Saturday, November 18, 2006

Sigismondo Malatesta

Portrait of Sigismondo Malatesta in The Procession of the Magi in La Cappella dei Magi, Palazzo Medici, Firenze
Painted 1459 - 1462 by Benozzo Gozzoli (c. 1421 - 1497

Pope Pius II, in his Commentaries, devotes a long section to the "unspeakable crimes" of Sigismondo Malatesta, lord of Rimini, a man gifted with eloquence and great military skill, who "surpassed every barbarian in cruelty. The worst of all men who have lived or ever will live, the shame of Italy, the disgrace of our age." He was accused of numerous depravities by Pope Pius II ."He was a slave to avarice, prepared not only to plunder but to steal, so unbridled in his lust that he violated both his daughters and his sons-in-law. As a boy he often played the bride; later, he who had so often taken the woman's part used other men like whores. No marriage was sacred to him. He raped Christian nuns and Jewish ladies alike; boys and girls who resisted him he would either murder or torture in terrible ways.” (2.32.2.)

So much did Pius despise Malatesta that in a public ceremony on the porch of St. Peter's in 1462, the pope consigned him to hell while he was still alive and effigies of Malatesta were publicly burned.He was pronounced guilty of rapine, incendiarism, incest, assassination and heresy. He was sentenced to the deprivation of his state (which was probably the main object of the trial), and to be burnt alive as a heretic. This sentence, however, could not easily be executed, and Sigismondo was only burnt in effigy. But the pope marked the intensity of his hatred by causing the dummy to be carved and dressed with such lifelike resemblance that he was almost able to persuade himself that his hated enemy was really consumed in the flames.

Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta (June 19, 1417 – October 7, 1468), popularly known as the Wolf of Rimini, was a famous member of the Italian House of Malatesta and lord of Rimini, Fano, and Cesena from 1432. He was widely considered by his contemporaries as one of the most daring military leaders in Italy and commanded the Venetian forces in the 1465 campaign against the Ottoman Empire.

He was also a poet and patron of the arts.

Following the family's tradition, he debuted as man-at-arm at the age of 13 against his relative Carlo II Malatesta, lord of Pesaro and Pope Martin V's ally, who aimed to annex Rimini, Cesena and Fano to his territories. After his victory he obtained, together with his brothers Galeotto Roberto and Domenico, the title of Papal vicar for those cities. In 1431, albeit with inferior forces, he repelled another invasion by the Malatestas of Pesaro. When his elder brother soon abdicated, he became lord of Rimini, at the age of only 15.

In 1432 he accepted the command of a Papal corps, defeating the Spaniards condottiero Sante Cirillo and thwarthing Antonio I Ordelaffi's attempt to capture Forlì (1435-36). However, the following year Sigismondo occupied the Papal city of Cervia and was excommunicated; he was soon pardoned and created commander of the Papal Army. Later he fought in Romagna and the Marche alongside Francesco Sforza.

In the meantime he married Ginevra d'House of Este, Pope Nicholas III's illegitimate daughter. In 1440 she died, and rumours were that she had been poisoned by Sigismondo.

Two years later he married Polissena Sforza, daughter of Francesco. In this period he scored a noteworthy victory against Niccolò Piccinino, managing to obtain some territories of Pesaro.

In his restless attitude, in the following period he betrayed two times Sforza, but also his momentary ally against him, Niccolò Piccinino. Enmity against Sforza turned into true hatred when his father-in-law bought the seignory of Pesaro from Carlo Malatesta. Therefore Sigismondo allied with Pope Eugene IV and the duke of Milan. Later, he was hired by King Alfonso V of Naples, but soon after received the money for the condotta passed at the service of Florence against the former.

In 1445 he forced the Neapolitans to leave the siege of Piombino, in Tuscany, and had his first son by Isotta degli Atti (whom he married to in 1456). In 1449 his wife Polissena died in mysterious circumstances. Francesco Sforza claimed Sigismondo had her drowned by one of his servants, but this has remained unconfirmed.

After 1449 Malatesta was variously under Venice, Florence, Siena, Naples and Sforza himself. The Peace of Lodi (1454), from which he was excluded, pushed the major Italian powers against him. His territories were repeatedly invaded by Aragonese, Venetian and Papal troops.

After Pius` public excommunication of Malatesta in 1462, a true crusade was then launched against Malatesta. A first contingent of Papal troops was defeated in the July 1461, but he was severely crushed on August 12, 1462 by Federico da Urbino near Senigallia. The war ended in 1463 with the loss of all Sigismondo's territories apart Rimini, and a territory of five miles around it: both however were to return to the Papal States after his death. He then sought more fortune as general for Venice in its war against the Ottomans, as a field commander in Peloponnesus (1464-1466).

