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On Pound and Sigismondo Malatesta

Lawrence Rainey

It should come as no surprise that the motif of patronage is explicitly taken up in Pound's principal composition of this period, the so-called Malatesta Cantos, or Cantos 8-11. To oversimplify, they depict the life and times of Sigismondo Malatesta, the quattrocento ruler of Rimini, a small town just south of Ravenna on the Adriatic coast of Italy. Sigismondo sponsored the reconstruction of the church of San Francesco, a building long regarded as a landmark in architectural history. In the idealizing lens of late-nineteenth-century historiography, he was the ideal patron, discerning in his selection of an architect (the great Leon Battista Alberti), discriminating in his choice of artists (the magnificent painter Piero della Francesca and the talented sculptor Agostino di Duccio), and generous in giving them latitude to work as they wished. He was also, in the lexicon favored by nineteenth-century writers, a despot, a ruler whose authority was unchecked and arbitrary, his decisions ratified by no one, his choices subject to no identifiable norms or criteria. Sigismondo, in short, epitomized all the issues embedded in the institution of patronage, the questions of art and authority, power and public assent.

Pound saw the church of San Francesco for the first time in May 1922 while touring with his wife through central Italy; it was three months after the publication of Ulysses, two months after his first announcement of Bel Esprit, and five months before the publication of The Waste Land. Two weeks after he first saw the church, he met with Eliot in Verona to discuss the poem's publication and plans for Eliot's new review (supported by patronage from Lady Rothermere, wife of the newspaper magnate). In the spring of 1923 Pound returned to Italy to conduct further research into the life and times of Sigismondo Malatesta, gathering more materials to be used in writing the Malatesta Cantos. This time, while staying in Rimini, Pound had his first significant experience with members of the Fascist Party. The experience related directly to his writing about Sigismondo and later sparked his favorable view of Benito Mussolini and Fascism's effects in everyday life--the most fateful choice of his career. Only five months later, in the late summer of 1923, Pound was already engaged in efforts (which have been discovered only recently) to persuade Mussolini to adopt a program of cultural patronage outlined and to be directed by Pound himself. Pound, in short, had found his imaginary patron and the resolution to the question of art, authority, and public consensus. The thread that links together this intricate complex of events and motifs is the figure of the great patron, Sigismondo Malatesta, and the question of faith in his judgment: through him, the modernist culture of patronage was assimilated to the emerging culture of Fascism.


Sigismondo Malatesta (1417-1468) is known to posterity for a single mission that he pursued for more than a decade: his sponsorship of the reconstruction of the church of San Francesco, often called the Tempio Malatestiano, in the town of Rimini. The building is considered a landmark in Western architectural history because it was the first ecclesiastical edifice to incorporate the Roman triumphal arch into its structural vocabulary. The massive central doorway, flanked by two blind arches, plainly owes much to the Arch of Augustus, the oldest triumphal arch in Italy, which is also in Rimini. The interior, too, is striking: it teems with an elaborate series of sculptures and bas-reliefs by Agostino di Duccio, and the sacristy for the Chapel of San Sigismondo houses a fine fresco by Piero della Francesca. The churches reconstruction, initially undertaken as the refurbishing of a single chapel within an extant church that dated from the thirteenth century, assumed new dimensions in 1449-1450 when Sigismondo entrusted the project to Leon Battista Alberti, one of Alberti's earliest and most important commissions. Alberti redesigned the building's entire facade, added the central doorway, and adorned the sides with a series of seven deep arches divided by massive piers. He also planned to add a transept and to crown the intersection of nave and transept with a soaring dome, but a precipitous decline in Sigismondo's political fortunes left him unable to bear the costs of construction. By 1460 work on the project had stopped and the church was left incomplete.

Sigismondo's political career was shaped by the shifting balance of power that prevailed in the Italian peninsula, divided among the five major states: Venice and Milan in the north, Florence in central Italy, and Rome (or the papacy) and Naples in the south. In the course of his lifetime Sigismondo served each of them as a condottiere, though by the later 1450s the major states increasingly regarded him with suspicion, either because his conduct of various campaigns had lacked sufficient vigor or because he was reported to have engaged in duplicitous dealings with his opponents. In 1459 he joined another condottiere, Giacomo Piccinino, in an imprudent attempt to unseat the Aragonese dynasty that ruled Naples and replace it with the Angevin dynasty of southern France. For Milan the scheme raised the specter of invasion from France, and Francesco Sforza, ruler of the Milanese duchy, reacted sharply. So did papal Rome, partly because it too wished to prevent the establishment of a French presence in the peninsula, partly because Sigismondo's actions offered a pretext for the church to reassert its claims over territories long lost to its control. The territories were those of Sigismondo. By law the Malatestas were not the rulers of Rimini and the surrounding countryside but vicars of the church who, in return for an annual fee, were granted absolute control over all taxation and legal matters. By the late 1440s, however, the papacy was beginning to change, increasingly assuming the institutional traits of the Italian casato, or extended family enterprise, and acquiring its elastic corporate and dynastic structure as well as its ambitious expansionism. Hoping to regain control over territories it had lost in the past, the papacy was taking its first steps toward the formation of the modem papal state that would rule over central Italy until 1860. Sigismondo's was among the first of many minor states that would disappear in the next half century. That, of course, was no consolation for him. In 1461 he managed to survive a ferocious campaign launched against him, defeating a superior ecclesiastical army at the battle of Nidastore on 2 July [. . . .] The next season his luck ran out. On 12 August 1462 his troops were routed at the battle of Senigallia, and less than a week later those of his ally Piccinino were annihilated at the battle of Troia. When peace terms were drafted, Sigismondo lost everything except the city of Rimini and a few nearby towns.

