In This Article Cola Di Rienzo

  • Introduction
  • Essential Works
  • Biographies
  • Petrarch
  • Cola Di Rienzo and the Idea of Rome
  • The Buona Stato and the Italian City-State
  • Apocalyptism and Religious Thought
  • Visual Arts and Display

Renaissance and Reformation Cola Di Rienzo
Ronald G. Musto
  • LAST REVIEWED: 03 June 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 November 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0122


Cola di Rienzo (b. c. 1313–d. 1354) was a notary, a friend of Francesco Petrarch, and a learned student of classical antiquity. On 20 May 1347 he established a new republican 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 had already gained the support of a wide range of social and economic groups within the city, while the neighboring republican city-states soon formed alliances 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 buono stato. 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, Cola was imprisoned to stand trial for heresy, but 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 Cardinal Gil Albornoz. Cola di Rienzo has been the object of great debate since his own lifetime, and his legacy reflects much of modern historiography on issues of popular spirituality, communal and oligarchic government, the religious and secular origins of the humanist movement, and the nature of governance in the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance. More recent theoretical frames have also been able to shed considerable light on the actions of Cola and his buono stato in terms of public ritual, crime and punishment, sacred and secular urban space, the reinterpretation of Trecento visual culture and propaganda, papal and secular legitimacy, and the formation of early Renaissance historiography. His period is also beginning to yield important results in the reexamination of archival collections, especially notarial registers, and their importance for the close examination and reevaluation of Roman social and economic networks and the survival of his republican reforms into the Quattrocento.

Essential Works

This section contains seven works that are essential to understanding Cola di Rienzo and his socioeconomic, cultural, and religious contexts. The more recent 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 remains the touchstone of Anglophone work on both Rome before Avignon and “Rome during Avignon” and set the stage with sound archival work among Rone’s notarial registers. In more recent years, both philological and archival work have been supplemented by new methodologies, including art historical and iconographic (Schwartz 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

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

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    Remains the fundamental English-language work 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 historical research and the starting place for any new detailed study of the city.

  • 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.

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    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.

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    Collins’s political history “circumnavigates” biography and 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.

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

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    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.

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    A 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, the mythic place of Rome in both contemporary political and religious thinking, and the apocalyptic thought and visual arts of the Trecento.

  • Rehberg, Andreas. Cliente e fazioni nell’azione politica di Cola di Rienzo. Cola di Rienzo e il comune di Roma 2. Rome: Roma nel Rinascimento, 2004.

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    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.

  • 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.

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    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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