Eastward from Bologna lies a string of minor towns that contributed their commensurate luster to the total splendor of the Renaissance. Little Imola had its Innocenzo da Imola, who studied with Francia, and left a Holy Family almost worthy of Raphael. Faenza gave its name and partial industry to faience; there—as in Gubbio, Pesaro, Castel Durante, and Urbino—Italian potters in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries perfected the art of coating earthenware with opaque enamel, and painting thereon, with metallic oxides, designs that on firing became brilliant purples, greens, and blues. Forlì (anciently Forum Livii) was made famous by two painters and one virile heroine. Melozzo da Forlì we defer to Rome, his favorite theater of operations. His pupil Marco Palmezzano painted the old Christian themes for a hundred churches or patrons, and left us a deceptively charming portrait of Caterina Sforza.
Born out of wedlock to Galeazzomaria Sforza, Duke of Milan, Caterina married the cruel and rapacious Girolamo Riario, despot of Forlì. In 1488 his subjects rebelled, killed him, and captured Caterina and her children; but troops loyal to her held the citadel. She promised her captors, if released, to go and persuade these soldiers to surrender; they agreed, but kept her children as hostages. Once in the castle she had its gates closed, and vigorously directed the resistance of the garrison. When the rebels threatened to kill her children unless she and her men submitted, she defied them, and told them from the ramparts that she had another child in her womb, and could easily conceive more. Lodovico of Milan sent troops who effected her rescue; the rebellion was mercilessly suppressed; and Caterina’s son Ottaviano was made lord of Forlì under his mother’s iron thumb. We shall meet her again.
North and south of the Emilian Way two ancient capitals survive: Ravenna, once the retreat of Roman emperors, and San Marino, the inextinguishable republic. Around the ninth-century convent of St. Marinus (d. 366) a tiny settlement formed, which, from its once easily defensible perch on a rocky mountain top, remained immune to all the condottieri of the Renaissance. Its independence was formally recognized by Pope Urban VIII in 1631, and endures by the courtesy of the Italian government, which finds little there to tax. Ravenna recaptured a passing prosperity after the Venetians took it in 1441; Julius II reclaimed it for the papacy in 1509; and three years later a French army, having won a famous battle near by, felt entitled to sack the city so thoroughly that it never recovered until the Second World War, which shattered it again. There, on a commission from Bernardo Bembo, father of the poet cardinal, Pietro Lombardo designed the tomb (1483) that houses Dante’s bones.
Rimini—where the Emilian Way, just south of the Rubicon, reached its Adriatic end—entered violently into Renaissance history through its ruling family, the Malatestas—Evil Heads. They appear first toward the end of the tenth century as lieutenants of the Holy Roman Empire, governing the Marches of Ancona for Otho III. By playing Guelf and Ghibelline factions against each other, and making obeisance now to the emperor, now to the pope, they acquired actual, though not formal, sovereignty over Ancona, Rimini, and Cesena, and ruled them as despots acknowledging no morals except those of intrigue, treachery, and the sword. Machiavelli’s Prince was a feeble echo of their reality—blood and iron turned into ink, like Bismarck into Nietzsche. It was a Malatesta, Giovanni, who, in a monogamous moment, killed his wife Francesca da Rimini and his brother Paolo (1285). Carlo Malatesta established the repute of the family in the patronage of arts and letters. Sigismondo Malatesta carried the dynasty to its zenith of power, culture, and assassination. His many mistresses gave him several children, in some instances with disturbing simultaneity.9 He married thrice, and killed two wives on pretext of adultery.10 He was alleged to have made his daughter pregnant, to have attempted sodomy with his son, who repelled him with drawn dagger,11 and to have wreaked his lust upon the corpse of a German lady who had preferred death to his embrace;12 however we have for these exploits only the word of his foes. To his final mistress, Isotta degli Atti, he gave unwonted devotion and ultimately marriage; and after her death he set up in the church of San Francesco a monument marked Divae Isottae sacrum—”Sacred to the Divine Isotta.” He seems to have denied God and immortality; he thought it a merry prank to fill with ink the holy-water stoup of a church, and to watch the worshipers bespatter themselves as they entered.13
