Kirsty Roberts (UK)
Singing along with Ezra
An architectural biography, staged at the Tempio Malatestiano (The church of San Francesco, Rimini)
And that he did amongst other things Empty the fonts of the chiexa of holy water
And fill up the same full with ink
That he might in God's dishonour
Stand before the doors of the said chiexa
Making mock of the inky faithful, they
Issuing thence by the doors in the pale light of the sunrise
Which might be considered youthful levity but was really a profound indication;
“whence that his, Sigismondo's, foetor filled the earth
And stank up through the air and stars to heaven Where – save that they were immune from sufferings -
It had made the emparadised spirits pewk” from their jewelled terrace.
Ezra Pound Malatesta Cantos
With Tutorial Support from: Liesbeth Bik and Steve Rushton
When I was sixteen, I spent a summer in Florence with my friend Laura and her family. Her step-dad, Father Lawrence, was the priest at the Anglo-Catholic church of St Marks. This church is housed in what was Machiavelli's Palazzo, in the centre of the city. The family lived above the church on the first floor, Laura and I had the run of what would have been Machiavelli's servant quarters. I decided that I wanted to be a Catholic too, as soon as I got to Florence and spent two very happy months there in a haze of recent-convert religious ecstasy. I pottered round the art treasures of the 14th and 15th centuries by day and got drunk and danced with disreputable types on the steps of the Cathedral by night. The congregation at St Mark's was quite unlike anything I'd ever encountered before in the backwaters of Gloucestershire where I grew up. We dined with Contessas, attended ambassadorial balls, I began a clandestine romance with another member of the congregation, a morose, and recently retired ballet dancer, Laura and I went caper picking in Fiesole with an elderly lady who swore she had taken tea with Mussolini before she had to flee Italy at the start of the war (something to do with her aunt), we went to a banquet at a monastery where the monks sang and danced for us, the Vasari corridor was opened for us after I imperiously demanded the favour from a bratty prince who wanted to impress Laura. I returned to Florence the following Easter to be baptised and confirmed by the Bishop of Rome in a candlelit ceremony in which he washed my feet. My godparents are the aforementioned Contessa and a retired English headmaster who used to take me to a Lido in the east of the city where he would don his sparkly purple speedos and pick up men a third of his age. This strange and privileged kingdom ended for me when I returned to England. The bunker-style Catholic church with an eighty-year old Irish whiskey-priest damning us to hell for hours on end just didn't cut it, I was shocked by the Church in England, for me, Catholicism is Fellini styled sex and glamour. My stay in Florence was like being on the set of a film. I have tested the waters in various ex-pat congregations but never come across anything at all like St Marks again, a concerted Catholic seduction which I have wondered much about ethically since, a glittery surface, a thin but convincing veneer. Permissive heterodoxy. Last summer I cycled 1000km from Basel to Rimini on a pilgrimage to the Church of San Francesco, also known as the Tempio Malatestiano. I followed sections of the old pilgrims route from Canterbury to Rome, the via Francigena. From Basel I cycled to Luzern, over the Alps at St Godhard's pass, down to Airolo, then along Lake Como to Milan, from Milan I went down to Genoa, followed the seashore through the Riviera to Pisa, then climbed back on myself through the Tuscan hills, over the Appenini passes to Bologna where I began the mild descent through the flatlands to Rimini. It was an impromptu decision to go cycling, I had ten days left before the start of the new academic term and had managed to wrangle a rare weekend with no waitressing duties. I'd read a lot of things which had been staged at the Tempio Malatestiano, The Cantos of Ezra Pound, The Stones of Rimini I wanted a bit of time and space to mull over all the things I had read about the place. That is what is good about cycle touring, repetitive action and exercise lead to a particular kind of concentration. I had never visited this church before but feel that my production is haunted by it, I refer back to the Agostino di Duccio reliefs there constantly, and wanted to attempt my own material reading of the place. I sit in the shadows of the Tempio Malatestiano, its reliefs creep over my studio walls in good quality shiny photocopy. A feverish mixture of memory and hallucination imagined through the other voices I've read describing the place. My reading is tainted by past characters. The Tempio Malatestiano is: the cathedral of a tacky beach resort; the eroticised pagan musings of a warlord; fascist temple; massacre site, architectural pioneer. This plot of land has been much contested.
