When surveyed today, Castiglion Bernardi has but a few ruins reminding visitors that once upon a time in this place there stood a fortification that dominated the Val di Cornia, a few kilometers to the south of Monterotondo Marittimo. Since Etruscan times, this was a strategic point along the road connecting Volterra to the sea—and, throughout various historical eras, its position was highly coveted, so much so that the Lombards, the Byzantines and, lastly, the varied signorie (medieval Italian authorities) who expanded their dominions into the territory all took up residence here.
Through the charms of a legend that’s been passed down up until the present day, Castiglion Bernardi earned a reputation, or at least some recognition—the story occurred during the dominion of the Pannocchieschi. Around the 13th century, a count from the noble Florentine family took a fancy to Gigliola, a beautiful and virtuous young woman, who was, however, already betrothed to Valfredo—with the nuptials just around the corner.
After the count took various approaches, all refused by the young woman, the scorned count became indignant: taking advantage of the supreme power he had through the feudal system, he threatened to kill the woman and those close to her if she didn’t give in to his wishes.
The motherless Gigliola was entrusted to a caretaker named Nencia from a young age. Among the two women, there was a strong, affectionate bond; they were each other’s confidants. When Nencia heard about the threats being leveled against Gigliola, she came up with a strategy: taking advantage of the darkness and covering herself with veils, she’d pretend to be Gigliola to meet with the domineering count, hoping to fool him and save the young woman, so dear to her, from a disgraceful fate.
Early on, the caretaker’s cunning fooled Pannocchieschi, but when he realized that it wasn’t Gigliola to grace him with her presence, he unleashed a homicidal fury. Poor Nencia was pierced with a sword and thrown from the castle walls, but her sacrifice saved Gigliola and Valfedo, allowing them to escape safely to Massa Marittima.
Subsequently, perhaps as a direct consequence of this story, the city of Massa Marittima, in agreement with the Belforti, a Sienese family to whom the woman belonged, ousted the Pannocchieschi from the Castello di Bernardi and forced them into compliance.
Passing through the Val di Cornia, a contemporary visitor today might swear that, among the medieval ruins, in the misty autumnal nights, the lower clouds take the vague form of veils, as if to cover the contours of a woman’s face, perhaps identical to those that concealed Nencia. Others say that on libeccio nights—that is, nights when you can feel a particular kind of Mediterranean wind—the weather’s howls mix with the ghastly cries of the heroic caretaker, as if to warn against and criticize the abuses of power and foul behavior so often leveled at women, as so dramatically and all too frequently happens even today.
But that ghost, who makes herself known now and then, is a symbol of a sacrifice in defense of true love, and all on her own, she’s able to transform these old ruins into a place with an entirely unique and all-encompassing appeal.