In fact, Galeotto I, forefather of the Malatesta, had an elephant added to his coats of arms in order to validate the legend that he was a descendant of Scipio Africanus, the famed conqueror of Carthage.
However, it is more likely that the Malatesta house was originally from Germany, a family of feudal lords during the reign of Emperor Otto III who, in 997, in Ravenna, entrusted Central Italy to his Marquesses. Among the lands granted by the emperor was Romagna: according to historian Carlo Sigonio, the territory was entrusted to «Malatesta, also known as “The German”».
Whichever the story goes, the Malatesta since then reigned over Rimini and Romagna until the 16th century. The family ruled with a combative spirit that certainly honored their Germanic lineage. Dante also reminds us of their fiery nature in Inferno’s canto V: while recounting the unfortunate love story of Paolo and Francesca, the poet indirectly speaks of the Malatesta family. Gianciotto Malatesta, also known as lo Sciancato, son of the lord of Rimini, Malatesta Verucchio, killed the two lovers: Francesca da Rimini (his wife) and Paolo Malatesta (who, by the way, was his brother).
The Latin spirit of Italy tried educating those belligerent spirits to acquire a taste for beauty, somehow succeeding in the intent. But for the Malatesta, “beauty” was expressed with massive castles and imposing fortifications: these structures studded their dominions in Romagna and are a blunt demonstration of power and dominance. An excellent example is the Rocca di Rimini: reconstructed during the Renaissance, its artillery is aimed at the city, as if the Malatesta constantly feared popular uprising more than outside threats.
Between the 15th and 16th centuries, especially with Sigismondo Pandolfo, the Malatesta family became true «warlords», mercenaries at the service of those in power, tasked with leading their armies. But Sigismondo was also a patron. His contribution to Renaissance Rimini reached its height with the Tempio Malatestiano built by Leon Battista Alberti and painted by Piero della Francesca.
FINDING THE MALATESTA FAMILY IN ROMAGNA
Rocca Malatestiana di Santarcangelo
In Santarcangelo di Romagna rises one of the most impressive castles in the area. Commissioned by Carlo Malatesta in 1386, Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta had it restored in 1477, bringing it to its current image. It features a massive defensive tower, called Mastio, among the highest in Italy, and it served as a place of refuge for the Malatesta family in case of invasion. The Rocca witnessed fierce battles against the Montefeltro family, bitter enemies of the Malatesta. Some historians believe that Paolo Malatesta and Francesca da Rimini, the most famous couple of the Divine Comedy, have found love (and tragic death) in one of the tower’s rooms.
From Santarcangelo di Romagna, let's move to San Leo. The Malatesta family has also clearly marked its presence here with the majestic castle that, almost as if by magic, rises on the dizzying slopes of the cliff that dominates the village. Between the 14th and 15th centuries, San Leo witnessed the continuous battles between the Malatesta and Montefeltro families who devastated and reconstructed the village several times, building it to become an impenetrable fortress.
Another historic (and contended) site was Sant’Agata Feltria, an enchanting medieval village surmounted by an equally enchanting (and majestic) manor. The castle boasts a unique history. Previously owned by the Church, from time to time, it was entrusted to the Montefeltro or the Malatesta depending on the favors that either family gave to the residing pope. In the 15th century, Sant’Agata was controlled by the Malatesta; but from the second half of the 15th century, it ended up in the hands of the Montefeltro. This was when the great power of Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta, the «strongest lord of the 15th century», was ending its course.
The castle of Pennabilli
When one thinks of the Malatesta, one of the most prominent families during the period of the Signoria, the imposing Castel Sismondo immediately comes to mind. This almost impenetrable fortress was built by Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta on May 20, 1437 at 6:48pm (a time carefully chosen by Sigismondo after consulting the elaborate calculations made by court astrologers).
This noble family took its first glorious steps in Montefeltro, the historical region that includes part of the Marche, Tuscany and Romagna. But the history of the Malatesta family began far from the Adriatic Sea, in Pennabilli, the birthplace of a descendant of the Carpegna family, called “Malatesta” for his temperamental behavior. He built the castle of Penna and was probably the forefather of the house that conquered most of the Marche and Romagna, as well as the territories of Bergamo and Brescia.