Rienzi, Last of the Roman Tribunes

Author: Edward George Earle Lytton Bulwer-Lytton

V. The Rottenness of the Edifice

The kindly skill of Nina induced Irene to believe that it was but the tender consideration of her brother to change a scene embittered by her own thoughts, and in which the notoriety of her engagement with Adrian exposed her to all that could mortify and embarrass, that led to the proposition of her visit to Florence. Its suddenness was ascribed to the occasion of an unexpected mission to Florence, (for a loan of arms and money,) which thus gave her a safe and honoured escort. - Passively she submitted to what she herself deemed a relief; and it was agreed that she should for a while be the guest of a relation of Nina’s, who was the abbess of one of the wealthiest of the Florentine convents: the idea of monastic seclusion was welcome to the bruised heart and wearied spirit.

But though not apprised of the immediate peril of Rienzi, it was with deep sadness and gloomy forebodings that she returned his embrace and parting blessing; and when at length alone in her litter, and beyond the gates of Rome, she repented a departure to which the chance of danger gave the appearance of desertion.

Meanwhile, as the declining day closed around the litter and its troop, more turbulent actors in the drama demand our audience. The traders and artisans of Rome at that time, and especially during the popular government of Rienzi, held weekly meetings in each of the thirteen quarters of the city. And in the most democratic of these, Cecco del Vecchio was an oracle and leader. It was at that assembly, over which the smith presided, that the murmurs that preceded the earthquake were heard.

"So," cried one of the company - Luigi, the goodly butcher, - "they say he wanted to put a new tax on us; and that is the reason he broke up the Council today, because, good men, they were honest, and had bowels for the people: it is a shame and a sin that the treasury should be empty."

"I told him," said the smith, "to beware how he taxed the people. Poor men won’t be taxed. But as he does not follow my advice, he must take the consequence - the horse runs from one hand, the halter remains in the other."

"Take your advice, Cecco! I warrant me his stomach is too high for that now. Why he is grown as proud as a pope."

"For all that, he is a great man," said one of the party. "He gave us laws - he rid the Campagna of robbers - filled the streets with merchants, and the shops with wares - defeated the boldest lords and fiercest soldiery of Italy - "

"And now wants to tax the people! - that’s all the thanks we get for helping him," said the grumbling Cecco. "What would he have been without us? - we that make, can unmake."

"But," continued the advocate, seeing that he had his supporters - "but then he taxes us for our own liberties."

"Who strikes at them now?" asked the butcher.

"Why the Barons are daily mustering new strength at Marino."

"Marino is not Rome," said Luigi, the butcher. "Let’s wait till they come to our gates again - we know how to receive them. Though, for the matter of that, I think we have had enough fighting - my two poor brothers had each a stab too much for them. Why won’t the Tribune, if he be a great man, let us have peace? All we want now is quiet."

"Ah!" said a seller of horse-harness. "Let him make it up with the Barons. They were good customers after all."

"For my part," said a merry-looking fellow, who had been a gravedigger in bad times, and had now opened a stall of wares for the living, "I could forgive him all, but bathing in the holy vase of porphyry."

"Ah, that was a bad job," said several, shaking their heads.

"And the knighthood was but a silly show, an’ it were not for the wine from the horse’s nostrils - that had some sense in it."

"My masters," said Cecco, "the folly was in not beheading the Barons when he had them all in the net; and so Messere Baroncelli says. (Ah, Baroncelli is an honest man, and follows no half measures!") It was a sort of treason to the people not to do so. Why, but for that, we should never have lost so many tall fellows by the gate of San Lorenzo."

"True, true, it was a shame; some say the Barons bought him."

"And then," said another, "those poor Lords Colonna - boy and man - they were the best of the family, save the Castello. I vow I pitied them."

"But to the point," said one of the crowd, the richest of the set; "the tax is the thing. - The ingratitude to tax us. - Let him dare to do it!"

"Oh, he will not dare, for I hear that the Pope’s bristles are up at last; so he will only have us to depend upon!"

The door was thrown open - a man rushed in open-mouthed -

"Masters, masters, the Pope’s legate has arrived at Rome, and sent for the Tribune, who has just left his presence."

Ere his auditors had recovered their surprise, the sound of trumpets made them rush forth; they saw Rienzi sweep by with his usual cavalcade, and in his proud array. The twilight was advancing, and torch-bearers preceded his way. Upon his countenance was deep calm but it was not the calm of contentment. He passed on, and the street was again desolate. Meanwhile Rienzi reached the Capitol in silence, and mounted to the apartments of the palace, where Nina, pale and breathless, awaited his return.

"Well, well, thou smilest! No - it is that dread smile, worse than frowns. Speak, beloved, speak! What said the Cardinal?"

"Little thou wilt love to hear. He spoke at first high and solemnly, about the crime of declaring the Romans free; next about the treason of asserting that the election of the King of Rome was in the hands of the Romans."

"Well - thy answer."

"That which became Rome’s Tribune: I re-asserted each right, and proved it. The Cardinal passed to other charges."


"The blood of the Barons by San Lorenzo - blood only shed in our own defence against perjured assailants; this is in reality the main crime. The Colonna have the Pope’s ear. Furthermore, the sacrilege - yes, the sacrilege (come laugh, Nina, laugh!) of bathing in a vase of porphyry used by Constantine while yet a heathen."

"Can it be! What saidst thou?"

