Pagan Virtue in a Christian World: Sigismondo Malatesta and the Italian RenaissanceBy Anthony F. D'EliaHarvard University PressQueen's University Professor Anthony D'Elia doesn't allow himself many dramatic flourishes in his interesting new book Pagan Virtue in a Christian World, but he does open his account with one, and it's a doozy. In April of 1462, Pope Pius II sought to use the most potent weapon in his papal arsenal against his hated enemy Sigismondo Malatesta, the lord of Rimini. You might think that ultimate sacerdotal weapon would be excommunication, wherein a Pope expels someone from the community of fellow believers, debarred from the sacraments or even from common charity. But no: Pope Pius had already excommunicated Sigismondo, and it hadn't even scratched the man's pride, let alone significantly grieved him. This time, something truly drastic was called for, and the corps of scurrying little lawmen popes employ for just such purposes duly came up with it: reverse-canonization. D'Elia's book begins with an account of the only reverse-canonization any pope has ever performed.Sigismondo Malatesta was declared not just anathema to the Church but already damned, without the pesky intermediate steps entailed in death and Judgment Day. Through his extraordinary gesture (Pius II – himself a humanist scholar before he ascended to the throne of St. Peter – openly admitted that he had no idea if he could actually do such a thing as a reverse-canonization), the Pope effectively removed Malatesta from the ranks of the living, and in his proclamation he warned all Christians to “keep this monstrosity far from you, as if he were the precursor of the Antichrist.”What, a reader might understandably ask, could the lord of Rimini possibly have done to provoke such a gesture? Since the Papacy is involved, the answer is completely secular in nature: not only had Sigismondo been gobbling up territories previously owned by Federico da Montefeltro, the lord of Urbino, but he'd also been annexing territories belonging to the Papacy itself. And more pointedly he'd been systematically withholding money from His Holiness; Rimini and its surrounding cities were all technically Papal States, and yet despite having worked for the Papacy leading mercenary armies for freelance fees (the first time in 1434 for Pope Eugenius IV, when Sigismondo was just seventeen), Sigismondo never quite got around to paying all the tribute-money he owed. Nothing provoked a medieval pope to righteous fury more certainly than back taxes.The reverse-canonization didn't end up having any more effect than the excommunication had, but the protracted letter-writing campaign it prompted raised fascinating side-issues in the war between pope and prince, and one of those side-issues is D'Elia's main subject. As our author points out, the sheer over-the-top energy of Pius II's attack betrayed its personal origin: when Sigismondo was originally summoned to account for himself, he had wept and knelt and begged forgiveness with such heartfelt sincerity that the pope had been utterly wooed. When he subsequently learned that it had all been a ruse, his scorn knew no bounds. As D'Elia makes clear, the pope's smear campaign recycled items of twenty-year provenance:
Already in 1445, Sigismondo was accused of violence motivated by lust. His longtime enemy Federico da Montefeltro wrote a letter in which he listed Sigismondo's crimes of passion. When a noblewoman refused his advances, Sigismondo reportedly had her stripped naked, whipped, and paraded through the streets of Rimini. He beat an unaccommodating girl to death with his gold-studded silk belt. He raped a Jewish girl, which, Pius II later emphasized, showed the depths of his immorality, as Sigismondo had no qualms about copulating with non-Christian women. Sigismondo, Federico's list continues, murdered a brother for not pimping out his sister … and poisoned his first wife, Ginerva d'Este.
And as any student of slander can attest, such maledictions quickly reach critical mass:
A later fifteenth-century humanist, Giovanni Gioviano Pontano, used the example of Sigismondo to define “immanitas,” monstrous cruelty. Pontano expanded the list of Sigismondo's crimes to include the allegations that he had a child by his own daughter and his attempt to rape his own son Roberto – a triple mortal sin of rape, sodomy, and incest. The dark legend had a life of its own.
For later historians, D'Elia writes, “Sigismondo Malatesta had come to represent the pagan masculine heroic ideal, asserting itself against the crushing power of the ordinary.” For Victorian biographer John Addington Symonds, Sigismondo was “a most accomplished villain” -- to Symonds, the prince “epitomized the Renaissance individual completely detached from the bounds of religion and morality.” For Jacob Burckhardt, he was “the Renaissance individual par excellence, an impious monster but a man of action and culture, who seized life and made his own fate.”You'll have noticed Burckhardt slipping in a word there: impious, which seems an odd specification amidst such heady company as brother-schtupping and sister-pimping, and it, too, has a long pedigree: in fact, it was one of the main recourses Pope Pius II used in the first place to avoid bleating to the world, “He owes me money.” The Pope spent an entire publishing season vilifying Sigismondo Malatesta for being, among other things, a pagan.One one level, it was a natural enough accusation for the Supreme Head of the Christian Church on Earth to make, because when he wasn't leading armies in battle or taking on three courtiers at a time in wrestling bouts in his courtyard while the ladies watched, Sigismondo was an ardent proponent of the “new learning” that was sweeping Italy in the 15th century, spurred by the recovery and rediscovery of the authors of ancient Greece and Rome. And as with everything else he did, he took things to extremes: he created at Rimini a magnificent pagan-themed Tempio Malatestiano; he had the Neoplatonist philosopher Plethon's mortal remains carted to Rimini and interred in the Tempio; he began referring to the gods of Olympus instead of the saints in Heaven; and he even went so far as to employ a coterie of toadying writers at his court whose job it was to immortalize him in prose and verse as a hero cut very much from pagan cloth, a broad-shouldered, long-haired young man (the prince was very handsome, in a pouty-weightlifter way). Roberto Valturio filled his treatise on the art of war with digressions of praise directed at war's foremost practitioner, and Basinio of Parma went the logical step further and wrote an actual epic poem about the young lord of Rimini, a work called the Hesperis, in which, as D'Elia observes, “The picture here is not of the humble Christian who attributes his success to God but of a pagan hero lavished with favors from the gods, favors that Sigismondo happily accepts.” (D'Elia, bless his enthusiast's heart, seems mildly scandalized that Basinio's unreadable drivel is neither published nor studied today).It helped the Pope's case of pagan recidivism that his enemy looked and acted the part. Sigismondo (he changed his original name of Ghismondo to the more classical-sounding Sigismondo once he succeeded his feckless drip of a half-brother as ruler of Rimini) was first among his peers in brute exertions, martial games, swordplay, lance-work, and wrestling. He spoke well, valued learning, and could fake doe-eyed sincerity to such a degree that, as noted, it could melt the Papal cockles. He was secure enough in his muscular masculinity to boast of being a popinjay clotheshorse; when he's wooing his third wife, the long-suffering Isotta degli Atti, he sounds like a Roman bravo of ancient Rome, freshly stepped right out of the verses of Catullus:
If my looks emit soft Syrian scents and the hand of an artisan combs my hair; if I were clothes heavy with inlaid gold; if a hand-painted Phrygian cloak falls from my shoulder; and if we perform artistic festive dances, or I put on my face new masks, I do all of this out of extreme love, so that I may be pleasing to you, my dear girl.
