At Italy On This Day you will read about events and festivals, about important moments in history, and about the people who have made Italy the country it is today, and where they came from. Italy is a country rich in art and music, fashion and design, food and wine, sporting achievement and political diversity. Italy On This Day provides fascinating insights to help you enjoy it all the more.

7 October 2019

Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta - condottiero

Brutal tyrant or sensitive patron of the arts?


A portrait of Sigismondo by Piero della Francesca, painted in about 1451
A portrait of Sigismondo by Piero della
Francesca, painted in about 1451
One of the most daring military leaders in 15th century Italy, Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta, died on this day in 1468 in Rimini.

He had been Lord of Rimini, Fano and Cesena since 1468 and is remembered as a generous patron of the arts during his rule.

Sigismondo commissioned the architect Leon Battista Alberti to build the most famous monument in Rimini, the Church of San Francesco, which is also known as the Tempio Malatestiano, and he welcomed artists and writers to his court.  But partly as a result of a systematic campaign of defamation by his enemy, Pope Pius II, some historians have ascribed a reputation for brutality to him.

Sigismondo was one of three illegitimate sons of Pandolfo Malatesta, who had ruled over Brescia and Bergamo between 1404 and 1421.

At the age of ten, after the death of his father, Sigismondo went to Rimini with his brothers to the court of his uncle, Carlo Malatesta. His birth was later legitimised by Pope Martin V.

After Carlo’s death, Sigismondo’s older brother inherited the Lordship of Rimini, but after two years he abandoned it to go into a monastery and handed over power to Sigismondo.

Pope Pius II accused Sigismondo of a number of crimes
Pope Pius II accused Sigismondo
of a number of crimes
From the age of 16, Sigismondo sold his military talents as a condottiero (mercenary captain) to all sides during the Italian wars.

In 1434, when he was 17, he married Ginevra, the daughter of Niccolò III d’Este and a few years later he commissioned the building of Castel Sismondo in Rimini.

After the death of Ginevra, he married Polissena, the daughter of Francesco Sforza. When she died eight years later, Sigismondo could finally make his relationship with his lover, Isotta degli Atti, public and they married in 1456.

Sigismondo surrounded himself with artists and intellectuals, including Piero della Francesca, one of the greatest painters of the Renaissance.

After Pope Pius II was elected in 1459 he imposed humiliating conditions on Sigismondo who rebelled against him. He was excommunicated and his reputation was tarnished by the Pope.

Sigismondo was deprived of all his land, apart from the city of Rimini, and was ruined financially. In an attempt to improve his fortunes, Sigismondo went to Morea, the Peloponnese peninsula in Southern Greece, in 1464 to fight on behalf of Venice against the Turks and he did not return to Italy until after the death of Pope Pius II.

He died on 7 October 1468 in Castel Sismondo in Rimini and was buried in the Malatesta Temple, even though it was still not finished. He was succeeded by his son and nominated heir, Sallustio, who ruled Rimini under the regency of his mother, Isotta.

Sigismondo Malatesta with Galeazzo Maria Sforza in a fresco by Benozzo Gozzoli
Sigismondo Malatesta with Galeazzo Maria
Sforza in a fresco by Benozzo Gozzoli
Sigismondo was popular as a ruler and admired as a condottiero but he also gained a reputation for brutality, which was perpetuated by historians, partly because he was repeatedly defamed by one of his most powerful enemies, Pope Pius II, who accused him of murder, rape, adultery and incest. In a unique ceremony, Pius II ‘canonised him to hell’ while he was still alive.

One theory is that the Pope wanted Sigismondo’s land and resorted to invoking supernatural aid and using earthly propaganda against him when he couldn’t beat him in war.

Sigismondo acknowledged he was not without sins and tried to justify them in a series of love sonnets dedicated to Isotta.

In 1906, Edward Hutton published the historical novel, Sigismondo Malatesta, which was mostly sympathetic to its hero.

The American poet Ezra Pound published Malatesta Cantos in 1923, which were about Sigismondo’s career as a soldier, lover and patron of the arts. But more than 500 years after his death, some of the mud the Pope threw at Sigismondo still sticks.

The remains of the Castel Sismondo, designed in part by the great architect Filippo Brunelleschi
The remains of the Castel Sismondo, designed in part by
the great architect Filippo Brunelleschi
Travel tip:

Work began on Castel Sismondo in 1437 but only the central part of the structure remains today in Piazza Malatesta in Rimini.  Sigismondo is said to have designed it himself but the architect Brunelleschi also worked on it, visiting Rimini in 1438. You can see how the castle would have looked originally in one of Piero della Francesca’s paintings in the Tempio Malatestiano. Sigismondo died in the castle in 1468. In 1821 the castle was turned into barracks for the local Carabinieri but it is now used for cultural exhibitions.

The Tempio Malatestiano is the cathedral church of the Italian Adriatic resort town of Rimini
The Tempio Malatestiano is the cathedral church of the
Italian Adriatic resort town of Rimini
Travel tip:

The Tempio Malatestiano is the cathedral church of Rimini, originally dedicated to St Francis. Sigismondo commissioned Leon Battista Alberti to rebuild the original 13th century Gothic church and make it into a mausoleum for himself and his wife, Isotta. The building was never finished because Sigismondo’s fortunes declined after his excommunication. Inside there is a fresco by Piero della Francesca portraying Sigismondo kneeling before St Sigismund, the patron saint of soldiers.

More reading:

How Piero della Francesca explored the use of perspective

Niccolò III d'Este and the rise of Ferrara

Giovanni Sforza - Lord of Pesaro and Gradara

Also on this day:

304: The execution of Saint Giustina of Padua

1675: The birth of Venetian portrait painter Rosalba Carriera

1972: The birth of celebrity cook Gabriele Corcos


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