stuoso, perfide, sozzure ac crapulone,
assassino, ingordo, avaro, superbo, infidele
fattore di monete false, sodomitico, uxoricido”
Ezra Pound (The cantos of Ezra Pound)
I'll let Ezra Pound tell the biography of Sigismondo Malatesta, Lord of Rimini, founder and patron of the Tempio Malatestiano through excerpts of The Cantos. In order to allow this information to be llegible in excerpt I'll quickly set the stage. Sigismondo was a mercenary soldier, commanding an army for hire, his battles with Pope Pio II and subsequent excommunication have smeared his reputation for centuries. Sigismondo ordered the building of the Tempio Malatestiano in the 1450's. His reputation largely rests on the intellectual achievements of the court he set up and his patronage of the arts. The Tempio Malatestiano is his lasting monument, reasonably intact, its formal innovation, unusual iconography and obsessive autobiography have turned it into a political vessel. The church is over-determined, both in it's materiality and through it's subsequent readings. I was nervous about visiting the Tempio Malatestiano. Reading Ezra Pound, Adrian Stokes, even Aby Warburg's writings about the site, I had formed a gothic fantasy that this place was where art writers indulged in their wildest macho extravagances. Voicing an object is a territorial act, laying claim to the mute material, these writers fill the church with their sympathetic fantasies, using the atmosphere of the site, along with it's previous voicings as a legitimisation of their ideological claims. As I started to get close to Rimini I spoke to people about the church, at an American themed street party in St Pietro in Vincoli I ate Chicago hotdogs and heard the common tale that my church was a lascivious work, a pagan temple, dedicated to pleasure rather than to God. The great beauty of the Tempio Malatestiano was praised, the doctrinal basis held in doubt. People who knew of the church all told a similar story. I wondered what historical basis there is for these ideas, the various accounts are all over the place, a tawdry mix of gossip and factoid, the slander of a 500 year-dead Pope with a political enemy to destroy. Sigismondo's character has been fossilised in a site creating a powerful and ambivalent mythology. The later texts, pledging an alligiance with the stones seem to have infiltrated the common perception of the place. 1
My obsession with the Tempio Malatestiano began at eighteen, on my Art foundation course, when I first read Adrian Stokes. Stones of Rimini (1934) is a dusty and unfashionable tome. I loved it, I'd never read any art theory before, this felt gloriously subjective, with Stokes as a guide it seemed possible to think whatever I wanted to of a piece of art. His descriptions formed my impression of the Agostino di Duccio reliefs at the Tempio Malatestiano. Stones of Rimini has seemingly endless, repetitive descriptions of the reliefs, these descriptions are intercut with analysis placing Agostino's work at the pinnacle of the lost art of carving, Stokes argues that Donatello was a modeller, not a carver, his works, which are easier to digest as images sounded the death knell for the more subtle material art practiced by Agostino di Duccio (a proper sculptor!). Agostino was firmly bound to his patron, Sigismondo, the larger part of his surviving works are at the Tempio Malatestiano. Stokes spoke like a latter day Ruskin, an anachronistic insistence on sculptural concerns, a quest for truth. The book is an exploration of the relationship between stone and water, imagined through the stones of Rimini and the architecture of Venice, Stokes translates nature's processes to artworks, he talks about sculpture in it's most exhaulted state as 'sedimentation', 'an encrustation', a 'stone-blossom', these terms are found on almost every page of the text.
