Wednesday, October 24, 2018


Anthony F. D'Elia, Pagan Virtue in a Christian World: Sigismondo Malatesta and the Italian Renaissance. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016. Pp. xii, 355. ISBN 9780674088511. $39.95.

Reviewed by Luka Špoljarić, University of Zagreb (

Version at BMCR home site


[The editors apologize for the delay in the publication of this review.]

Sigismondo Malatesta, the papal vicar of Rimini and famed mercenary captain, has long enjoyed notoriety as a result of his defiant stance towards his overlords, the popes, who around the mid-fifteenth century had begun the laborious process of bringing the various parts of the Papal State under their direct control. The growing rift between the two culminated on 27 April 1462 when Pope Pius II, the humanist Enea Silvio Piccolomini, not only excommunicated Sigismondo but performed what he called an "ironic canonization". In a thirty-nine-page invective Pius accused the lord of Rimini of the most heinous crimes—including fratricide, unbridled lust, and paganism—and had his effigies burned in the squares of Rome. The invective had a lasting impact on the image Sigismondo came to enjoy in the coming centuries, and though twentieth- century historians have debunked many of Pius's claims, modern poets and playwrights continue to find the lord of Rimini a source of inspiration. Going beyond the legend that Pius helped create, Anthony D'Elia's new book takes us to the years that preceded Malatesta's rift with the papacy, more precisely to the decade of 1448–1458 when Sigismondo used the resources he accumulated as mercenary captain across Italy to set up a vibrant Renaissance court in Rimini. D'Elia analyzes the works of the Rimini court humanists in order to recover the image that Sigismondo sought to fashion of himself, an image that was more heterodox, more 'pagan' than that of any other contemporary Italian lord.

Following the first, introductory chapter that discusses Pope Pius's invective and traces the development of Sigismondo's legend until the modern day, chapters two and three analyze the influences on, and dominant trends in, the Rimini intellectual and artistic circle. The Rimini Renaissance was shaped through Sigismondo's political and cultural connections to Florence, Rome, Venice, and the court of his brother, Malatesta Novello, in Cesena. The most important model for Sigismondo, however, was the Ferrarese court. As D'Elia argues, Sigismondo's library, his bronze medals, artistic projects, astrological interests and support of Greek studies can all be seen, in part at least, as an imitation of the cultural project initiated by his brother-in-law Leonello d'Este, marquis of Ferrara. The third chapter discusses Greek studies in particular, which D'Elia sees as the hallmark of the local Renaissance. This was in a way another chapter in the longstanding relationship that the Malatestas had with the Greek world, most prominently via Cleofe Malatesta, the wife of the Despot of Morea, Theodore II Palaiologos. D'Elia here reconstructs the debates concerning the respective merits of Greek and Latin that took place in Rimini and traces the influences of Greek literature and thought, Homer in particular, on the ways the court humanists portrayed their lord.

Chapters four to seven represent the central chapters of D'Elia's book, as they discuss the main themes in the Malatesta literature. Chapter four focuses on the portrayal of Sigismondo in Basinio Basini's Hesperis, an epic that presents his battles in Florentine service against Alfonso of Aragon, king of Naples, as a patriotic war against barbarian invaders. D'Elia rightly calls Hesperis "outlandishly nationalistic" (p. 117) and offers careful readings of the various prominent episodes Basinio used to fashion Sigismondo into a hero of Homeric mould. Chapter five turns to the question of astrology and pagan worship. Much of the discussion of oracles, pagan sacrifices, and oaths is again mostly drawn from Basinio's Hesperis, but the works of other court humanists, such as Roberto Valturio, Porcellio, and Giovanni de' Cocchi, are also discussed at length. The sixth chapter analyzes the two major collections of poetry, composed by Basinio and Porcellio, which celebrate the erotic love between Sigismondo and his lover and third wife Isotta degli Atti. D'Elia rounds off his analysis of themes in Malatesta literature by tracing voices of subversion, episodes where the court humanists present Sigismondo in unflattering terms. Following the eighth chapter, an epilogue of sorts, in which he traces Sigismondo's defeat at the hands of pope Pius in 1463, the dispersion of his court, and the final years before his death in 1468, D'Elia concludes his book by calling for the return of 'paganism' as a (dominant) analytical category in the intellectual history of the Renaissance.

Taken on their own, each of the main chapters deepens our knowledge of Italian fifteenth-century humanism. The discussion of Basinio's and Porcellio's love poetry, accompanied by D'Elia's vivid translations, makes for fascinating reading, while his interpretation of subversive voices in Malatesta literature offers important insights into the extent to which court humanists were or were not independent in their works. The book, however, is addressed to a wider audience, and it must be said that as a result D'Elia occasionally sacrifices precision for dramatic narrative, portraying his hero larger than even he himself wanted to be seen. The discussion of nationalism in Basinio's Hesperis in chapter four is a case in point. Just as today, in the Renaissance nationalist rhetoric often served concrete political purposes, and although D'Elia addresses this question, his answer that the Hesperis called on Italians "to unite against a foreign invader under the single benevolent rule [emphasis mine] of Sigismondo" (p. 235) seems far-fetched. Given that Malatesta was a mercenary captain and petty lord whose territorial ambitions never amounted to more than expanding his base in Romagna—as opposed to those of his nemesis, Alfonso of Aragon—, it seems more realistic to imagine Basinio's epic as a humanist résumé that presented Sigismondo to potential clients as the only military commander capable of defending the liberty of Italian states on the battlefield. Moreover, although D'Elia is otherwise careful when it comes to contextualizing the works he discusses, he fails to take into account the number of studies on humanist nationalism that would have helped him in discussing the common tropes of this discourse.1 This is, however, a minor point.

The bigger issue here is the overarching theme of the work, for there is no doubt that D'Elia's broad understanding of what paganism was in the Renaissance will lead to much debate. I will restrict my comments on D'Elia's analysis of Malatesta literature to the question of genre and literary imitatio, which as a result of the book's thematic approach is often relegated to the sidelines. This is not to say that D'Elia is unaware of this question, but he does treat it as a relatively minor one. This becomes particularly problematic in chapter five, where he treats portrayals of Sigismondo as a pagan worshiper in Basinio's Hesperis not as tropes called for by the epic genre conventions, but as a testament to "the fascination with and tolerance for pagan religious beliefs and practices in fifteenth-century Italian culture" in general (p. 174). Moreover, in the course of this chapter D'Elia discusses themes drawn from both epic poetry and theological treatises side by side, works following profoundly different agendas and different rules.

Yet, regardless of whether or not one subscribes to D'Elia's take on Renaissance paganism, this is a major contribution that sheds light on a number of little-known humanist works and, as a result, brings to the forefront a vibrant Renaissance center that has received less attention in scholarship than it deserves. The book will be valuable to anyone interested in Italian Renaissance humanism and the cultural politics of Italian Renaissance lords during humanism's golden age, when the movement's followers were pushing the boundaries of orthodoxy ever further.


1.   Herfried Münkler, Hans Grünberger, and Kathrin Mayer, Nationenbildung: Die Nationalisierung Europas im Diskurs humanistischer Intellektueller, Italien und Deutschland (Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 1998); Caspar Hirschi, The Origins of Nationalism: An Alternative History from Ancient Rome to Early Modern Germany (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012).

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