Back in Avignon and Vaucluse (1345–7), Petrarch, still enjoying the friendship of the Colonnas, rejoiced to hear that revolution had flared up in Rome, and that the son of a tavern keeper and a washerwoman22 had deposed the Colonnas and other aristocrats from power, and had restored the glorious republic of the Scipios, the Gracchi, and Arnold of Brescia.
Niccola di Rienzo Gabrini, known by the economy of popular speech as Cola di Rienzo, and by a careless posterity as Rienzi, had met Petrarch in 1343 when, as a young notary of thirty years’ age, he had come to Avignon to acquaint Clement VI with the dire condition of Rome, and to solicit for the Roman people the support of the papacy against the feuding, marauding nobles who dominated the capital. Clement, though skeptical, had sent him back with encouragement and florins, hoping to use the fervent lawyer in the recurrent conflict of the popes with the aristocracy.
Rienzo, like Petrarch, had had his imagination fired by the ruins and classics of Rome. Dressed in the white toga of an ancient senator, and speaking with the ardor of the Gracchi and almost the eloquence of Cicero, he pointed to the remains of the majestic forums and colossal baths, and reminded the Romans of the time when consuls or emperors, from these hills, had given laws and order urbi et orbi, to the city and to the world; and he challenged them to seize the government, to restore the popular assembly, and to elect a tribune strong enough to protect them against the usurping nobility. The poor listened in awe; merchants wondered might this potential tribune make Rome safe for industry and trade; aristocrats laughed, and made Rienzo the butt of their dinner jollity. He promised to hang a selection of them when the revolution came.
To their consternation it came. On May 20, 1347 a concourse of Romans crowded to the Capitol. Rienzo appeared before them escorted by the bishop of Orvieto as vicar of the pope; he proclaimed the restoration of the Republic and a distribution of alms; they elected him dictator, and at a later meeting allowed him to take the old popular title of tribune. The aged Senator Stefano Colonna protested; Cola ordered him and the other nobles to leave the city; furious, but respecting the armed revolutionaries, they withdrew to their country estates. Delirious with success, Rienzo began to speak of himself as the divinely inspired “Illustrious Redeemer of the Holy Roman Republic by the authority of… Jesus Christ.”23
His administration was excellent. Food prices were regulated to check profiteering; surplus corn was stored in the granaries; work was begun to drain the malarial marshes and put the Campagna under cultivation. New courts dealt out justice with impartial severity; a monk and a baron were beheaded for equal felonies; a former senator was hanged for robbing a merchant vessel; the cutthroats hired by noble factions were arrested; a court of conciliation pacified in a few months 1800 feuds. Aristocrats accustomed to being their own law were shocked to find themselves held responsible for crimes committed on their estates; some paid heavy fines; Pietro Colonna, dripping dignity, was led on foot to jail. Judges guilty of malfeasance were exposed in public pillories. Peasants tilled their fields in unwonted security and peace; merchants and pilgrims en route to Rome kissed the insignia of the resurrected Republic that made the highways safe after half a century of brigandage.24 All Italy marveled at this intrepid transformation, and Petrarch raised to Rienzo a paean of gratitude and praise.
Seizing his opportunity with bold statesmanship, the tribune despatched envoys throughout the peninsula, inviting the cities to send representatives who would form a great parliament to unite and govern “the whole of sacred Italy” in a federation of municipalities, and to make Rome again the capital of the world. To a preliminary council of judges gathered from all Italy he submitted a question: might the Roman Republic, now reconstituted, rightfully reclaim all the privileges and powers that in its decay had been delegated to other authorities? Answered in the affirmative, Rienzo put through the popular assembly a law restoring to the Republic all such grants of power. This grandiose declaration, sweeping away a millennium of donations, abdications, and coronations, threatened alike the Holy Roman Empire, the autonomous cities, and the temporal power of the Church. Twenty-five communes sent representatives to Rienzo’s parliament, but the major city-states—Venice, Florence, Milan—hesitated to submit their sovereignty to a federation. Clement VI was pleased with the tribune’s piety, his formal sharing of his authority with the bishop of Orvieto, the protection he gave to pilgrims, the prospects he held out of a lucrative jubilee in 1350; but—he began to wonder—was not this sanguine republican an impractical idealist who would outreach himself to ruin?
Amazing and pitiful was the collapse of the noble dream. Power, like freedom, is a test that only a sober intelligence can meet. Rienzo was too great an orator to be a realistic statesman; he came to believe his own magnificent phrases, promises, and claims; he was poisoned by his own periods. When the federative assembly met (August, 1347), he had arranged that it should begin by conferring knighthood upon him. That evening he proceeded with his escort to the baptistery of St. John Lateran, and plunged bodily into the great basin wherein, according to legend, Constantine had washed away his paganism and his sins; then, clad in white, he slept through the night on a public couch set up amid the pillars of the church. On the morrow he issued to the assembly and the world a decree declaring all the cities of Italy to be free, endowing them with Roman citizenship, and reserving exclusively to the people of Rome and Italy the authority to elect an emperor. Drawing his sword, he flourished it in three directions, saying, as the representative of Rome, “That belongs to me, that to me, and that.” He began now to indulge in ostentatious extravagance. He rode about on a white horse under a royal banner, preceded by one hundred armed men, and dressed in a white silk robe with fringes of gold.25 When Stefano Colonna twitted him about the gold fringe he announced that the nobles were conspiring against him (which was probably true), ordered the arrest of several, had them led in chains to the Capitol, proposed to the assembly that they should be beheaded, relented, pardoned them, and ended by appointing them to offices of state in the Campagna. They rewarded him by raising a force of mercenaries against the Republic; the city’s militia went out to meet them, and defeated them; and Stefano Colonna and his son died in the battle (November 20, 1347).