Already during Sigismondo's lifetime the church of San Francesco aroused discussion, and in the centuries that followed it elicited a growing body of scholarly and antiquarian commentary. But it was in the eighteenth century that new and related arguments about the church's significance began to appear. it was urged, for example, that the church was not a church at all, at least not in the ordinary sense; nor was it just a monument to the Malatesta dynasty or Sigismondo's exemplary status as its preeminent representative. Instead, the building had been designed to commemorate Sigismondo's love for Isotta degli Atti, his mistress and later (after 1456) his third wife. The crucial evidence adduced in support of this view was the entwined cipher, made up of the letters S and I, that is sculpted everywhere among the church's interior and exterior decorations. The sign, in the new view, referred to the first letters in the names of Sigismondo and Isotta. This interpretation was first broached in 1718, debated inconclusively in 1756, then raised a third time in 1789, after which it was embraced without argument.

The figure most responsible for diffusing a new understanding of Sigismondo and his career outside Italy was the great historian Jakob Burckhardt. His Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, first published in 1860, largely created the modern notion of the Renaissance as a distinct historical period that signals the emergence of modern individualism. Burckhardt assigned Sigismondo an exemplary status, presenting him as the crowning figure among "the furtherers of humanism." His court had epitomized "the highest spiritual things" and had been a stage "where life and manners ... must have been a singular spectacle." His greatest achievement had been the reconstruction of the church of San Francesco, a project inspired by "his amour with the fair Isotta, in whose honour and as whose monument the famous rebuilding of S. Francesco at Rimini took place." Burckhardt turned Sigismondo into the epitome of "the whole man," a new human "type" who represented a form of historical existence crucial for the course of civilization, the type that had ushered in the age of modernity, a figure equally capable in war and art, in action and contemplation, one whose unfettered individuality united ruthless realism with lofty ideals: "Unscrupulousness, impiety, military skill, and high culture have been seldom so combined in one individual as in Sigismondo Malatesta." The "whole man" embodied in Sigismondo became the repository of an immense paradox: he was both the figure who had given birth to modernity and a symbol of all that modernity had later lost and betrayed, a rebuke to modernity itself. Translated into French (1876), Italian (1877), and English (1886), Burckhardt's work placed Sigismondo at the center of European intellectual debates about the nature of modernity--its origins, meaning, and prospects--and so about the very meaning of civilization.

Burckhardt's vision was recapitulated and transformed in myriad ways. The popular English historian John Addington Symonds viewed the church of San Francesco as "a monument of ... the revived Paganism of the fifteenth century" and "one of the earliest buildings in which the Neopaganism of the Renaissance showed itself in full force." Though ostensibly a church, it had "no room left for God." Symonds noted the many outrages allegedly committed by Sigismondo (including the murder of several wives), but he tempered their opprobriousness by integrating them within a liberal view of history that saw the violence of early individualism as a transient stage within the otherwise benign formation of modernity. Much bolder was a French journalist and art historian named Charles Yriarte, whose lengthy biography of Sigismondo was published in 1882. Yriarte claimed to have discovered a love poem "written by Sigismondo in honor of Isotta." He called it "the most characteristic of Sigismondo's works" and urged that its zodiacal references provided "the key to the enigma" of the elaborate bas-reliefs found inside the church of San Francesco. "It is not God who is worshiped here; instead it is for her that the incense and the myrrh are burned." His study formed the foundation of a consensus that was uncontested for decades, from its publication to roughly 1920. Encyclopedias, travel guides, novels, plays, and scholarly monographs repeated his claims again and again. From 1886 to 1929, every edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica reported that the church of San Francesco was built "to celebrate the tyrant's love for Isotta" and "dedicated ... to the glorification of an unhallowed attachment"; its sculptural decorations "derived ... from a poem in which Sigismondo had invoked the gods and the signs of the zodiac to soften Isotta's heart." Baedeker travel guides repeated the same claims, and popular novelists such as the British author Edward Hutton elaborated these motifs yet again.

The consensus forged by Yriarte began to come under attack around 1910, in the work of two scholars in Rimini who collaborated in research examining the many original and as yet unpublished documents housed in the city's archives and library. In 1909 one of them, Giovanni Soranzo (1881-1963), published "The Cipher SI of Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta," which reconsidered the meaning of the much discussed sign. There was not a single contemporary document suggesting that the sign referred to both Sigismondo and Isotta. Indeed, the only document to discuss the sign, a chronicle by one of Sigismondo's closest collaborators within the court, specifically stated that it referred to Sigismondo alone. It was common practice, moreover, among the courts of northern Italy to use the first two letters of someone's name as an abbreviation: Niccolò d'Este was frequently cited as NI, and Sigismondo's son, Roberto, was commemorated on numerous ceramics and other artifacts by the cipher RO. Even more damaging to Yriarte's thesis, the most common spelling of Isotta's name during her lifetime was "Ysotta" or "Yxotta," a spelling that appeared in nearly all the contemporary legal documents concerning her. One year later, Soranzo's colleague Aldo Francesco Massèra issued a detailed examination of all the poems and poets allegedly connected with Isotta. The notorious poem that Yriarte claimed to have discovered, the work that he had termed "the key to the enigma" of the church's sculptural decorations, had been written not by Sigismondo but by Simone Serdini, a poet from Siena who had communicated with the court of Rimini during the decade after 1410. Serdini had died in 1419 or 1420, some twelve years before Isotta degli Atti was born. It was unlikely that his poem referred to her or her relations with Sigismondo, which began in 1446.