In an attempt to reverse this situation, Sigismondo appears to have intended to murder Pius' successor, Pope Paul II (who had asked him to exchange Rimini for Spoleto and Camerino), in 1468, but lost his nerve and returned to Rimini, where he died a few months later.

Malatesta's reputation (albeit minor) was largely based on Pius II's perception of him, although numerous contemporary chronicles described him as a tyrant and a womanizer: he delved in "rape, adultery, and incest". Italian Renaissance historian Francesco Guicciardini defined him "enemy of every peace and well-living". His deeds and political manouvers were characterized by all the typical play of violence, intrigues and subtleties typical of Renaissance Italy.

However he did sponsor the reconstruction of the church of San Francesco, often called the Tempio Malatestiano, in the town of Rimini. The building is considered a landmark in Western architecturalhistory because it was the first ecclesiastical edifice to incorporate the Roman triumphal arch into its structural vocabulary. The massive central doorway, flanked by two blind arches, owes much to the Arch of Augustus, the oldest triumphal arch in Italy, which is also in Rimini. The interior, too, is striking: it teems with an elaborate series of sculptures and bas-reliefs by Agostino di Duccio, and the sacristy for the Chapel of San Sigismondo houses a fine fresco by Piero della Francesca. The churches reconstruction, initially undertaken as the refurbishing of a single chapel within an extant church that dated from the thirteenth century, assumed new dimensions in 1449-1450 when Sigismondo entrusted the project to Leon Battista Alberti, one of Alberti's earliest and most important commissions. Alberti redesigned the building's entire facade, added the central doorway, and adorned the sides with a series of seven deep arches divided by massive piers. He also planned to add a transept and to crown the intersection of nave and transept with a soaring dome, but a precipitous decline in Sigismondo's political fortunes left him unable to bear the costs of construction. By 1460 work on the project had stopped and the church was left incomplete.

The building had been designed to commemorate Sigismondo's love for Isotta degli Atti, his mistress and later (after 1456) his third wife. The crucial evidence adduced in support of this view was the entwined cipher, made up of the
letters S and I, that is sculpted everywhere among the church's interior and exterior decorations. The sign, in the new view, referred to the first letters in the names of Sigismondo and Isotta. This interpretation was first broached in 1718, debated inconclusively in 1756, then raised a third time in 1789, after which it was embraced without argument.

Pius II condemned the church as "a temple of devil-worshippers".

A new understanding of Sigismondo and his career outside Italy was promoted by the great historian Jakob Burckhardt. His Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, first published in 1860, largely created the modern notion of the Renaissance as a distinct historical period that signals the emergence of modern individualism. Burckhardt assigned Sigismondo an exemplary status, presenting him as the crowning figure among "the furtherers of humanism." His court had epitomized "the highest spiritual things" and had been a stage "where life and manners ... must have been a singular spectacle." His greatest achievement had been the reconstruction of the church of San Francesco, a project inspired by "his amour with the fair Isotta, in whose honour and as whose monument the famous rebuilding of S. Francesco at Rimini took place." Burckhardt turned Sigismondo into the epitome of "the whole man," a new human "type" who represented a form of historical existence crucial for the course of civilization, the type that had ushered in the age of modernity, a figure equally capable in war and art, in action and contemplation, one whose unfettered individuality united ruthless realism with lofty ideals:
"Unscrupulousness, impiety, military skill, and high culture have been seldom so combined in one individual as in Sigismondo Malatesta."

The popular English historian John Addington Symonds viewed the church of San Francesco as "a monument of ... the revived Paganism of the fifteenth century" and "one of the earliest buildings in which the Neopaganism of the
Renaissance showed itself in full force." Though ostensibly a church, it had "no room left for God." Symonds noted the many outrages allegedly committed by Sigismondo (including the murder of several wives), but he tempered their opprobriousness by integrating them within a liberal view of history that saw the violence of early individualism as a transient stage within the otherwise benign formation of modernity.

For Ezra Pound, the Tempio Malatestiano became a resonant symbol that encompassed a broad range of his experiences and aspirations, both literary and extraliterary. Sigismondo had been a poet. The building's mélange of styles, from the severe exterior by Alberti to the luxurious sculptural decorations by Agostino di Duccio, epitomized an eclecticism already typical of The Cantos. Pound penned The Malatesta Cantos in tribute.