The Urbe as Theater: Pius II and the Reshaping of Rome’s Urban Narrative

By Costanza Gislon Dopfel.

Published by The Humanities Collection

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Article: Print $US10.00
Article: Electronic $US5.00

On April 27 1462, the people of Rome gathered to witness the execution of Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta da Rimini. Since Sigismondo was safe in Rimini, the event was set up to convey a figurative message, while at the same time, great care was taken to stage it in such a way that it would achieve a greater impact than a real execution. To make up for the lack of a body to be burned, Pope Pius II ordered that three life-size puppets made of rags, with a sign reading “Sigismundus Pandulfus de Malatesta de Arimino hereticus”, should be burnt in the three main public places in Rome.
Just two weeks earlier, the Romans had gathered for another extraordinary event: the triumphant arrival of Saint Andrew’s head, a relic brought to Italy by Thomas Paleologus, the brother of the last Byzantine emperor. Thousands of pilgrims flocked into the city and a great procession wound itself around the abitato, passing in front of many cardinals’ homes, who competed in adorning their streets and their piazzas with altars, burning incense, free wine, and singing children dressed like angels, turning the city into one great theatrical holy stage.
Sigismondo Malatesta’s trial, excommunication, and execution were planned so as to intersect both in time and in space with the arrival of Saint Andrew’s head, its great procession, the service in Saint Peter’s Basilica, and the ensuing general blessing and remission of sins. Both episodes show the Pope’s new approach to the manipulation of Roman urban space as a theatrical backdrop, an almost “virtual” environment that he could shape by superimposing highly charged emotional content over the physical and historical content of the city. Starting with this famous “execution”, the paper investigates the connection between the geography of Rome, the visual and contextual impact of location in the display of public violence as well as of mass plenary indulgence, and the creation of a city narrative within the politics of the reborn papal power.

Keywords: Pius II, Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini, Sigismondo Malatesta, Saint Andrew’s Head, Rome

International Journal of the Humanities, Volume 9, Issue 8, pp.129-138. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 756.545KB).

Dr. Costanza Gislon Dopfel

Associate Professor, Department of Modern Languages, Saint Mary’s College of California, Moraga, California, USA

Costanza Gislon Dopfel received a MA in comparative literature from the University of California at Los Angeles and a doctorate in Italian literature from Stanford University. She is an associate professor at Saint Mary’s College, where she holds a joint appointment in the Departments of Modern Languages and Art History. Over the last fifteen years she presented at the Renaissance Society of America Conference, the 16th Century Conference, the Northern California Renaissance Conference, the Renaissance Conference of Southern California, CICIS, the Catholic Historical Association, and many other events. Her long-term interests are in renaissance treatises on female education; the life of Sigismondo Malatesta; expression of social identity through clothing during the renaissance; and the iconographic evolution of the nativities of Christ, the Virgin Mary, and John the Baptist. Her last article on Sigismondo Malatesta appeared in the fall ‘09 issue of The Medal, a publication of the British Museum. The Education of Venus, a book on the relationship among authors, the public, and society mediated through the humanistic concepts of education and rhetoric, is in process with McGill-Queens University Press.


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