Yet the work of Soranzo and Massèra scarcely affected the legend of Sigismondo and the church of San Francesco. Soranzo's essay was published in a journal of provincial history devoted to Romagna, of which Rimini is a part, and Massèra's appeared in a journal for professors of Italian literature. But the more important reason for neglect of their work was a form of ideological resistance. Burckhardt had placed Sigismondo and the romantic reading of the church at the center of a much wider debate about the culture of modernity, a debate only partially responsive to issues of evidence and historical documentation. Some writers chose to ignore the research of Soranzo and Massèra; Edward Hutton, for example, in his 1913 guidebook to the province of Romagna, simply repeated the claims of his earlier novel. Others turned the historical claims into symbolic ones; Luigi Orsini's 1915 guidebook to Romagna transformed Yriarte's argument about the poems into metaphor: the church of San Francesco was "a poem of indestructible beauty, uniting all the tenderest harmonies of art and feeling."

But the most important attempt to address the arguments advanced by Soranzo did not appear until 1924, when Corrado Ricci (1858-1934), a gifted art historian, published his monumental study of the church of San Francesco. While it was true, as Soranzo had shown, that every known document indicated that the sign SI had been understood during Sigismondo's lifetime to refer solely to Sigismondo himself, this had been only the sign's "official meaning." Behind it had stood an "equivocal meaning" known only to Sigismondo, Isotta, and perhaps a few of their intimates. Sigismondo himself, in fact, had designed the sign precisely in order to create this kind of ambiguity. Ricci offered no evidence for this claim; his argument was a transparent evasion, untypical and unworthy of a scholar otherwise noted for historical rigor and insight. Yet Ricci himself may not have understood why it so mattered to him to argue for the sign's "romantic" interpretation, which merely epitomized the basic structure underlying the Romantic legend of the church itself: in each case the genuine meaning, the hidden yet true meaning, is not in conformity with culturally (and therefore historically) given values but is achieved only by the shedding of historical attributes (habits, conventions) and meanings of the cultural system, a laying bare of something other--a hidden meaning that stands apart from everyday language and institutional discourse, a privileged site in which the sign and the church express sheer authenticity, their grounding in pure selfhood. Here, in other words, is semiosis that has been disembedded from local and temporal contexts of interaction and restructured in a conceptual time-space that is more indefinite, autonomous, and universal. Sigismondo acts in conformity not with historically determinate conventions of religious piety or dynastic self-aggrandizement but with an experiential impulse deemed universal--just as the meaning of the sign SI is located not in the geographically determinate practices of northern Italy or the temporal context of the mid-quattrocento but in an impulse that is largely disembedded of time and space. It is a process that recapitulates the so-called disembedding mechanisms that some sociologists consider one of the fundamental features of modernity. And Sigismondo was nothing, in the Burckhardtian understanding, if not the epitome of modernity itself

While liberal historiography sought to account for Sigismondo by situating him within a progressive account of modernity, others emphasized the more rebellious implications lodged in the Burckhardtian interpretation. Friedrich Nietzsche accentuated them to the point of turning the entire Renaissance into the promise of a modernity that had been subsequently thwarted, a modernity not yet realized: "The Italian Renaissance contained within it all the positive forces to which we owe modern civilization: liberation of thought, disrespect for authorities, victory of culture over the darkness of ancestry, enthusiasm for knowledge and the knowable past of man, unfettering of the individual ... indeed, the Renaissance possessed positive forces which have up to now, in our contemporary modern civilization, never been so powerful again.... [I]t was the golden age of this millennium."

The implications of this thought were hardly lost on Antonio Beltramelli, a restless Italian journalist from Romagna whose admiration for Nietzsche is evinced throughout his 1908 volume The Chants of Faunus (I canti di Fauno). Four years later, in 1912, Beltramelli published A Temple of Love (Un tempio d'amore), a brief narration of Sigismondo's life and his reconstruction of the church of San Francesco in Isotta's honor. His account differed from his predecessors' chiefly in its tone, which contained a note of violent lyricism celebrating the concepts of struggle and will: "The mere presence of Sigismondo was enough to impose subjection, and in this lay the secret of his fascination over the masses." Or again: "If Sigismondo failed in his effort to kill Pope Paul II, it was hardly for lack of will." In his hands the salient characteristic of Sigismondo became a ruthless, indomitable will--which also signaled the arrival of a new ethical and cultural order, turning him into an exemplary figure for the imagining of a new man who would address the pervasive sense of crisis that marked the early twentieth century and modernity itself

Eleven years later, in 1923, Beltramelli published another book, The New Man (L'uomo nuovo). It was the first biography of Mussolini published after he took power in late October 1922. Beltramelli had always been a regionalist with ties to his native province of Romagna, where Mussolini had been born and had begun his meteoric rise through the ranks of the Socialist Party. The New Man portrayed him as a son of his native soil, as harsh and violent as the landscape that had nurtured him. Seeking to furnish Mussolini with a cultural genealogy, Beltramelli located his forerunners in the house of Malatesta, also from Romagna. There was the founder of the dynasty, Malatesta da Verucchio: "He knows what he wants and he places his life as a pledge for his will." And the culmination was Sigismondo Malatesta, the "warrior" who had "the heart of a poet," a figure whose "desperate energy" and "passionateness" impressed itself in his every deed. Mussolini was pleased and wrote Beltramelli a congratulatory letter that was reproduced in facsimile at the volume's end. It was an appropriate gesture. Beltramelli had been a member of the Fascist Party since its inception in 1919, and in the years after 1923 his role as a party militant expanded: he served as a principal speaker at the Convention of Fascist Culture in 1925, the keystone in the regime's efforts to organize the nation's intellectual life, and he signed its chief document, the "Manifesto of Fascist Intellectuals"; later he edited newspapers for the "University Youth" movement and the "syndicate" of Fascist writers. He died in 1930, and in 1937 the anniversary of his death was commemorated with an article that reprinted all the marginalia that a young socialist named Mussolini had left in his copy of The Chants of Faunus.