“Doused in oriental perfumes, done up hair, golden-disco sparkles with a graphic-art cloak, and dancing with different masks,” D'Elia remarks, “Pius's savage monster is unrecognizable.”And yet this dandy was ferocious on the battlefield, hence his long string of freelance work leading the armies of the highest bidder to attack the territories of the second-highest bidder. D'Elia does a wonderfully comprehensive job of resurrecting as many of Sigimondo's battles as possible, from his Venetian commission to fight Milan in 1437 to the Battle of Gradara in October 1446, when, if legend is to be believed, Sigismondo led 8,000 to 10,000 men against 15,000 Aragonese at the siege of Piombino. As D'Elia puts it, “Sigismondo's performance in the first Tuscan War made his reputation as, depending on your point of view, either a brave and crafty commander or a treacherous and ferocious beast – a mercenary Odysseus with modern firepower.”These successes in war gave Sigismondo the freedom to fashion his court at Rimini into a humanist's paradise, and he did just that. He subsidized writers and poets; he sponsored day-long discussion panels on the nature of the soul and the value of the good and other such clap-trap, and he continued to lavish work and money on his pagan temple to himself. And this grated on the Papal sensibilities for reasons Western readers in the 21st century, shaped by the mental paradigm shift of the Enlightenment whether they know it or not, would find conceptually strange. In Sigismondo's 15th-century world, still dark and chilled around the edges by the long Middle Ages, impiety was a sin precisely because piety was non-negotiable: once let loose in the world, beliefs, even pagan ones, were forever a part of the world. D'Elia is keenly aware of how purposefully Sigismondo was playing with fire:
The ancient gods were essential poetic devices in Malatesta literature, but ones that carried with them a whole set of cultural and moral values. It is of course possible to appreciate a different religious culture without believing in it. But this is a modern attitude. After all, the dominant Church view about elite pagan religion was not that it was pure make-believe and therefore ineffective. In Christianity, pagan deities either became saints, such as Mercury to Saint Christopher, or demons, such as Diana linked to the female servants of Satan. What Christianity, therefore, did not adopt, it condemned as linked with the devil.
Ideas mattered materially in the world of Sigismondo Malatesta, and it's the sharp clash of ideas that forms the fascinating heart of Pagan Virtue in a Christian World. The rest of that world, so filled with spears and swords and sworn fealties and the flow (or interruption) of tribute, made up a balance that a headstrong firebrand such as the lord of Rimini could only defy for so long. There was never any real chance of a Julian the Apostate fetching up in the Romagna and simply being allowed to have his own way, and Sigismondo's attempt to do just that certainly wasn't helped by his ironclad personal policy of breaching contracts, reneging on payments, bilking investors, and keeping forfeited dowries.Relentless, ham-faced Federico de Montefeltro put stronger forces in the field and shattered a sequence of Malatesta forces in the summer of 1462 (not long after the reverse-canonization, although Montefeltro, at least, drew no overt connections), and another key Malatesta town fell in the following year. It was only the intervention of Venice – unwilling to see either Urbino or the Papacy strengthened into a predatory position over La Serenissima's Adriatic shipping routes – that saved Sigismondo from complete ruin, but even so, he had to abase himself to the very Pope who had damned him alive. “I am beaten and ask for peace, ready to submit to your conditions,” he wrote to Pius II. “The conqueror's honor is to spare the conquered.”As was the way with the Vatican, the Pope was a sore winner. He imposed as many humiliations on Sigismondo as his imagination could devise, including compelling him to recite the Apostolic Creed in public every day and fast (likewise in public) every Friday for the rest of his life. He had to make a pilgrimage not only to the seven churches of Rome but also (for reasons only a Pope would understand) to Jerusalem. More pragmatically, he forfeited all the traditional Malatesta cities and a heaping pile of cash. His pagan-lordling days were over, and after a few more piecemeal seasons of war-making for hire (Venice still had enemies, after all, and Venice still had money), Sigismondo Malatesta died on 9 October 1468 at Rimini at the age of fifty-one. What D'Elia refers to as the Church's “monopoly on magical practice” held firm, but the Malatesta moment, so maligned for so long, now has a book to tell its story.____Steve Donoghue is a writer and reader living in Boston. His reviews have appeared in The Washington Post, The National, The Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe, and The Christian Science Monitor. He is the Managing Editor of Open Letters Monthly, and hosts one of its blogs, Stevereads.