We pilgrims pile into the Basilica of Saint Clare to see the San Damiano cross that spoke to Francis the words, “Rebuild my church.” A Franciscan brother approaches the microphone. I prepare myself for an exhortation. The journey here with two small children was not an easy one, and I anticipate an admonition to increase of charity, or a challenge to deny myself further material acquisition. I could use both. The friar’s message, amplified by modern acoustic technology, bounces off the Romanesque wall: “No foto.”
“Welcome to Assisi,” I whisper to my wife.
The friar can’t be blamed for his frustration, but neither can we. Next we are extruded, like so much dough through a noodle press, down a slender corridor. We file briefly in front of Clare, who lies lifeless behind her mask of wax. On the opposite end of the crypt are Francis’s simple cassock and stigmatized socks, pinned to the wall, like butterfly wings by an entomologist.
The Basilica of St. Francis, at the other end of the hilltop town, is not much different. En route we pass a bevy of sports cars commandeered by Italian men who aren’t out to pick up Lady Poverty. We are funneled through to the tomb of St. Francis, and again given no time for transformation. As soon as we are out of sight of the friars, a few pilgrims, like disobedient children, reach through the bars to touch the rear wall of the tomb—a furtive brush with holiness. In the upper basilica, swarms of pilgrims, some with Franciscan guides, jostle for position. A group of art history students stakes out the best place for comparing Cimabue and Giotto.
Our third trip through the press comes in the lower town’s Porziuncola, where Francis’s ministry began, and where it ended. We fight to get a few moments inside the tiny church that Francis, following Jesus’s request from the cross, began to rebuild. A nearby wheelchair trumps our stroller, and we’re bumped around a bit inside. A few yards away from the Porziuncola is the place of Francis’s passing, where he asked to be placed naked on the naked ground. Bonaventure records his parting words to his friars: “I have done my duty; may Christ teach you yours.” Looking up, I see that some felt their duty was to erect the impossibly large Baroque dome of Saint Mary of the Angels—among Christendom’s largest—over the humble Porziuncola. The severe art of the Romanesque made Francis what he was: the spare San Damiano Crucifix, the spartan church of San Ruffino and the subdued Porziuncola itself. But the Gothic, the literary affectations of Bonaventure, and the Baroque are what branded him.
But Italy has another, less frequented Franciscan pilgrimage site, where the Saint’s message can be heard with less distraction. Because Rick Steves counsels avoiding the town of Rimini completely, you’re unlikely to meet any Americans while visiting. But as you cut through the beach hotels, a short walk from a surviving Roman arch is the Church of San Francesco. What makes this church remarkable is that the town’s famous Quattrocento war lord, Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta (1416-1468), tried to turn it into the Tempio Malatestiano—that is, a temple to himself. For a sense of his audacity, imagine Donald Trump turning St. Patrick’s Cathedral into an extension of Trump Tower.
Long before the Wolf of Wall Street, Sigismondo Malatesta (literally “bad head”), was known as the Wolf of Rimini. He first defended his home city on horseback at the tender age of thirteen. Emerging two years later as lord of Rimini, he shifted his allegiance for and against the papal armies. His wives died under mysterious circumstances, and his mistresses abounded, with rape and incest added to his catalog of sins. Excommunication being deemed insufficient, Pope Pius II (1405-64) formally condemned Sigismondo Malatesta to hell in 1462. Himself a humanist of some accomplishment, Pius II did not spare effect:
He is not a man, like it seems, but a brute beast born from a savage monster, a wild animal that has taken on human form. . . .We excommunicate him again, call him anathema, and judge he is to be cut off from the body of the militant church like a putrid limb. . . .Unless he comes to his senses before leaving that muddy prison of the body, we allow his soul to be tortured by cruel demons and burned in the eternal flame. But while his body still has his soul within, we surrender it to the torment of evil spirits.
What truth there is to the charges against Sigismondo has long been contested, but like the school bully whose defiance gets him called to the principle’s office over the P. A. system, he has earned admiration. He has never been without his acolytes, especially among those who see the Renaissance as the harbinger of secular modernity. In the 1930s the art critic Adrian Stokes attempted to outdo John Ruskin’s Stones of Venice with his Stones of Rimini. Whereas the evangelical Ruskin loved the majesty of Christian mosaics, Stokes felt that “[t]he Byzantine achievement pales before that of the Tempio façade.” As sensitive to geology as Ruskin but dismissive of theology, Stokes saw Sigismondo as overcoming the Christianity that caused men to “cackle at their bodies.” In Sigismondo’s Tempio, “Paganism of a sort wells up unimpaired: the stars return to a triumphant march. . . . Artemis, Hermes and Aphrodite have come down to Rimini after long transfiguration in the skies.”
Despite all this excitement, I’m afraid that Sigismondo’s temple to himself held little appeal for a group of students who I visited it with recently. Leon Battista Alberti’s temple façade, a brazen attempt to resurrect Rimini’s Augustan arch, is not nearly as impressive as its original. Affixed to the exterior is the tomb of Gemistis Pletho, the pagan philosopher whose body Sigismondo scandalously exhumed and reinterred on site. But pagan philosophy is easy to come by today, and Pletho’s bones no longer strike fear. Inside the Tempio, Sigismondo’s egomania, evidenced by sculpted and painted devotion to his namesake St. Sigismund, elicited snickers. His and his mistress Isotta’s initials, joined in an insignia resembling the dollar sign, are ubiquitous, as is his chosen emblem of the elephant. Intended to recall Hannibal’s crossing the alps, Sigismondo’s Dumbos remind us instead of the Italian obsession with Ferraris. The temple evokes more a mid-life crisis than the brave dawn of a pagan age. “‘I am great OZYMANDIAS,’ saith the stone….”
It turned out there was no need to condemn Sigismondo to hell—his own defeats brought him to his knees. His people revolted against him and his luck on the battlefield ran cold. The Tempio Malatestiano, moreover, is now an active church, and people are trickling in for Saturday confession. For art historians it may be the Tempio Malatestiano, but for the residents of Rimini (and for us), it is the Church of San Francesco. Our group stops for discussion, and we concede a reluctant parallel with our own American Sigismondo, and then we imagine the ruins of a bankrupt Trump hotel, its deserted lobby the setting for a humble Mass.
We dutifully investigate the low-relief pagan carvings of Diana, Venus, and Mars, but we are more impressed by the humble crucifix by Giotto that hangs in a blank white apse, below what was supposed to be the largest dome in Christendom. Sigismondo had advertised the massive dome through his coinage, but a puny bell tower is all that came of this promise. The herculean dome over Assisi’s Porziuncola at St. Mary of the Angels in Assisi is complete—as, of course, is St. Peter’s in Rome and Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence. But in Rimini, the ruins of human ambition speak more powerfully than completed basilicas, evoking our own lives of unfinished projects, failed self-assertions. Here is the dome that, in its beautiful absence, is fit for Francis himself.
Matthew J. Milliner is associate professor of art history at Wheaton College. Thanks to Gordon College’s Orvieto program for sponsoring the student trip to Rimini. Translation of Sigismondo’s damnation is from Anthony F. D’Elia’s recent study of Sigismondo, Pagan Virtue in a Christian World (Harvard University Press, 2016).