Rienzi, COLA DI (i.e., NICOLA, son of Lorenzo), a popular tribune and extraordinary historical figure. His father was an innkeeper at Rome in the vicinity of the Trastevere; though it was believed that he was really the son of the Emperor Henry VII. His childhood and youth were passed at Anagni, with some relatives to whom he was sent on the death of his mother. Though he was thus brought up in the country he succeeded in acquiring a knowledge of letters and of Latin, and devoted himself to a study of the history of ancient Rome in the Latin authors, Livy, Valerius Maximus, Cicero, Seneca, Boethius, and the poets. When his father died he returned to Rome and practiced as a notary. The sight of the remains of the former greatness of Rome only increased his admiration for the city and the men described in his favorite authors. Contemplating the condition in which Rome then was in the absence of the popes, torn by the factions of the nobles who plundered on all sides and shed innocent blood, he conceived a desire of restoring the justice and splendor of former days. His plans became more definite and settled when his brother was slain in a brawl between the Orsini and the Colonna. Thenceforth he thought only of the means of breaking the power of the barons. To accomplish this he had first to win the favor of the populace by upholding the cause of the oppressed.
In consequence of this and on account of the eloquence with which he spoke in Latin, he was sent to Avignon in 1343 to Clement VI, by the captain of the people, to ask him to return to Rome and grant the great jubilee every five years. Cola explained to the pope the miserable condition of Rome. Clement was much impressed, and appointed him to the office of notary (secretary) of the Camera Capitolina, in which position he could gain a better knowledge of the misfortunes of the city. Cola then by his public discourses and private conversations prepared the people; a conspiracy was formed, and on May 19, 1347, he summoned the populace to assemble the following day in the Campidoglio. There Cola explained his plans and read a new democratic constitution which, among other things, ordained the establishment of a civic militia. The people conferred absolute power on him; but Cola at first contented himself with the title of tribune of the people; later, however, he assumed the bombastic titles of Candidatus Spiritus Sancti, Imperator Orbis, Zelator Italics, Amator Orbis et Tribunus Augustus (candidate of the Holy Spirit, emperor of the world, lover of Italy, of the world, august tribune). He was wise enough to select a colleague, the pope’s vicar, Raimondo, Bishop of Orvieto. The success of the new regime was wonderful. The most powerful barons had to leave the city; the others swore fealty to the popular government. An era of peace and justice seemed to have come. The pope, on learning what had happened, regretted that he had not been consulted, but gave Cola the title and office of Rector, to be exercised in conjunction with the Bishop of Orvieto. His name was heard everywhere, princes had recourse to him in their disputes, the sultan fortified his ports.
Cola then thought of reestablishing the liberty and independence of Italy and of Rome, by restoring the Roman Empire with an Italian emperor. In August, 1347, two hundred deputies of the Italian cities assembled at his request. Italy was declared free, and all those who had arrogated a lordship to themselves were declared fallen from power; the right of the people to elect the emperor was asserted. Louis the Bavarian and Charles of Bohemia were called upon to justify their usurpation of the imperial title. Cola flattered himself secretly with the hope of becoming emperor; but his high opinion of himself proved his ruin. He was a dreamer rather than a man of action; he lacked many qualities for the exercise of good government, especially foresight and the elements of political prudence. He had formed a most puerile concept of the empire. He surrounded himself with Asiatic luxury, to pay for which he had to impose new taxes; thereupon the enthusiasm of the people, weary of serving a theatrical emperor, vanished. The barons perceived this, and forgetting for the moment their mutual discord, joined together against their common enemy. In vain the bell summoned the people to arms in the Campidoglio. No one stirred. Cola had driven out the barons, but he had not thought of reducing them to inaction; on the contrary he had rendered them more hostile by his many foolish and humiliating acts. Lacking all military knowledge he could offer no serious resistance to their attacks. The discontent of the people increased; the Bishop of Orvieto, the other Rector of Rome, who had already protested against what had occurred at the convention of the Italian deputies, abandoned the city; the pope repudiated Cola in a Bull. Thus deserted, and not believing himself safe, he took refuge in the Castle of S. Angelo, and three days later (December 18, 1347) the barons returned in triumph to restore things to their former condition.
Cola fortunately succeeded in escaping. He sought refuge with the Spiritual Franciscans living in the hermitages of Monte Maiella. But the plague of 1348, the presence of bands of adventurers and the jubilee of 1350 had increased the mysticism of the people and still more of the Spirituals. One of the latter, Fra Angelo, told Rienzi that it was now the proper moment to think of the common weal, to cooperate in the restoration of the empire and in the purification of the Church: all of which had been predicted by Joachim of Flora, the celebrated Calabrian abbot, and that he ought to give his assistance. Cola betook himself thence to Charles IV at Prague (1350), who imprisoned him, either as a madman or as a heretic. After two years Cola was sent at the request of the pope to Avignon, where through the intercession of Petrarch, his admirer, though now disillusioned, he was treated better. When Innocent VI sent Cardinal Albornoz into Italy (at the beginning of 1353) he allowed Cola di Rienzi to accompany him. The Romans, who had fallen back into their former state of anarchy, invited him to return, and Albornoz consented to appoint him senator (sindaco) of Rome. On August 1, 1354, Rienzi entered Rome in triumph. But the new government did not last long. His luxury and revelry, followed by the inevitable taxation, above all the unjust killing of several persons (among whom was Fra Moriale, a brigand, in the service of Cola), provoked the people to fury. On October 8, 1354, the cry of “Death to Rienzi the traitor!” rose in the city. Cola attempted to flee, but was recognized and slain, and his corpse dragged through the streets of the city. Cola represented, one might say, the death agony of the Guelph (papal-national-democratic) idea and the rise of the classical (imperial and aesthetic) idea of the Renaissance.