The petty tyrants of fifteenth-century Italy were often vicious, sadistic and utterly cowardly; yet for all their impiety, perversity, murderousness and inability to keep their word, even the worst of them tended to boast at least one admirable trait or tendency. After all, it was impossible to maintain power for long without charm, charisma and great cunning; most of these men were highly intelligent and immensely cultured. A good tyrant took care to ensure that his name would be remembered in the future; for art as well as violence.
The Malatesta dynasty in Rimini was founded by Malatesta da Verrucchio (1212–1312), who was the first member of the family to be immortalised in literature: he and his older son Malatestino dell’ Occhio are condemned by Dante in his Inferno (XXVII.36–57) for cruelty as well as incompetence. Yet his other sons Gianciotto and Paolo are even more famous, the former having murdered the latter for cuckolding him. The story of Paolo’s love for Gianciotto’s beautiful wife Francesca da Polenta is told in the fifth canto of Dante’s Inferno, where the lovers are punished in Hell for adultery. After revenge-killing his brother and wife, Gianciotto married a widow from Faenza, sired five legitimate children, and died peacefully in 1304.
But the most notable member of this family was Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta, born on 19th June 1417. Sigismondo’s uncle Carlo was the Lord of Rimini; his father Pandolfo, Captain General of the Pope’s armies, held the lordships of Fano and the governorships of Brescia and Bergamo. Carlo and Pandolfo were both noted for their scholarly and literary interests; much of the family was notably pious as well, particularly Sigismondo’s saintly half-brother Galeotto Roberto (1411–1432), whom he is said to have assassinated at the age of fourteen.
Sigismondo entered political life early. At thirteen he first led troops against the Pope; at fourteen, in the wake of his half-brother’s murder, he narrowly survived an assassination attempt in Fano, where a priest had provoked a popular uprising against his family; at fifteen he broke off an engagement with the daughter of a Venetian nobleman when his future father-in-law was executed for treason – although he kept the dowry. Aged sixteen he entered the service of Pope Eugenius IV, who had been a friend of his uncle’s, and gained his father’s former post as ‘capitano generale ecclesiastico’. This position did not last long: he invaded, conquered and pillaged territories that he was supposed to be protecting, claimed them in the name of the Pope, then cheated the Vatican out of the proceeds from the sale of some thirty thousand sacks of salt which he had seized during the general plunder.
At the age of twenty Sigismondo began construction of his first fortress, Castel Sismondo, with the help of the Florentine architect Filippo Brunelleschi (1377–1446), who also designed the great dome of the cathedral of Florence. Brunelleschi’s advice ensured that Malatesta fortresses of the period were stylish and elegant as well as resistant to siege; though Sigismondo deserves most of the credit himself for innovations in defensive architecture.
Sigismondo’s wardrobe was as large and extravagant as that of any of his wives or mistresses but the decoration in the private quarters of Castel Sismondo was notably austere, perhaps to emphasise the scale and grandeur of each individual apartment. Sigismondo’s private library was well-stocked with learned treatises on geometry and astrology; though his preferred reading seems to have included French lyric poetry, courtly verse in general, and contemporary epics involving the mass slaughter of Frenchmen, Spaniards and Muslims. Inventories and building plans note at least four “death rooms” in Castel Sismondo, but their precise function remains unclear.
Sigismondo’s allegiances were never fixed; throughout the 1430s and 1440s he was allied variously to and against the Papal States, Florence, Bologna, the Duchy of Milan, the Venetian Republic and the Kingdom of Naples; his one stable relationship was with the Duchy of Urbino: the Duke, Federico da Montefeltro, remained his worst enemy (other than himself). He also feuded extensively with his own uncle, the Lord of Pesaro, whom he tried to have assassinated on at least three occasions. Whilst Sigismondo was renowned as a general, he was also known as an unreliable traitor who rarely honoured promises, treaties or alliances.
Perhaps his worst tactical mistake was to accept money from the King of Naples in 1447 in order to fight on his behalf in Tuscany. He ended up keeping the money and joining in the defence of Florence against the side he had been paid to support. The Neapolitans never forgot this, and sought his destruction for the ensuing two decades. Another powerful enemy was Siena, whose ruling party he allegedly swindled in 1455. His actions had severe consequences from 1458, when a Sienese aristocrat, Cardinal Piccolomini (1405–1464), was elected pope, and took the name Pope Pius II. His nephew had been among those outraged and injured by Sigismondo.
a harder line.
Sigismondo’s reputation had been a matter of concern since at least 1428, when he was eleven years old; the first full list of his alleged crimes will be found in a letter dated 8th January 1445 from Federico da Montefeltro to the papal legate Cardinal Scarampo. He is accused of, among other things, beating his first wife then poisoning her when she refused to indulge his perversions; flagellating a young girl in public because she refused to be seduced by him; molesting and/or torturing his sons, and visiting similar outrages on a daughter as well as a putative future son-in-law; raping a twelve-year-old Jewess in Pesaro; and raping and impregnating a minimum of eleven nuns in a convent in Fano.
