Cola di Rienzo
Cola di Rienzo (c.
Circa , usually abbreviated c. or ca. , means "approximately" in the English language, usually referring to a date...

1313 – October 8, 1354) was an Italian medieval politician and popular leader, tribune
Tribune was a title shared by elected officials in the Roman Republic. Tribunes had the power to convene the Plebeian Council and to act as its president, which also gave them the right to propose legislation before it. They were sacrosanct, in the sense that any assault on their person was...

 of the Roman people in the mid-14th century.

Early career

Cola was born in Rome
Rome is the capital of Italy and the country's largest and most populated city and comune, with over 2.7 million residents in . The city is located in the central-western portion of the Italian Peninsula, on the Tiber River within the Lazio region of Italy.Rome's history spans two and a half...

 of humble origins. He claimed to be the natural child of Henry VII
Henry VII, Holy Roman Emperor
Henry VII was the King of Germany from 1308 and Holy Roman Emperor from 1312. He was the first emperor of the House of Luxembourg...

, the Holy Roman Emperor
Holy Roman Emperor
The Holy Roman Emperor is a term used by historians to denote a medieval ruler who, as German King, had also received the title of "Emperor of the Romans" from the Pope...

, but in fact his parents were a washer-woman and an obscure tavern-keeper named Lorenzo Gabrini. His father's fore-name was shortened to Rienzo, and his own, Nicola, to Cola; hence the Cola di Rienzo, or Rienzi, by which he is generally known.

His early years were passed at Anagni
Anagni is an ancient town and comune in Latium, central Italy, in the hills east-southeast of Rome. It is a historical center in Ciociaria.-Geography:...

. Having devoted much time to the study of the Latin writers, historians, orators and poets, and having nourished his mind with stories of the glories and the power of ancient Rome
Ancient Rome
Ancient Rome was a thriving civilization that grew on the Italian Peninsula as early as the 8th century BC. Located along the Mediterranean Sea and centered on the city of Rome, it expanded to one of the largest empires in the ancient world....

, he turned his thoughts to the task of restoring his native city, then in degradation and wretchedness, not only to good order, but even to her pristine greatness. His zeal for this work was quickened by the desire to avenge his brother who had been killed by a noble.

He became a notary and a person of some importance in the city, and was sent in 1343 on a public errand to Pope Clement VI
Pope Clement VI
Pope Clement VI , bornPierre Roger, the fourth of the Avignon Popes, was pope from May 1342 until his death in December of 1352...

 at Avignon
Avignon is a French commune in southeastern France in the départment of the Vaucluse bordered by the left bank of the Rhône river. Of the 94,787 inhabitants of the city on 1 January 2010, 12 000 live in the ancient town centre surrounded by its medieval ramparts.Often referred to as the...

. He discharged his duties with ability and success, and although the boldness with which he denounced the aristocratic rulers of Rome drew down upon him the enmity of powerful men, he won the favour and esteem of the pope, who gave him an official position at his court.

Leader of revolt

Returning to Rome about April 1344 he worked for three years at the great object of his life, the restoration of the city to its former position of power. He gathered together a band of supporters, plans were drawn up, and at length all was ready for the insurrection.

On May 19, 1347 heralds invited the people to a parliament on the Capitol
Capitoline Hill
The Capitoline Hill , between the Forum and the Campus Martius, is one of the seven hills of Rome. It was the citadel of the earliest Romans. By the 16th century, Capitolinus had become Capitolino in Italian, with the alternative Campidoglio stemming from Capitolium. The English word capitol...

, and on May 20, the day being Whit-Sunday, the meeting took place. Dressed in full armor and attended by the papal vicar, Cola headed a procession to the Capitol; here he addressed the assembled crowd, speaking "with fascinating eloquence of the servitude and redemption of Rome." A new series of laws was published and accepted with acclaim, and unlimited authority and power was given to the author of the revolution.

Without striking a blow the nobles left the city or went into hiding, and a few days later Rienzo took the title of tribune (Nicholaus, severus et clemens, libertatis, pacis justiciaeque tribunus, et sacræ Romanæ Reipublicæ liberator).