The block itself wells over larger deep-sea forms within. Shells encrust the architectural members. They are not stuck on: they cling; but they also flower there, bloom there: they are also stone-blossom. For the water and the water-life from which the marble was formed, in their stone shapes symbolize also the cliff, the earth, its flower and its fruit. Such shells express the first geographical concretion in the history of the marble, serve to symbolise the later fruitfulness of the soil which covered it from the skies. Thus sea and land, upon whose intercourse Mediterranean civilisation has depended, were celebrated as one in the marble. Either as land or as sea-fruit are the shells and acorns. In the last analysis, stone blossom and incrustation are different aspects of the same principle. Adrian Stokes, Stones of Rimini
When re-reading the Stones of Rimini last year, I realised that underlying the repetitive descriptions of the contents of the Tempio's chapels Stokes was proposing an extremely retrogressive form of localism. Stokes argues that a stone has a preference as to how it sits, how it weathers, a stone ideally is used locally, and positioned much as it was in it's bed, a stone which has been used outside of these natural guidelines will always look odd, out of place. Through endless repetition these proclamations start to take on a social dimension becoming a very conservative set of rules for behaviour, the rules inscribed, deviation ridiculed. This is a very particular reading of the Tempio Malatestiano, it's oddities put on a pedestal in order to iron out future attempts at oddness. I started to form an impression of this atmosphere as politics, a rigorous weeding out of foreign elements, an insistence on the superiority of indigenous Mediterranean culture. Stokes' abstract material statements have a clear affinity with Italian Fascism. Mussolini had been in power for 10 years by the time the book was written in 1934. The Tempio Malatestiano and Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta's biography had already been used by Mussolini and others who wanted to give the Fascist regime a historical legitimacy2. I wonder what it is about this site that leads to right-wing idealism, how a community of thinkers gather around an object. Stoke's material reading of the Tempio Malatestiano was very directly influenced by Ezra Pound's Malatesta Cantos. The two men met and discussed the church, they played tennis together regularly. There is no mention of Pound's shadow, which hovers over the Stones of Rimini in my edition, which is later, post WWII. By then Pound's reputation was shattered by his continued defence of Mussolini, he was incarcerated in an American prison's psychiatric unit as he avoided a death sentence for treason through madness. Perhaps his importance to Stoke's argument has been erased, the nasty fascist residues in the text abstracted. Re-reading the book, I felt that the text and the site are haunted by these conversations, in abstract this subliminal messaging is even more disturbing, a structure, a skeleton for an ideology becomes apparent. I felt somehow implicated.
“Siggy, darlint, wd. You not stop making war on
“insensible objects, such as trees and domestic vines, that have
“no means to hit back... but if you will hire yourself out to a
“commune (Siena) which you ought rather to rule than
Ezra Pound, Malatesta Cantos
Ezra Pound's interest in Sigismondo is in part rooted in the generous intellectual and artistic climate he set at the court in Rimini. Pound was obsessed with Economic systems, and was actively involved with thinking thorough old fashioned patronage as the ideal funding model for modernism. Pound began work on the Malatesta Cantos in 1922. He met Mussolini in 1927 to talk about funding systems for the arts, with the view to become an advisor, in charge of the regime's purse strings on cultural spending. Mussolini is pitched as Sigismondo's political heir in The Cantos a legitimising image of a warrior, courageously doing battle with the Church and old state, making it new, a quaility Pound admired. Ezra Pound wrote to John Drummond in February 1932: "Don't knock Mussolini, at least not until you have weighed up the obstacles and necessities of the time. He will end up with Sigismundo and the men of order, not with the pus-sacks and destroyers."
And tell the Maestro di pentore
That there can be no question of
His painting the walls for the moment,
As the mortar is not yet dry
And it wd. Be merely work chucked away
But I want it to be quite clear, that until the chapels are ready
I will arrange for him to paint something else
So that both he and I shall
Get as much enjoyment as possible from it,
And in order that he may enter my service
And also because you write me that he needs cash,
I want to arrange with him to give him so much per year
And to assure him that he will get the sum agreed on.
You may say I will deposit security
For him wherever he likes.
And let me have a clear answer,
For I mean to give him good treatment
So that he may come to live the rest
Of his life in my lands-
Unless you put him off it -
And for this I mean to make due provision,
So that he can work all he likes,
Or waste his time as he likes
Never lacking provision
Ezra Pound, Malatesta Cantos
Sigismondo did set up a remarkably effective system of patronage at the court in Rimini, Piero della Francesca, Giotto and Agostino di Duccio produced work for the Tempio Malatestiano, Alberti created the first Roman triumphal arch to be included in an ecclesiastical building. The Malatesta humanist library down the road in Cesena (I stopped for an ice cream and a quick nose around on my way through the town) was a hotbed for intellectual activity, Through Pound's idealised view of artist/ funder relations, it seems that Sigismondo was liberal and fair in dealing with the artists who were working for him. But, he was a despot, his authority unchecked, his rule over his fiefdom total and arbitrary. Pound's image of the man is multifaceted and complex, a freedom fighter, against the church's increasing insistence on orthodoxy, a generous patron, believer in intellectual freedoms, a poet, a lover, a chauvinist, murderer and tomb raider.
