Bad Wolf

Tempio MalatestaOur previous Pope, John Paul II, produced more saints than five hundred years worth of his predecessors, but as far as I know, only one Pope ever made a “negative” saint. In 1460, Pius II elevated Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta to the status of Saint of Hell, under a great catalogue of sins, including incest, sodomy, murder, and most importantly, paganism. Sigismondo was still alive at the time. Even today, under John Paul’s greatly relaxed rules, you still have to be dead to become a holy saint.

Pope Pius himself had an interesting early career in the diplomatic service of the Church, and was an educated Renaissance man. Once he became Pope, he promoted a classy redevelopment of his home village of Pienza in Tuscany, a lovely little place to visit: I thoroughly recommend it. Actually, I remember walking in to the cathedral church in Pienza and thinking “Wait a minute, there’s something not right about this.” The building is plain and severe, quite unlike the typical Italian church. It seems that Pius had been influenced by his travels to Northern Europe, including England and Scotland, and had come to like that stark Northern architecture.

His beef with Sigismondo probably had more to do with realpolitik than any real possibility that he was a deviant monster destined for a significant place in Hell. Warfare and alliances in Italy at the time were complex, and Sigismondo was on the Papal side more often than not, including having been General of the entire Papal armies, but in 1460, it proved expedient for the Pope to concoct an infernal charge-sheet, excommunicate him and recommend that his opponents annex his territories.

Tempio MalatestaBut, actually, Sigismondo’s pagan credentials are more than political spin. The Church had instigated a conference in Basel to try to reconcile the Catholic and Eastern branches of the faith in 1431. It reconvened in Ferrara in 1438, and then again in Florence in 1439. Among the Orthodox delegates from Constantinople was a genuine, born-again pagan, Gemistus Pletho. On the fringes of the conference in Florence, Pletho set up a school of Neo-Platonic philosophy, where he gave lectures, attended by many members of the Italian aristocracy, including both Cosimo de’Medici of Florence, and our friend Sigismondo Malatesta, ruler of Rimini.

Cosimo was so impressed that he founded a new university, a Neoplatonic Institute, in Florence. Sigismondo obviously took some ideas away with him too, and commissioned a conspicuously non-Christian conversion of the family chapel in Rimini in 1450. The leading humanist architect of the time, Alberti, designed the new exterior, but it’s the inside that is so striking. Although there are some Christian references, most of the decoration is of classical, pagan and astrological symbolism.

After Sigismondo’s death in 1468 (somewhat reconciled to the Christian world, after leading Byzantine armies against the Turks in Greece) the Church took over his Rimini chapel and made it the city’s Cathedral. It’s still pagan though.


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