Tribune of Rome

His authority quickly and quietly accepted by all classes, the new ruler governed the city with a stern justice which was in marked contrast to the recent reign of license and disorder. In great state the tribune moved through the streets of Rome, being received at St Peter's with the hymn Veni Creator spiritus, while in a letter the poet Petrarch
Francesco Petrarca , known in English as Petrarch, was an Italian scholar, poet and one of the earliest humanists. Petrarch is often called the "Father of Humanism"...

 urged him to continue his great and noble work, and congratulated him on his past achievements, calling him the new Camillus
Marcus Furius Camillus
Marcus Furius Camillus was a Roman soldier and statesman of patrician descent. According to Livy and Plutarch, Camillus triumphed four times, was five times dictator, and was honoured with the title of Second Founder of Rome....

, Brutus
Lucius Junius Brutus
Lucius Junius Brutus was the founder of the Roman Republic and traditionally one of the first consuls in 509 BC. He was claimed as an ancestor of the Roman gens Junia, including Marcus Junius Brutus, the most famous of Caesar's assassins.- Background :...

 and Romulus
Romulus and Remus
Romulus and Remus are Rome's twin founders in its traditional foundation myth, although the former is sometimes said to be the sole founder...

. All the nobles submitted, though with great reluctance; the roads were cleared of robbers; tranquillity was restored at home; some severe examples of justice intimidated offenders; and the tribune was regarded by all the people as the destined restorer of Rome and Italy.

Attempt to unify Italy

In July in a sonorous decree he proclaimed the sovereignty of the Roman people over the empire, but before this he had set to work upon his task of restoring the authority of Rome over the cities and provinces of Italy, of making the city again caput mundi
Caput Mundi
Caput Mundi is a Latin phrase taken to mean "capital of the world". . It originates out of a classical European understanding of the known world: Southern Europe, North Africa, and Southwest Asia...

. He wrote letters to the cities of Italy, asking them to send representatives to an assembly which would meet on the August 1, when the formation of a great federation under the headship of Rome would be considered. On the appointed day a number of representatives appeared, and after some elaborate and fantastic ceremonials Cola, as dictator, issued an edict citing Louis IV, Holy Roman Emperor
Louis IV, Holy Roman Emperor
Louis IV , called the Bavarian, of the house of Wittelsbach, was the King of Germany from 1314, the King of Italy from 1327 and the Holy Roman Emperor from 1328....

 and his rival Charles, afterwards Charles IV, Holy Roman Emperor
Charles IV, Holy Roman Emperor
Charles IV , born Wenceslaus , was the second king of Bohemia from the House of Luxembourg, and the first king of Bohemia to also become Holy Roman Emperor....

, and also the imperial electors and all others concerned in the dispute, to appear before him in order that he might pronounce judgment in the case.
On the following day the festival of the unity of Italy was celebrated, but neither this nor the previous meeting had any practical result. Cola's power, however, was recognized in the Kingdom of Naples
Kingdom of Naples
The Kingdom of Naples, comprising the southern part of the Italian peninsula, was the remainder of the old Kingdom of Sicily after secession of the island of Sicily as a result of the Sicilian Vespers rebellion of 1282. Known to contemporaries as the Kingdom of Sicily, it is dubbed Kingdom of...

, whence both Joan I of Naples
Joan I of Naples
Joan I , born Joanna of Anjou, was Queen of Naples from 1343 until her death. She was also Countess of Provence and Forcalquier, Queen consort of Majorca and titular Queen of Jerusalem and Sicily 1343–82, and Princess of Achaea 1373/5–81....

 and her bitter foe, Louis I of Hungary, appealed to him for protection and aid, and on August 15 with great pomp he was crowned Tribune. Ferdinand Gregorovius
Ferdinand Gregorovius
Ferdinand Gregorovius was a German historian who specialized in the medieval history of Rome. He is best known for Wanderjahre in Italien, his account of the walks he took through Italy in the 1850s, and the monumental Die Geschichte der Stadt Rom im Mittelalter , a classic for Medieval and early...

 says this ceremony "was the fantastic caricature in which ended the imperium of Charles the Great
Charlemagne was King of the Franks from 768 and Emperor of the Romans from 800 to his death in 814. He expanded the Frankish kingdom into an empire that incorporated much of Western and Central Europe. During his reign, he conquered Italy and was crowned by Pope Leo III on 25 December 800...