In The Malatesta Cantos we are given Sigismondo's post-bag to read : domestic squabbles with his mistress, the divine Isotta; budget notes for the church; orders written to the foreman onsite dictating how the masons and artists should work; impressions from the battlefield; political intrigue; religious defection; boasts from the foreman on how they managed to steal marble intended for a bridge and tombstones for the front of the church, their carvings incorporated into the overall design. Sigismondo's character in The Cantos is constructed from his letters and the commissioned stone, a more sympathetic character reading than the prevailing view, handed down from Pope Pius II, vocal enemy of the House of Malatesta. The Cantos wander widely in time and distance, the history of the world is given us through a series of heroic voices, our Sidge is the poster boy of this masculine resurgence. The Tempio Malatestiano is fascinating and repugnant in it's literary accounts, Ezra Pound proposes that modernity is virility plus violence and perpetuates the idea (still all too present in my opinion) that an artist should be young, strong and full of cum. Mussolini is cast as the natural heir to Sigismondo's political fortune. These things felt like a constant in the literature I read about the Church, I couldn't work out if it was something embodied in the stone, the figure of an anti-establishment warrior, or a string of obscure influence/ incidental conversations which we no longer have access to at play. I feel desperately uncomfortable with the view of the universe given by Pound, and read the reliefs with his poetry whirring round my head. But I am fascinated by his living history. The Cantos are a bit like a celebrity gossip magazine but for the history of the world rather than contemporary L.A, a seemingly endless chronicle of who has slept with who, secret murders, castrations, incest, fraud, embezzlement, dishonesty. Though The Cantos are fiercely individualist (Pound the political thinker seems to hold great store in the image of a man struggling against adversity) Pound the poet speaks with many voices. The Cantos don't drag us through an ordered vision of history, they are meandering, this is not history as progress, or apocalypse, it isn't something argued with a linear aim, he also doesn't give us any help with the text, there are no footnotes, no framing, to help us to key into the reference heavy, macaronic text. He gives us unmediated access to material, aiming to transmit the vitality of a voice, a conversation, an impulse across the centuries. In trawling through the libraries, the footnotes, indexes, archives this irresponsible (but visionary) scholar has a cast of characters introduce themselves on their own terms.
It felt inappropriate to fly into Rimini. I wanted to be able to think through these heroics while travelling, to switch off my automatic disapproval. I had printed out a pilgrim's passport, a PDF the confraternity of St James had sent me to prove my pilgrimage genuine and allow me to seek refuge with religious orders if my wild camping plans fell through. I got the night train to Basel and set off early in the morning, I had forgotten that I hadn't cycled up a hill since moving to the Netherlands and had a full day and a half's climbing to reach St Godard's pass. I collapsed exhausted and sunburnt about 15 km from the summit, my hammock not properly pitched, it was freezing at that altitude. The hairpin descent was terrifying, I thought I might die and didn't feel very heroic or exhilarated at all. Once in the river valley coasting along at a more sensible speed I relaxed. Happy to be out of Switzerland and into Italy where I could afford to eat properly I was way ahead of schedule so I took a detour near Milan to attend an old friend's birthday party. The village was all dressed up for a religious procession. All the houses wore blue and gold robes with heavy tassels, a continuous stream of candlelit, dressed houses from the Church to the outskirts, the crowd sang the seven stations of the cross. We were half-cut, our re-union was not solemn enough for the chanting crowds, we were shooed off giggling. I had spent the first couple of days in self-imposed, mock-religious suffering through being isolated and physical exertion. Conversation and a rest had made me realise that this pilgrimage (cycle holiday) should be fun. An opportunity to retreat in silence, to crawl over a landscape at 12.5 mph day after day, watching the scenery change slowly, allowing time to take in the view and appreciate the rare quiet. Further down, along the Ligurian coast (close to where Ezra Pound lived) my bike lights were