Rienzo, Cola di

(ca. 1313-1354)
   Roman notary and leader of a popular uprising of the common people of Rome against the incom-petent administration of the city by the absentee popes at Avignon. He had become fascinated by the surviving monuments of ancient Rome and was hostile to the violence of the city's aristocratic clans, whose armed conflicts undermined security of life and property and had led to the murder of his own brother. In January 1343, an appar-ently spontaneous revolution of the people overthrew the two papal "senators" (representatives) who administered the city. Rienzo was one of the delegation sent by the citizens to justify their action at the papal curia, where his eloquence made an excellent impression. He stayed in Avignon for several months and met the poet and human-ist Petrarch, who shared Rienzo's dissatisfaction with the absence of the popes from Rome and the chaotic political and social conditions in the ancient capital.
   Both the poet and the notary felt nostalgia for Rome's past great-ness and dreamed that the city could regain that greatness. While for Petrarch these dreams were confined to the realm of ideas, Rienzo in-tended to take action. He delivered incendiary speeches decrying the lawlessness of the nobles and reminded his audiences that the Roman people were the original source of all imperial authority and still had a right to revoke the authority of any ruler who failed to govern justly. On the feast of Pentecost 1347 a mob of people approved resolutions imposing the death sentence for murder, raising a citizen militia, placing a citizen army in charge of all fortified places, and conferring on Cola the title "tribune of the people." The uprising was fully suc-cessful. Even the aristocratic clans against whom it was directed seemed to accept it.
   Unfortunately for himself, Cola's grandiose plans did not stop with the goal of creating law and order in the city. He urged other Italian cities to oust tyrannical rulers and summoned a national parliament at Rome that was intended to restore Italian unity and power—acts that made Rienzo a mythic hero to 19th-century Italian patriots. Although initially Cola's regime was successful in repressing street violence, he proceeded to issue sweeping decrees challenging the political au-thority of the popes, the Holy Roman Emperor, and the German elec-toral princes. The pope excommunicated Cola and prepared to drive him from power, but the Roman people themselves, angered by Cola's oppressive behavior, turned against him. Rienzo lost his nerve in the face of a small riot and fled the city in December 1347, after only seven months in power. He took refuge among the heretical Fraticelli in southern Italy. But Rienzo did not give up his dreams of Roman power though he changed his means. Leaving his hiding place, he secretly travelled to Prague, where he presented himself to the Emperor Charles IV and tried to persuade him to liberate Italy from aristocratic misrule and to restore Roman power. Since Rienzo was already accused of heresy, the archbishop of Prague had him arrested, and in the summer of 1352, the emperor sent him to Avignon to face trial for heresy. At Avi-gnon, however, Rienzo once again made a powerful impression, and a new pope not only released him from prison but in August 1353 sent him back to Rome in the service of the cardinal legate who was dispatched to re-establish papal control. In August 1354 Rienzo man-aged to regain control of the city. Although the people briefly wel-comed his return, his arbitrary and erratic actions stirred up another popular uprising in early October. He tried to escape, disguised as a beggar, but was recognized and killed by the mob.
   Rienzo's remarkable career is an example of the chaotic political and social conditions in Rome and central Italy. It is also an example of the ability of memories of ancient Roman greatness to stir the imaginations of contemporaries. Even Petrarch, who shared Rienzo's nostalgia for ancient Rome, was strongly drawn to the Rienzo revo-lution in its initial phase.

Historical Dictionary of Renaissance. . 2004.

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