Selma Sevenhuijsen a researcher from Amsterdam, Holland has been a regular visitor to Barga for almost a decade as she follows the footsteps of Matilda di Canossa and her research into the bare breasted twin tailed mermaid or Melusine to be found in the Duomo.
She has already written two book on the subject and another is just about to be published.
This creature is associated with numerous stories and legends, and is imbued with symbolic meaning in alchemy. The most common iteration of the siren is as Melusine, a creature from medieval legend. Melusine (sometimes, Melusina) was, according to legend, beautiful woman with a disturbing tendency to transform into a serpent from the waist down while bathing; it is the discovery of this nature that triggers calamity.
As the story is most often told, the cursed maiden is discovered in the forest by Raymond, the Duke of Aquitaine, who begs her to marry him. She agrees, on condition that he never disturb her on a Saturday, when she bathes. Raymond eventually grows suspicious of his young wife, and spies on her- and his shocked reaction to her true appearance reveals his betrayal to Melusine, who transforms herself into a dragon and departs in a shrieking fury. This story can be viewed as a metaphor for sexuality, and the contradictory duality of the female nature as viewed through medieval eyes.
The same dual-nature symbolism is also at work in alchemy, which employs the siren as a more benevolent emblem of enlightenment- the siren of the philosophers. Alchemically, the siren’s two tails represent unity -of earth and water, body and soul- and the vision of Universal Mercury, the all-pervading anima mundi that calls out and makes the philosopher yearn to her.
The Woman’s Dictionary of Symbols and Sacred Objects points out that a double-tailed siren, a baubo siren is a cross between a mermaid and a sheila-na-gig and according to them, the suggestive pose refers to female sexual mysteries and the lure of temptation for any simple-minded fellow. The sheila-na-gig is rooted in paganism and the worship of evil spirits.
Her second research is based around Matilda di Canossa
Matilda, countess of Tuscany as the heir of her father Boniface, margrave of Tuscany, was the major imperial feudatory in Italy and the major secular supporter of the reform papacy through a long life, 1046-1115.
After Boniface’s death, Matilda’s mother Beatrice married her cousin, Godfrey, duke of Upper Lorraine, and Matilda married his son, Godfrey. When the elder Godfrey died in 1069, Matilda and her mother assumed the rule of Tuscany together; after the deaths of both her mother and her husband in 1076, Matilda ruled both Tuscany and Lorraine alone. Matilda held the counties of Reggio, Modena, Mantua, Brescia, Verona, and Ferrara, as well as Tuscany and Upper and Lower Lorraine.
Because of her vast holdings and her support of the papacy, Matilda was a subject of attention to contemporary chroniclers and poets. Those who were sympathetic to her positions were lavish in their praise: Ekkehard called her the wealthiest, most famous woman of our times and most distinguished in virtues; Hugh of Flavigny said “at this time only countess Matilda was found among women who scorned the power of the king, who opposed his cunning and power even with military conflict, so was deservedly called ‘virago,’ who surpassed even men by the virtue of her spirit.” Bardone in his life of Anselm of Lucca speaks of “the single and only one who remains in the faith, with zeal for God and obedient to pope Gregory, the duke and countess Matilda”
Selma in her forthcoming book on the subject has put forward the theory that there is a good possibility that the faces sculpted near to the pulpit in The Duomo are in fact the faces of Matilda, her mother Beatrice and her father Boniface.
All articles about Selma on barganews can be seen here
painter and photographer - started barganews.com, the first on line news site in Tuscany, Italy back in 1996