nicked outside a kebab shop, I slept in a ditch in a lay-by 50m from where the Italian army were doing their wild camping exercises in neat snot-green lines, I felt safeguarded by them somehow as long as they didn't know of my presence. I continued to Pisa then cut back through the Tuscan hills. Near Pistoia I was overtaken by the women's tour d'Italia, I was fixing a slow puncture on a grassy verge, while drying my laundry on a bush when the sirens started screaming and 50+ female cyclists in pink and black lycra threw themselves up the mountain followed by a rush of support vehicles, T.V crew, adoring crowds, I hoped my midday chores weren't caught on T.V. I made my way much slower than the professionals through the Appenini mountain pass towards Bologna. I slept in the woods by an enormous Etruscan burial site, the eyes of the tomb/ caves visible in the moonlight. I had mild sunstroke and read my little volume of modernist poetry until frightened half to death, hearing crones chant 'those are pearls that was his eyes' in my sleep. Used to my own company by now I no longer felt so lonely as I watched the grape harvests come in while cycling through Emiglia Romagna. I thought I might have used all this time on the way to the Tempio Malatestiano to clear up my thinking about the church, I anticipated some kind of revelation, it didn't come. The wandering eye of the cycle tourist, a constant pace, boredom, an inability to look at things beyond a surface. The voices the site contained still worried me, the artworks produced under these constraints still fascinated. When I arrived, the Agostino di Duccio reliefs were roped off. The reliefs sit in six chapels, around the main nave of the church, leaning over the velvet rope it was only possible to see the front facing reliefs completely, the others were partially obscured in the darkness, or completely invisible through their positioning. I asked the elderly verger if I might be able to go and look at the Agostino reliefs properly, he refused me entry, 'you must gain permission from the cardinal 2 weeks in advance'. This was not mentioned on the website and I had to leave Italy the next day. I pleaded, I spoke of my pilgrimage, of how important the reliefs are to me, but he wouldn't relent, I asked a priest who said that he also didn't have the authority to allow me access. I was told that this was a conservation issue, that if I was allowed in, then everyone would want to see the chapels. This seemed unlikely to me, the chapels containing a Giotto painting and Piero della Francesca fresco were much more popular and allowed unrestricted access. I began to wonder if there was something that they didn't want me to see. Catholic conspiracy theories abound, they are probably mostly true. The Tempio Malatestiano's secrets are kept from the casual visitor, while the kind of art tourist interested in it's perversions aren't the sort of crowd that the church seem's willing to encourage. My Catholicism, without the backing of a hip-priest is no longer a magic key. Through prior repeated study of reproductions of the reliefs in the church I was able to identify most of the pieces and could make out their shapes in the half lit blur, if not their splendour. Saturn eating his children, an enormous crab suspended threateningly over an aestheticised medieval Rimini, angels hitching up their skirts to reveal the eroticised tomb of Isotta, the mistress of the warlord holding the purse-strings, Hercules and Mars flex their muscles, History, Rhetoric, Poetry are scantily clad maidens who seem to be dancing. Elephants and stylised roses abound (representing our generous lord and master). Dolphins with razor sharp teeth carry fat putti over the doors. The insignia and portrait of Sigismondo Malatesta interwoven with those of Isotta cover every surface.
Outside in the town, the season was winding down. Mile after mile of privatised pay per pitch beach boarded up for the winter. The town's hostels filled with self-help business disciples who had travelled from all over Europe to learn how to make themselves highly effective people. I found a bed in a room full of monkish business affectionados and returned to the Tempio Malatestiano in the morning, hoping to be let into the chapels properly but was chased off again by the verger without apology. I stomped around stubbornly, he clearly thought I was making the place look untidy for the more respectable looking package tourists.
“and built a temple so full of pagan works”
and in the style “past ruin'd Latium”
The filigree hiding the gothic,
with a touch of rhetoric in the whole
And the old sarcophagi,
such as lie, smothered in grass, by San Vitale.
