he Malatesta of Rimini were an old noble family who rose to wealth and power as condottieri – mercenary soldiers – during the on-going clash of Pope and Emperor, Florence, Milan, Venice and their allies that characterized Italy in the 14th and 15th centuries. Ambitious, ruthless, with 100-year old patriarchs, hunchbacks and patrons who commissioned churches built in the form of pagan temples, they often appear the consummate, mustache-twirling villains – and with a name like “Evil Head”, how could they not? Perhaps the family’s most famous scion was Sigismondo, whose long feud with Federigo da Montefeltro is the subject of Hugh Bicheno’s excellent Vendetta: High Art and Low Cunning in the Renaissance.
But one of the most fascinating traits of Italy’s despots was their odd mix of brutality and humanistic love of the arts. As an example, here is a charming little sonnet, written by one of Sigismondo’s ancestors, Malatesta dei Sonneti Malatesta (1370 – 1429) upon the death of his wife, Elizabetta de Varano in 1405.
Born in Pesaro, he was the only son of Pandolfo II Malatesta and his second wife Paola Orsini. He became lord of Pesaro in 1385. He spent the next seven years fighting as a condottiero for both the pope and Venice, against the growing power of the Visconti of Milan. In 1392 he was excommunicated by the pope for having conquered the papal possession of Todi, while in Venetian employ, but this did not stop him from becoming the Captain General of Bologna in 1394 for the anti-pope, Benedict XIII.
This philosophy of “a new day, a new pope, a new contract” would serve Malatesta well for the next two decades.
After conquering Narni and Orte for himself, he made peace with Pope Boniface. By 1404 he was back in Venetian employ, leading 20,000 troops against Padua. However, the Venetian armywas defeated and returned to Pesaro in late 1404, after which Malatesta made a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. It was during this trip that his wife and mother of his seven children, Elizabetta, grew ill.
By 1409, Malatesta had again switched to serve the anti-pope, but ever the pragmatist, by 1412 he had again made peace with the pope, and thenceforth warred against antipope John XXIII. For the next decade he remained in papal service, although often fighting for Florence against Milan.
Yet through all the wars, he also remained a great patron of the arts, sponsoring figures such as Francesco Casini and the painter Mariotto di Nardo, and was in correspondence with humanists Coluccio Salutati and his daughter-in-law, Battista Malatesta. Given the nickname “dei sonetti” (“of the Sonnets”) due to his love for literature, he was also the author of poems influenced by the style of Petrarch, one such being the lament for his lost Elizabetta:
(translation by Tom Leoni)
mio spirto unito, tacito e contento;
anzi vive nel cielo, e io in tormento
remaso sono, altr’uom ch’io non solea:
sequire il corpo suo di vita spento,
né mai partir da lato al monimento,
ma incenerarmi ove ’l suo cor giacea,
ché forse l’alma lei sequita arebbe
nel triumpho celeste, ove si vive
eternalmente per divina possa.
Se pur di seguir lei fusser stà privez
le forze mie, almen stato serebbe
sepulto il corpo presso a le sacr’ossa.
Malatesta dei Sonneti Malatesta retired at Gradara, where he died in 1429. The Malatesta family would continue to be a power through the 15th century, but their fortune and land would slowly fall to other ambitious familes: the Sforza and Borgias.