Beltramelli's portrait of Sigismondo was not, however, the antithesis of the one given by the more refined and scholarly Ricci but rather its complement. His book on Sigismondo, in fact, had originated in a lecture on the church of San Francesco that he had given some years earlier, in 1907, which he had written after consulting the text of an earlier lecture on the same subject by Ricci. It is true that Ricci had kept his distance from the Fascist National Party and its activities during 1919 to 1922, and in 1923 his distinguished career--he had served as director of the Brera in Milan (1899-1903), of the Royal Galleries of Florence (1903-1906), and of antiquities and fine arts for all of Italy (1906-1919)--was culminating in a shower of honors. But now those honors were being dispensed by the new regime as part of its effort to woo the qualified personnel necessary to run a modern bureaucracy, personnel not to be found among the ill-educated and violent leaders of the squads that had brought the party to power. On 1 March l923 Ricci was named a senator of the kingdom (senatore del regno); on 11 April he was appointed president of the Central Commission for Antiquities and Fine Arts; and on 6 May he was named president of the Casa di Dante, one of the nation's most prestigious cultural institutions. In March 1925 he would participate alongside Beltramelli at the Convention of Fascist Culture in Bologna, and his role in the cultural politics of the regime would continue to expand, reaching its apogee at the inaugural lectures he gave in 1933 for the Fascist National Institute of Culture. Mussolini, it was reported when Ricci died in 1934, "knew him intimately and appreciated his deep learning and indomitable energy."

Pound, at one point or another, examined all the works that have been mentioned so far, and when possible he sought to meet their authors. In mid-May 1927, he first saw the church of San Francesco during holiday travels with his wife, Dorothy; before leaving he took notes from Symonds and purchased a Baedeker guidebook. While in Rimini he purchased a copy of Beltramelli's book, and he made detailed use of it a month later when he wrote his earliest drafts for the Malatesta Cantos. When he returned to Paris he bought Yriarte's book, later filling its pages with 150 notes and marginalia. He also purchased Hutton's novel and Soranzo's Pius II and Italian Politics in the Struggle Against the Malatesta, 1457-1463. In the Bibliothèque Nationale of Paris he consulted volumes too rare to be easily purchased. After five months' intense work, he left Paris in January 1923 and after a brief vacation began an extensive tour of historical archives and libraries holding books and primary documents connected with Sigismondo. His travels lasted nine weeks, from 11 February to 14 April, and covered Rome, Florence, Bologna, Modena, Cesena, Rimini, the Republic of San Marino, Pennabilli, Fano, Pesaro, Urbino, again Rimini, Ravenna, Venice, and Milan. While in Rome he met with Ricci, who furnished information about archival sources, recent archaeological discoveries, and his defense of the view of the cipher SI. In Rimini he encountered Soranzo's colleague Massèra, though it was a meeting that seems to have been rather less cordial, as we shall see. In Ravenna he sought out Santi Muratori, a colleague of Ricci who had helped renovate the church, and in Milan he attempted to contact Soranzo, whose studies of Sigismondo he had read in Paris. Ultimately Pound accumulated more than seven hundred pages of notes and more than sixty-five drafts and draft fragments.

For Pound the Tempio Malatestiano became a resonant symbol that encompassed a broad range of his experiences and aspirations, both literary and extraliterary. Sigismondo, after all, had been a poet, and Yriarte's attribution of the poem by Serdini to him had only given further impetus to a conception of the church as a poem in stone, a lyrical work that expressed a realm of selfhood and desire free from, and in opposition to, the everyday world of socially given meaning. The building's mélange of styles, from the severe exterior by Alberti to the luxurious sculptural decorations by Agostino di Duccio, epitomized a polyphonic eclecticism already typical of The Cantos. Alberti's adaptation of motifs from antiquity coincided with Pound's recurrent interest in the renewal of classical tradition. Sigismondo had written in lyrical genres linked especially to the time when Provençal poetry had influenced Italian poetry, suggesting that he, like Pound, had harbored a genuine sympathy for the culture of Provence. And a more romantic reading of Sigismondo's biography might suggest that his devotion to Isotta was a continuation of practices sanctioned in the Provençal culture of courtly love; moreover, his 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.

There was also the motif of patronage, plainly relevant to Pound when he was preoccupied with Bel Esprit and also crucial in his own career, from the financial support he had received from Margaret Cravens (in 1910-1912) and John Quinn (in 1915-1923) to his efforts to secure patronage for Joyce, Eliot, and Wyndham Lewis. Historians in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries had long portrayed the Renaissance as an age unrivaled in its patrons, neglecting the link between political power and cultural display that fostered the practice of the Renaissance courts and assimilating their activity to post-Kantian ideals of aesthetic disinterestedness. Yet even taking these factors into account, Sigismondo could be viewed as one of the greatest of the smaller courtly patrons, one who had commissioned works from Alberti, Agostino di Duccio, Piero della Francesca, Antonio Pisanello, the poet Basinio da Parma, and many others. Finally, Sigismondo had been turned into an exemplary figure whose restless individuality and unbridled will marked a crucial moment in Western cultural history, constituting a resource for the imagining of a new man who would address the endemic crisis that was gripping liberal bourgeois culture. Sigismondo, as constructed in a complex ensemble of works and cultural practices, had become a riveting image: the source of one of the highest cultural achievements in the West and a locus for nagging questions about the cost, meaning, and purpose of that ideal moment, a figure who simultaneously heralded modernity's arrival and rebuked its failure to realize its emancipatory promise. Here were lodged all the contradictions of art and modernity, imagination and power.

