Of Popes & Piety: An Exploration of the Warring Families of Central Italy- Part 1Jonathan Zeiger
Central Italy, the birth of the Renaissance. The Catholic Church is at the peak of its power, and occupies the northern provinces of the Marche (this being before the Vatican settled in Roma). There’s land to be had and enemies to smote. When your enemy happens to live right nearby, that quickly develops into a rivalry. And what do we know about Italian history if not that their favorite game-show would have been Family Feud?
That’s right people, I’m talking Montegues and Capulets here. Except these stories aren’t works of fiction (sorry all you Shakespeare romantics). In the Marche [mar-ke], the rivalry between the houses Montefeltro and Malatesta is one that spans a multitude of generations, if not centuries. Our story today takes us to the pre-feud time.
Now, as some may know, the Church doesn’t exactly have a sun-shiny past. With their rule, they had a knack for… let’s just call it pissing people off (today in the Marche, the Marchigiani still speak a blaspheme that roots back to this time. I won’t repeat it here, there might be children reading. You can ask me over a brew). There was a schism amongst the Marchigiani of this time. On one side, the Montefeltro family supported and fought for the Pope. The Malatesta family wasn’t quite as keen on the ol’ robe. They wanted to see power in their own hands, not an occupying force. Just to recap, we have the 2 most powerful families of the region vying for power… this is gonna get juicy. In the spirit of Italy’s most famous couple, I feel compelled to tell a somewhat similar story, this one with a touch of tragedy as well. Allow me to set the scene:
Comune di Urbino, Le Marche, 1384
Our story begins with the birth of a girl, Baptista di Montefeltro, daughter of Antonio II da Montefeltro, Count of Urbino. Born during the mid-80’s, a lot of us today can probably relate to the changing times that she lived through (dare I say, she was a real child of the Renaissance, ah-hyuck).
Urbino was (and still is) a thriving medieval metropolis. Placed strategically atop a hill back in the valleys of the Urbino-Pesaro province, its famous walls and embankments protected from invasion. The fortress city also the origin of a number of Renaissance artists, among them Raphael (born Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino) and our very own Battista, who would go on to become an influential poet and philosopher.
Imagine that, born in the adolescence of a world-changing movement, of widespread growth and expansion in the minds and cultures of society (sounds familiar, anyone remember life before the internet?). Here’s Baptista, daughter of the ruler of one of Italy’s leading cities. She was like the Kim Kardashian of her time (that’s probably not giving her enough credit).
Fast forward a few years, along comes Galeazzo Malatesta- let’s call him the Kanye of his time. Galeazzo was the son and heir to the Condottiero (warlord) of Pesaro, a beach city to the east of Urbino (still a popular destination). Thing was, he wasn’t very good at war himself. We’ll get to that.
As it happens, Galeazzo and Baptista were about the same age. Being that Pesaro and Urbino are relatively near to each other (about 23 miles), it was only a matter of time before the two met and caught each other’s eyes. Or maybe it was arranged, I’m not exactly sure (I’ll have to run a follow-up article). How much did Kanye pay for Kim?
Anyway, on June 14, 1405, the two were married. Baptista was the older of the two, so it wasn’t like this was a nightmare arrangement between some 40 year old and a new trophy wife. At ages 20 & 19, this was probably not a bad set up. Nevermind the impending feud, what could go wrong?
Throughout her life, Baptista was an advocate for women’s education. Her own education in philosophy and languages gave her a worldly, humanistic perspective, and she was highly regarded by the scholars of her time. Leonardo Bruni, another famous Italian humanist, corresponded with Baptista in 1424, in the earliest known example of dialogue between a humanist man and woman about women’s education. They concluded that the classical studies (languages, literature, law, philosophy, history, art, archaeology) are “worthy to be pursued by men and women alike”.
Le Marche is an abundant and fruitful land in the heart of Italy, part of the reason the Church wanted a strong foothold there. This was the perfect arena for Galeazzo and his family. They LOVED to war. Unfortunately for Galeazzo, much of his career as warlord was marred by defeat. In 1429, his father, Quarto Malatesta, and his cousin, Carlo Malatesta I, his closest compatriots, were killed in battle. He and Battista were subsequently raised to the status of Lord & Lady of Pesaro. The new power did not quench Galeazzo’s thirst for war.
A couple of years and a few more lost battles later (including a failed rebellion against his cousin Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta), Galeazzo was ousted as Lord in 1431. Who knows what kind of problems he and Baptista had during their marriage, but this was the last straw. The Lord & Lady of Pesaro split after 26 years of marriage.
Baptista returned to Urbino, living life as a widow in seclusion. She was, however, still active in her work as a philosopher and orator. In 1433, when the Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund passed through Urbino, she greeted him with a Latin speech, a speech that was put into print for nearly a half-century. It was during this time that she joined the Franciscan Order of Santa Chiara, a position she held until her death in 1448.
Baptista is often overlooked in the pages of history, yet her role in the classics and the early stages of women’s rights was one that helped push the Renaissance forward. Where Galeazzo’s legacy was tarnished by constant defeat, his wife’s legacy was etched into the expanding minds of Europe.