In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Cola Di Rienzo

  • Introduction
  • Essential Works
  • Biographies
  • Petrarch
  • Cola di Rienzo and the Idea of Rome
  • The Buono Stato and the Italian City-State
  • Apocalyptism and Religious Thought
  • Visual Arts and Display
  • Rienzo’s Legacy: The Populist and Dictator
  • Rienzo’s Legacy: The Restorer of Liberty

Renaissance and Reformation Cola Di Rienzo
Ronald G. Musto
  • LAST REVIEWED: 15 July 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 June 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0122


Cola di Rienzo (b. c. 1313–d. 1354) was a notary and diplomat, friend of Francesco Petrarch, and learned student of classical Antiquity. On 20 May 1347 he established a new communal government in Rome, toppling without violence the regime of the factious barons. He soon took on the titles of “tribune” in revival of ancient Rome, and “miles Spiritus Sancti” (“soldier of the Holy Spirit”) to indicate the dawning of a new, apocalyptic age. His new buono stato gained the support of a wide range of Roman social and economic groups, while the neighboring city-states soon allied with Rome. In Avignon Pope Clement VI first supported him and then—threatened by Rome’s new claims to legitimacy—actively worked with the barons to topple his government. Exiled in late 1347, on 1 August 1350 Cola made his way to the court of Charles IV in Prague, to persuade the emperor to reestablish his seat in Rome along with the pope. Delivered to Avignon on 1 August 1352, and imprisoned to stand trial for heresy, he was exonerated and sent to Rome as a papal senator on 1 August 1354. On 8 October 1354 he was murdered atop the Capitoline in an uprising organized by the Colonna and most likely supported by papal legate, Cardinal Gil Albornoz. New research methods and theoretical frames have moved away from the class-bound and nationalist analyses of the 19th century that viewed Rienzo as the unbalanced working-class populist. Interpretations also vary according to sources deployed. Those relying chiefly on the narrative account of the Anonimo romano’s classically inspired psychological and emotional portrait see the tribune as overreaching and unrealistic. Those that also deploy Rienzo’s and the papacy’s diplomatic correspondence and contemporary chroniclers place him into the normative communal thought of the Trecento. Meanwhile, the rise of 21st-century populisms has brought new scrutiny to Rienzo’s buono stato. While scholars of the Renaissance privilege philological and political methodologies, medievalists also examine Trecento public ritual, crime and punishment, sacred and secular urban space, patterns of patronage and clientage, Trecento visual culture and propaganda, claims of papal and secular legitimacy, and Trecento historiography. Rienzo’s period is also yielding important results in the reexamination of Roman archives, especially notarial registers, and their importance for the reevaluation of Roman social and economic networks, communal memory and forgetting, and the survival of his communal reforms into the Quattrocento.

Essential Works

This section contains works that are essential to understanding Cola di Rienzo and his political, socioeconomic, cultural, and religious contexts. The more recent works offer syntheses of research in a wide diversity of fields that have been brought to bear on the history of Rome in the Trecento. The serious scholarly work of the 20th century began with Burdach, et al. 1928, a massive philological study of all known sources. Brentano 1974 long remained the touchstone of anglophone work on both Rome before Avignon and “Rome during Avignon” and set the stage with sound archival work among Rome’s notarial registers. In the past two decades, both philological and archival work have been supplemented by new methodologies, including art historical and iconographic (Schwarz 1994, Collins 2002, Musto 2003), and sociological and anthropological (Modigliani 2004 and Rehberg 2004). Debate now focuses on the symbolic meaning of medieval Rome and the base reality of kinship and other affinity groups in understanding Rome’s deeper contexts for its contemporaries and later historiography. New methods and research have also widened the focus to include Rome during and after Avignon and to place Rienzo into these broader contexts. Among such works, Internullo 2016 takes precedence. The articles in Scalessa 2009 offer the current state of research in most of these methodologies.

  • Brentano, Robert. Rome before Avignon: A Social History of Thirteenth-Century Rome. New York: Basic Books, 1974.

    One of the first modern anglophone works on later medieval Rome and its socioeconomic and cultural contexts. With its often idiosyncratic—and delightful—approach to narrative and sources, it remains a model of archival research on Rome.