From Institutions of Modernism: Literary Elites and Public Culture. New Haven: Yale UP, 1998. Copyright © 1998 by Yale UP.

Editor's Note: This excerpt represents but a small portion of a much longer essay, "From the Patron to il Duce: Ezra Pound's Odyssey," in Lawrence Rainey's Institutions of Modernism. Readers are urged to consult the full essay, along with Rainey's Ezra Pound and the Monument of Culture: Text, History, and the Malatesta Cantos (University of Chicago Press, 1991).

Marjorie Perloff

Much has been written on the background and themes of the Malatesta Cantos, and I don't wish here to go over familiar ground. Thomas Jackson has shown, quite conclusively, I think, that Malatesta is not simply, as many commentators have assumed, Pound's hero--the Renaissance ruler as beneficent patron of art--but that the emphasis in these Cantos is on Sigismundo's very mixed motives and consequently dubious successes. From the beginning of Canto VIII, Sigismundo is depicted as a man torn between his love for the arts and his concern for war-politics and "service money"; the public man, in Jackson's words, "is forever undoing the private man." If Sigismundo was responsible for the architectural splendors of the Tempio at Rimini, he was also the first man to use metal cannonballs. If he wrote beautiful love poems to Isotta degli Atti, he also engaged in the most petty materialistic power struggles with the Sforza and Medici dynasties.

The portrait of Malatesta that emerges from these Cantos is thus hardly novel: it takes us back to Burckhardt's understanding of the Italian Renaissance as a time of incredible tension between sexual brutality and courtly love, between physical violence and artistic delicacy. To paraphrase Samuel Johnson, "if you were to read the Malatesta Cantos for their thematic interest, your patience would be so much fretted that you would hang yourself." And this is precisely how some readers have responded. "Reading," says Donald Davie, "is an unsatisfactory word for what the eye does as it resentfully labors over and among these blocks of dusty historical debris."

Yet, on closer inspection, Pound's manipulation of these "blocks of dusty historical debris" exerts a peculiar fascination. It is not just a matter of "cultural overlayering" or of alternating a love letter with a list of building materials, a list of building materials with a papal edict. I would posit that Pound's basic strategy in the Cantos is to create a flat surface, as in a Cubist or early Dada collage, upon which verbal elements, fragmented images, and truncated bits of narrative, drawn from the most disparate contexts, are brought into collision. Such "collage poetry," as David Antin points out, "no longer yield(s) an iconic representation, even of a fractured sort, though bristling with significations." It thus occupies a middle space between the mimetic on the one hand and the non-objective or "abstract" on the other; the referential process is not cut off but it is subordinated to a concern for sequential or spatial arrangement. Indeed, in the case of the Malatesta Cantos, the text becomes a surface of linguistic distortions and contradictions that force the reader to participate in the poem's action. just as Rimbaud invents cityscapes in which Swiss chalets on magic pulleys dissolve into Vesuvian craters and then into gorges spanned by little footbridges, so Pound dislocates language so as to create new verbal landscapes.

The 1923 version of Canto VIII opens as follows:

Frater tamquam et compater carissime
                                . . hanni de
                                . . dicis
                                . . entia
Equivalent to: Giohanni of the Medici, Florence)
Letter received, and in the matter of our Messire
One from him also, sent on in form and with all due
Having added your wishes and memoranda.

Unlike, say, the opening of "Gerontion" or the first page of Ulysses, this passage is not polysemous. As D. S. Carne-Ross, in a general discussion of the Cantos, puts it: "Pound's first level doesn't point beyond itself... the whole reverberating dimension of inwardness is missing. There is no murmuring echo chamber where deeps supposedly answer to deeps." But neither is the passage a ragbag of dusty historical debris. Its strategy is best understood if we compare it to its source: a 1449 letter from Sigismundo to Giovanni di Medici. The original begins with the address:

Magnifice vir tamquam frater, et compater carissime.

Pound lops off the standard form of address ("Magnifice vir") and reverses the next two words, emphasizing Sigismundo's rather oily appeal to his Medici patron as a true brother. Next, the sonorous formality of the address is undercut by a series of incomplete words, meant to reproduce what is on the back of the envelope ("tergo"). Here the reader has to fill in the first few letters of each word in order to make sense of the address: "Johanni de / Medicis / Florentia." The poet thus insists on our participation; it is up to us to fill in the blanks, to play the game. But just when we become accustomed to this strategy, Pound does a further turnabout and tells us matter-of-factly: "Equivalent to: Giohanni of the Medici, Florence."

The lines, in short, do not convey information; rather, they take certain facts and present them from different linguistic perspectives (formal, florid Italian; broken Italian words; English translation) as if to undercut their historicity. Fact, in other words, is repeatedly transformed into fiction. Thus in the body of the letter, Pound takes Sigismundo's perfectly straightforward "Ho ricevuto vostra lettera" ("I have received your letter") and turns it into business English--"Letter received"--whereas the phrase "li preghi et recordi vestri" ("your best wishes and remembrances") becomes, by an absurd sleight-of-hand, "your wishes and memoranda," as if Rimini were dissolving into Wall Street.

