La Tosa

May 11, 2012 / Art & Archaeology
Milan, Lombardia

Porta Vittoria (now gone, just a piazza) was so named after the battles that took place there during the Five Days of Milan, the violent conflict which saw the Milanese finally victorious in ridding the city of the Austro-Hungarian occupation and army. So far, fairly standard name and naming practice.

Prior to this, however, this gate into the medieval city walls was called Porta Tosa, which translates roughly as the “Door of the Shaving lady” or “..of She who Shaves.”

Yes.. ahem.. slightly different naming protocol here.

Legend has it that it got its name after the Milanese delegation to the Eastern Emperor in Constantinople was refused their requests for financial assistance following Frederick Barbarossa’s sack of Milan in 1162. Out of spite, the Milanese affixed the marble bas-relief to this Easternmost and thus Constantinople-facing porta as an insult to the Eastern Emperor.

Another story holds that the porta was so named during one of Barbarossa’s many sieges of the city. Vastly outnumbered, the Milanese apparently knew that the next day the city would fall. However, that morning a young Milanese woman climbed to the ramparts of the porta at dawn, faced Barbarossa’s waking army (camped outside of the city walls), hiked up her skirt for all the troops to see, and began to shave herself. Completely awestruck and certainly with battle and fighting no longer on their minds, they promptly dropped their weapons then and there, abandoned camp, and took the road home.

What we do know for sure is that the bas-relief is from the 12th century, probably an example of the Northern Italian Celtic apotropaic tradition of creating effigies to ensure good luck/health and to ward off evil/disease. Obviously much too controversial for 15th century Milanese Christian sensibilities, it was removed from the porta by Cardinal Borromeo, and is now visible in the museum of the Castello Sforzesco in town.

Just a piece of stone… right?


GB

by GB Bernardini

Editor, Italian Notebook

24 Responses to “La Tosa”

  1. Giuseppe Spano
    Giuseppe Spano

    Maybe that is why mama said “woman can stop charging armies”
    with a wink to papa

    Reply
  2. Joan Schmelzle

    My goodness! I’ve been to the Castello 5 or 6 times and never saw this. Perhaps I’ll try to find it in November. But more likely I’ll forget by then. Ah well!

    Reply
    • GB

      Joan, keep an eye out for it, it’s quite small relative to some of the other pieces in the same room; perhaps 2.5-3.0 feet tall, 2 feet wide at most.

      Reply
  3. Peggy and Bob Corrao

    This one was hysterically funny to me, and I knew who the author had to be…
    bravo GB. God bless that woman even now. And you as well!!

    Reply
  4. There will never be an end to the bizarre findings along the way to everywhere in Italy-thanks for pointing out this one and the many others.

    Reply
  5. Should the Americans think that this is a Mother’s Day item?

    Reply
    • GB

      OK, now I’m embarassed, Meg… hehehe! I hadn’t even thought about that!

      Reply
  6. Gian Banchero

    Dio buono!!!… There are better things I’d like to be remembered for. Not only did I do a light gasp when I scrolled down to the last photo but I accompanied it with a rolling laugh. Thanks GB for the courage to present such a story and photos.

    Reply
  7. Joan Schmelzle

    Right after I had posted the note above, I thought why on earth didn’t I say how hard and how loud the post made me laugh. So I’ll add it now.

    Reply
    • mariebianco

      Can you image how difficult shaving there
      is without a mirror?

      Reply
  8. Tom Weber

    Ciao GB,

    Interesting story. I wonder if the troops actually left the battlefield and headed home after that “spa demonstration.”

    Pardon me for nitpicking, and correct me if I’m wrong, but the word “tosa,” in several northern Italian dialects, means “girl.” The “shaving” part is clear to see in the sculpture, but is not in the name of the stone; therefore, the correct title should be the Girl Gate or Gate of the (shaving) Girl.

    Just my two (euro) cents.

    Tom

    Reply
    • GB

      Tom, no kidding?! I did not know that Northern dialect term, I stand corrected, thanks for the info.

      Reply
  9. Mairin O'Mahony

    Does anyone know the origin of the lady on the Rialto bridge who is setting fire to the same area?

    Reply
  10. Grazie, mi e’ piaciuto molto la seconda versione la prima gia la conoscevo! Sono nuova su Italian Notebook!! :) grazie fate un buon lavoro….

    Reply
  11. linda mclaren

    So the world’s first ‘brazilian’ wasn’t from Brazil after all! Another nod to the Italians!

    Reply
  12. francesco costa

    caro gb, è vero che in molti dialetti del dialetti del nord la parola “tosa” significa “ragazza”. sei bravissimo! raccontate dalla tua penna, le storie più crudeli assumono il fascino gentile di una leggenda. sei insuperabile. domani parto per lecce dove presenterò il mio “leo” a 150 bambini urlanti. spero di non finire spolpato vivo. tornerò mercoldì. ti auguro boun lavoro e ti saluto con affetto, francesco

    Reply
    • GB

      Fantastico, in bocca al lupo, Francesco! 150 ragazzini scatenati non sarano di sicuro una cosa da poco, ma se c’e’ qualcuno che li potra’ entusiasmare, questo sei tu! Buon viaggio.

      Reply
  13. Giuseppe Spano
    Giuseppe Spano

    Ciao Francesco

    When in Lecce, please visit my family in Galatina Famiglia Macareno e negro

    Reply
  14. Penny Ewles-Bergeron
    Penny Ewles-Bergeron

    Thanks for the intriguing and somewhat startling note. (-:

    Reply

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