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On Pound And Sigismondo Malatesta Essay, Research Paper

Lawrence Rainey

It should come as no surprise that the motif of patronage is explicitly taken up in

Pound’s principal composition of this period, the so-called Malatesta Cantos, or Cantos

8-11. To oversimplify, they depict the life and times of Sigismondo Malatesta, the

quattrocento ruler of Rimini, a small town just south of Ravenna on the Adriatic coast of

Italy. Sigismondo sponsored the reconstruction of the church of San Francesco, a building

long regarded as a landmark in architectural history. In the idealizing lens of

late-nineteenth-century historiography, he was the ideal patron, discerning in his

selection of an architect (the great Leon Battista Alberti), discriminating in his choice

of artists (the magnificent painter Piero della Francesca and the talented sculptor

Agostino di Duccio), and generous in giving them latitude to work as they wished. He was

also, in the lexicon favored by nineteenth-century writers, a despot, a ruler whose

authority was unchecked and arbitrary, his decisions ratified by no one, his choices

subject to no identifiable norms or criteria. Sigismondo, in short, epitomized all the

issues embedded in the institution of patronage, the questions of art and authority, power

and public assent.

Pound saw the church of San Francesco for the first time in May 1922 while touring with

his wife through central Italy; it was three months after the publication of Ulysses, two

months after his first announcement of Bel Esprit, and five months before the publication

of The Waste Land. Two weeks after he first saw the church, he met with Eliot in

Verona to discuss the poem’s publication and plans for Eliot’s new review (supported by

patronage from Lady Rothermere, wife of the newspaper magnate). In the spring of 1923

Pound returned to Italy to conduct further research into the life and times of Sigismondo

Malatesta, gathering more materials to be used in writing the Malatesta Cantos. This time,

while staying in Rimini, Pound had his first significant experience with members of the

Fascist Party. The experience related directly to his writing about Sigismondo and later

sparked his favorable view of Benito Mussolini and Fascism’s effects in everyday life–the

most fateful choice of his career. Only five months later, in the late summer of 1923,

Pound was already engaged in efforts (which have been discovered only recently) to

persuade Mussolini to adopt a program of cultural patronage outlined and to be directed by

Pound himself. Pound, in short, had found his imaginary patron and the resolution to the

question of art, authority, and public consensus. The thread that links together this

intricate complex of events and motifs is the figure of the great patron, Sigismondo

Malatesta, and the question of faith in his judgment: through him, the modernist culture

of patronage was assimilated to the emerging culture of Fascism.

**************

Sigismondo Malatesta (1417-1468) is known to posterity for a single mission that he

pursued for more than a decade: his sponsorship of the reconstruction of the church of San

Francesco, often called the Tempio Malatestiano, in the town of Rimini. The building is

considered a landmark in Western architectural history because it was the first

ecclesiastical edifice to incorporate the Roman triumphal arch into its structural

vocabulary. The massive central doorway, flanked by two blind arches, plainly owes much to

the Arch of Augustus, the oldest triumphal arch in Italy, which is also in Rimini. The

interior, too, is striking: it teems with an elaborate series of sculptures and

bas-reliefs by Agostino di Duccio, and the sacristy for the Chapel of San Sigismondo

houses a fine fresco by Piero della Francesca. The churches reconstruction, initially

undertaken as the refurbishing of a single chapel within an extant church that dated from

the thirteenth century, assumed new dimensions in 1449-1450 when Sigismondo entrusted the

project to Leon Battista Alberti, one of Alberti’s earliest and most important

commissions. Alberti redesigned the building’s entire facade, added the central doorway,

and adorned the sides with a series of seven deep arches divided by massive piers. He also

planned to add a transept and to crown the intersection of nave and transept with a

soaring dome, but a precipitous decline in Sigismondo’s political fortunes left him unable

to bear the costs of construction. By 1460 work on the project had stopped and the church

was left incomplete.

Sigismondo’s political career was shaped by the shifting balance of power that

prevailed in the Italian peninsula, divided among the five major states: Venice and Milan

in the north, Florence in central Italy, and Rome (or the papacy) and Naples in the south.

