The Perpetual Three-Dot Column
The Perpetual Three-Dot Column
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by Jesse Walker

Sunday, June 22, 2003
REPORT FROM RIMINI: Five and a half centuries ago, Rimini was ruled by a crypto-pagan aristocrat called Sigismundo Malatesta, the only man consigned directly to hell upon his death by papal decree. He's left his marks all over this Adriatic city, most notably in the Tempio Malatesta, a bizarre and lovely cathedral, still in use, that we visited our first afternoon in town. Ezra Pound adored Malatesta -- partly, some have suggested, because he reminded the poet of his poorly chosen modern hero, Benito Mussolini -- and Sigismundo dominates a long stretch of Ezra's
Cantos. Pound fan Robert Anton Wilson then inserted Malatesta into the background of his very enjoyable novel The Earth Will Shake, as an ancestor of the protagonist. Who, in turn, visited the same temple we did:

The Tempio Malatesta had been built, in fact, to honor the last and best loved of Sigismundo's mistresses, Ixotta degli Atti, whom he had finally married. It had not one Christian icon in it, but contained a monument proclaiming Divae Ixottae sacrum -- sacred to the Divine Ixotta. When Ixotta died, Sigismundo Malatesta entombed her there, under a plaque saying "Ixotta of Rimini, in beauty and virtue the glory of Italy." The rest of the temple was dedicated entirely to the gods of ancient Rome.

If you can imagine a Barbary ape with pepper up his nose, Uncle Pietro said, you can imagine how Pope Pius II, the reigning pontiff, jumped and howled and screamed when he found out about this heathen temple....

"[Malatesta] supervised every tiny detail, even writing long letters to the artists when he was away serving as mercenary general to other princes, when he wanted to raise more money to make the tempio even more outrageously stupendous," Uncle Pietro said. "All the tracery, you will notice, consist of variations on the intertwining of his initials with hers -- S and I."

Sigismundo loves Ixotta: it resonated from every lovely statue and erotic painting to every soaring arch and illuminated column.

Wilson is taking some artistic license here. Everything he writes above could be true, was widely believed to be true in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but is not necessarily regarded as true by most historians today. The entwined S and I, for example -- it looks like a dollar sign, and to some eyes might suggest a church built by a mad Objectivist -- does not likely refer to Sigismundo's love for Ixotta, if only because her name was usually spelled Ysotta or Yxotta while she was alive. Wilson has picked the historical interpretation that worked best for his novel, a perfectly legitimate thing to do -- but misleading if you're given to taking things literally. Lord knows (and maybe Ixotta does too) that the people who come to the temple to worship today do so in the name of Jesus, not some long-forgotten mistress to a Renaissance warlord.

Rimini is also a short bus ride from San Marino, a city-state bounded on all sides by the Republic of Italy. Long ago, it had to fend off Malatesta's armies; today it remains independent while Rimini is a demilitarized beach town.

For the most part, San Marino is an ordinary city surrounded by ordinary sprawl, notable mostly for an overabundance of car dealerships, but at the center of the statelet is a trio of stone towers, surrounded by shops, museums, mediocre restaurants, and modern-but-medieval government buildings. There's a Grand Fenwick quality to the place that I like, reinforced by the admirably low-key plaques in the museums. A set of archeological finds are described as "more or less important." Artifacts from a monastery are "not very high quality objects." And then there's this charming sentence: "No one knows what the original building actually looked like, but it must have been somewhat different to this." Someone in San Marino is either very honest or very bitter.

posted by Jesse 3:44 AM
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