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date: 13 April 2021

Malatesta, Sigismondo

The Oxford Dictionary of Art and Artists

Ian Chilvers

Malatesta, Sigismondo 

(b Brescia, 19 June 1417; d Rimini, 9 Oct. 1468).

Italian nobleman, ruler of Rimini from 1432 until his death. A brilliant and totally unscrupulous condottiere, he is the archetype of the megalomaniac, paganizing tyrant once thought to be characteristic of the Italian Renaissance. His contemporaries accused him of incest, murder, and rape, amongst other crimes, and in 1462 he was publicly consigned to hell while still alive—the only person ever to suffer this fate—by Pope Pius II. However, he was also a noted patron of art and scholarship. In particular, his name is indissolubly linked to one of the most remarkable artistic projects of the 15th century—the conversion (begun 1447) of the church of S. Francesco in Rimini into a memorial to himself and his mistress (later wife) Isotta degli Atti. Alberti was responsible for the exterior cladding of the building in a noble classical style and Agostino di Duccio and Piero della Francesca were among the artists who worked on the decoration of the interior.

The scheme was never completed, but under Sigismondo's direct inspiration it became the most self-conscious return to the antique yet seen, and even in its unfinished state it is one of the gems of Renaissance art. Much of the sculpted ornament makes allusion to classical literature and philosophy, prompting Pius II's remark that the church was ‘so full of pagan images that it seems like a temple for the worshippers of demons and not for Christians’. However, it was not until the 18th century that the building was dubbed the Tempio Malatestiano—the name by which it is still known.