Cola di Rienzo and the Brief Return of the Roman Republic

In Medias Res |

Echoes of Augustus on the Steps of the Capitol

Cola di Rienzo in Rome. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Cola di Rienzo in Rome. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

On the morning of May 9th, 1347, a man fully armed and attended by a hundred hired soldiers, having attracted a mob of curious onlookers into his retinue, stormed the Campidoglio and occupied the Roman seat of government, at that moment conveniently unguarded. The man took center stage on the balcony of the Palazzo Senatorio and proclaimed to the crowds below, as he was wont, that the government of Rome was corrupt and unstable, that the need to resurrect the glories of antiquity was more dire than ever, and that he could make it happen! As you behold his glorious life-size statue appropriately situated not far from this very spot, you can almost hear his righteous tone and visualize the grand gestures he would have made. The crowds embraced him with cheers and he wasted no time in naming himself, “Nicholas the severe and merciful, tribune of liberty, peace, and justice, liberator of the Holy Roman Republic”.

Nicholas Cola, son of an innkeeper and washerwoman, was born in 1313 into a rather grim and precarious Rome. Pope Clement V had moved the seat of the papacy from Rome to Avignon in 1305, effectively abandoning the city and leaving it to the Orsini and Colonnas. These families enlisted the commoners who lived within their claimed territory to fight in private armies; bodies were swept into the Tiber daily. With this increased danger and with the absence of the pope, population declined and bridges, churches, and piazze fell into ruin. By the time our hero declared himself the savior of the city, Black Death had already taken root south of Rome and would soon wipe out a third of the existing population in Europe.

In order to save the city from destroying itself, Cola not only wanted to disrupt the feudal instability of Rome, but to unify Italy under his authority. After several months of productive leadership, Cola made his fatal error during a dinner party. After his surprisingly successful stunt on the Campidoglio, the self-proclaimed tribune-for-the-new-age got to work. He wrote to the leaders of Italian city-states and called a gathering of the noble families in which the leaders swore their allegiance. He even established a fresh dating system: it was henceforth year one of the Restoration of the Roman Republic. Stefano Colonna commented that Cola’s attire- silks, velvets, furs, imperial style robes- would better be replaced by a more humble dress. Cola flew into a rage and had Old Stefano and company imprisoned on the spot and threatened with murder. Upon second thought, he set them free, presented them with gifts, and paraded them through the city as a symbol of mutual peace, excusing himself with something to the effect of “I was only kidding”.

After this incident, the royal families had had enough. Perhaps their oaths of allegiance were sincere or maybe they were just humoring him all along. Either way, after only seven months of Cola’s “restored republic” they started a war. It did not take long for him to abandon his post and flee the city. When he returned seven years later, the initially receptive people turned on him, either because of his own vices and shortcomings or because royal and religious powers had conspired against him. A mob beat and stabbed Cola to death, who was dressed in rags like a pauper in an attempt to escape, in the very spot he first announced his revolution.

It does seem that Nicholas had all the right intentions to stand up for the abused lower classes as a new tribune. Yet perhaps like so many emperors before him, the grandeur of the office exasperated his already fanciful and fanatical personality. The following excerpt from a letter to Pope Clement VI, which Cola wrote just before his coronation, shows how the tribune perceived his own rule and also highlights the similarities between his vision and that of his ancient Roman models.

Cupio scire Sanctitatem vestram quod, sciens ad onus tanti officii, quod semper augetur, meos humeros imbecilles, iam bis proposui in pleno consilio quod officium huiusmodi regiminis singulo trimestri tempore finiretur…Tamen, pater sanctissime, omnes de consilio, hic vestibus laceratis, hic lacrimis manans, ille faciem ungue secans, omnes coniuncti nimis pro dolore clamabant: “Prius singuli moriamur, quam nos amodo alterius quam vestrum regimen habeamus. Satis enim et cum destructionibus et servitutibus nostris sumus qualitatem alterius regiminis experti, et videmus ad oculos quod Spiritus Sanctus per te in civitate ista tot miracula operatur, quod in diebus istis vivimus et vivemus in iustitia et pace et dulcissima liberate.” Propter quod, sanctissime patre, me invitum oportuit remanere…
I desire that you know, your Holiness, that because I know my shoulders are feeble for the burden of such an duty, one that is ever increasing, I have twice proposed in open council that an office of this sort of control be ended in the span of a single trimester. However, most holy father, everyone at the council — one tearing his clothes, one pouring forth tears, another maiming his face with his nails — all joined together in excessive grief — were shouting: “Each of us will die before we will have an administration other than yours! For we have experienced with our destruction and servitude the quality of another regime and we have seen that the Holy Spirit is working so many miracles through you for this City of ours. Now we live and we will live in justice and peace and the sweetest liberty.” On account of this, most holy father, I must, though hesitant, remain in office…

This sentiment recalls that of another man who rose to power over thirteen centuries earlier. When offered grander titles, this ruler refused, cleverly choosing to operate the empire from a more humble position. Yes, like Augustus himself, Cola too aimed to portray humility, in his case confessing the position too great for his feeble stature. Just as Augustus needed the Senate to trust his new brand of authority, Rienzo needed to pope to support his claim. Cola’s depiction of his leadership as a period of “justice, peace, and liberty” also has an unmistakably Augustan ring.

I leave to the reader to interpret how sincere the tribune’s humility was. On the one hand, he appeared to enjoy the benefits of his position to the fullest extent, throwing extravagant parties (image eighty kitchens installed in St. John Lateran and wine pouring from the nostrils of a certain equestrian statue — that of Marcus Aurelius, which was set up at the time outside the Lateran) at the state’s expense. On the other hand, the idea that the people were truly grateful that he stood up to the warring families, that they cried in relief, may not be far from the truth. And perhaps through what seems like a show of false humility, Rienzo had unwittingly expressed his own secret doubts that he would indeed fail in the end.

Today you can find the aforementioned statue of Cola di Rienzo preaching on the left bank of Michelangelo’s ramp up to the Campidoglio, his bronze face contorted in a perpetual cry of indignation. The artist, Giolamo Masini, chose a particularly sensational moment to immortalize: Cola has just emerged to a crowd from his knighting ceremony within Saint John Lateran, a bombastic ceremony of his own invention, donning a purple robe and bare sword. He stands atop a base made from brick and marble, the materials with which the Roman Empire of his dreams was built. With his right arm lifted, palm upwards and fingers spread with tension, he seems to be raising these Roman remains from their crumbling graves. But it doesn’t work. The marble is in fragments: pieces of a puzzle that could not be forced to fit together again. In fact it would not be for another five centuries that Cola di Rienzo’s dream of a unified Italy would become a reality.

Alexina Derkaz graduated from University of Massachusetts Amherst in 2016 with a Master’s in the Art of Teaching Latin. She then completed the Rome Fellowship with the Paideia Institute. Since then, she has taught Latin at both the middle and high school level and is currently building a spoken Latin community in San Antonio. This article was first published during her time in Rome with Paideia.


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