I wouldn’t have seen Rimini if it hadn’t been for an offer of a lift by Stefano Cecchini, the very hospitable landlord of my rented holiday house in Gabicce Monte near the Adriatic Coast in the Italian region of Emilia-Romagna. Rimini was around 12 miles along the coast but, rather snootily, I had always associated it with crowded beaches and group jollity and thought I would keep well away from it.
It’s fine, of course, if you like those kinds of holidays in the sun but, maybe, I’m just not athletic or extrovert enough to have that kind of fun.
Stefano dropped me off in the middle of town, the old town, a long way from the 15 miles of organized beaches that really form their own separate community and there wasn’t a pair of speedos or a can of lager in sight. To my ignorant surprise, Rimini looked like a rather sedate and civilised.
It has some very pretty buildings and, if there were any crowds, I suspect they were all cheek by jowl down at the beach.
Here in the main streets of the old town, people were getting on with the kinds of things people in towns do all over the World, getting on with their own business. There were no hordes of party-goers singing along to rave music. Actually there was music but it was supplied by a young Italian bagpiper.
Before my more militant Scottish friends claim ownership of this man’s instrument, I will hurry to tell them that he was playing traditional Italian music on his traditional Italian bagpipes. If you don’t believe me, take a listen – later, at the end of this blog.
I was still exploring and, down the road, found that the market is a very classy affair held in the town’s main square, Piazza Cavour, a very grand setting indeed for an open air market selling summer frocks, knickers and swimsuits.
I preferred to walk in the shade under these elegantly monumental arches.
I wasn’t bargain -hunting so my eyes kept looking up above the awnings to the architecture.
I was also impressed by the statue of Pope Paul V (papacy 1605-1621), erected in 1614, who appears to be blessing the summer frock and cardigan stall. He is best known in my home town of Lewes, in the United Kingdom, for his alleged involvement in the Gunpowder Plot, suspected of sending papal agents to undermine the luke-warm Catholicism of King James I. Every November the Fifth, his effigy is burnt at Lewes’ famous Bonfire celebrations. I think he’s a lot better off at Rimini market.
The real reason for my trip to Rimini though was to see the art and architecture including the impressively sturdy Roman bridge known as the Tiberius Bridge which has been open for traffic since the year 20 AD. The work was begun under the orders of the Emperor August Caesar but finished by his successor Emperor Tiberius and, amazingly, it is open for motor traffic never envisioned by Augustus Caesar.
Augustus Caesar was also responsible for Rimini’s Triumphal Arch, now known as the Arch of Augustus, erected in the year 27 BC and, apparently, the oldest triumphal arch in Northern Italy.
Propping myself up against it after walking through Rimini in the searing temperature, it felt pretty solid and made me feel less like an old ruin myself.
The other famous building in Rimini is the so-called Tempio Malatestiano, the 15th Century church of San Francisco, commissioned as a rebuild of a Franciscan Gothic church by the then ruler of Rimini, Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta (1417-1468). The architect was one of the most famous of all Renaissance architects, Leon Battista Alberti (1404-1472). The church is reputed to be the first ever to use a Roman triumphal arch as its inspiration and it must have been the case that Alberti was referencing the Arch of Augustus just round the corner.
Sigismondo Malatesta was one of those annoyingly brilliant Renaissance men who make the rest of us feel like couch potatoes. He was a very busy man. He managed to be an active soldier, one of those so-called condottieri, who fought for different sides in the many wars of that time between city states but he was also a poet and a great patron of the arts. He inspired many subsequent lovers of the Italian Renaissance. The influential 19th Century Renaissance scholar Jacob Burckhardt called him the “whole man” and implanting the concept of the ‘Renaissance Man” into common parlance and American Modernist poet Ezra Pound celebrated him in his Malatesta Cantos as, maybe, the first “modern” man – cultured, individualistic and unfettered. It was led him, regrettably, to see a new Malatesta in Benito Mussolini.
His luck ran out in the end and the money started to dry up after a number of defeats by the Duke of Urbino, the very Federigo da Montefeltro that I wrote about in my pervious blog who was also doing his condottiero bit for the Pope, now Pope Pius II, who took a very shady view indeed of Sigismondo whom he suspected of treachery and double-dealing. Sigismondo lost his lands except for Rimini and the surrounding district and consequently the church was left unfinished but, like Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony, it has a grandeur and melancholy finishing it might have diluted.
Pope Pius II suspected Sigismondo of other crimes too and even tried him in absentia accusing him of rape, adultery, sodomy and incest with various mistresses and others, even with his own son Roberto Malatesta. Sigismondo was promptly excommunicated and given the unusual punishment of being “canonised in Hell.” His second wife died in mysterious circumstances but nothing has been proven against him and he appears to have loved his mistress and third wife, Isotta degli Atti, and, some think, dedicated not just his poetry to her but his new church, built as her secret memorial. Over the centuries many people have thought that it feels more like a pagan temple than a Catholic church. If he was planning a temple to his mistress, then Hell’s Saint took the secret with him to his grave.
What he left behind was an exceptional building filled with great art and some intriguing mysteries.
Sigismondo did know about art though and chose some of the greatest artists of his day to ornament his temple. The interior walls are decorated by sculptures by Agnostino di Duccio (1418- c1481)
The wooden crucifix, 1309, over the altar is by Giotto, no less and, predates the present building being commissioned by the Franciscan church that preceded it.
Sigismondo himself can be seen in his church in a mural painted in 1451 by Piero della Francesca (1414-1492) where Sigismondo kneels, devoutly enough, in front of his namesake, Saint Sigismondo.
I have learnt to respect Piero della Francesca here in Eastern Italy not just because of his painting but for his diplomacy after seeing his portraits of both Sigismondo and of his great rival in Urbino, Federigo di Montefeltro. It must have been extremely difficult keeping in with the right people in Renaissance Italy.
Time for lunch, as they say and I headed off to find a fish restaurant recommended to me by an old gentlemen on a bike when I had asked for directions to the Tiberius Bridge. It was time too let let Sigismondo’s extraordinary heritage sink in.
It was time to head back to Gabicce Monte but I suspect that you’ve been gagging to hear that Italian bagpipe player. Well, you’re in luck thanks to my handy iPhone’s video capabilities. Enjoy but don’t be too harsh about those people wanting a photo opportunity not seeing fit to leave some coins for the poor lad. He conjured up for me a bit of old Rimini that you would never imagine from reading the holiday brochures. Join me again tomorrow for the last in this series of blogs about my time on the Adriatic coast of Italy.