The Malatesta family held authority over Rimini from 1239 until 1528. Infighting between family members split the small republic after the death of Carlo II. The illegitimate son of Pandolfo Malatesta III and Antonia da Barignani, Sigismondo, followed the family tradition and debuted as a man-of-arms at the age of 13 in this power struggle. He became Lord of Rimini two years later.
Accepting command of the papal corps from Pope Martin V, he defeated the Spanish at Forli at sixteen. The life of a mercenary held the majority of Sigismondo’s attention, fighting the Romagna alongside Francesco Sforza, King Alfonso of Naples hired him to force the Neopolitans to leave Tuscany. Excommunicated and vilified more than once by Pope Pius II in his written Commentaries smeared his reputation for centuries. Malatesta’s resistance to the Pope’s will and alliances with Pius’ bitter enemies, the Angevin claimants to the crown of Naples, also provoked conflict with his chief ally, Sforza. Impudence ruined his career and left his allies with little choice but to accept a bad bargain, rather than no bargain at all.
A true crusade moved against him in 1461, resulting in the loss of all his territories excepting Rimini and the area five miles in circumference. Upon his death, these lands were to revert to the Papal State. In an attempt to reverse this situation, Malatesta intended to murder Pius’ successor, Pope Paul II in 1468, but lost his nerve and returned to Rimini. He died in residence at Castel Sismondo a few short months later.
Sigismondo’s personal life was no less turbulent; he married his niece and first cousin, Ginevra d’Este, but killed her with poison served in an emerald cup. His second wife, Polissena Sforza, the illegitimate daughter of his occasional ally Francesco Sforza, met an ignoble death when he strangled her at dinner with a napkin. “He gave vent to all his passions with a ferocity that was bestial rather than human,” claimed his contemporaries.
Following the accepted practice of the times, Sigismondo maintained several mistresses. One who bore him four children, Isotta degli Atti, was the love of his life. He lavished her with poetry and commissioned Leon Battista Alberti to build her tomb at Tempio Malatestiano while still married to his second wife. The Pope legitimized their children, and at some point they married, although the historical record is vague with no mention of a ceremony.
The Lord of Rimini maintained the typical court life of a renaissance Prince. Surrounding himself with intellectuals and artists of reputation, the Alberti, Piero of Francesca, Augustin di Duccio, Matteo de Meal, Roberto Valturio and Basinio of Parma; Sigismondo wrote poetry and debated the politics of the day. A disciple of Gemistus Pletho, philosopher, teacher of polytheism and friend to Cosimo Medici, Sigismondo led a group to Mistra in the Balkans to steal his remains, interring them in the Tempio Malatestiano in Rimini, “so that the great teacher may be among free men.”
The family tomb is housed in the Tempio Malatestiano, an interesting but odd church reconstructed from a Franciscan convent. The strong elements of Malatesta history on display in emblems and monuments attesting to the love of Isotta caused Pope Pius II to declare the church “full of pagan gods and profane things.” The side chapel decorations include statuary depicting the Sybils, Zodiac and the planets. Malatesta’s wives are buried in the Chapel of Children’s Games, Capella dei Giuocchi Infantili, Isotta is buried in her own chapel, Cappella degli Anglei, while Sigismondo is buried in the first sancristy.
The grandson of Sigismondo, Pandolfo V, lost the remaining lands of Rimini to Caesare Borgia in 1503.