Parallel Source Problems in Medieval History

Date: August 1347

PROBLEM V—The Coronation of Cola di Rienzo


THE career of Cola di Rienzo or Nicholas, son of Lawrence, reached its height with his coronation as tribune of the people in the first half of the month of August, 1347. Three months before that time he had been a poor peasant who gloried in the office of papal notary at Rome; four months later he was a fugitive from the wrath of the pope. Meantime he had been ruler of Rome, almost worshiped by the people of the city, honored by neighboring states, and applauded by kings and even by the pope. The circumstances which made possible this spectacular rise of a mere peasant to the dizzy height of imperial ambition involve most of the forces which were operating in early Renaissance Italy, and especially at Rome.

Rome itself had for almost half a century been the scene of unusual turbulence. The papal curia, which had been one of her greatest sources of wealth as well as importance, had been moved to Avignon in 1308. In that same year a devastating fire had swept over a great part of the city, adding greatly to the already overstocked supply of ruins. In 1312 the emperor Henry VII. made his chimerical journey to receive the imperial crown, and had to fight his way through the city to the Capitol. Ludwig of Bavaria, who came to Italy for a similar purpose sixteen years later, had to wage war on Roman soil also. At the other times the city was largely at the mercy of certain noble families whose intense rivalry kept it in almost constant turmoil. These families, of which the Colonna, the Orsini, the Gætani, and the Frangipani were the leading ones, had, even in the days when the popes were at Rome, been powerful enough to be troublesome. Now they fairly reveled in civil warfare. Their homes in the city were heavily barricaded and further fortified by bands of hired ruffians drawn from the streets of the city or from bands of roving free-booters. With these forces they rode about preying upon commerce and industry and terrifying the neighborhood. The common people had to choose one or another of these families as their patrons, and, whichever they chose, they became immediately legitimate prey for the others. Robbery was a genteel occupation, murder a daily occurrence, while respectable family life among the ordinary citizens became almost impossible. Occasionally the people had revolted and established popular governments based on the guild organization, but without permanent success. The powerful king of Naples, who had frequently interfered in the interests of the papacy, died in 1343, and the beautiful but wicked Joanna, who followed him, caused such anarchy that Naples could then be of little assistance.

The papacy, though at Avignon, was especially concerned about the condition of Rome. Rome and the papal states constituted the patrimony of St. Peter—a source of revenue and, in theory, of temporal independence. Over it the popes placed their officials, both spiritual and lay, and from it they drew feudal dues. As long as Robert of Naples was alive the popes were generally able to maintain order, but with his death there seemed no effective means of controlling the lands. Ludwig of Bavaria, who had been elected emperor, was excommunicate, and Charles of Bohemia was chosen in his place in 1346. Neither was in a position to aid the papacy. The noble families were too strongly rivals to establish peace, while the adventurous free-booters who roamed about with powerful bands could scarcely be expected to look after the interests of the popes. Rienzo’s success, therefore, was hailed with joy by the papacy at first, as well as by the people of the city.

Cola di Rienzo was the son of a poor tavern keeper in Rome, where he was born about the year 1314. Although his parents were poor, he seems, nevertheless, to have procured some education. His biographer accords him the reputation of being better versed in classical writings, and especially in deciphering inscriptions, than any other Roman of his time. He seems also to have had a natural gift for oratory, the effect of which was greatly enhanced by his flue appearance. Along with this he had an almost mystic imagination to which the things about him appeared in a strange light. Even in his early life many things had happened which afforded choice food for such a mind. Henry VII. had made his journey to re-establish the Roman Empire in 1312, and left a vivid impression upon the minds of the people. Dante’s De Monarchia and his other writings laudatory of the old empire strengthened and prolonged that idea. When Rienzo was fourteen years old Ludwig of Bavaria came to Rome and had himself made emperor by the Roman people, supported by the writings of the theorist, Marsigilio of Padua, whose writings were quite widely read. Then in 1341 Rienzo witnessed the coronation of Petrarch, who had come to Rome to receive the laurel wreath where Cicero and Virgil had lived. The Rome of his imagination became, therefore, constantly more vivid and attainable.