Such linguistic indeterminacy is one of the central devices of these Cantos. Pound uses a variety of techniques to command our attention. Perhaps the simplest is condensation and modernization. In Canto VIII, for example, Sigismundo's letter to Giovanni di Medici regarding his renewed alliance with Venice is a seven-line condensation of the original eighteen lines of prose, in which Sigismundo gives a formal explanation of the precise terms the Venetians have offered him, his military troubles caused by renewed flooding, and so on. Here is Pound's rendition:

Venice has taken me on again
                At 7,000 a month, fiorini di Camera.
For 2,000 horse and four hundred footmen,
And it rains here by the gallon,
We have had to dig a new ditch.
In three or four days
I shall try to set up the bombards.

Such updating of history would not in itself make the Malatesta Cantos unique; it is a device many poets have used. But Pound's forte is to take a passage like the one just cited and then suddenly to switch back to the voice of the Renaissance chronicler, in this case describing the wedding of Bianca Visconti to Francesco Sforza:

Under the plumes, with the flakes and small wads of
Showering from the balconies
With the sheets spread from windows,
            with leaves and small branches pinned on
Arras hung from the railings; out of the dust,
With pheasant tails upright on their forelocks,
                The small white horses, the
Twelve girls riding in order, green satin in pannier'd

Another frequent form of montage is to set the original Italian side by side with a correct English translation so as to intensify and reinforce a central image; thus "non gli manchera la provixione mai" is followed by "never lacking provision," and the line "With his horsemen and his footmen" precedes "gente di cavallo e da pie." Or again, Pound may translate a given letter or document written in highly formal Italian so literally that it sounds like a parody in English. The best example of such satiric super-literalism is the letter of Sigismundo's five-year-old son, which Pound translates in Canto IX with tongue-in-cheek pedantic fidelity:

"Magnificent and Exalted Lord and Father in especial my
"lord with due recommendation: your letter has been pre-
"sented to me by Gentilino da Gradara and with it the bay
"pony (ronzino baiectino) the which you have sent me, and
"which appears in my eyes a fine caparison'd charger, upon
"which I intend to learn all there is to know about riding, in
"consideration of yr. paternal affection for which I thank
"your excellency thus briefly and pray you continue to hold
"me in this esteem....

In English, the endless "the which," "upon which," and "for which" clauses, the consistent circumlocution, and the involuted address sound wholly absurd, especially since the subject of the letter is no more than the gift of a bay pony. Translated thus literally, the letter has neither the status of fifteenth-century document nor twentieth-century adaptation; it remains a curiosity, removed from a specific time-space context. The introduction of the Italian phrase "ronzino baiectino" is particularly skillful: "ronzino baiectino" does mean "bay pony," but in the context it sounds more like a zoological specimen or a rare disease.

The Malatesta Cantos "cut" back and forth between such literal translation on the one hand and intentional mistranslation on the other. We have one example of the latter in the above passage. Pound translates "uno grosso et apreciato corsiero" as "a fine caparison'd charger." "Apreciato" means "worthy" or "admirable"; "caparison'd" is a pure invention, used to enhance the bombastic formality of the child's letter. Frequently in the Malatesta Cantos, the straightforward expository prose of the original gives way to business English ("This to advise...... the said load"); illiterate spelling ("I think it advisabl that I shud go to rome to talk to mister Albert so as I can no what he thinks about it rite"); abbreviations ("yr. Lordship," "The Illus. Sgr. Mr. Fedricho d'Orbino," "Sidg"); modern slang ("that nicknosed s.o.b. Feddy," "And old Sforza bitched us at Pesaro," "worked the wangle," "And he found 'em, the anti-Aragons, / busted and weeping in their beards"); regional American dialects ("provided you don't get too ornry," "But dey got de mos' bloody rottenes' peace on us"); and comic name-calling ("old Wattle-Wattle," "Siggy darlint," the transformation of Giorgio Ranbutino into "Giorgio Rambottom").

Closely related to such artful mistranslation is the purposely incorrect rendering of the Italian itself. In the letter to Giovanni di Medici which opens Canto VIII, for example, Pound has Sigismundo say: "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 / (buttato via) . . ." In the original, the Italian phrase is gettata via, which means "thrown away." Pound substitutes the harsh "buttato via," partly to suit his own meaning--"chucked away"--and partly, no doubt, for comic sound effect.

One of Pound's most effective ways of distorting perspective is to juxtapose a snatch of Italian with the "official" Latin document relating to the same thing, and then to tack on an English conclusion, thus incorporating linguistic conventions of various centuries. Canto IX, for instance, begins on a note of quasi-Biblical repetition--"One year floods rose, / One year they fought in the snows, / One year hail fell"--then moves through a series of paratactic "And . . ." clauses ("And the Emperor came down and knighted us, / And they had a wooden castle set up for fiesta"), gives way to the series of "real" letters discussed above, and then comes to the following climax:

"et amava perdutamente Ixotta degli Atti"
e "ne fu degna"
            "constans in proposito
"Placuit oculis principis
"pulchra aspectu"
"populo grata (Italiaeque decus)

"and built a temple so full of pagan works"
            i. e. Sigismund 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.

