by Roderick Conway Morris

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Tempio Malatestiano, Rimini
Sigismondo Malatesta kneeling before St. Sigismund by Piero della Francesca, 1451

Power, the Arts, War: Splendors of the Malatesta

By Roderick Conway Morris
RIMINI, Italy 7 April 2001


In Renaissance Italy, war was not regarded as the antithesis of civilization. Far from it. Leonardo da Vinci was as proud of his war machines as any picture he painted. And to be considered on a par with the great figures of the ancient world the princes of the age strove to emulate, a ruler had to achieve equal prominence in statesmanship, war and the patronage of the arts.

Sigismondo Malatesta of Rimini was one such prince, whose celebrity was matched by his ill-repute, and his cultural refinement by his alleged depravity. He is now the star once again of his own show: 'Power, the Arts, War: Splendors of the Malatesta,' at Castel Sismondo (until June 15).

The exhibition is a significant event not least because it is being held in Castel Sismondo, which has never before been open to the public. This crumbling, Kafkaesque pile was used as a prison until 1964, since when its sinister empty hulk continued to glower somewhat anomalously over this sunny seaside town until the recent restoration and conversion into an attractive new exhibition space.

The Malatesta, local landowners with a taste for military daring and opportunism, had established themselves as the dominant family in Rimini and a sizable chunk of the hinterland by the mid 14th century. They acted as enforcers for the papacy and in return enjoyed virtual autonomy and honors from Rome.

Sigismondo was born in 1417 and succeeded his uncle to the Lordship of Rimini in 1432, following his forbears in the profession of arms, and prospering like them as a condottiere, a commander of mercenary forces. Pius II wrote of him: 'He was very vigorous in body and mind, and gifted with great eloquence and military ability. He was well versed in history and by no means unfamiliar with philosophy. Whatever he set out to accomplish, he seemed by nature born to the task.' The peculiarity of these flattering comments is that they came from Sigismondo's worst enemy. For the pope also accused him of murder, rape, violating his own daughter and attempting the same on his son, poisoning his wives and unspeakable pagan practices.

There can be little doubt that the Pontiff's implacable hatred of Sigismondo was motivated more by political and personal than any moral considerations (Pius himself was a notorious womanizer), and it is now virtually impossible to assess whether there was any truth in his wilder and more lurid charges. Sigismondo's supposed sexual rapacity is certainly somewhat at a variance with the record of his rather touching long-term devotion to his lover and later wife, Isotta degli Atti, for whom he built an unusually imposing and elaborate tomb.

At the heart of Sigismondo's conflict with the papacy was his desire to carve out a more powerful independent state of his own. Rimini had once been the port where two of Italy's primary arteries, the Via Flaminia and Via Aemilia, converged. The town still had, and still has, majestic ancient monuments, notably an Augustan triumphal arch and massive bridge (completed by Tiberius). In some ways as much of a fantasist as the film director Federico Fellini, who was born here 500 years later, Sigismondo saw himself as a latter-day Roman emperor in the making, and had himself depicted in the classical style.

Sigismondo's reckless attempts to expand his power base soon collided with neighboring states allied to the papacy, and his desertion of the King of Naples, when serving him in a mercenary capacity, in 1447, exposed him to accusations of perfidy.

Determined to quash this upstart, Pius attacked on both the religious and military fronts. In 1459 he excommunicated him and in 1462 had him burned in effigy and subjected to a kind of inverted canonization, assuring Sigismondo a place in hell - presumably against the unlikely eventuality that his soul did not find its way there of its own accord - a procedure unique in papal annals. The next year the pope unleashed a full-scale war against him, by the end of which Sigismondo had lost all his territories except Rimini.

And yet, during 30 years of warfare, in which Sigismondo was almost continually personally engaged, Rimini became one of the greatest cultural centers in Europe, attracting artists and intellectuals whose credentials allowed them to pick and choose whom they served, and who it is difficult to believe would have cooperated with Sigismondo had he been in reality half as black as he was painted.

In 1438, Brunelleschi, the father of Renaissance architecture, spent several weeks in Rimini advising Sigismondo on the design of his new castle. Subsequently, the greatest architectural theorist of the age, Alberti, led a team of distinguished designers in remodeling an ancient Franciscan basilica into a church-monument to Sigismondo, his wife and his ancestors, transforming it into an edifice without parallel in the peninsula (now known as the Tempio Malatestiano). Piero della Francesca adorned the interior with a fresco of Sigismondo kneeling before his namesake, Saint Sigismund of Burgundy, and painted another portrait of his patron (now in the Louvre). The Florentine sculptor Agostino di Duccio embellished the building with the most important work of his career, a series of marvelously vibrant and graceful, classically inspired reliefs.

Meanwhile, the famous author and scholar Roberto Valturio oversaw a 'scriptorium' that made Rimini a key producer of illuminated manuscripts and treatises, himself compiling 'Twelve Books on the Art of War,' the most learned and comprehensive survey of the subject and probably the finest illustrated Italian book of that era. Sigismondo's prestige was additionally enhanced by his commissioning of bronze medals by Pisanello and Matteo de' Pasti, showing his and Isotta's portraits, his heraldic devices and his building projects.

Sigismondo's vaulting ambition brought the Malatesta dynasty to the summit of its fame and achievements, but simultaneously set it upon an inexorable downslide to destruction. Fatally weakened by Sigismondo's adventurism, excesses and extravagance, Rimini finally came under direct papal rule in 1527.

But even in the face of almost total ruin Sigismondo's irrepressible energy did not desert him and, not long before his death in 1468, he accepted a Venetian commission to lead an expedition against the Turks in Southern Greece.

It was typical of him that when he returned, he brought as a souvenir not the usual hallowed remains of some Eastern Christian saint but, 'induced by the mighty love with which he burned for men of learning,' the bones of Georgios Gemistos Plethon, the Byzantine neo-Platonist and advocate of a return to ancient polytheism. Sigismondo's only regret must have been that Pius II was no longer alive to receive the glad tidings.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023