His own Rome, as it was, served to his mind only as a violent contrast to what it ought to be. His own younger brother had been ruthlessly murdered by some of the noble faction, which could only embitter the grief he already felt for the sad plight of the city. In the popular overthrow of the government at the end of the year 1342 Rienzo was selected as orator to inform the pope and make the usual request for the return of the papacy to Rome, At Avignon he created a very favorable impression, and, though Clement VI. treated the question of return to Rome with the same indifference as his immediate predecessors, he did grant the not altogether altruistic plea for another jubilee at Rome in 1350. There, too, Rienzo met and became acquainted with Petrarch, and just before he left Avignon he received from the pope the office of papal notary in Rome. When he came home he found himself a man of more importance than the new office which he had would ordinarily confer.

In this orifice, however, he came into closer contact with the leading men in Rome; he learned more intimately the sordid side of the relations between the nobles, and he accumulated a fund of practical experience which he later utilized. Though he seems to have done little that was unusual during this period before his sudden rise in 1347, even that little was in the direction of his later work, Rome was startled by the appearance in a public place of an allegorical representation of Rome tossed about on a stormy sea among shipwrecks. This was ascribed to him. Later he discovered the tablet of the Lex Regia, which commemorated the grant of the imperium by the Senate to Vespasian. This was installed prominently in a public place; around it was painted the scene of the Senate conferring the empire, and then Rienzo, dressed in fantastic garb, mounted a tribune and expounded the meaning of this tablet in a lecture more political than antiquarian. The nobles did not regard him as seriously then ms they did later, but the people seem to have been duly impressed. Then a secret conspiracy was formed in which Rienzo and the papal vicar, Raymond of Orvieto, wets the leaders. Plans were carefully laid; and on the 20th of May, when most of the Colonna forces were out of the city, the people were called together; Rienzo read a new constitution to them, and he with the papal vicar were made tribunes of the Roman people.

It has been generally admitted that the new government accomplished wonders, The nobles were suppressed; Rome and its neighborhood were peaceful; the city was effectively policed; fields that lay idle through fear were again cultivated, and pilgrims could come without fear of hurt to the holy shrines at Rome. The news of these events brought great rejoicing everywhere, and letters and presents poured into Rome from all Europe. Sailors Said that even the Sultan of Babylon trembled at the very mention of the tribune’s name. At any rate, Europe was pleased, and Cola felt immeasurably flattered and immoderately great.

John of Vico, the prefect of the city, was the last powerful opponent hi the vicinity, but by the 16th of July even he was forced to prostrate himself at the feet of the tribune. On the 26th of that month Rienzo proclaimed the ancient majesty of the Roman people. The Ceremony of knighthood took place on the first day of August. On the same day he also summoned the emperor and the electors to appear in Rome. On the next day he celebrated the festival of the unity of Italy and presented the standards, About this time, too, he received a request from Joanna of Naples, who was in trouble for the murder of her husband, to have Rienzo decide her case. The king of Hungary, who was trying to avenge the death of that husband, also appealed to him, while the powerful dukes of southern Italy entreated his good-will. On the 15th of that month he was crowned with the six crowns. Murmurs of opposition began to arise at Avignon and spread southward. The nobles, awaiting the first opportunity to overthrow the plebeian upstart, began to conspire against him. Some of them he lured to a banquet on the 14th of September, where, he took them captive, But, although he had condemned them to death, he let them go three days later, for which he paid dearly. On the 19th of the month he broached his definite plans for Italian unity to the cities of Italy. The papal vicar was dismissed from office, but the net began to draw more closely about Rienzo. The papal legate from Sicily was ordered to Rome. On the 7th of October he was empowered to depose him, and five days later he was given definite instructions of procedure. Letters had meanwhile been sent to various states and nobles in the neighborhood to give the legate aid, and the Roman nobles were the first to arise. The legate arrived in Rome and summoned Rienzo. But the tribune overawed him for the moment, and momentarily, too, was successful over the nobles in a battle on the 20th of November. They continued, however, to ravage the territory outside of Rome, and papal opposition grew stronger. On the 3d of December he was excommunicated. On the 15th of that month he publicly abdicated and withdrew to the castle of St. Angelo, where he hid for a time.

