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 strongest.

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 tribunal.

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

chimerical suggestions.

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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