Crime had not enough varieties to exhaust his energy. He was an able general, known for reckless bravery, and for resolute endurance of all the hardships incident to military life. He wrote poetry, studied Latin and Greek, supported scholars and artists, and delighted in their company. He was especially fond of Leon Battista Alberti, the Leonardo before da Vinci, and commissioned him to transform the cathedral of San Francesco into a Roman temple. Leaving the thirteenth-century Gothic church intact, Alberti fronted it with a classic façade modeled on the Arch of Augustus erected at Rimini 27 B.C.; he planned to cover the choir with a dome, but this was never built; the result is an unpleasant torso, called by contemporaries Tempio Malatestiano. The art with which Sigismondo had the interior refinished was a paean to paganism. In a brilliant fresco by Piero della Francesca, Sigismondo was shown kneeling before his patron saint; but this was almost the only Christian symbol left in the church. In one of the chapels Isotta was buried; and on the tomb an inscription was placed twenty years before her death: “To Isotta of Rimini, in beauty and virtue the glory of Italy.” In another chapel were representations of Mars, Mercury, Saturn, Diana, and Venus. The walls of the church were carved with marble reliefs of a high order, chiefly by Agostino di Duccio, representing satyrs, angels, singing boys, and personified arts and sciences, and emblazoned with the initials of Sigismondo and Isotta. Pope Pius II, a lover of the classics, described the new structure as a“nobile templum… so filled with pagan symbols that it seemed the shrine not of Christians but of infidels worshiping heathen deities.”14
At the Peace of Mantua (1459) Pius compelled Sigismondo to restore his principalities to the Church. When the doughty despot renewed his hold upon them, Pius hurled a bull of excommunication at him, charging him with heresy, parricide, incest, adultery, rape, perjury, treason, and sacrilege.15 Sigismondo laughed at the bull, saying that it had not perceptibly lessened his enjoyment of food and wine.16 But the patience, arms, and strategy of the scholar Pope proved too much for him; in 1463 he knelt in penitence before a papal legate, surrendered his realm to the Church, and received absolution. Still afire with energy, he took command of a Venetian army, won several victories against the Turks, and returned to Rimini with what seemed to him a prize as precious as the bones of the greatest saint—the ashes of the philosopher Gemistus Pletho, the Greek Platonist who had in effect proposed the replacement of Christianity with a Neoplatonic pagan faith. Sigismondo buried his treasure in a splendid tomb alongside his Tempio. Three years later (1468) he died. We must not forget him in our composite image of the Renaissance.
If Sigismondo represented that small but influential minority which had more or less openly ceased to accept the medieval Christian creed, we need only follow the Adriatic down from Rimini into the Marches to Loreto to find a living symbol of the old religion still warm in Italian hearts. Every year during the Renaissance, as in our times, thousands of earnest pilgrims traveled to Loreto to visit the Casa Santa, or Holy House, in which, they were told, Mary and Joseph and Jesus had lived in Nazareth, and which, said the marvelous legend, had been miraculously transported by angels first to Dalmatia (1291), then (1294) over the Adriatic to a laurel grove (lauretum) near Recanati. Around the little stone house a marble screen was built from designs by Bramante, and Andrea Sansovino added sculptural decorations; and over the Casa a church called the santuario was raised by Giuliano da Maiano and Giuliano da Sangallo (1468f). On a small altar inside the Holy House was a figure of Mary and her Child in black cedar, which piety ascribed to the artist hand of Luke the Evangelist. Consumed by fire in 1921, the group was replaced by a reproduction, adorned with jewels and precious stones; and silver lamps keep lights burning before it day and night. This too was part of the Renaissance.