Ezra Pound, Malatesta Cantos
A walking tour around the Tempio Malatestiano. It's noon, unbearably hot on a mid-september day, the facade of the church, a very pure white marble, pink veined in places, an enormous, blank-eyed building with the famous half-finished Roman triumphal arch, classical proportions. The facade is carved elaborately with wild looking briars, elephants and the initials of Sigismondo Malatesta and Isotta degli Atti. In the bright sunshine it almost hurts to look at the church straight on. Pound claims that the slabs for the facade of the church were stolen tombstones, perhaps acid rain has hidden these ancient crimes, I search unsuccessfully for clues. The church is large and has an air of being little used, though the brightly coloured adverts stuck to the pin board in the entrance attempt to convince that this is still a lively community, united in worship. Around the grand, almost empty nave sit the 7 chapels. The chapel to the left, on entering, houses Sigismondo's tomb and a memorial to the Malatesta ancestry. This chapel is all orange and black stone it is heavy and masculine, a pair of disembodied elephant's heads trumpet enthusiastically from the warlord's tomb, the entrance to the chapel is a balustrade made up of cherubins for fenceposts, Agostino's work, they are not very cute at all but rather squat, leering, malevolent little beings. The next chapel down is filled with more of Agostino's grim-faced cherubins, who in no way resemble real children, playing childhood games with an incontrovertible look of sexual knowing, by today's standards these reliefs are really dirty, I wonder what the decorum was in the 1450s. This is the chapel where Sigismondo Pandolfo's other wives are buried, he is said to have poisoned the first with an emerald cup and strangled the second with a napkin at the dinner table3. Then a chapel with allegorical Agostino reliefs, History, Poetry, Rhetoric, Science, Art, Literature (as I remember it) shown as beautiful, scantily clad women, classical dress, pagan hairstyles frolicking over the walls, dancing, singing, playing musical instruments. These images are frenzied, a Dionysian revelry is no great leap of faith when watching these muses dance. Then we move on to a chapel with two large gory Vasari paintings, I can't remember what of, pools of dark blood, upturned eyes, dying ecstasy, these would have been commissioned in a later phase of the church's decoration, I can't imagine Sigismondo signing a cheque for an artist like Vasari, anyway Siggy darling was long dead by then. The crucifix in the central recess, above the alter is a Giotto, Christ's features melted in sorrow, then there is a door to an office where a robed priest stamps papers (he doesn't have the authority to stamp mine). On the right hand side of the church, working backwards from the alter, the first chapel holds the Piero della Francesca fresco of Sigismondo in full military regalia kneeling before St Sigismondo, his namesake, from this portrait Sigismondo's face in profile is recognizable on every other surface in the church. Then, the chapel of the zodiac, where ancient heros and gods writhe alongside the stars. Two ornate doors with possessed looking putti riding snarling dolphins and finally the gloriously over the top tomb of Isotta, back at the entrance of the church, opposite the tomb of Sigismondo. A grave adorned with clouds of white marble, can can dancing angels, a pouting sculpture of the deceased all borne on the back of two large elephants, realistically rendered. The balustrades and railings between the chapels are carved with briars, initials and insignia.
The art historian Aby Warburg's Mnemosyne Atlas, pl. 25 Agostino di Duccio's reliefs in the Tempio Malatestiano, Rimini looks almost exactly like my studio wall. My images taken from Stones of Rimini chart an associative visit to the church, arranged as I remember seeing them, things lost in the half-light of the church repeated, stressed in the studio display. Unconsciously influenced by Warburg through a string of obscure influence? I like to think that this form of display is simply an appropriate way to behave when faced with something simultaneously obscure and obscene, an attempt to work out a positioning for one's own body within the fray. An automatic channelling of a Dionysian revelry. Warburg speaks of the Tempio Malatestiano as the place where classical movement was reanimated in the renaissance. A breaking point of sedimented instability, a place where gesture and memory become reanimated as something with an urgency. Warburg's Mnemosyne Atlas plate starts to reconstruct a visit to the Tempio Malatestiano, the top line shows images of the church to put the Agostino reliefs in context, we then start to travel through the chapels, the images arranged associatively, reconstructing the mental processing of the site, an indication of the physicality of the space, an image with the same wandering methodology that Stokes and Pound employed. While reading Warburg for other purposes (we are both really into Fancy Dress and Scenography) I was thrilled but unsurprised to stumble across Agostino and the Tempio Malatestiano. In a studio visit, the poet Lisa Robertson told me to read more Warburg, she spoke of him identifying this point of contact between the Renaissance and classical worlds, a gesture carried across time, the curl of a lock of hair, a serpentine movement, this tension handed down, the serpentine figures in renaissance art, a re-animation of an antique dance. I was told about Botticelli4, thought of Agostino and was very excited to find Warburg's image mapping these tensions in the reliefs at the Tempio Malatestiano. Warburg fully understood the potential trauma involved in this Dionysian frenzy, he talks of a Renaissance wedding turning into a bloodbath when the groom's heart was ripped by hand, still beating from his chest, “A wild chase, with scenes of orgiastic cannibalism...daemonic undercurrents burst through the thin veneer of Christianity, Catholicism, and courtly culture” this is not an idealised view of some benign neo-classical cult.
