The story of Cola di Rienzo (or sometimes Rienzi) tells of a literal revival of Ancient Rome in the fourteenth century...

His original name was Nicola di Lorenzo. His father's Christian name was shortened to Rienzo, and his own name, Nicola, to Cola; hence the Cola di Rienzo by which he is generally known. Born the son of a tavern-keeper in 1313, he left Rome at a young age after his mother's death c. 1323 to live with an uncle at nearby Anagni. He returned to Rome at the age of twenty, and sent by the city's government, went to Avignon and persuaded Pope Clement VI to appoint him as notary of the civic treasure in Rome.

Rienzo plotted a revolution to restore the glory of ancient Rome, first through the Republic, then to restore the Empire. On May 20, 1347, he summoned the people to a parliament on the Capitoline Hill. There, he announced a series of edicts against the Roman aristocrats, and to the crowd's support and acclaim, assumed dictatorial powers. A few days later he took the ancient title of tribune of the plebs. Ultimately, Rienzo was driven out of Rome by the Colonna family and other nobles who organized against him.

At Prague in 1350, Rienzo disclosed to Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV his conviction that they shared a call to revive the Roman Catholic Church and the world, hoping to enlist his aid. Charles, however, responded by jailing him and in 1352 sent him to Avignon to face the Inquisition. The new pope, Innocent VI, subsequently absolved and freed Rienzi and sent him with Cardinal Albornoz to Italy. The cardinal made him senator and he returned to Rome as such. Unfortunately, Rienzo's arbitrary rule led to a popular uprising, and he was killed by a mob on October 8 of 1354.

Cola di Rienzo became the subject of a novel, Rienzi, by E.G.E. Bulwer-Lytton (1835) and Wagner's first opera (1842) by the same title. In modern times, Rienzo has been idealized as a forerunner of Italian nationalism and a hero to classicists everywhere. (it's not just me, right?)

Classics 142 lecture by Professor Bernard Frischer at UCLA

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