The New International Encyclopædia/Rienzi, Cola di
RIENZI, rḗ-ĕn'zḗ, Cola di (c.1313-54). A Roman popular leader. He was born at Rome. Until his twentieth year he lived among the peasants of Anagni; then he returned to his native city, where he studied grammar and rhetoric and read the Latin classics. The assassination of his brother by a Roman noble finally determined him to deliver the city from the barbarous thralldom of the barons. He assumed the significant title of ‘consul of orphans, widows, and the poor.’ In 1343 he was appointed by the heads of the Guelph party spokesman or orator of a deputation sent to the Papal Court at Avignon to beseech Clement VI. to return to Rome in order to protect the citizens from the tyranny of their oppressors. Here he formed a close friendship with Petrarch, through whose assistance he obtained a favorable hearing from his Holiness, who appointed him notary to the city chamber. In April, 1344, Rienzi returned to Rome; but reform, he found, was impossible without revolution. During three years he loudly and openly menaced the nobles, who, thinking him mad, took no steps to crush him. At last on May 20, 1347, surrounded by 100 horsemen and accompanied by the Papal legate, Rienzi delivered a magnificent discourse and proposed a series of laws for the better government of the community, which were unanimously approved. The aristocratic senators were driven out of the city, and Rienzi took the title of ‘tribune of liberty, peace, and justice,’ and chose the Papal legate for his colleague.
Rienzi dispatched messengers to the various Italian States, requesting them to send deputies to Rome to consult for the general interests of the peninsula, and to devise measures for its unification. These messengers were everywhere received with enthusiasm, and on August 1, 1347, 200 deputies assembled in the Lateran Church, where Rienzi declared that the choice of an Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire belonged to the Roman people, and summoned Louis the Bavarian and Charles of Luxemburg, who were then disputants for the dignity, to appear before him. The step was wildly impolitic. The Pope was indignant at the transference of authority from himself to his subjects; and the barons gathered together their forces and renewed their devastations. After ineffectual resistance Rienzi resigned his functions and withdrew from Rome. His tenure of power had lasted only seven months. In the solitudes of the Neapolitan Apennines, Rienzi joined an Order of Franciscan hermits, and spent nearly two years in exercises of piety and penitence — all the while, however, cherishing the hope that he would one day ‘deliver’ Rome again. This ambition made him readily listen to a brother monk, who declared that Rienzi was destined, by the help of the Emperor Charles IV., to introduce a new era of happiness into the world. Rienzi betook himself at once to Prague, and announced to the Emperor that in a year and a half a new hierarchy would be established in the Church, and under a new Pope Charles would reign in the west and Rienzi in the east. Charles put the ‘prophet’ in prison, and then informed the Pope of the matter. In July, 1351, Rienzi was transferred to Avignon, where proceedings were opened against him, and he was condemned to death, but his life was spared and the next two years were spent in easy confinement in the French Papal city.
Meanwhile at Rome the great families were more factious, more anarchical, more desperately fond of spilling blood than ever; and at last Innocent VI. sent Cardinal Albornoz to reëstablish order. Rienzi was released from prison, and accompanied the Cardinal. In August, 1354, having borrowed money and raised a small body of soldiers, he made a sort of triumphal entry into Rome, and was received with universal acclamations. But misfortune had debased his character; he abandoned himself to good living, and his once generous sentiments had given place to a hard, mistrustful, and cruel disposition. The barons refused to recognize his government and fortified themselves in their castles. The war against them necessitated the incurring of heavy expenses. In two months, Rienzi's rule becoming intolerable, an infuriated crowd surrounded him in the Capitol and put him to death. Consult: Papencordt, Cola di Rienzo und seine Zeit (Hamburg, 1841): Auriac, Etude historique sur Nicole Rienzo (Paris, 1888); Rodocanachi, Cola di Rienzo (ib., 1888).