Sigismondo was a disciple of Gemistus Pletho, a scholar who advocated the return of the Olympus gods, a true return to polytheism under the classical model. Sigismondo's armies came across and stole Pletho's remains from his resting place in the Balkans on a campaign, bringing them to the Tempio Malatestiano where a tomb was built to house them. George of Trezibond (a Greek Scholar, also reviled by Pope Pius) tells this anecdote:
“I told Sigismondo that unless he throws out of his city the Apollo who lives in the corpse of Gemistus something bad would befall him. He promised to do it. He left it undone. Sickness brought him to the brink of death in Rome. He sent for me the hour he was stricken so that through the vain predictions of the astrologers I might tell him what would happen to him. Putting my trust in God, I sent the message: “In eight days he will be well”. After the prophesy came true, I told him that the disease had struck him because he retained in his home the corpse of Gemistus. He promised again that as soon as he returned to Rimini he would cast it into the sea. I praised his resolution and urged him to do something about it lest worse should happen to him. He returned to Rimini. Again he left it undone. Again he became ill. Before I learned about it, he died (9 Oct, 1468)
The gods depicted in the Agostino reliefs, the importance of cosmology at the Tempio Malatestiano isn't a metaphor or stand in, but a statement of political urgency, the court being built up, Sigismondo's humanist library seem like a genuine attempt to reanimate the ghosts of antiquity. A permissive religion in a time of increasing orthodoxy and religious pressure to conform. The lock of hair, the gesture were Warburg's key into the serpentine dance. He identifies these movements as points where we should listen especially hard to the voices of the dead. There is a lot at stake here, bound in these formal concerns is a point of rupture. The patterning of Ezra Pound's cantos finds affinities between subjects rather than sound rhymes. Warburg's associative scholastics scan images for a gesture. An insidious repetition providing other ways to navigate a history of the world.
When I began writing about the Tempio Malatestiano I thought of it as a stage, a set, a theatre of sorts. A container for many voices. A place where the traces of the grand renaissance theatrical spectacles live on. These voices sit in the Tempio Malatestiano forming a vernacular, the place is infected with their terminology and politics. The formal similarities, the vocabulary, also travel across time. Sigismondo's poetry as well as Ezra Pound's was in the Provencal style, troubadour songs, the songs of the wandering hero. In thinking about how a community of thinkers gather, how a style is transmitted I found it interesting that Marjorie Perloff argues Sigismondo's “fatal political mistake had been to lend his support to the house of Anjou from southern France, the land of Provence; and perhaps the ecclesiastical campaign against him resulted not from mundane political considerations but from an attempt to suppress a heretical and neopaganizing ethos of the same sort that had been stifled before in Provence.” The image of the lone hero (Sigismondo) is clearly depicted at the Tempio Malatestiano, his songs after the Troubadours make sense alongside his character in stone, a formal relation to a political sympathy with non-orthodox religious beliefs. The Tempio Malatestiano's Pagan gods, the explicit erotic content of the chapels, the emphasis on the bodily lower stratum are unusually explicit, in a nominally Catholic church. I set off as a part-time troubadour, thinking through a history of ideas projected over a landscape. Pottering over a scene set by wanderers, then wandering armies, the ideas, the poems became concrete in a church, and were then re-animated, voiced by a choir of writers, attempting to listen to the church, a band of paleo-archeologists. Plodding along the open road, pretending my bicycle is a horse, indulging in the romance of 15th century fantasy that caused rack and ruin.
...And there came singing
Filippo Tomaso in rough dialect, with h for c
All right, I am dead, but do not want to go to heaven,
I want to go on fighting
& I want your body to go on with the struggle.
And I answered: “my body is already old,
I need it, where wd. I go?
But I will give you a place in a Canto
giving you voice.
Ezra Pound Italian Cantos (Fascist Cantos)
The poems of all the men involved, the politics and the sculptures talk to each other with refreshing frankness at the Tempio Malatestiano. The discourse has leaked into the popular view of the image, the image has to a point dictated the discourse. Aby Warburg saw his role as an Art Historian, sifting through the archive material in Florence as connecting the voices of the dead with their image, Florence “has not only preserved the images of it's dead in unique abundance and with striking vitality: in the hundreds of archival documents that have been read and the thousands that have not the voices of the dead live on”. Warburg listened for the voices of the dead “the tone and timbre of those unheard voices can be recreated by the historian who does not shrink from the pious task of restoring the natural connection between word and image....” At the Tempio Malatestiano there is a real synchronicity between image and discourse. Ezra Pound voices the dead, re-animated through the archival documents Sigismondo haunts the Tempio Malatestiano, his image and the system of thought represented in the images commissioned by him match up the poems written in his chosen meter.
