Lives of the Brothers Malatesta
Jack R. Parnell
Galeotto Roberto Malatesta was born in 1411 to Pandolfo III, and was first in line to succeed his father for lordship of Rimini. His brother Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta was six years younger, and born to a different mother. At the age of only thirteen, Sigismondo fought to defend Rimini against their uncle, who challenged the young Galeotto’s succession.
During the attempted rebellion organized by their uncle, Carlo II Malatesta, of Pesaro—in which their estate was seized—Sigismondo and his brother were taken captive. While Galeotto prayed for deliverance, the young Sigismondo armed himself and managed to fight free of his captors. Having successfully escaped into the nearby countryside, Sigismondo delivered an impassioned speech, and was able to rally a formidable force to the defense of his family’s right to rule—all in that same night. It was this initial military victory that took him from the second son of a man-at-arms, to a condottiero of national repute. Where Galeotto’s piety absolved him of any attachment to the situation, Sigismondo’s sense of valor required that he shoulder the danger alone.
“Waving your spear, you prayed to the gods and encouraged your men. Looking upon the threshold of ethereal Olympus, you began to summon the gods and make vows.
“I pray to you, o gods, guardians of Italy, ever the greatest spirits, you who have favored Romulus’ city and people, and you, Vesta, protector of the robed Roman, banish this madness from your lands. I, Sigismondo, will adorn your alters with great gifts and hold long parades.”
Basinio Basini; letter in praise of Sigismondo Malatesta, c. 1449
As the distance between Galeotto and his responsibilities widened, he committed himself to the Franciscans to pursue life as an ascetic. Lordship of Rimini was passed to Sigismondo as a result of his brother’s abdication. Sigismondo was quickly apprenticed to Franceso Sforza following his victory over his uncle. Sforza was another man who had won his station through skill rather than birthright, and he trained Sigismondo in the varied arts of war. In many ways, Sforza showed Sigismondo the means to cut his way to glory. So impressed was he with Sigismondo’s talent as a soldier, that he offered is own daughter, Polissena, to be his second wife—to ensure he would never have to meet Sigismondo on the field. Still, Sigismondo waged war twice against Sforza before finally saving him from the Aragonese invasion.
Left to his own aims Galeotto would never have risen to his worldly duties, nor have accepted his inherited office. He was a deeply religious man and aspired, above all, to true Christian virtues: Humility and poverty. In joining the Franciscan order he refused his succession, choosing instead to recuse himself completely from all material, and worldly attachments. In point of fact, he had to be convinced by the clergy to exercise any of his familial powers, and further, even to marry. His wife’s apparent devotion to Galeotto speaks well of him as a husband; she asked to be buried beside him, and took no other husband in the decades that separated their deaths. Still, there is no evidence the marriage ever produced any heirs. Sigismondo, by contrast, took three wives in his life. His love for the third—Isotta—remains legendary, and was immortalized in much of the artwork he patroned.
Galeotto made it his duty to see to the poor of Rimini, and nourished them as he could. Above the objections of his confessor, and even to the extent of a direct rebuke from Pope Eugenius the IV, Galeotto abstained from the political realm entirely. He was known to clothe himself in horsehair, and mortified his own flesh daily. Galeotto elected only the comfort of a wooden plank on which to sleep at night. An infected wound on his foot, which never healed, supplied another avenue for his contemplative masochism. What miracles are ascribed to him reflect his wounded constitution; being miracles of healing, and laying on hands. While Galeotto’s piety was officially recognized by the Church, he was never canonized. His brother, however, was excommunicated—twice.
Sigismondo, though highly regarded as a soldier, was initially denied command of the Italian forces contesting the Aragonese claim being pressed against his old master, Sforza, in Milan. He therefore accepted a contract from the invaders to lay siege to Florence. Even as he rallied his forces he was prevailed upon by the ambassador of Milan to take up arms again, to defend his fatherland. Considering himself a descendant of the legendary Scipio Africanus and heir to his legacy, Sigismondo betrayed his contract with the Spanish king, and used his forces instead to defend the Milanese confederation. His leadership was widely vaunted, even by the most dire of his enemies, many of whom put their grudges with him on hold, in order to fight with him whenever the opportunity arose. Sigismondo’s decision to defend the Milanese confederation is emblematic of his legacy; a balancing act between base treachery, and the principled defense of his homeland. Sigismondo’s actions raised the fury of Alfonso, king of Aragon, and caused Rimini to be singularly excluded from the peace treaty, which Alfonso brokered with the states that Sigismondo had saved.
The Tuscan wars provided the field, the moment, and the enemy for Sigismondo to solidify his legacy as one of Italy’s fiercest military commanders. Many of his most legendary victories were won against French and Spanish invasions into Italy, and the common people of Italy rallied behind his leadership. The same Pope who castigated Galeotto for failing in his duties to the realm, praised Sigismondo’s decisive hand at war.
“No one except you, Sigismondo, wishes to keep evil wars from our lands, in your ancient devotion you alone defend Italy.”
Pope Eugenius IV
His competence, not only as a man-at-arms but as a leader of soldiery, was so noteworthy that the Pope commissioned him to lead his own standing forces as condottiero for a short time. Across his career, he was hired to lead the forces of nearly every major power in Italy; of Florence, Venice, Milan, Siena, Naples and the Church—his native Rimini being held in fief as a Papal state. Most masters who employed Sigismondo at one time, also faced him across the battlefield on another. On some occasions, he even went on to serve under them again, afterward.