In the course of his lifetime Sigismondo served each of them as a condottiere, though by

the later 1450s the major states increasingly regarded him with suspicion, either because

his conduct of various campaigns had lacked sufficient vigor or because he was reported to

have engaged in duplicitous dealings with his opponents. In 1459 he joined another

condottiere, Giacomo Piccinino, in an imprudent attempt to unseat the Aragonese dynasty

that ruled Naples and replace it with the Angevin dynasty of southern France. For Milan

the scheme raised the specter of invasion from France, and Francesco Sforza, ruler of the

Milanese duchy, reacted sharply. So did papal Rome, partly because it too wished to

prevent the establishment of a French presence in the peninsula, partly because

Sigismondo’s actions offered a pretext for the church to reassert its claims over

territories long lost to its control. The territories were those of Sigismondo. By law the

Malatestas were not the rulers of Rimini and the surrounding countryside but vicars of the

church who, in return for an annual fee, were granted absolute control over all taxation

and legal matters. By the late 1440s, however, the papacy was beginning to change,

increasingly assuming the institutional traits of the Italian casato, or extended

family enterprise, and acquiring its elastic corporate and dynastic structure as well as

its ambitious expansionism. Hoping to regain control over territories it had lost in the

past, the papacy was taking its first steps toward the formation of the modem papal state

that would rule over central Italy until 1860. Sigismondo’s was among the first of many

minor states that would disappear in the next half century. That, of course, was no

consolation for him. In 1461 he managed to survive a ferocious campaign launched against

him, defeating a superior ecclesiastical army at the battle of Nidastore on 2 July [. . .

.] The next season his luck ran out. On 12 August 1462 his troops were routed at the

battle of Senigallia, and less than a week later those of his ally Piccinino were

annihilated at the battle of Troia. When peace terms were drafted, Sigismondo lost

everything except the city of Rimini and a few nearby towns.

Already during Sigismondo’s lifetime the church of San Francesco aroused discussion,

and in the centuries that followed it elicited a growing body of scholarly and antiquarian

commentary. But it was in the eighteenth century that new and related arguments about the

church’s significance began to appear. it was urged, for example, that the church was not

a church at all, at least not in the ordinary sense; nor was it just a monument to the

Malatesta dynasty or Sigismondo’s exemplary status as its preeminent representative.

Instead, the building had been designed to commemorate Sigismondo’s love for Isotta degli

Atti, his mistress and later (after 1456) his third wife. The crucial evidence adduced in

support of this view was the entwined cipher, made up of the letters S and I, that is

sculpted everywhere among the church’s interior and exterior decorations. The sign, in the

new view, referred to the first letters in the names of Sigismondo and Isotta. This

interpretation was first broached in 1718, debated inconclusively in 1756, then raised a

third time in 1789, after which it was embraced without argument.

The figure most responsible for diffusing a new understanding of Sigismondo and his

career outside Italy was the great historian Jakob Burckhardt. His Civilization of the

Renaissance in Italy, first published in 1860, largely created the modern

notion of the Renaissance as a distinct historical period that signals the emergence of

modern individualism. Burckhardt assigned Sigismondo an exemplary status, presenting him

as the crowning figure among "the furtherers of humanism." His court had

epitomized "the highest spiritual things" and had been a stage "where life

and manners … must have been a singular spectacle." His greatest achievement had

been the reconstruction of the church of San Francesco, a project inspired by "his amour

with the fair Isotta, in whose honour and as whose monument the famous rebuilding of

S. Francesco at Rimini took place." Burckhardt turned Sigismondo into the epitome of

"the whole man," a new human "type" who represented a form of

historical existence crucial for the course of civilization, the type that had ushered in

the age of modernity, a figure equally capable in war and art, in action and

contemplation, one whose unfettered individuality united ruthless realism with lofty

ideals: "Unscrupulousness, impiety, military skill, and high culture have been seldom

so combined in one individual as in Sigismondo Malatesta." The "whole man"

embodied in Sigismondo became the repository of an immense paradox: he was both the figure

who had given birth to modernity and a symbol of all that modernity had later lost and

betrayed, a rebuke to modernity itself. Translated into French (1876), Italian (1877), and

English (1886), Burckhardt’s work placed Sigismondo at the center of European intellectual

debates about the nature of modernity–its origins, meaning, and prospects–and so about

the very meaning of civilization.

