Monday, November 23, 2015

To Restore Rome

The Glory of the Roman Empire was seen by the Middle Ages as a Golden Age. Petrarch lamented the loss of learning and art between the peak of the Roman Empire and his own age. In Petrarch's lifetime, however, there seemed to be a chance to restore the greatness that was. The post of the supposed "King John I of France" mentions the figure who tried to elevate the humble Giannino di Guccio to the throne of France, Cola di Renzo (c.1313 - 8 October 1354).

Cola di Rienzo
at the Capitoline Museum
Cola di Renzo himself had humble origins. The son of a washer-woman and a tavern-keeper, he inspired himself with stories of Classical Rome, its literature and history and figures until he decided to make it his life's work to restore Rome to greatness. At this time, remember, Italy was a collection of city-states; Rome was the capital of nothing but itself, and even the popes had forsaken it for Avignon.

After becoming a notary, he was sent as a messenger to Pope Clement VI in Avignon, whom he impressed so much that he was given a place at the pope's court. He eventually returned to Rome and spent a few years gathering support for a "coup" to eliminate corrupt politicians. On the Feast of Pentecost in 1357 (20 May), dressed in armor, he made a speech at the Capitol in which he outlined his plans for a new and restored Rome.

The crowd accepted this speech, and the person who made it, and proclaimed him their ruler. Many politicians and public servants, seeing the tide of popular opinion turning against them, fled the City. Cola di Rienzo took the title of Tribune. Petrarch wrote a letter, urging him to continue in his great work.

Having succeeded in taking over Rome and making changes, he set his sights on restoring/uniting the entire Roman Empire, starting with Italy. He sent letters to all the major cities, bidding them send representatives. He also sent to the rival Holy Roman Emperors, Louis IV and Charles IV, to appear before him. He then celebrated a "festival of unity" in which he was officially proclaimed Tribune.

Unfortunately, although the Kingdom of Naples recognized him, no other political entity felt compelled to declare loyalty to him. Pope Clement VI, wary that di Rienzo's aim would include making the papacy subordinate to him, sent a league to arrest him. It was a little over six months since the speech in Rome that had seemed to cement his future good fortune. His initial success against his enemies did not last, and in December of the same year in which he was declared Tribune, he fled Rome, first hiding in Naples, and then for two years in a mountain monastery.

In 1350 he appealed to Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV, who held him under arrest for a year before turning him over to Clement. He was condemned to death, but the sentence was delayed (possibly due to pleas for leniency from Petrarch) until Clement died. His successor, Pope Innocent VI, sent him back to Rome with the title Senator and the mission to revive his goal of restoring Rome's glory. Within weeks, however, his arbitrary decisions had led to his death by an angry mob.

When two of his goals—the unification of Italy and the reduction of the pope's temporal power—were achieved in the 19th century, Cole di Rienzo was seen as a visionary and a praise-worthy historical figure.

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