. A world where political action was represented in such guise was ripe for overthrow, or could only be saved by a great mental reformation."

End of rule

He then seized, but soon released, Stefano Colonna
Stefano Colonna
Stefano Sciarr-illo byname of Colonna was the name of several members of the Italian family of Colonna. The most important include:*Stefano Colonna the Elder was son of Giovanni Colonna and one of the most important political figures in Rome in the first half of the 14th century. He was heir of...

 and some other barons who had spoken disparagingly of him. But his power was already beginning to wane, as this sudden exaltation intoxicated his understanding, and exhibited feelings entirely incompatible with his elevated condition.

Cola di Rienzo's character has been described as a combination of knowledge, eloquence, and enthusiasm for ideal excellence, with vanity, inexperience of mankind, unsteadiness, and physical timidity. As these latter qualities became conspicuous, they eclipsed his virtues, and caused his benefits to be forgotten. His extravagant pretensions only served to excite ridicule. His government was costly, and to meet its many expenses he was obliged to lay heavy taxes upon the people. He offended the pope by his arrogance and pride, and both pope and emperor by his proposal to set up a new Roman Empire
Roman Empire
The Roman Empire was the post-Republican period of the ancient Roman civilization, characterised by an autocratic form of government and large territorial holdings in Europe and around the Mediterranean....

, the sovereignty of which would rest directly upon the will of the people. In October Clement gave power to a legate to depose him and bring him to trial, and the end was obviously in sight.

Taking heart, the exiled barons gathered together some troops, and war began in the neighbourhood of Rome. Cola di Rienzo obtained aid from Louis of Hungary and others, and November 20 his forces defeated the nobles in a battle just outside the Porta Tiburtina
Porta Tiburtina
Porta Tiburtina or Porta San Lorenzo is a gate in the Aurelian Walls of Rome, Italy, through which the Via Tiburtina exits the city.- History :...

, a battle in which the tribune himself took no part, but in which his most distinguished foe, Stefano Colonna
Stefano Colonna
Stefano Sciarr-illo byname of Colonna was the name of several members of the Italian family of Colonna. The most important include:*Stefano Colonna the Elder was son of Giovanni Colonna and one of the most important political figures in Rome in the first half of the 14th century. He was heir of...

, was killed.

But this victory did not save him. He passed his time in feasts and pageants, while in a bull the pope denounced him as a criminal, a pagan and a heretic, until, terrified by a slight disturbance on December 15, he abdicated his government and fled from Rome. He sought refuge in Naples, but soon he left that city and spent over two years in an Italian mountain monastery.

Life in captivity

Emerging from his solitude, Cola journeyed to Prague
Prague is the capital and largest city of the Czech Republic. Situated in the north-west of the country on the Vltava river, the city is home to about 1.3 million people, while its metropolitan area is estimated to have a population of over 2.3 million...

 in July 1350, throwing himself upon the protection of the emperor Charles IV. Denouncing the temporal power of the pope he implored the emperor to deliver Italy, and especially Rome, from their oppressors; but, heedless of his invitations, Charles kept him in prison for more than a year in the fortress of Raudnitz, and then handed him over to Pope Clement
Pope Clement
There have been fourteen popes named Clement.*Pope Clement I saint, *Pope Clement II *Pope Clement III *Pope Clement IV...

, who had been clamouring for his surrender.

At Avignon, where he appeared in August 1352, Cola was tried by three cardinals, and was sentenced to death, but this judgment was not carried out, and he remained in prison in spite of appeals from Petrarch
Francesco Petrarca , known in English as Petrarch, was an Italian scholar, poet and one of the earliest humanists. Petrarch is often called the "Father of Humanism"...

 for his release.

