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The House of Malatesta

Of all the Lords of Carpegna, only two houses played significant roles in Italian History. The Montefeltro and their sworn enemies, the Malatesta. 

The House of Malatesta can be traced back to Rodolfo of Carpegna who built a castle in the municipality of Pennabilli in Rimini, claiming the land his own. He was known as ‘mala testa’ (bad head) and with this sobriquet sticking, the Malatesta bloodline began.

As with most Renaissance families, very little happened at the beginning of the Malatesta reign. The first to fully settle down in Rimini was Giovanni, though the family didn’t officially become citizens of Rimini until 1216. They established themselves, in the meantime, through marriage, specifically through the Traversari family who ruled parts of Ravenna and Rimini in the 12th and 13th centuries. Giovanni’s grandsons – Giovanni and Malatesta I – were the ones to be granted citizenship in Rimini, with Malatesta becoming podesta of Pistoia in 1228 and of Rimini in 1239 and again in 1247. 

THE GUELPHS AND THE GHIBELLINES

In the wars between the Papacy and the Holy Roman Empire, the Malatesta initially sided with the emperor. When Frederik II lost a battle near Parma in 1248, however, Malatesta’s son, Malatesta da Verucchio, switched sides. He became the leader of the Guelph party, while his rival, Guido I da’ Montefeltro, took charge of the Ghibellines in the Marche and Romagna regions. After the Ghibellines in Rimini were all expelled (or killed, in the case of the Parcitati family), Malatesta da Verucchio made himself the sole ruler of the city.

Malatesta was succeeded as Seignior of Rimini by his sons. First, Malatestiano dell’Occhio, and then Pandolfo I (who played the role of Capitano Generale of the Papal States against the Ghibellines and, more importantly, the Montefeltro). Upon Pandolfo’s death, there was a struggle for succession between Pandolfo’s son, Malatesta II, and Malatestiano’s son, Ferrantino. In the end, it was agreed that Malatesta II would succeed as Lord of Pesaro, and Ferrantino would take Rimini.

RUTHLESS BROTHERS

It is from the Malatesta family the most infamous of Dante’s residents in the Inferno can be found. 

In the 1200s, the Malatesta found a new enemy in the Polenta family of Ravenna. To broker peace between the two families, Guido da Polenta offered Giovanni Malatesta (known also as Gianciotto) the hand of his daughter, Francesca. Gianciotto was a hunchback with an odious temperament. Francesca found comfort in the arms of his younger, more handsome brother, Paolo. Their affair lasted ten years until, in 1285, Gianciotto caught them. He stabbed and killed them both. 

The story was recorded by both Giovanni Boccaccio and Dante Alighieri. Through his travels through the Inferno, Dante sees all three figures. Gianciotto in the lowest circle of hell, and Paolo and Francesca in the second where they are swept away by wind in the same way they allowed themselves to be swept away by their love for one another. They will never change, never cease to love each other, and therefore will never be redeemed. What was once their Heaven, is now their eternal Hell. 

Gianciotto was an active part of the Tomagnole Wars and took Pesaro for himself in 1294. But he wasn’t the only ruthless Malatesta of his generation. His brother, Malatestiano I, had become Captain of the Guelphs in Bologna and Florence and he despised anything Ghibelline. In fact, in 1312, he destroyed his cousin’s castle at Sogliano for his support of the emperor. It was Malatestiano who took over as Lord of Rimini at their father’s death.

THE CONDOTTE

Malatesta II wasn’t the only son of Pandolfo I, however. He also had Galeotto I. Upon discovering his cousin, Ferrantino, was plotting against him, Galeotto threw him in prison and claimed Rimini for himself. Now both Pesaro and Rimini were ruled by one branch of Malatesta. Galeotto wasn’t satisfied, however, and he added other cities to his banner which were subsequently divided between his children. 

Carlo I, Pandolfo III, Andrea and Galeotto II all inherited Rimini, Fano, Cesena and Cervia, respectively. His daughter, Margherita, was married to Francesca I Gonzaga, ruler of Mantua. 

