The Roman popular leader Cola di Rienzi (1313-1354) was tribune of Rome during a period of the Avignonese papacy. He led a republican movement that restored for a time the dream, if not the reality, of Roman greatness.
Cola di Rienzo (incorrectly but popularly Rienzi; was born Niccola di Lorenzo Gabrini in Rome. His father was a tavern keeper whose Christian name, Lorenzo, had been shortened to Rienzo. As a boy, living at Anagni, Cola di Rienzi read voraciously of the heroes and deeds of ancient Rome. The poets and historians who told of the glories of the ancient city filled him with a burning zeal to restore its former greatness.
As a very young man, Rienzi attracted attention in Rome when, with eloquence and aided by the presence of monuments of antiquity all around him, he reminded his fellow citizens of the might of the empire. Rome had once bestowed order and justice first upon itself and then upon the world, and Rienzi believed it could do so again.
Rienzi became a notary and in 1343 was sent on a public mission to Avignon. In Avignon he won the favor of Pope Clement VI, whom he exhorted to return to Rome and to put an end to the corruption that prevailed there under the disorderly rule of the nobles. Rienzi returned to Rome in April 1344, and he then made plans for a general uprising, gathering ever greater support with a series of brilliant speeches.
On May 20, 1347, Rienzi appeared at the Capitol with the bishop of Orvieto, the Pope's vicar, and proclaimed to the Roman people that from that moment the republic was restored. Shouts of approval met his promises of equal justice and fair taxation, and he found himself at once in the possession of complete authority in Rome. The nobles fled in dismay, and Rienzi was given the title of tribune of the people.
Rienzi's rule began well. He dispensed justice impartially, gave attention to the storage of surplus food, and systematically drained nearby marshlands for cultivation. For a brief time, security and peace made the hearts of Roman citizens glad that the vicious and arbitrary rule of the aristocrats was past.
On Aug. 1, 1347, representatives of the Italian cities, on Rienzi's invitation, met at Rome to consider the question of a united Italy. Many of the Italian communes, though not all, gave this plan and Rienzi's leadership their formal recognition. Dazzled by his own eloquence and apparent success, Rienzi then staged, on August 15, a ceremony of incredible pomp and ostentation in which he was installed and crowned tribune. Rienzi's extravagance led him to decree that all Italians were free and citizens of Rome and that only they had the authority to choose an emperor.
Pretensions such as these and the growing ostentation of Rienzi's habits soon caused popular enthusiasm to diminish, and the Roman barons, led by Stefano Colonna, made plans to overthrow him. Pope Clement VI, who had earlier supported Rienzi, was offended by his efforts to create a Roman empire based exclusively on the will of the people and was now most eager to be rid of him. On November 20 Rienzi set out boldly with a Roman militia and met and defeated the barons in a battle in which Colonna, his bitterest enemy, was killed.
This victory caused Rienzi to lose all moderation. He became more arrogant in behavior and more sumptuous in dress. He was deaf to all pleas of the papal vicar, with whom he supposedly shared authority. The exasperated pope issued a bull on December 3 branding Rienzi a criminal and calling upon the Roman people to drive him out. With opposition mounting, Rienzi lost his vaunted courage and abdicated on December 15. He then secluded himself for more than 2 years, appearing in Prague in July 1350. There he begged Emperor Charles IV to restore Italy to liberty, but Charles imprisoned him and then handed him over to the Pope in August 1352.
Clement VI died in December of that year, and his successor, Innocent VI, pardoned Rienzi, hoping to use him against the barons in Rome. The former tribune returned to Rome in August 1354 accompanied by the papal legate, Cardinal Gil Álvarez Carrillo de Albornoz. Rienzi was acclaimed and restored to power, but again he succumbed to the fatal weakness of failing to recognize the limits of his power. He grew insufferably tyrannical, and on Oct. 8, 1354, he was murdered by a Roman mob at the Capitol, and his body was then dragged through the streets.
The best account of Rienzi's life is in Ferdinand Gregorovius, History of the City of Rome in the Middle Ages, translated by Annie Hamilton (8 vols., 1900-1909). For a lively recent treatment see Will Durant, The Renaissance (1953).