Burckhardt’s vision was recapitulated and transformed in myriad ways. The popular

English historian John Addington Symonds viewed the church of San Francesco as "a

monument of … the revived Paganism of the fifteenth century" and "one of the

earliest buildings in which the Neopaganism of the Renaissance showed itself in full

force." Though ostensibly a church, it had "no room left for God." Symonds

noted the many outrages allegedly committed by Sigismondo (including the murder of several

wives), but he tempered their opprobriousness by integrating them within a liberal view of

history that saw the violence of early individualism as a transient stage within the

otherwise benign formation of modernity. Much bolder was a French journalist and art

historian named Charles Yriarte, whose lengthy biography of Sigismondo was published in

1882. Yriarte claimed to have discovered a love poem "written by Sigismondo in honor

of Isotta." He called it "the most characteristic of Sigismondo’s works"

and urged that its zodiacal references provided "the key to the enigma" of the

elaborate bas-reliefs found inside the church of San Francesco. "It is not God who is

worshiped here; instead it is for her that the incense and the myrrh are burned." His

study formed the foundation of a consensus that was uncontested for decades, from its

publication to roughly 1920. Encyclopedias, travel guides, novels, plays, and scholarly

monographs repeated his claims again and again. From 1886 to 1929, every edition of the Encyclopaedia

Britannica reported that the church of San Francesco was built "to celebrate the

tyrant’s love for Isotta" and "dedicated … to the glorification of an

unhallowed attachment"; its sculptural decorations "derived … from a poem in

which Sigismondo had invoked the gods and the signs of the zodiac to soften Isotta’s

heart." Baedeker travel guides repeated the same claims, and popular novelists such

as the British author Edward Hutton elaborated these motifs yet again.

The consensus forged by Yriarte began to come under attack around 1910, in the work of

two scholars in Rimini who collaborated in research examining the many original and as yet

unpublished documents housed in the city’s archives and library. In 1909 one of them,

Giovanni Soranzo (1881-1963), published "The Cipher SI of Sigismondo Pandolfo

Malatesta," which reconsidered the meaning of the much discussed sign. There was not

a single contemporary document suggesting that the sign referred to both Sigismondo and

Isotta. Indeed, the only document to discuss the sign, a chronicle by one of Sigismondo’s

closest collaborators within the court, specifically stated that it referred to Sigismondo

alone. It was common practice, moreover, among the courts of northern Italy to use the

first two letters of someone’s name as an abbreviation: Niccol? d’Este was frequently

cited as NI, and Sigismondo’s son, Roberto, was commemorated on numerous ceramics and

other artifacts by the cipher RO. Even more damaging to Yriarte’s thesis, the most common

spelling of Isotta’s name during her lifetime was "Ysotta" or

"Yxotta," a spelling that appeared in nearly all the contemporary legal

documents concerning her. One year later, Soranzo’s colleague Aldo Francesco Mass?ra

issued a detailed examination of all the poems and poets allegedly connected with Isotta.

The notorious poem that Yriarte claimed to have discovered, the work that he had termed

"the key to the enigma" of the church’s sculptural decorations, had been written

not by Sigismondo but by Simone Serdini, a poet from Siena who had communicated with the

court of Rimini during the decade after 1410. Serdini had died in 1419 or 1420, some

twelve years before Isotta degli Atti was born. It was unlikely that his poem referred to

her or her relations with Sigismondo, which began in 1446.

Yet the work of Soranzo and Mass?ra scarcely affected the legend of Sigismondo and the

church of San Francesco. Soranzo’s essay was published in a journal of provincial history

devoted to Romagna, of which Rimini is a part, and Mass?ra’s appeared in a journal for

professors of Italian literature. But the more important reason for neglect of their work

was a form of ideological resistance. Burckhardt had placed Sigismondo and the romantic

reading of the church at the center of a much wider debate about the culture of modernity,

a debate only partially responsive to issues of evidence and historical documentation.

Some writers chose to ignore the research of Soranzo and Mass?ra; Edward Hutton, for

example, in his 1913 guidebook to the province of Romagna, simply repeated the claims of



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