While he was not the only condottieri in the family – he fought alongside his brother Andrea against the Ordelaffi family of Forlì – of these children, it is Pandolfo III who is most interesting. He was eighteen when he first became condottieri, with his first Condotta being against Padua on behalf of Venice. He occupied Todi and Narni, both of which were part of the Papal States, earning excommunication by Pope Boniface IX, and was only pardoned when he fought with Francesco I Gonzaga against the Visconti of Milan. He joined a crusade in the Holy Land, returning in 1402 when he was hired by Gian Galeazzo Visconti, and even became Captain General of the Venetian Armies not long later when he took up arms against King Sigismund of Hungary.

In 1424, the Florentine army led by the Malatesta brothers was defeated in the Battle of Zagonara. Carlo was captured and Pandolfo fled to Cesena. He lost Imola and Faenza to the Visconti, but an intercession on his behalf by Pope Martin V allowed him to keep Fano. He ended his life devoting his time to humanistic studies and embellishing his city. 

THE BROTHERS OF HEAVEN AND EARTH

Pope Martin V gifted Pandolfo’s lands to his three illegitimate children: Galeotto Roberto, Domenico, and Sigismondo. Naturally, there was rebellion, spurred by Giovanni V Malatesta, but the people helped Galeotto confirm the siblings’ territories.

In 1427, Galeotto married Margherita d’Este, the illegitimate daughter of Niccolò III, Lord of Ferrara. Five years later, he was given command of 200 knights by Pope Eugene IV. He died the same year. Galeotto was remembered as a man of great holiness. He was a pious man who became a member of the Franciscan order after having a vision of St. Francis of Assisi. He helped the poor with alms, visited the sick in their homes and in hospitals, and after his death Margherita donated his Franciscan robe to St. Catherine of Bologna which can still be seen in her church today. Margherita herself lived another forty years, though she never remarried and was, at her own request, buried by his side. Though never officially beatified or canonised, Galeotto Roberto was proclaimed blessed by the people of Rimini.

Upon the death of their uncle, Carlo, Domenico became Lord of Cesena aged eleven. He suppressed several riots before he entered his teenage years and quelled a revolt in Fano. When he was sixteen, and she was four, he married Violante da Montefeltro, tying the families together. She joined him in Cesena when she turned twelve. In 1433, he was created an imperial knight by Emperor Sigismund, and abandoned his birth name to take the name Malatesta Novello. A few years later he commissioned the build of the Convent di Santa Maria, strengthened the Rocca Malatestiana, and founded the Malatestiana Library. Then he focused his attentions to strengthening his city, enlarging city walls, building bridges, tunnels and dams.  He death in 1465 brought an end to the Malatesta in Cesena. 

However memorable the rules of Galeotto Roberto and Malatesta Novello, nothing compares to their brother… 

THE SAINT OF HELL

Gianciotto murdered his wife and brother, Pandolfo was excommunicated, but Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta is the most notorious in the bloodline. 

He spent most of his life engaged in conflict with the Papacy and his rival, Federico da Montefeltro. In the end, he lost most of his territories – except for Rimini which Venice helped him keep – and he is remembered for his cathedral, the Tempio Malatestiano. But his notoriety lies in being the first and currently only person in history to be canonised to Hell. 

On Christmas Day, 1460, a trial in absentia was held against Sigismondo Malatesta, Condotierro and Lord of Rimini. Declaring him a heretic, Pope Pius II, who presided over the trial, excommunicated the Lord and cursed him. “No mortal heretofore has descended into Hell with the ceremony of canonization,” he announced. “Sigismondo shall be the first deemed worthy of such honour.” Sigismondo’s likeness was publicly burnt in Rome, and a de facto crusade which united the Papacy, Ferrante d’Aragona, King of Naples, Francesco Sforza, Duke of Milan, and Federico da Montefeltro, Lord of Urbino, was launched against him. His alleged crimes were a litany of sins including rape, murder, incest, adultery and the severe oppression of his people, though there is no evidence of any of these accusations. (For more about Sigismondo, read THE SAINT OF HELL.)

AND THE BULL IS SIGNED

Sigismondo’s grandson, Pandolfo, was expelled from Rimini in 1500 by Cesare Borgia. Twenty-eight years later, the city was finally incorporated back into the Papal States after a last, failed attempt at reclaiming it by Pandolfo’s son, Sigismondo. In 1708, the Rimini branch of the Malatesta ended with Jesuit Roberto Malatesta. While the family still provided condottieri in the 16th and 17th centuries, they would never rule again. 


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