Later he withdrew as a fugitive, and little was known about him in the next two years. In 1350 he appeared at the court of Charles IV., king of Germany, whom he urged to come to Rome as the savior of the Roman Empire. But Charles kept him in genteel imprisonment for the next two years, although the pope made numerous requests for the prisoner. Finally, in 1352, he was with reluctance given over to the papacy. At Avignon he was kept in chains, and in imminent danger of being put to death, but with the death of Clement VI. and the accession of Innocent VI. a different solution was found. He was sent with the fighting cardinal, Albornoz, to subdue the papal states. The work was successful, and Rienzo was rewarded with the position of senator of Rome, but his local enemies brought that office to a short end by killing him October 8, 1354.


This problem differs from the preceding in that it is not so much a comparison of several authors describing the same event as it is a comparison of the attitude of the same writers toward an event at different times. The following selections are taken mainly from the letters of Rienzo and the pope, Clement VI., and have, therefore, largely the character of official documents. These letters, though addressed to one person only, were usually intended to be read by several, which is especially true of Rienzo’s letters. The pompous, grandiloquent style of the latter, with the long, involved sentences and parenthetical clauses, requires painstaking study to understand them fully. Occasionally the unusually long sentences of the original have been broken up for the purposes of this translation, but so far as convenient the original form has been preserved. The papal letters are only less involved than those of Rienzo, and both represent a more ornate Latin than that used by the earlier medieval chroniclers. Only portions of some of the original letters are here translated; those parts which deal with the events that occurred at Rome between the first and the fifteenth days of August, 1347. The other matters, relating to the struggles with the nobles or the tribune’s other activities, have been omitted as far as possible.

1. The Titles Used by Cola di Rienzo. These titles are taken from Rienzo’s own letters, and are almost entirely of his own conception. For this reason they cast an interesting light upon the character of the man himself, and the changes which they undergo in the course of the year assume an almost pathetic significance.

2. Letter of Clement VI. to Raymond, Bishop of Ornate, and Cola di Rienzo. This letter was written June 27, 1347, and practically all of this is here translated. It is self-explanatory, and is particularly valuable for the papal attitude at this time. The papal letter of October 12th throws some additional light on this point.

3. Letter of Rienzo to the Commune of Florence. This is a copy of a circular letter written July 9th to the cities around Rome. Congratulations had been received in various forms from many people, even from the pope; his plans had been unusually successful; and he was now ready to stage an elaborate coronation. The letter is translated in full.

4. Letter of Rienzo to a Friend at Avignon. Only a part of this letter, which was written July 15th, is here translated. The other portions deal with the various events that have happened under Rienzo’s administration. This is practically the first official announcement of the coming celebration to the pope. Notice the indirect way in which it is given.

5. Vita Anonymi di Cola di Rienzo (Anonymous Life ofCola di Rienzo). Who the author of this life was is not definitely known, but there seems little doubt that he was personal witness of most of the events of Rienzo’s public career. He Wrote his account just after the death of the tribune in a dialect form of Italian intended probably for general reading. Though crude in language and style, it is very graphic, and by historians is usually regarded as a very impartial account. The last paragraph about the death of Rienzo is added for its side light on the author of the account.

6. The Citation of the German Emperor and Electors. This document, which was made public on the first day of August, had been previously prepared, and represents perhaps the most ambitious undertaking of the tribune, Those cited did not appear.

7. Letter of Rienzo to Clement VI. This letter has two dates—the first part was written presumably on July 27th, the rest of it August 5th. Only parts of it are here translated, but the rest of it deals in the same happy way with the happenings at Rome and Rienzo’s plans. A delicate question might arise as to whether he intended this to reach the pope at the original date.

8. Giovanni Villani: Historia Universalis. This writer died in 1348, a victim to the black death which was sweeping over Europe at that time. He lived at Florence, where he was engaged during the years before his death in writing a history of his own times. Experience in the extensive commercial and diplomatic relations of his city and his shrewd judgment enabled him to write an unusually complete and sound history of his times. On Roman affairs he was very well informed, though he was not an eye-witness, and his account is here valuable as the estimate of Rienzo by an expert and close observer at the time.