Freedom, however, was at hand. In December 1352 Clement died, and his successor, Pope Innocent VI
Pope Innocent VI
Pope Innocent VI , born Étienne Aubert; his father was Adhemar Aubert seigneur de Montel-De-Gelas in Limousin province. His niece was Catherine Aubert, Dame de Boutheon, also the wife of Randon II baron de Joyeuse; she is La Fayette's ancestor...

, anxious to strike a blow at the baronial rulers of Rome, and seeing in the former tribune an excellent tool for this purpose, pardoned and released his prisoner.

Senator of Rome

Giving him the title of senator, he sent him to Italy with the legate, Cardinal Albornoz
Gil Alvarez De Albornoz
Gil Álvarez Carrillo de Albornoz was a Spanish cardinal and ecclesiastical leader.-Early years:Albornoz was born at Carrascosa del Campo, early in the 14th century. He was the son of Gil Állvarez de Albornoz and of Doña Teresa de Luna, sister of Jimeno de Luna, archbishop of Toledo and a member...

, and having collected a few mercenary troops on the way, Cola di Rienzo entered Rome in August 1354. He was received with great rejoicings and quickly regained his former position of power.

But this latter term of office was destined to be even shorter than his former one. Having vainly besieged the fortress of Palestrina
Palestrina is an ancient city and comune with a population of about 18,000, in Lazio, c. 35 km east of Rome...

, he returned to Rome, where he treacherously seized the soldier of fortune
A mercenary, is a person who takes part in an armed conflict based on the promise of material compensation rather than having a direct interest in, or a legal obligation to, the conflict itself. A non-conscript professional member of a regular army is not considered to be a mercenary although he...

, Fra Monreale, who was put to death, and where, by other cruel and arbitrary deeds, he soon lost the favour of the people.

Their passions were quickly aroused and a tumult broke out on October 8. Cola attempted to address them, but the building in which he stood was set on fire, and while trying to escape in disguise he was murdered by the mob. "The doors of the capitol", says Edward Gibbon
Edward Gibbon
Edward Gibbon was an English historian and Member of Parliament...

, "were destroyed with axes and with fire; and while the senator attempted to escape in a plebeian garb, he was dragged to the platform of his palace, the fatal scene of his judgments and executions;" and after enduring the protracted tortures of suspense and insult, he was pierced with a thousand daggers, amidst the execrations of the people.


Cola di Rienzo was the hero of one of the finest of Petrarch's odes, Spirito gentil,

Having advocated both the abolition of the Pope's temporal power and the Unification of Italy, Cola re-emerged in the 19th century, transformed into a romantic figure among politically liberal nationalists and adopted as a precursor of the 19th century Risorgimento, which struggled for and eventually achieved both aims. In this process he was reimagined as a "the romantic stereotype
Romanticism was an artistic, literary and intellectual movement that originated in the second half of the 18th century in Europe, and gained strength in reaction to the Industrial Revolution...

 of the inspired dreamer who foresees the national future" as Adrian Lyttleton expressed it, illustrating his point with Federico Faruffini's Cola di Rienzo Contemplating the Ruins of Rome (1855) of which he remarks, "The language of martyrdom could be freed from its religious context and used against the Church."

Cola di Rienzo's life and fate have formed the subject of a famous novel by Edward Bulwer-Lytton, 1st Baron Lytton
Edward Bulwer-Lytton, 1st Baron Lytton
Edward George Earle Lytton Bulwer-Lytton, 1st Baron Lytton PC , was an English politician, poet, playwright, and novelist. He was immensely popular with the reading public and wrote a stream of bestselling dime-novels which earned him a considerable fortune...

, a tragedy by Julius Mosen
Julius Mosen
Julius Mosen was a German poet and author of Jewish descent, associated with the Young Germany movement, and now remembered principally for his patriotic poem the Andreas-Hofer-Lied.-Life:...

 and also of some verses by George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron
George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron
George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron, later George Gordon Noel, 6th Baron Byron, FRS , commonly known simply as Lord Byron, was a British poet and a leading figure in the Romantic movement...

