Rienzi's Revolution In Rome
Author: Lodge, R.
Rienzi's Revolution In Rome
When for nearly forty years Rome had been deserted by the popes, who had
betaken themselves in 1309 to a long residence at Avignon, France, and when
the Eternal City was virtually without an imperial government - the Teutonic
emperors having likewise abandoned her - she fell back upon the memories of
her great past, recalling the glories of her ancient supremacy and the means
whereby it had been established and maintained. Whatever might promise to
restore it she was ready to welcome.
At this time the real masters of Rome were the princes or barons dwelling
in their fortified castles outside or in their strong palaces within the city.
Over the northern district, near the Quirinal, reigned the celebrated old
family of the Colonnas; while along the Tiber, from the Campo-di-Fiore to the
Church of St. Peter, extended the sway of the new family of the Orsini. Other
members of the nobility, in the country, held their seats in small fortified
cities or castles. Under such domination Rome had become almost deserted.
"The population of the seven-hilled city had come down to about thirty
thousand souls." When at peace with one another - which was rarely - the
barons exercised over the citizens and serfs a combined tyranny, while the
farmers, travellers, and pilgrims were made victims of their plunder. At this
period Petrarch - that "first modern man" - wrote to Pope Clement VI that Rome
had become the abode of demons, the receptacle of all crimes, a hell for the
"It was in these circumstances that a momentary revival of order and
liberty was effected by the most extraordinary adventurer of an age that was
prolific in adventurers." This was Cola di Rienzi, who was born in Rome about
1313, and who is sometimes styled "an Italian patriot." In his ambitious
endeavor to reinstate the Caesarean power in Italy he appears alternately in
the figure of a hero and the character of a charlatan. Believing himself the
founder of a new era, he was inflamed by his successes, and ended in "mystical
extravagances and follies which could not fail to cause his ruin."
Cola Di Rienzi was born of humble parents, though he afterward tried to
gratify his own vanity and to gain the ear of Charles IV by claiming to be the
bastard son of Henry VII. A wrong which he could not venture to avenge
excited his bitter hostility against the baronage, while the study of Livy and
other classical writers inspired him with regretful admiration for the glories
of ancient Rome.
He succeeded in attracting notice by his personal beauty and by the
rather turgid eloquence which was his chief talent. In 1342 he took the most
prominent part in an embassy from the citizens to Clement VI; and though he
failed to induce the Pope to return to Rome, which at that time he seems to
have regarded as the panacea for the evils of the time, he gained sufficient
favor at Avignon to be appointed papal notary.
From this time he deliberately set himself to raise the people to open
resistance against their oppressors, while he disarmed the suspicions of the
nobles by intentional buffoonery and extravagance of conduct. On May 20,
1347, the first blow as struck. Rienzi, with a chosen band of conspirators,
and accompanied by the papal vicar, who had every interest in weakening the
baronage, proceeded to the Capitol, and, amid the applause of the mob,
promulgated the laws of the buono stato.
He himself took the title of tribune, in order to emphasize his
championship of the lower classes. The most important of his laws were for
the maintenance of order. Private garrisons and fortified houses were
forbidden. Each of the thirteen districts was to maintain an armed force of a
hundred infantry and twenty-five horsemen. Every port was provided with a
cruiser for the protection of merchandise, and the trade on the Tiber was to
be secured by a river police.
The nobles watched the progress of this astonishing revolution with
impotent surprise. Stefano Colonna, who was absent on the eventful day,
expressed his scorn of the mob and their leader. But a popular attack on his
palace convinced him of his error and forced him to fly from the city. Within
fifteen days the triumph of Rienzi seemed to be complete, when the proudest
nobles of Rome submitted and took an oath to support the new constitution.
But the suddenness of his success was enough to turn a head which was never of
The Tribune began to dream of restoring to the Roman Republic its old
supremacy. And for a moment even this dream seemed hardly chimerical. Europe
was really dazzled by the revival of its ancient capital. Louis of Hungary
and Joanna of Naples submitted their quarrel to Rienzi's arbitration. Thus
encouraged, he set no bounds to his ambition. He called upon the Pope and
cardinals to return at once to Rome. He summoned Louis and Charles, the two
claimants to the Imperial dignity, to appear before his throne and submit to
His arrogance was shown in the pretentious titles which he assumed and in
the gorgeous pomp with which he was accompanied on public and even on private
occasions. On August 15th, after bathing in the porphyry font in which the
emperor Constantine had been baptized, he was crowned with seven crowns
representing the seven gifts of the Holy Ghost. His most loyal admirer
prophesied disaster when the Tribune ventured on this occasion to
blasphemously compare himself with Christ.
Rienzi's government deteriorated with his personal character. It had at
first been liberal and just; it became arbitrary and even treacherous. His
personal timidity made him at once harsh and vacillating. The heads of the
great families, whom he had invited to a banquet, were seized and condemned to
death on a charge of conspiracy. But a sudden terror of the possible
consequences of his action caused him to relent, and he released his victims
just as they were preparing for execution. His leniency was as ill-timed as
his previous severity. The nobles could no longer trust him, and their fear
was diminished by the weakness which they despised while they profited by it.
