THE SAINT OF 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 Sfroza, Duke of Milan; and Federico da Montefeltro, Lord of Urbino – was launched against him.
A litany of sins including rape, murder, incest, adultery and the severe oppression of his people.
I have yet to find any.
Like the Borgias after him, could Sigismondo’s reputation and his ensuing punishment come as the result of other people’s vicious hatred and malicious gossip rather than being rooted in fact?
A Thirteen-Year-Old’s Prowess
Born in June 1417, Sigismondo was the third illegitimate son of Pandolfo III Malatesta (the ruler of Brescia and Bergamo) and a Lombard noblewoman, Antonia del Arignano.
At the death of his father in 1427, Sigismondo and his brothers were adopted by their uncle, Carlo. They were moved to his court in Rimini where their births were legitimised by Pope Martin V so they could consequently access power of their own. The three years under Carlo’s care appear to be rather uneventful. When he died, rule shifted to Sigismondo’s elder brother, Galeotto Roberto. Pope Martin V, however, was having none of it. Under the pretext that Carlo had failed to pay levies due to the church, he attempted to take Rimini by force. At thirteen-years-old, Sigismondo took control of his uncle’s army and dispersed the papal troops.
Less than two years later, Galeotto had had enough of ruling. He abdicated in favour of joining a monastery, and power was handed over to Sigismondo.
Sigismondo Malatesta became the Lord of Rimini, Fano, and Cesena.
Let the Rumours Begin…
After a failed engagement with the daughter of the Count of Carmagnola in 1434, Sigismondo married Ginevra d’Este. Ginevra was the daughter of Niccolò III, Marquis of Ferrara. Through this alliance, not only did the Malatesta become affiliated with one of the oldest Italian families, but he also now had a condottiero as a father-in-law.
The same year, Sigismondo was conferred a knighthood by the son of Charles IV who had come to Italy to be crowned Holy Roman Emperor. Two years later, he was appointed Captain General of the Roman Church.
Things were beginning to look up…
Until Ginevra died.
Rumours spread Sigismondo had her poisoned. To make room for a new, politically suitable wife, perhaps? Or maybe Ginevra was having an affair and Sigismondo had discovered the infidelity?
Allying with the Sforza
In 1442, Francesco Sforza marched against Southern Italy. With him was René of Anjou, who believed he had a claim to the Neapolitan throne, the Venetians, and his new son-in-law, Sigismondo. The alliance between the Malatesta and the Sforza stood strong for the better part of a decade.
When Francesco’s father-in-law, the Duke of Milan, Filippo Maria Visconti, died in 1447 without a male heir, however, it began a war for the Milanese succession. Three main powers tried to claim it: Venice, Naples, and Francesco, himself.
Sigismondo was hired by Alfonso, King of Naples, to defend his claim. He broke his agreement in order to join with Naples’ enemy, Florence, instead, who happened to be allied with Venice. As the commander of Florence’s troops, Sigismondo was able to secure victory. This betrayal by Sigismondo may have been his biggest political error as it excluded him from the Treaty of Lodi the following decade, which was agreed upon between Milan, Naples and Florence.
Two years later, as Sigismondo besieged Cremona, a city gifted to Bianca Maria Visconti as part of her dowry, an epidemic struck Italy. Sigismondo’s Sforza wife, Polissena, took refuge at the Abbey of Scolca in the Rimini countryside. While it’s likely her death was caused by plague, further rumours spread. It was not plague which took Polissena’s life, it was strangulation under the order of Sigismondo, the consequence of his alliance with Francesco coming to an end.
Out of the four women in Sigismondo’s life – the fourth more of a cliff note in his story, Vannetta, his mistress with whom he had a son, Roberto – Isotta is the most significant.
Isotta was twelve when she met Sigismondo, sixteen years her senior. She was granted to him at the age of thirteen, a mistress who later became his wife in 1456. When Sigismondo was excommunicated, it was Isotta who governed Rimini on his behalf. After his death, it was Isotta who acted as regent for their son, Sallustio, under their assassination the following year by Roberto.
But it was the remodelling of the Gothic church, San Francesco, the final resting place of his previous wives, which raised the most eyebrows. Designed by Leon Battista Alberti, the church became the first to use a Roman triumphal arch as part of its structure, a rotunda which Alberti likened to the Pantheon, and decorations by leading artists of the time, including Piero della Francesca and Agostino di Duccio. It also became commonly referred to as the Tempio Malatestiano, de-sanctifying the monument and making it more pagan than Christian.
Entwined on the coffered ceiling are the initials ‘S’ and ‘I’. The first letters if Sigismondo, perhaps? Or Sigismondo I? Or, maybe, the initials of Sigismondo and the love of his life, Isotta. The latter is more likely, especially as the open affair led to Isotta’s tomb being commissioned while Polissena was still alive.
But in a world where women were murdered by their husbands for often imagined transgressions, and where men had countless mistresses and illegitimate children – this was the Golden Age of Bastards, after all – could adultery or the rumour of murder really be enough to condemn Sigismondo to Hell? Could the creation of the Tempio Malatestiano?
And seeing as there’s no evidence to suggest Sigismondo was guilty of incest or rape, let’s move on to the one thing that Pope Pius II didn’t mention that’s likely the reason behind it all: politics!
Politics and Propaganda
Sigismondo and Jacopo Piccinino are held in particular contempt with Pope Pius II. In his Commentaries, he describes both as recalcitrant, corrupt, lazy and depraved. Sigismondo is described as a being without fear of God or Man. But in all five volumes, he never once truly explains why.
There is no evidence to his claims; at least none that is shared.
Pius II was a humanist, and well acquainted with propaganda. It was easy enough to have Piccinino murdered by Naples and Milan, but for Sigismondo, Pius was determined to exhaust all other sanctions first.
So he stylised Sigismondo as a beast.
His first wife was murdered so he was able to form an alliance with Francesco Sforza. His second wife was murdered when the very same alliance was broken. He turned away from the Christian God to return to paganism and the love of a woman who wasn’t his wife.
And who helped?
Ferrante d’Aragona, King of Naples, whose father Sigismondo had betrayed.
Francesco Sforza, Duke of Milan, whose alliance with Sigismondo had been destroyed.
Federico da Montefeltro, Lord of Urbino, whom Sigismondo had lost to when trying to claim Urbino for his brother who he believed was the rightful heir to the Oddantonio da Montefeltro.
They each had a bone to pick. They each had something to gain.
In 1461, the Ottomon Sultan, Mehmet II, requested Sigismondo’s court artist, Matteo de’ Pasti, be sent to him to paint a portrait. The artist, however, never reached his destination. He was captured in Candia and taken as prisoner to Venice where he was, after being tried by the Council of Ten, eventually released.
The letter Sigismondo had sent to Mehmet revealed no hidden political plans. He talked of his studies and interests, reaffirming an ideal he held, a culture where all voices were listened to in the wake of the humanist tradition, testified by his temple.
The pope never mentions Sigismondo’s alleged guilt, neither in the bull of excommunication or in his Commentaries. Nor does it appear in any of Milan, Venice, Florence or Mantua’s documents. There was no evidence to the contrary, but false news spread like fire.
When he was canonised, three effigies were burnt of Sigismondo: one on the steps of St. Peter’s Basilica, another at the Capitol, the ancient centre of Imperial Rome, and the third in Campo dei Fiori, the marketplace where commonplace criminals were executed. Each bore the same message:
This is Sigismondo Malatesta, king of traitors, enemy of God and man, condemned to the fire by the decision of the College of Cardinals.
Sigismondo had been made an enemy of religion. An enemy of Italy. And there was no coming back from that.