The Italian lines (1-2) were written by Pope Pius II. The four Latin lines that follow come from a fifteenth-century chronicle attributed to Alessandro da Rimini, although Pound condenses and rephrases the original. The conjunction of the Italian and Latin encomia emphasizes Isotta's special charms and justifies Sigismundo's boundless passion for her. But now both are further set off by the English conclusion, which begins with a translation from the Latin chronicle ("and built a temple so full of pagan works"), modulates into American shorthand ("i.e. Sigismund"), and then provides a variation of Walter Savage Landor's Victorian poem, "Past ruined Ilion Helen lived." The love affair of Sigismundo and Isotta degli Atti is thus viewed in the perspective of three centuries as well as three languages. In the final lines of the Canto, Pound reverses the movement, and we come back to the old sarcophagi, "such as lie, smothered in grass, by San Vitale"--that is, to the early Christian world. We also come back to the poet who contemplates all these things, whose vision of the sarcophagi at San Vitale has prompted his meditation on the Malatesta in the first place.

The Malatesta Cantos do not, then, recreate history; they decompose and fragment historical time and action so as to draw the "events" recorded into the world of the text. This is not to say that Pound updates the annals of the Malatesta family; he is, on the contrary, quite faithful to the record. But the linguistic deformations I have been describing project the world of the Renaissance condottiere onto a flat picture plane or shallow film screen, upon which categories like "past" and "present" become irrelevant.

Here a comparison of Pound and Yeats is instructive. For Yeats, the "broken wall, the burning roof and tower" of Troy embody certain basic human conflicts that recur at other moments in history. Troy, like Byzantium, or like the "Romantic Ireland" of Robert Emmet and Wolfe Tone, is a symbolic landscape. Pound's history collage, on the other hand, retains fidelity to the literal events but brings those events into the reader's circle by transforming the history lesson into a kind of "VORTEX, from which and through which, and into which, ideas are constantly rushing." History becomes the impetus for the play of language. Thus the lengthy Latin statement describing the auto-da-fé of Sigismundo, complete with bibliographical references to its sources (X, 43-44) is exploded by the slangy passage that follows it:

So that in the end that pot-scraping little runt Andreas
               Benzi, da Siena
Got up to spout out the bunkum
That that monstrous swollen, swelling s. o. b.
            Papa Pio Secundo
            Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini
            da Siena
Had told him to spout, in their best bear's-greased
    latinity ...

And this narrative, rendered in Pound's best Western twang, is again displaced by a Latin passage, listing the sins for which Sigismundo was excommunicated: "Stupro, caede, adulter, / homicida, parricida ac periurus," and so on. Neither "Renaissance" nor "modern" characters, Andreas Benzi, Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini (Pius II), and Sigismundo Malatesta exist only in the collage-text of the poem. And the reader, making his way through Pound's paste-ups and film-splices, finds himself inside the circle of fragments.

From The Poetics of Indeterminacy: Rimbaud to Cage. Copyright © 1981 by Princeton University Press. Reprinted with the permission of the author.

Lawrence S. Rainey

[Pound’s] highly determinate form of ambiguity, however, has received little attention in recent criticism regarding the Malatesta Cantos. The case of Marjorie Perloff is instructive, for hers has been an influential voice in recent criticism of Pound, while her critical practices are representative of the professional mainstream in the last decade. Her argument proceeds in three steps. First, she advances a reductive notion of content: that the Malatesta Cantos depict "Pound's hero—the Renaissance ruler as beneficent patron of art." She then claims that the work must exceed the grasp of criteria so patently trivial. Yet Pound, it should be noted, was a poet deeply interested in subject matter and content, and one especially concerned with the problem of patronage, a form of cultural production that was, indeed, the central economic resource of literary modernism. From March 1922 to mid-1923, while composing the Malatesta Cantos, Pound was actively engaged in organizing the Bel Esprit project, a plan to create a lifetime endowment for T. S. Eliot. Two years later, in March 1925, when Pound was approached by Henry Allen Moe of the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation about candidates for its newly created awards, Pound launched into a thirty-page letter extolling patronage and urging the merits of Wyndham Lewis, T. S. Eliot, and George Antheil as potentially worthy recipients. After ten pages of pleading for Eliot, he paused to define his ideal of patronage:

    Incidentally I mean(t) to cite chiefly /re Eliot, a letter of Sigismund[o] Malatesta's which I have quoted at length in my VIIth [sic] Canto (Canto VIII, in the Malatesta Cantos, Criterion, I think Aug. 1923) Canto VII in the Three Mountains Press Edtn.
    I take Malatesta as a prime example of a man who wanted civilization in a small town, and GOT the goods delivered. He had Pisanello, Pier della Francesca, Battista Alberti, the architect, Mino da Fiesole, four certainly of the best men of the time down in Rimini. This letter is to Giovanni dei Medici, persumably re/ Pier Francesca; and says he wants the master painter for life, with a set provision, security to be given, and ends up[:]
    affitigandose per suo piacer o no,
    So that he can work as he likes or not.
Ma(l) atesta got the goods. And he was enough of an artist himself to know that you can't always tell when an artist is loafing. Real work may be done on tennis court or in trolley car, and sham work at desk.

Pound, it is clear, was far more eager to address the issue of subject matter and contents than his critics have been.