While Galeotto’s life was considerably shorter than Sigismondo’s, passing at the age of twenty-one, he delivered himself voraciously to the cloth. And although scorn was eventually heaped upon Sigismondo to a degree which is utterly unique in the whole history of Christendom, it cannot be said that he was any less devoted to his own ethic. Galeotto’s humility might rightly be called ‘modern’ in comparison to his brother’s earthly, active sense of war and heroism. Sigismondo’s Neoplatonic mentality; his pagan idealism is, in fact, what earned him his second excommunication.
In one peculiar episode, Sigismondo had the bones of the Byzantine Neoplatonic philosopher Plethon exhumed from his resting place, and transferred to a new crypt in his own Tempio—which was designed by the renowned architect Leon Battista Alberti. Plethon was a controversial figure even in his own time. The scholar George of Trebizond wrote, of Plethon:
“I myself heard him at Florence ... asserting that in a few more years the whole world would accept one and the same religion with one mind, one intelligence, one teaching. And when I asked him “Christ’s or Muhammad’s?,” he said, “Neither; but it will not differ much from paganism.” I was so shocked by these words that I hated him ever after and feared him like a poisonous viper, and I could no longer bear to see or hear him.”
The exact nature of Sigismondo’s interest in pagan spiritualism is elusive. He was portrayed, and portrayed himself—through the efforts of artists, sculptors, and architects he commissioned—as though the figure of Homeric legend. He is depicted in the company of the Roman pantheon, presented as marching in triumphal procession and acting as a beacon of imperious virtue. Within the chapel of ancestors in the Tempio Malatestiano, Sigismondo had the triumph of Scipio Africanus rendered into marble relief, with Scipio bearing his own facial features. Though his artists made occasional references to the one God on high, Sigismondo’s exploits are steeped in occult imagery, to the outspoken irritation of his contemporaries—and in sharp contrast to the character of his brother. Sigismondo’s sense of chivalric virtue was confirmed by his living triumph, where Galeotto’s piety was cemented only with his impoverished death in isolation.
Sigismondo was able to lead his men against nearly twice their number, and by careful maneuver, patient timing, and the tactical application of artillery—was able to force victory in situations his recalcitrant employers considered impossible. His success was defined by strength, by the knowing application of violence, and by the administration of deception. None of these virtues feature in Galeotto’s doctrinal conception of all morality being derived from the example of Christ. However, they were at the heart of Sigismondo, as viewed in the eyes of Jupiter, Mars, and Minerva and by extrapolation, his highest aspirations for himself as a man.
“All the gods favor you, you are Italians. Dare now to boast of your ancient lineage and the first Romans. Defend this great name for yourselves, draw your swords and flatten these barbarian armies. We do not see here Hannibal and the arms of savage Carthage, the tough Numidians, or the wild Jugurtha. This barbarian race and mob is the lowest dregs of humanity.”
From a Speech attributed to Sigismondo in 1448, by Basinio Basini, during the Aragonese invasion of Tuscany
Though the name “The Wolf of Rimini” is arguably apocryphal, it captures his reputation for unpredictable ferocity. With his exclusion from the Peace of Lodi, he was made vulnerable to all his old rivals including the rebel branch of the Malatestas, and his most notable competitor: His neighbor, and antagonist Federico III de Montefeltro. All the great powers in Italy were incentivized by Sigimondo’s exclusion from the peace to take him apart. The situation was made worse by the election of a Spanish Pope, and then, of a Pope friendly to Montefeltro—resulting in serious political problems for Sigismondo.
On April 27th, 1462, Sigismondo Malatesta was excommunicated for the second time, was confirmed damned, and canonized directly into Hell—while he was still alive. This event is unique in the history of the Catholic Church, and impressive considering the fact that his brother was beatified. Sigismondo’s fortunes failed thereafter, and his Tempio Malatestiano was never completed. Rimini, however, would survive to be inherited by his sons.
“This is Sigismondo Malatesta, king of traitors, enemy of God and man, condemned to fire by the decision of the sacred college.”
Inscribed on the three placards which were burned with three life sized effigies of Sigismondo Malatesta in Rome, after his trial in absentia.
In a final ironic parity between the brothers Malatesta, Galeotto died young and uncompromising in virtue—as a warrior might—while Sigismondo passed on advanced in years. The Wolf of Rimini died diminished in body and estate, by constant attrition; in reflective seclusion at his residence. An essential similarity between the two of them is accented by their radical disparity. Sigismondo and Galeotto were each singularly driven men, who inspired admiration from their contemporaries by the colossal force of ideological dedication. Neither man was free of vice, and neither would argue that one could be, though, both had direct, personal ambition to divinity. Through the trials of asceticism or the tribulations of war, each brother sought that crucible, which, in accordance with his own nature, might transmute the mortal soul.
What is perhaps most astonishing is the fact that both Galeotto and Sigismondo were unmade by the same chthonic imperfection: Hubris. In his spiritual asperity Galeotto was so disdainful of the mundane, that he alienated himself from all the tools at his disposal to further the gospel. Likewise, Sigismondo was a sword so sharp with ambition that he cut all those who sought to wield him. While Galeotto felt that he was beyond the criticism of his own clergy, his disregard for his own health and duty ultimately delivered his realm into the imperiled hands of his brother. Sigismondo’s titanic martial propensity in turn led him to accept no master above himself, and he eventually became less useful to the higher forces at war than another general-for-hire without such grand, abstract aspirations.
In writing the treatise that came to define an era of warrior- monks, long before the time of the Malatestas, St. Bernard of Clairveaux observed:
“This, I repeat, is a new kind of knighthood and one unknown in ages past. It indefatigably wages a twofold combat, against flesh and blood, and against a spiritual hosts of evil in the heavens. ... Indeed, danger or victory for a Christian depends on the focus of his heart, and not on the fortunes of war.”