"I laughed. ’Cardinal,’ quoth I, ’what was not too good for a heathen is not too good for a Christian Catholic!’ And verily the sour Frenchman looked as if I had smote him on the hip. When he had done, I asked him, in my turn, ’Is it alleged against me that I have wronged one man in my judgment-court?" - Silence. ’Is it said that I have broken one law of the state?’ - Silence. ’Is it even whispered that trade does not flourish - that life is not safe - that abroad or at home the Roman name is not honoured, to that point which no former rule can parallel?’ - Silence. ’Then,’ said I, ’Lord Cardinal, I demand thy thanks, not thy censure.’ The Frenchman looked, and looked, and trembled, and shrunk, and then out he spake. ’I have but one mission to fulfil, on the part of the Pontiff - resign at once thy Tribuneship, or the Church inflicts upon thee its solemn curse.’"

"How - how?" said Nina, turning very pale; "what is it that awaits thee?"


This awful sentence, by which the spiritual arm had so often stricken down the fiercest foe, came to Nina’s ear as a knell. She covered her face with her hands. Rienzi paced the room with rapid strides. "The curse!" he muttered; "the Church’s curse - for me - for ME!"

"Oh, Cola! didst thou not seek to pacify this stern - "

"Pacify! Death and dishonour! Pacify! ’Cardinal,’ I said, and I felt his soul shrivel at my gaze, ’my power I received from the people - to the people alone I render it. For my soul, man’s word cannot scathe it. Thou, haughty priest, thou thyself art the accursed, if, puppet and tool of low cabals and exiled tyrants, thou breathest but a breath in the name of the Lord of Justice, for the cause of the oppressor, and against the rights of the oppressed.’ With that I left him, and now - "

"Ay, now - now what will happen? Excommunication! In the metropolis of the Church, too - the superstition of the people! Oh, Cola!"

"If," muttered Rienzi, "my conscience condemned me of one crime - if I had stained my hands in one just man’s blood - if I had broken one law I myself had framed - if I had taken bribes, or wronged the poor, or scorned the orphan, or shut my heart to the widow - then, then - but no! Lord, thou wilt not desert me!"

"But man may!" thought Nina mournfully, as she perceived that one of Rienzi’s dark fits of fanatical and mystical revery was growing over him - fits which he suffered no living eye, not even Nina’s, to witness when they gathered to their height. And now, indeed, after a short interval of muttered soliloquy, in which his face worked so that the veins on his temples swelled like cords, he abruptly left the room, and sought the private oratory connected with his closet. Over the emotions there indulged let us draw the veil. Who shall describe those awful and mysterious moments, when man, with all his fiery passions, turbulent thoughts, wild hopes, and despondent fears, demands the solitary audience of his Maker?

It was long after this conference with Nina, and the midnight bell had long tolled, when Rienzi stood alone, upon one of the balconies of the palace, to cool, in the starry air, the fever that yet lingered on his exhausted frame. The night was exceedingly calm, the air clear, but chill, for it was now December. He gazed intently upon those solemn orbs to which our wild credulity has referred the prophecies of our doom.

"Vain science!" thought the Tribune, "and gloomy fantasy, that man’s fate is pre-ordained - irrevocable - unchangeable, from the moment of his birth! Yet, were the dream not baseless, fain would I know which of yon stately lights is my natal star, - which images - which reflects - my career in life, and the memory I shall leave in death." As this thought crossed him, and his gaze was still fixed above, he saw, as if made suddenly more distinct than the stars around it, that rapid and fiery comet which in the winter of 1347 dismayed the superstitions of those who recognised in the stranger of the heavens the omen of disaster and of woe. He recoiled as it met his eye, and muttered to himself, "Is such indeed my type! or, if the legendary lore speak true, and these strange fires portend nations ruined and rulers overthrown, does it foretell my fate? I will think no more." (Alas! if by the Romans associated with the fall of Rienzi, that comet was by the rest of Europe connected with the more dire calamity of the Great Plague that so soon afterwards ensued.) As his eyes fell, they rested upon the colossal Lion of Basalt in the place below, the starlight investing its grey and towering form with a more ghostly whiteness; and then it was, that he perceived two figures in black robes lingering by the pedestal which supported the statue, and apparently engaged in some occupation which he could not guess. A fear shot through his veins, for he had never been able to divest himself of the vague idea that there was some solemn and appointed connexion between his fate and that old Lion of Basalt. Somewhat relieved, he heard his sentry challenge the intruders; and as they came forward to the light, he perceived that they wore the garments of monks.

"Molest us not, son," said one of them to the sentry. "By order of the Legate of the Holy Father we affix to this public monument of justice and of wrath, the bull of excommunication against a heretic and rebel. WOE TO THE ACCURSED OF THE CHURCH!"


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Chicago: Edward George Earle Lytton Bulwer-Lytton, "V. The Rottenness of the Edifice," Rienzi, Last of the Roman Tribunes, ed. Macaulay, G. C. (George Campbell), 1852-1915 and trans. Evans, Sebastian in Rienzi, Last of the Roman Tribunes Original Sources, accessed February 9, 2023, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=8FU7VL7HATHZ39N.

MLA: Bulwer-Lytton, Edward George Earle Lytton. "V. The Rottenness of the Edifice." Rienzi, Last of the Roman Tribunes, edited by Macaulay, G. C. (George Campbell), 1852-1915, and translated by Evans, Sebastian, in Rienzi, Last of the Roman Tribunes, Original Sources. 9 Feb. 2023. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=8FU7VL7HATHZ39N.

Harvard: Bulwer-Lytton, EG, 'V. The Rottenness of the Edifice' in Rienzi, Last of the Roman Tribunes, ed. and trans. . cited in , Rienzi, Last of the Roman Tribunes. Original Sources, retrieved 9 February 2023, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=8FU7VL7HATHZ39N.