Perloff's remarks, however, proceed not from an engagement with either the poem or its relevant context, but from systematic assumptions, which she shares with modern criticism, about the very nature of the literary object. Her tart dismissal of contents and authorial intentions is only a preliminary step toward "beating the material into shape," forcing it to conform to the reigning paradigm of critical practice. By extension, the work's "real contents " must reside elsewhere: "you would hang yourself" if you attempted "to read the Malatesta Cantos for their thematic interest" (p. 181). Rather, it must reside in its formal or systemic features, and therefore she offers a series of local readings that focus on stylistic minutiae. One, for example, concerns a phrase from a 1454 letter which we have already seen, "the bay pony (ronzino baiectino) the which you have sent me." Perloff remarks:

Translated thus literally, the letter has neither the status of fifteenth- century document nor twentieth-century adaptation; it remains a curiosity, removed from a specific time-space context. The introduction of the Italian phrase "ronzino baiectino" is particularly skillful: "ronzino baiectino" does mean "bay pony," but in the context it sounds more like a zoological specimen or a rare disease. (p. 185)

"Context"' is tacitly restructed to minutiae of style, discursive practices stripped to mere phonetics ("it sounds like"), and every link with socio-historical reality dismissed a priori: "removed from a specific time-space context." And these maneuvers are repeated over and over, as in a discussion of the two lines cited earlier from a letter of 1449. Perloff com- ments (p. 186):

Closely related to such artful mistranslation is the purposely incorrect [italics mine] rendering of the Italian itself. In the letter to Giovanni di Medici which opens Canto VIII, for example, Pound has Sigismundo say: "[ ...]And it wd. be merely work chucked away / (buttato via). ..." In the original, the Italian phrase is gettata via, which means "thrown away." Pound substitutes the harsh "buttato via," partly to suit his own meaning—"chucked away"—and partly, no doubt, for comic sound effect.

By "the original" Perloff refers not to the actual document located in Florence and consulted by Pound, but to the published transcription of it that appears in Charles Yriarte's book of 1882 (as her note declares, p. 186 n. 1). Her failure to distinguish these is merely a logical outcome of the assumption that the relationship between inset (quoted item) and frame (quoting agency) is purely "textual" in character: a relationship between text and text rather than a social dynamics of transmission that comprises numerous inscriptures. Perloff takes for granted that investigation proceeds through purely intersystemic or "intrinsic" orders, and when faced with recalcitrant evidence she achieves those orders by systematically destroying its "extrinsic"' dimensions: its specifically material form, its thematics, its problematic textual features. For precisely those features deemed "extrinsic" in ordinary critical discourse are intrinsic for understanding the dynamics of transmission. Indeed, by now it must be clear that the "incorrect rendering" is purely Perloff's creation, and the "comic sound effect" mere speculation. And yet even these local misreadings are significant only insofar as they lead toward the final solution of the work's social actuality in every form. In the Malatesta Cantos, she concludes, "history becomes the impetus for the play of language" (p. 182). It is only an occasion "to create new verbal landscapes" (p. 182), a site where "fact, in other words, is repeatedly transformed into fiction" (p. 183).

To the contrary, the case of the Malatesta Cantos suggests a scenario that moves in the opposite direction: a space where fiction will be repeatedly transformed into fact—at least if we take seriously the affiliation between Beltramelli's portraits of Sigismondo Malatesta and Benito Mussolini, or the genealogy of the new age imagined by Pound in Drafts A and B and its fateful reinscription in later years. To be sure, this may be only to say that social actuality is constituted by a network of real and discursive practices that is exceptionally intricate, and that the distinction between "fact" and "fiction" is a device too crude to ground any account of its essential features. For discourse, like its paradigmatic form the quotation, is Janus-faced: it looks backwards and forwards, soliciting the past in order to imagine the future.

As he wrote Drafts A and B in the summer of 1922, it is certain that Pound knew nothing about Beltramelli, or his biography of Mussolini, or his effort to furnish Mussolini with genealogical links to Sigismondo Malatesta. And yet the routes of reference traced in his quotation from Beltramelli were both wider and deeper than anything Pound could encompass—wider in the sense that they were more intricate, more extensive, and more problematic than he could imagine; deeper in that they extended into the past and future in ways that could hardly have been predicted in the summer of 1922 and yet appear already inscribed in the quotation from Beltramelli. Historical criticism, we begin to perceive, is understood wrongly as the mere recovery of a context that has existed in the past; its most important contexts are those that exist only in the future.

As for Beltramelli himself, his course was increasingly fixed as a party militant (see figure 12). In March 1925 he served as a principal speaker at the Convention of Fascist Culture (also called the Congress of Fascist Institutes of Culture), the pivotal effort of the regime to organize the nation's intellectual life; in April 1925 he signed the "Manifesto of Fascist Intellectuals," the central document of its program. Under party auspices he undertook direction of La rivolta ideale, the organ of the "University Youth" movement, and for two years he also served as co-director of II raduno, the weekly newspaper of the "syndicate" of fascist authors and writers. He died in 1930, and in 1937 the anniversary of his death was commemorated by an article that reprinted the marginalia written in 1908 by Mussolini in his own copy of Beltramelli's The Chants of Faunus. Yet though well known in Italy, Beltramelli's work attracted little attention abroad, and holdings of his works are often uneven in other countries. In the United States, for example, only one library reports a copy of the book consulted by Pound, Un tempio d' amore, and surely this is one reason why American scholars have never identified his role in the genesis of the Malatesta Cantos, even though direct quotation from his book is a prominent feature in the final version of the Malatesta Cantos (on this, see chapter 3). For the routes of transmission affect every effort at understanding. . . .

As for Pound, his own understanding of its routes of reference altered with the passage of time: in 1922 an analogy between Sigismondo Malatesta and Benito Mussolini had been only one possibility, and at that a remote one, among many; by 1932, however, it would strike Pound as the central axis for the shape of his magnum opus and his understanding of its place in the modem world. As he would write 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."

from Ezra Pound and the Monument of Culture: Text, History, and the Malatesta Cantos. Copyright © 1991 by the U of Chocago Press.

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