Rienzo, exalted by success, more and more ignored and thrust aside the papal representative whom he had associated with himself in office and authority. Cardinals from Italy and from France warned Clement that a unified Italy—and much more an empire ruled from Rome—would make the Italian Church a prisoner of the state. On October 7 Clement commissioned his legate Bertrand de Deux to offer Rienzo a choice between deposition and the restriction of his powers to the secular affairs of the city of Rome. After some resistance Cola yielded; he promised obedience to the Pope, and withdrew the edicts that had annulled imperial and papal privileges. Unmollified, Clement resolved to unseat the incalculable tribune. On December 3 he published a bull stigmatizing Cola as a criminal and a heretic, and called upon the Romans to banish him. The legate suggested that if this should not be done no jubilee would be proclaimed. Meanwhile the nobles had raised another army, which now advanced upon Rome. Rienzo had the tocsin rung to call the people to arms. Only a few came; many resented the taxes he had levied; some preferred the profits of a jubilee to the responsibilities of freedom. As the forces of the aristocracy neared the Capitol Rienzo’s wonted courage waned; he discarded the insignia of his office, said good-by to his friends, broke into tears, and shut himself up in the Castello Sant’ Angelo (December 15, 1347). The triumphant nobles re-entered their city palaces, and the papal legate named two of them as senators to rule Rome.
Unmolested by the nobles but still under the ban of the Church, Rienzo fled to Naples, and then to the mountain forests of the Abruzzi near Sulmona; there he donned the garb of a penitent, and for two years lived as an anchorite. Then, surviving a thousand hardships and tribulations, he made his way, secretly and in disguise, through Italy and the Alps and Austria to the Emperor Charles IV at Prague. He pronounced before him an angry indictment of the popes; to their absence from Rome he attributed the anarchy and poverty of that city, and to their temporal power and policy the abiding division of Italy. Charles rebuked him and defended the popes; but when Clement demanded that Cola be sent as a papal prisoner to Avignon Charles kept him in protective confinement in a fortress on the Elbe. After a year of unbearable inactivity and isolation Cola asked to be sent to the papal court. On his journey to Avignon crowds flocked to see him, and gallant knights offered to guard him with their swords. On August 10, 1352, he reached Avignon in such miserable raiment that all men pitied him. He asked for Petrarch, who was at Vaucluse; the poet responded by issuing to the people of Rome a clarion call to protect the man who had offered them liberty.
To the Roman people… invincible… conquerors of nations!… Your former tribune is now a captive in the power of strangers; and—a sad spectacle indeed!—like a nocturnal thief or a traitor to his country, he pleads his cause in chains. The highest of earthly tribunals refuses him the opportunity of a legitimate defense…. Rome assuredly does not merit such treatment. Her citizens, once inviolable by alien law… are now indiscriminately maltreated; and this is done not only without the guilt that attaches to a crime, but even with the high praise of virtue…. He is accused not of betraying but of defending liberty; he is guilty not of surrendering but of holding the Capitol. The supreme crime with which he is charged, and which merits expiation on the scaffold, is that he dared affirm that the Roman Empire is still at Rome, and in possession of the Roman people. O impious age! O preposterous jealousy, malevolence without precedent! What dost thou, O Christ! ineffable and incorruptible judge of all? Where are thine eyes with which thou art wont to scatter the clouds of human misery?… Why dost thou not, with thy forked lightning, put an end to this unholy trial?26
Clement did not ask for Cola’s death, but ordered him kept in custody in the tower of the papal palace at Avignon. While Rienzo studied Scripture and Livy there, a new tribune, Francesco Baroncelli, seized power in Rome, banished the nobles, flouted the papal legate, and allied himself with the Ghibelline supporters of the emperors against the popes. Clement’s successor, Innocent VI, released Cola, and sent him to Italy as an aide to Cardinal Albornoz, whom he charged with restoring the papal authority in Rome. As the subtle cardinal and the subdued dictator neared the capital a revolt was staged; Baroncelli was deposed and killed, and the Romans turned over the city to Albornoz. The populace welcomed Rienzo with arches of triumph and joyful acclamations in crowded streets. Albornoz appointed him senator, and delegated to him the secular government of Rome (1353).
But years of imprisonment had fattened the body, broken the courage, and dulled the mind of the once brilliant and fearless tribune. His policies cleaved to the papal line, and shunned the grand emprises of his younger reign. The nobility still hated him, and the proletariat, seeing in him now a cautious conservative cured of Utopia, turned against him as disloyal to their cause. When the Colonna declared war upon him, and besieged him in Palestrina, his unpaid troops verged on mutiny; he borrowed money to pay them, raised taxes to redeem the debt, and alienated the middle class. Hardly two months after his return to power a revolutionary mob marched to the Capitol shouting “Long live the people! Death to the traitor Cola di Rienzo!” He came out of his palace in knightly armor, and tried to control the crowd with eloquence. But the rebels drowned his voice with noise, and showered him with missiles; an arrow struck him in the head, and he withdrew into the palace. The mob set fire to the doors, broke through them, and plundered the rooms. Hiding in one of these, Rienzo hastily cut off his beard, donned a porter’s cloak, and piled some bedding upon his head. Emerging, he passed through part of the crowd unrecognized. But his gold bracelet betrayed him, and he was led as a prisoner to the steps of the Capitol, where he himself had condemned men to death. He asked for a hearing, and began to move the people with his speech; but an artisan fearful of eloquence cut him short with a sword thrust in the stomach. A hundred demiheroes plunged their knives into his dead body. The bloody corpse was dragged through the streets, and was hung up like carrion at a butcher’s stall. It remained there two days, a target for public contumely and urchins’ stones.27