The name of an Italian family prominent in the history of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, famous alike in the poetry of Dante and in the annals of the early Renaissance. The founder of their power was Malatesta da Verrucchio (died 1312), the leader of the Guelphs in Romagna, who in 1295 made himself master of Rimini by the slaughter of the chief members of the rival Ghibelline family, the Parcitati. Thenceforth the Malatesti ruled over a number of cities in Romagna and the Pesaro until 1446, Fano, Cesena, Fossombrone, and Cervia, sometimes with papal investitures, sometimes merely by the sword. While many of the family were notorious for their crimes and cruelty, two were men of remarkable virtue : Carlo (died 1429), a staunch supporter of the Church, who represented Gregory XII at the Council of Constance, and Galeotto Roberto (died 1432), who became a Franciscan and shortened his life by his austerities.
Giovanni (died 1304), known, from his lameness, as Gianciotto, or Giovanni, lo Sciancato, was the eldest son of Malatesta da Verrucchio. From 1275 onwards he played an active part in the Romagnole wars and factions. He is chiefly famous for the domestic tragedy of 1285, recorded in the "Inferno" of Dante, when, having detected his wife, Francesca da Polenta, in adultery with his brother Paolo, he killed them both with his own hands. He captured Pesaro in 1294, and ruled it as podestà until his death.
Sigismondo (born 1417; died 1468) was a son of Pandolfo di Galeotto Malatesta, the descendant of a half-brother of Gianciotto. On the abdication of his half-brother, Galeotto Roberto, in 1432, he succeeded to the lordship of Rimini, Fano, and Cesena, as papal vicar. From his childhood he was a skilful and daring soldier, and throughout his life was regarded as almost the first captain in Italy. An appalling picture of his character is given by Pope Pius II in his "Commentaries", He was undoubtedly one of the worst tyrants of the Renaissance, without fear of God or man. At the same time, he shared to a high degree in the Renaissance cult of art and letters, and many humanists and poets found shelter at his court. The wonderful temple of San Francesco at Rimini, the most pagan of all professedly Christian churches, was built for him by Leon Battista Alberti; Piero de' Franceschi painted him as kneeling before St. Sigismund, and Pisanello cast his portrait in a splendid medal which is a masterpiece of its kind. Sigismondo is accused of the murder of his two wives, Ginevra, d'Este and Polissena Sforza. He afterwards married his mistress, the famous Isotta degli Atti, in whose honour he composed poems which are still extant. In 1465 he commanded the Venetian army in the unsuccessful campaign undertaken against the Turks in the Morea, and on this occasion he discovered the remains of Gemisthus Pletho (the Byzantine scholar who introduced Platonism into Italy ), which he brought back with him to Rimini and solemnly enshrined in San Francesco. Pius II, who held him in peculiar abhorrence, partly because of his treachery towards Siena, had begun by degrees to deprive him of his dominions, and Paul II continued the same course until only Rimini itself remained. Infuriated at a demand to surrender Rimini also, Sigismondo went to Rome in 1468, with the intention of slaying the pope with his own hands. Either opportunity or resolution failed him. Paul seems to have pardoned him and even confirmed him in the possession of Rimini, but Sigismondo returned home a broken man, and died a few months later.
Roberto (died 1482), an illegitimate son of Sigismondo, possessed himself of Rimini by treachery on his father's death. He murdered his two half-brothers, the sons of Sigismondo by Isotta, and is said to have poisoned Isotta herself. In 1475 he was invested with the vicariate of Rimini by Sixtus IV. Roberto inherited his father's military talent, and recovered some of the territory that he had lost. His great achievement was the liberation of Rome by the victory of Campo Morto, 21 August, 1482, when, at the head of the Venetian and papal forces, he completely defeated the royal army of Naples under the command of Duke Alfonso of Calabria. He died of fever, while pursuing the campaign, in the following month. His son, Pandolfo, a cruel and contemptible tyrant, was expelled from Rimini by Cesare Borgia in 1500, and, after several brief restorations of the Malatesti, the city was finally incorporated into the Papal States in 1528.
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