So that in the end that pot-scraping little runt Andreas Benzi, da Siena
Got up to spout out the bunkum
That the monstrous swollen, swelling s. o. b.
Papa Pio Secondo Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini da Siena
Had told him to spout, in their best bear's greased latinity;
Stupro, coede, adulter, homocidia, parricidia ac periurnus, presbitericidia, audax, libidinosus, wives, jew-girls, nuns, necrophiliast, fornicarium ac sicarium, proditor, raptor, incestuosus,
incendinarius, ac concubinarius and that he rejected the whole symbol of the apostles, and that he said the monks ought not to own property and that he disbelieved in the temporal power, neither
christian, jew, gentile nor any sect pagan, nisi forsitan epicureae.
Ezra Pound Malatesta Cantos
Sigismondo's darkest hour, the moment when the Pope slanders him in preparation for a crusade against him. The Pisan Cantos written later by Ezra Pound, when locked up in the military detention centre focus on the total collapse of Mussolini's regime, on the failed Fascist experiment. Picking over the literary archive gathered in Fascist Italy, over his economic obsession, his belief in fascism as the vehicle for his economic ideas. Locked in the puerile idea that the poet is the protagonist, I read the insistence on a masculine heroics, the parallels drawn between Sigismondo as enlightened despot and Mussolini horrifying. On reading and re-reading it becomes clear that Pound is reviving past voices, speaking through them, the links between the points of reference in the library are much more associative than I was allowing for, though the poet explicitly identifies with these characters. Language pushed through the mangle of ancient song, modernist writing in dead poetic forms. The images thrown up are extremely violent, when Pound was awarded the Bollinger prize for the Pisan Cantos Robert Frost, called it "an unendurable outrage" and Pound "possibly crazy but more likely criminal. I can't find myself fully in accord with the literary set who talk about Pound's personal friendships with Jews to say that he was anti-usury rather than anti-semite. These affinities are complex and disturbing. As the Pope damns Sigismondo to hell, as he is excommunicated for heresy and dissidance through the mouthpiece of Sidge's standard bearer Ezra Pound we build a convincing fiction about the site. The chapel designed as a continuation of Sigismondo's love rhymes for Isotta, her tomb a keystone in the fictionalised seduction, poetry and sculpture sit close together in the Tempio Malatestiano voicing the dead. The episode of Ezra caged, writing the Pisan Cantos, is well known. St Ezra, high priest of modernism turns inward, stuck in his military detention centre. In memory he trawls over his involvement with the avant garde, his many regrets starting verses with.
The enormous tragedy of the dream in the peasants bent shoulders
Ezra Pound Pisan Cantos
Save us Ezra, let your suffering be our redemption the critics cry. The fascist cantos (I give you voice Marinetti to keep fighting) clear out all the old junk. In Pisa we trust, in a caged poet picking over the bleached bones of his conscience, putting Europe to rights. Everyone is shouting, the stone, thousands of voices mediated by Pound, the polyphonous dead as Warburg returns their images. A violent cesspit, generations of radical politics contained in a humming surface. Anecdote, gossip, an infected space.
So I cycled merrily along my way. I was attempting to read an atmosphere as politics, solve a conundrum. I got so much more than I bargained for. The more I read, the further the tap roots of the violence of the Tempio Malatestiano seemed to extend. I had a flight booked back from Ancona, to get back to school for the first day of term so I had to leave my church and Rimini half-seen, unsolved (this isn't a detective novel). I cycled off into the marches, over the Frascati caves, along the coast, down past Senigallia where Sigismondo's final battle was badly lost. I've stomped over this landscape before, on a peace march from Perugia to Assisi with a merry band of scouts and communists at the beginning of the Iraq war. Projecting renaissance battles from the pages of The Cantos along the deserted mountain roads and beaches. I felt like cycling off into the sunset, chasing warm winds around the Mediterranean. Sadly, my patron's money for women in need in Rotterdam doesn't stretch to wild romances and obliges me to complete my studies. My macho, troubadour, cycle-tourist/ cowboy adventures give way, it's hard to stay in character anyway.