  • Burdach, Konrad, Paul Piur, and Fritz Kühn, eds. Die Briefwechsel des Cola di Rienzo: Forschungen zur Geschichte der deutschen Bildung. Vol. 2, Vom Mittelalter zur Reformation. Berlin: Weidmann, 1928.

    Changes in the German language between the Trecento and Reformation reflected a deep transformation of the German soul that had its roots in the religious and reform thought of Dante, Petrarch, and Rienzo. Cola’s letters brought that spirit of renewal with him to Germany through Charles IV’s imperial court.

  • Collins, Amanda. Greater than Emperor: Cola di Rienzo (ca. 1313–54) and the World of Fourteenth-Century Rome. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2002.

    DOI: 10.3998/mpub.17133

    Collins’s political history “circumnavigates” biography and she divides her study into chapters on political heritage and symbolism, including Cola’s perception of himself and Rome’s past, religious and apocalyptic influences, rhetorical and legal traditions, socioeconomic and prosopographical networks, historiographical considerations, and social memory.

  • Internullo, Dario. Ai margini dei giganti: La vita intellettuale dei romani nel Trecento, 1305–1367 ca. Rome: Viella, 2016.

    In granular detail this work covers Rome’s intellectuals, influences, and impact, offering a “social history of Roman culture.” Throughout, Rienzo stands as a fulcrum point. Were Rienzo and his contemporary thinkers humanists in the Roman tradition of reform and renewal? What was the impact of, and on, non-Romans like Petrarch? How accurate was Rienzo’s interpretation of antiquity? How did he fit into complex structures of class, education, and profession?

  • Modigliani, Anna. Cola di Rienzo e il comune di Roma. Vol. 2, L’eredità di Cola di Rienzo; Gli statuti del commune di popolo e la riforma di Paolo II. Rome: Roma nel Rinascimento, 2004.

    A legal history that skillfully compares archival, legal, and narrative sources. Attempts to demythologize Rienzo from his damnatio memoriae and from claims that he was a unique exception to Rome’s constitutional history. Traces this constitution from the statutes of his buono stato to Paul II’s statutes of 1469.

  • Musto, Ronald G. Apocalypse in Rome: Cola di Rienzo and the Politics of the New Age. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003.

    DOI: 10.1525/california/9780520233966.001.0001

    An urban, cultural, and religious history deploying biography and interwoven discussions of political and religious revival, Rome’s connections to Italy’s communal movement, social networks, notions of social justice, Italian communal political traditions and thought, the mythic place of Rome in both contemporary political and religious thinking, Trecento visual culture, and apocalyptic thought.

  • Rehberg, Andreas. Cola di Rienzo e il comune di Roma. Vol. 1, Cliente e fazioni nell’azione politica di Cola di Rienzo. Rome: Roma nel Rinascimento, 2004.

    A sociological history that fits well with Rehberg’s prosopographical studies. Focuses primarily on clientage, and secondarily on faction. Rehberg insists that a study of clientage dissolves all other cultural and political distinctions amid the deep structural affinities of Rome’s great families and their dependents.

  • Scalessa, Gabriele, ed. Cola di Rienzo: Dalla storia al mito. Rome: Il Cubo, 2009.

    An important collection by experts tracing the tribune’s legacy from the historical record and onward into the late 19th century in historiography, drama, fiction, and the arts. Essays by G. Seibt, A. Rehberg, M. Mazzocchi Alemanni, A. Modigliani, G. Porta, L. Felici, P. Gibellini, A. Spotii, M. Tedonio, L. Biancini, P. Barone, A-C. Faitrop-Porta, I. M. Batiafarano, F. Onorati, F. Matitii, and L. Ceccarelli.

  • Schwarz, Amy. “Images and Illusions of Power in Trecento Art: Cola di Rienzo and the Ancient Roman Republic.” PhD diss., State University of New York at Binghamton, 1994.

    This art historical and cultural history uses the Anonimo romano’s descriptions of Rienzo’s political and religious paintings to analyze the common visual language of the Trecento. Schwarz provides analogous examples of Trecento political, apocalyptic, and infamante genres to demonstrate Cola’s use of metaphor as a basis for political power.

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