9. The Program of the Coronation of Cola di Rienzo. This document was drawn up by Rienzo himself, and contains some of the best illustrations of the mental vagaries of the famous tribune. Ancient learning and medieval allegory are closely intermingled.

10. Letter of Clement VI. to the Papal Legate. The pope had become alarmed by the news which he heard from Rome, and therefore wrote to the legate in Sicily to take measures to check Rienzo’s career. The letter is dated at Avignon, August 21st. Only the charges against Rienzo have been here translated.

11. Letter of Rienzo to Clement VI. The exact date of this letter is lost, but it was probably written some time between the 15th and 31st of August. From various sources Rienzo learned of the opposition to him at Avignon, and in the letter which is here translated he replies to the charges. Notice the confident yet anxious tone.

12. Letter of Rienzo to Rinaldo Orsini at Avignon. Momentary successes gave him added confidence, and in this letter to the papal notary he recounted what had happened, and in a facetious, almost insolent way he treats the charges again. The latter part is here given. It is dated September 17th.

13. Letter of Rienzo to the City of Florence. This is a copy of another circular letter addressed to the cities of Italy, and was written only two days after the preceding letter. In this he broached more dearly his plans for Italian unity.

14. Letter of Rienzo to Clement VI. The definite opposition of the pope had become evident even to Rienzo himself, and practically all of this letter, written October 11th, is devoted to a serious defense of himself. Only portions of the letter are here given.

15. Letter of Clement VI. to the Papal Legate. This is the last of a number of vigorous letters sent by the pope to the legate and other adherents in Italy, and sums up rather fully the charges against Rienzo, as well as conveying definite instructions of procedure against him. It was sent from Avignon, October 12th, and the legate almost immediately left Sicily to come to Rome.

16. Letter of Clement to the People of Rome. The pope had decided to oust Rienzo. This letter, sent December 3d, is practically a bull of excommunication against Rienzo. The tribune abdicated December 15, 1347.


1. What was the general attitude toward Rienzo before August 1, 1347?

2. Whence did Rienzo derive his power?

3. What position did the papal vicar have at Rome in the pope’s opinion?

4. What position did the papal vicar have at Rome in Rienzo’s opinion?

5. Describe the various steps in the knighting of Rienzo.

6. By what authority did he re-establish the majesty of the Roman people?

7. What object did he have in citing the emperor and the electors?

8. What evidence do you find to show that he also cited the pope?

9. What was the relation of Rienzo to the pope in Rienzo’s opinion?

10. What was the papal opinion of that relationship?

11. How did Rienzo assure himself that he was not opposing the church?

12. Did the papal vicar approve of Rienzo’s acts?

13. What steps did Rienzo take to bring about Italian unity?

14. Whence did Rienzo get his ideas about his positions?

15. Did he have any ambition of becoming emperor?

16. For what reason did the pope oppose Rienzo?

17. Which do you regard as the most important reason for papal opposition?

18. What information do you gain from these documents about the office of syndic?

19. What evidence do you find to show that the expectation of the Jubilee in 1350 played any part in the career of Rienzo?

20. Describe the character of Rienzo.


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Chicago: "Problem V—The Coronation of Cola di Rienzo," Parallel Source Problems in Medieval History in Parallel Source Problems in Medieval History, ed. Frederic Duncalf and August C. Krey (New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1912), 175–188. Original Sources, accessed May 31, 2023,

MLA: . "Problem V—The Coronation of Cola di Rienzo." Parallel Source Problems in Medieval History, in Parallel Source Problems in Medieval History, edited by Frederic Duncalf and August C. Krey, New York, Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1912, pp. 175–188. Original Sources. 31 May. 2023.

Harvard: , 'Problem V—The Coronation of Cola di Rienzo' in Parallel Source Problems in Medieval History. cited in 1912, Parallel Source Problems in Medieval History, ed. , Harper & Brothers Publishers, New York, pp.175–188. Original Sources, retrieved 31 May 2023, from