An even fuller catalogue of accusations will be found in a 1461 edict issued by Pope Pius II. In 1446, whilst his second wife Polissena Sforza was still alive, Sigismondo installed his favourite mistress, Isotta degli Atti, at court. Polissena put up with the humiliation for two or three years, then fled to a convent, ostensibly to flee an outbreak of the plague. Sigismondo ordered his chancellors to suffocate her to death, then tried to force her confessor, a Franciscan friar, to justify the murder on grounds of adultery. When the friar refused, he was imprisoned and starved. Sigismondo only married Isotta in 1456, eight years after Polissena’s death; she was noted for her beauty, virtue and intelligence by the Pope as well as Sigismondo’s frightened court poets.
The papal edict cannot briefly be summarised; charges include drunkenness, vomitous excess, and eating meat during Lent in the company of scoundrels; fornication, rape, sodomy, torture, adultery, incest and frequent recourse to harlots; murder, random violence; perfidy, betrayal, theft, fraud, grand larceny; destruction of churches, and of entire small cities; falsification of letters and seals; bribery of witnesses and notaries; ill-treatment of philosophers, moralists and theologians; open denial of the immortality of the soul; and the declaration that virginity is a foolish superstition. And then one Saturday evening Sigismondo was alleged to have broken into a church and filled the holy-water basin with ink so that worshippers on the Sunday morning all inadvertently made black crosses on their foreheads, and spattered their lips with the ink.
After an extensive investigation by the noted Renaissance philosopher, theologian and jurist Nicholas of Cusa (1401–1464), Sigismondo was not merely excommunicated for heresy and perversion – that had already been done – but on 27th April 1462 he was formally condemned to Hell and eternal damnation whilst still alive. Straw figures of Sigismondo were then burnt in three places in Rome: the Campidoglio, the Campo de’ Fiori and the steps of St Peter’s. Each effigy was clad in a silver coat and pink hat. The Pope was criticised, even by Sigismondo’s enemies, for perhaps having gone too far; Sigismondo himself noted that his taste for food and wine was unaffected. Even so his fortunes swiftly declined after such a humiliating public disgrace; by 1463 his demesnes were reduced to Rimini itself and a few further square miles of territory.
Sigismondo died on 9th October 1468. Isotta ruled Rimini with her son Sallustio, who was murdered in 1470 by Sigismondo’s illegitimate son Roberto (1441–1482), before she herself was poisoned on Roberto’s orders in 1474. Roberto retained control of the city-state until his death in 1482.
Sigismondo Malatesta is now one of the most celebrated patrons of the arts of the entire Renaissance, largely on account of the Tempio Malatestiano in Rimini (1450–1458). The Tempio was originally a church dedicated to St Francis of Assisi; after Sigismondo’s death it reverted to that use; but during his lifetime it was a pagan temple to the sun god Apollo, who was represented by images of Sigismondo, and the moon goddess Diana, whose features are modelled after Isotta’s. They were to be buried together in a splendid tomb, and worshipped as gods after their deaths.
The original architect for the Tempio was the archetypical Renaissance man Leon Battista Alberti (1404–1472), although his restrained, severely classical designs were executed by Matteo de’ Pasti (1420–1468), Alberti having quit this project in horror once he realised that he was helping to construct some sort of anti-Christian Temple of Death. The chief decorator was Agostino di Duccio (1418–1481), whose fine sculpted marble reliefs featured images of zodiac symbols, Greek gods, Roman generals and ancient triumphal processions, instead of the usual saints and martyrs more appropriate for a church. Piero della Francesca (1415–1492), one of the most innovative painters of the quattrocento, contributed a fresco of Sigismondo kneeling in apparent prayer before St Sigismund, who does not look convinced either. Piero seems never to have met Sigismondo; he seems to have copied his patron’s features from a portrait medal by Pisanello (1395–1455), which he also used as a model for his oil portrait of Sigismondo (1451) now in the Louvre.
For all its deliberate profanity, megalomaniacal grandeur and insolent provocations of Christianity, the Tempio Malatestiano remains one of the very noblest monuments of the Renaissance; the Franciscan friars of Rimini were eager to take possession again of this splendid building after Sigismondo’s death, even though it had been designed specifically to insult them for their failure to help cover up Polissena Sforza’s murder. She and Sigismondo’s other wives are buried in there with him. As Santa Colomba it is now the cathedral of the city, and does great honour to the cynical, corrupt, psychopathic sadist who founded it. Even the most blasphemous relief sculptures remain unaltered; they are too artistic to be touched.