They retired from Rome and concerted measures for the overthrow of their
The first attack, which was led by Stefano Colonna, was repulsed almost
by accident; but Rienzi, who had shown more cowardice than generalship,
disgusted his supporters by his indecent exultation over the bodies of the
slain. And there was one fatal ambiguity in Rienzi's position. He had begun
by announcing himself as the ally and champion of the papacy, and Clement VI
had been willing enough to stand by and watch the destruction of the baronage.
But the growing independence and the arrogant pretensions of the Tribune
exasperated the Pope. A new legate was despatched to Italy to denounce and
excommunicate Rienzi as a heretic. The latter had no longer any support to
lean upon. When a new attack was threatened, the people sullenly refused to
obey the call to arms. Rienzi had not sufficient courage to risk a final
struggle. On December 15th he abdicated and retired in disguise from Rome.
His rise to power, his dazzling triumph, and his downfall were all comprised
within the brief period of seven months.
For the next few years Rienzi disappeared from view. According to his
own account he was concealed in a cave in the Apennines, where he associated
with some of the wilder members of the sect of the Fraticelli and probably
imbibed some of their tenets. Rome relapsed into anarchy, and men's minds
were distracted from politics by the ravages of the black death. The great
jubilee held in Rome in 1350 became a kind of thanksgiving service of those
whom the plague had spared.
It is said that Rienzi himself visited the scene of his exploits without
detection among the crowds of pilgrims. But he was destined to reappear in a
more public and disastrous manner. In his solitude his courage and his
ambition revived, and he meditated new plans for restoring freedom to Rome and
to Italy. The allegiance to the Church, which he had professed in 1347, was
weakened by the conduct of Clement VI and by the influence of the Fraticelli,
and he resolved in the future to ally himself with the secular rather than
with the ecclesiastical power, with the Empire rather than with the papacy.
In August, 1351, he appeared in disguise in Prague and demanded an audience of
Charles IV. To him he proposed the far-reaching scheme which he had formed
during his exile.
The Pope and the whole body of clergy were to be deprived of their
temporal power; the petty tyrants of Italy were to be driven out; and the
Emperor was to fix his residence in Rome as the supreme ruler of Christendom.
All this was to be accomplished by Rienzi himself at his own cost and trouble.
Charles IV listened with some curiosity to a man whose career had excited such
universal interest, but he was the last man to be carried away by such
The introduction into the political proposals of some of the religious
and communistic ideas of the Fraticelli gave the Emperor a pretext for
committing Rienzi to the Archbishop of Prague for correction and instruction.
The Archbishop communicated with the Pope, and on the demand of Clement VI
Charles agreed to hand Rienzi over to the papal court on condition that his
life should be spared. In 1352 Rienzi was conveyed to Avignon and thrust into
prison. He owed his life perhaps less to the Emperor's request than to the
opportune death of Clement VI in this year.
The new Pope, Innocent VI, was more independent of French control than
his immediate predecessors. The French King was fully occupied with internal
disorders and with the English war. Thus the Pope was able to give more
attention to Italian politics, which were sufficiently pressing. The
independence and anarchy of the Papal States constituted a serious problem,
but the danger of their subjection to a foreign power was still more serious.
In 1350 the important city of Bologna had been seized by the Visconti of
Milan, and the progress of this powerful family threatened to absorb the whole
of the Romagna. Innocent determined to resist their encroachments and at the
same time to restore the papal authority, and in 1353 he intrusted this double
task to Cardinal Albornoz.
Albornoz, equally distinguished as a diplomatist and as a military
commander, resolved to ally the cause of the papacy with that of liberty. His
programme was to overthrow the tyrants as the enemies both of the people and
of the popes, and to restore municipal self-government under papal protection.
His attention was first directed to the city of Rome, which, after many
vicissitudes since 1347, had fallen under the influence of a demagogue named
Baroncelli had revived to some extent the schemes of Rienzi, but had
declared openly against papal rule. To oppose this new tribune, Albornoz
conceived the project of using the influence of Rienzi, whose rule was now
regretted by the populace that had previously deserted him. The Pope was
persuaded to release Rienzi from prison and to send him to Rome, where the
effect of his presence was almost magical. The Romans flocked to welcome
their former liberator, and he was reinstalled in power with the title of
senator, conferred upon him by the Pope. But his character was not improved
by adversity, and his rule was more arbitrary and selfish than it had been
The execution of the condottiere, Fra Moreale, was an act of ingratitude
as well as of treachery. Popular favor was soon alienated from a ruler who
could no longer command either affection or respect, and, in a mob rising,
Rienzi was put to death, October 8, 1354. But his return had served the
purpose of Albornoz. Rome was preserved to the papacy, and the cardinal could
proceed in safety with his task of subduing the independent tyrants of
Central Italy had not yet witnessed the general introduction of
mercenaries, and the native populations still fought their own battles. The
policy of exciting revolts among the subject citizens was completely
successful, and by 1360 almost the whole of Romagna had submitted to the papal
legate. His triumph was crowned in this year, when, by skilful use of
quarrels among the Visconti princes, he succeeded in recovering Bologna.
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