The Romagna of the Malatesta

by Paola Emilia Rubbi

The Malatesta, highly clever condottieri and generous benefactors, protagonists of considerable historical adventures.


There are those who maintain that to be the protagonists of wicked deeds in a crime chronical provides greater notoriety than, for example, being a benefactor, a Nobel prize recipient in chemistry, or the author of a valuable fresco cycle from the 13th century. Gianciotto Malatesta seems to confirm this thesis. It is true that in an era where there were no mass media, to be sung about by Dante in the Divine Comedy could contribute to a wide repute. But it is a fact that from the long and important history of this family of Romagna, which dates back to a Malatesta cited in a judicial document in 1186, the most famous remains the uxoricide and fratricide Gianciotto who, in 1283, "put away" his wife Francesca (daughter of Guido Minore from Polenta, married in 1275) and his own brother Paolo, king of adultery. The tragedy, it is said, occurred in the XII century castle of Gradara, powerful squared-shape fortress with high cornerstone towers, quadrangular donjons, crenellated battlements. The Malatesta dynasty, established in Rimini in the XIII century with an allegiance to the Guelph party, not only reached with its members remarkable power, but exercised it for decades over most of Romagna and was protagonist of the local history for many generations, even leaving testimonies of high cultural and architectural value. Malatesta strongholds are found in Cesena, in Montefiore Conca, in Verrucchio, but we want here to recall in particular two exceptional monuments: Cesena's Malatesta Library and Rimini's Malatesta Temple. The Library, founded in 1447 by Domenico Novello, Lord of Cervia and Cesena, where he died in 1465 leaving the city to the Papal State, is a wonderful example of Renaissance architecture, inspired by the Library of S. Marco di Michelozzo: in the shape of a basilica with three naves, 340 manuscripts and 48 printed volumes are preserved there. The Malatesta Temple or of St. Francis at Rimini was commissionned to Leon Battista Alberti by Sigismondo Pandolfo (1417-1468), Lord of Rimini, natural son of Pandolfo III: Sigismondo was a very skilful and sought-after condottiere who, in 1435, commanded the papal army and then served Venice and for the Republic even fought the Turks in Peloponnese. But his figure is at the same time remembered as one of a generous benefactor who always was around scholars and artists. For the Rimini Temple, Sigismondo imported stones directly from Istria, purchased in Fano part of the stones intended for the construction of a bridge on the Metauro, plundered left marble from the ancient Roman port. Because of an ancient and popular custom in Romagna, a surname was given to numerous members of the Malatesta dynasty: so, Malatesta III (1299-1364) was called Guastafamiglia (the Ruiner of the Family), and Malatestino, who died in Rimini in 1317, was called dall'Occhio (because he was blind in one eye); and Dante, who in his Commedia, cites, other than Gianciotto, at least two other family members, Malatesta II, who died in Rimini in 1312, as the Old Mastiff of Verrucchio (Inferno, XXVII) and the above mentionned Malatestino as the Young Mastiff.
When we cite Pascoli who wrote ôSunny Romagna, sweet country which was ruled by Guidi and Malatesta..." we know who it relates to: to a family whose domination, in fact, began in the early '300, from Malatesta II of Verrucchio over Rimini and other land in Romagna and in the Mark of Ancona; a dynasty that, with its members, was the protagonist of considerable historical adventures; who had official recognition of the seigniory, exercised for already more than a century when, in 1392, the Malatesta dynasty received from the papacy the formal investiture of their land; and was extinguished in 1503, when Pandolfo V (who died in 1534) was defeated by Cesare Borgia and compelled to give up Rimini to Venice.

Picture of the Malatesta Library in Cesena

Picture of an elephant, Malatesta's heraldic symbol

Picture of San Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta, Malatesta Temple in Rimini

Picture of the Malatesta Temple