. He is also the subject of a play by Friedrich Engels
Friedrich Engels
Friedrich Engels was a German industrialist, social scientist, author, political theorist, philosopher, and father of Marxist theory, alongside Karl Marx. In 1845 he published The Condition of the Working Class in England, based on personal observations and research...


Richard Wagner
Richard Wagner
Wilhelm Richard Wagner was a German composer, conductor, theatre director, philosopher, music theorist, poet, essayist and writer primarily known for his operas...

's first success Rienzi
Rienzi, der Letzte der Tribunen is an early opera by Richard Wagner in five acts, with the libretto written by the composer after Bulwer-Lytton's novel of the same name . The title is commonly shortened to Rienzi...

(Dresden, 1842), based on Bulwer-Lytton's novel, took Cola for a central figure, and at the same time, unaware of the Dresden production, Giuseppe Verdi
Giuseppe Verdi
Giuseppe Fortunino Francesco Verdi was an Italian Romantic composer, mainly of opera. He was one of the most influential composers of the 19th century...

, an ardent and anti-clerical patriot of the Risorgimento, contemplated a Cola di Rienzo. In 1873 - immediately after the new Kingdom of Italy effected the Capture of Rome
Capture of Rome
The Capture of Rome was the final event of the long process of Italian unification known as the Risorgimento, which finally unified the Italian peninsula under King Victor Emmanuel II of the House of Savoy...

 from papal forces - the Prati rione
Prati (rione of Rome)
Prati is the XXII rione of Rome. Its logo is the shape of Hadrian's mausoleum, in a blue color on a silver background. Hadrian's mausoleum was not in this area, but in the rione Borgo, bordering Prati to the south. This is one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in Rome.In Piazza Della Libertà, on...

 was laid out, with the new quarter's main street being "Via Cola di Rienzo" and a conspicuous square, Piazza Cola di Rienzo. Pointedly, the name was bestowed precisely on the street connecting the Tiber
The Tiber is the third-longest river in Italy, rising in the Apennine Mountains in Emilia-Romagna and flowing through Umbria and Lazio to the Tyrrhenian Sea. It drains a basin estimated at...

 with the Vatican
Vatican City
Vatican City , or Vatican City State, in Italian officially Stato della Città del Vaticano , which translates literally as State of the City of the Vatican, is a landlocked sovereign city-state whose territory consists of a walled enclave within the city of Rome, Italy. It has an area of...

 - at the time the headquarters of a Catholic church still far from reconciled to the loss of its temporal power. To further drive home the point, the Piazza di Risorgimento was located at the Via Cola di Rienzo's eastern end, directly touching upon the Church's headquarters.

In 1877 a statue of the tribune by Girolamo Masini
Girolamo Masini
Girolamo Masini was an Italian sculptor.-Biography:He was born in Florence, Tuscany, where he studied with Florentine sculptor Aristodemo Costoli. Masini's most prominently-sited work is the bronze statue of Cola di Rienzi on the left of the stairs leading to the Campidoglio, Rome...

, was erected at the foot of Rome's Capitoline Hill
Capitoline Hill
The Capitoline Hill , between the Forum and the Campus Martius, is one of the seven hills of Rome. It was the citadel of the earliest Romans. By the 16th century, Capitolinus had become Capitolino in Italian, with the alternative Campidoglio stemming from Capitolium. The English word capitol...

. In Rome, in Rione of Ripa
Ripa (rione of Rome)
Ripa is the XII rione of Rome. The logo is a white rudder on a red background, to remind the port of Ripa Grande, placed in Trastevere, but facing the rione.-External links:*...

, near the Bocca della Verità still exists a brick decorated house of the Middle Ages, distinguished by the appellation of "The House of Pilate", but also traditionally known as Cola di Rienzo's house (in fact it belonged to the patrician
Patricianship, the quality of belonging to a patriciate, began in the ancient world, where cities such as Ancient Rome had a class of patrician families whose members were the only people allowed to exercise many political functions...

 Crescenzi family).

His letters, edited by A. Gabrielli, are published in vol. vi. of the Fonti per la storia d’Italia (Rome, 1890).

External links

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