in Italian...

"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 pria
disposando m'avea con la sua gemma"

and in English...

Ah, when you have returned to the world,
and rested from the long journey,
followed the third spirit after the second,

remember me, the one who is Pia;
Siena made me, Maremma undid me:
he knows it, the one who first encircled
my finger with his jewel, when he married me."

Those who have studied the "Divina Commedia" note that Dante, living at the time of the murder, was careful not to name Nello as the assassin. Some conclude that it was unnecessary to do so as it was widely known to be the case. Whilst others believe that it would have been too precarious of Dante to do so, particularly as he had fallen out of favour and recently banished from Florence.

Then, in the 19th century the Pre-Raphaelite painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti painted the wonderfully symbolic "La Pia", itself entwined with a love story of his own. It is the painting in the photograph at the top of the page.

The Luigi Orsini opera "La Pia de' Tolomei", which premiered in Florence in 1835. The Salvadore Cammarano "tragedia lirica" that premiered on 18 February 1837 at the Teatro Apollo in Venice... Silent films, a comic strip: the list of works telling the sad tale of Pia is a long one.


Pia's Ghost

La Pia de' Tolomei by Stefano Ussi
La Pia de' Tolomei by Stefano Ussi

Unsurprisingly given the nature of this legend, tales are told of sightings of a ghostly image of a woman in the ruins of Castel di Pietra. And on a bridge - now called the Ponte della Pia - near Sovicille in the province of Siena. In the latter instance, the legend that has evolved tells of Pia's ghost appearing on the nights of a full moon, completely dressed in white and crossing the bridge without touching the ground.

Ponte della Pia near Sovicille, Siena


The "Salta della Contessa" Festival

On the second Sunday in August the town of Gavorrano holds a costumed medieval festival called the "Salto della Contessa" in remembrance of Pia's tragic death.


Read some more medieval mysteries...

If only I had access to the archives of Siena with an Italian historian and translator... I would love to explore some more. Especially the life of Margherita Aldobrandesca: it takes some woman to survive four husbands, Papal machinations, wars and feuds and reach the age of 58 years in medieval Tuscany. As her father's daughter she retained control of the families vast lands, estates, castles and wealth and came to be known as the "Red Contessa". She deserves a film!

If the story of Pia de Tolomei, Nello d'Inghiramo Pannocchieschi or Margherita Aldobrandesca has equally captured your imagination, then these medieval mystery books might be of interest.


Explore some more...



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