Torrechiara, Parma, Italy – Pier Maria Rossi and Courtly Love

Castello di Torrechiara

Without the idea of ‘courtly love’, Julia Roberts, Sandra Bullock, Nora Roberts, not to mention Chaucer, Shakespeare and Jane Austin, and countless other artists portraying love and the pursuit of same would not exist as literary and media phenomena.

‘Courtly Love’ in France, England and Italy

Yet the idea of “courtly love” has been around for at least a thousand years. “Courtly love” is a rigidly structured code of behavior which fostered idealized, but often illicit, love affairs, and the idea that a member of the nobility could and should fall in love with another member, whether married or not. The process of falling in love was dictated by the rules of conduct between lovers, first promulgated by the Provencal troubadours under the tutelage of Eleanor of Aquitaine and others, and later set out in The Art of Courtly Love, written by Andreas Cappallanus between 1174 and 1186 for Marie de Champagne. From the 1100’s on, ‘courtly love’ gained popularity with the European nobility as a sort of subset of noble behavior.

The reality of the time was, however, that the nobility, with the Church’s blessing, used their sons and daughters as pawns in the game of acquiring territory and power. A young man married whomever his father ordered him to. The troubadours and later early Renaissance writers set out the list of requirements for the young nobleman or woman to obtain a secret love life.

The rules took hold and were amalgamated into the idea of chivalry. For instance,“Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”, written in the late 14th century by an unknown English or Welsh poet , is the story of King Arthur’s nephew, Gawain, and also incorporates the ideals of chivalry and chivalric romance. These ideals changed the lifestyles of the nobility in most of Europe.

Pier Maria Rossi, Count of San Secondo, Parma – Son, Soldier, Scholar and Lover

One of the first documented cases of a nobleman who actually embraced these rules and incorporated them into his life was that of Pier Maria Rossi. He chose his damsel, gave her a castle, then built her another one, Torrechiara, at Langhirano in the province of Parma, Italy. Even today, Torrechiara is said to be one of the most imposing and beautiful castles in Italy.

Born in 1413 to the count of San Secondo, near Parma, Italy, at the age of fifteen Pier Maria Rossi was married off to Antonia Torelli , daughter of another minor nobleman engaged in a border conflict with Pier Maria’s father. On the death of his father twelve years later, Pier Maria became the fourth count of San Secondo

He spent his time educating himself and his eight children by Antonia, plus three illegitimate ones, in the art of war, in literature and languages. At the age of twenty, he knew Latin, Greek, Spanish and medicine. He studied architecture in order to build more enduring fortresses on his territory.

In 1440, he met Bianca Pellegrini, a lady- in- waiting to Bianca Maria Visconti, of the ruling family in Milan. Bianca was the wife of a minor noble at the Visconti court. Pier Maria and Bianca Pellegrini fell in love. A child, Ottaviano, arrived not long afterward. Their relationship was well-grounded, and because of the ‘courtly love’ concepts, went for the most part uncontested.

In 1448, Pier Maria began construction on the Torrechiara (Clear Tower) Castle, a fortress with luxurious living quarters, built for Bianca as a summer residence. The Parma area in the summer is often muggy, with abundant mosquitoes. Bianca would be spared the heat, as Torrechiara sat atop a hill. Antonia remained on the plain, in the family castle San Secondo, with her many children.

Courtship, Love and Death on the Parma Plain

Their courtship is beautifully documented in the ‘Golden Room’ fresco in the Torrechiara castle by Benedetto Bembo. It depicts a tale of courtly love and chivalry, and is still visited by thousands of tourists every year. Bianca’s portrait in the fresco shows her to be a small, delicate woman. Though the exact date and circumstances are unknown, Bianca Pellegrini died sometime before 1482, and was buried at Torrechiara.

1482 was an important date for Pier Maria. In that year, after decades in the service of the Milanese , he was accused by them of fomenting discontent among the farmers over the Milanese tax requirements in his territory. The Sforzas, now the rulers of Milan, attacked the San Secondo castle and Pier Maria invited ‘his’ farmers to join his army to defend the rest of his territory, a move that worried the lords of Milan no end. His small army unfortunately lost every battle against the Sforzas. Pier Maria took refuge at Torrechiara, where he died on Sept 1, 1482. He was buried next to Bianca Pellegrini. The castle was ceded to his son Guido Rossi, who later joined the Venetian block, the Sforza’s arch-enemies.

Torrechiara in Langhirano is a two hour drive from Sirmione, Lake Garda. A visit to Torrechiara today is like stepping back into the early Renaissance. Not all of the frescoes commissioned by Pier Maria Rossi have survived. Those that have are lovely renditions of an idea that lives on even today…courtly love.