Cola di Rienzo – A Small Statue to an Outsized Personality

Facing the twenty-three wide carriage stairs, or cordonata, that lead to the plateau of the Capitoline Hill, the visitor to Rome is captured by the grandeur of the vista. Staring down from the top are the two ancient marble horsemen, Castor and Pollux, with their steeds. Just beyond, the Palazzo Senatorio flanked by the Capitoline Museums frame the plaza designed by Michelangelo and act as embracing arms to the observer below. Completing the justifiably impressive view is the much steeper staircase rising to the viewer’s left to the 12th-century Basilica di Santa Maria in Ara Cœli and still further left is the massive monument to Victor Emmanuel II.

View from base of the Capitoline steps

Bird’s eye view of Capitoline hill; Cola di Rienzo statue indicated

With such an encompassing panorama before her, the tourist could be forgiven for failing to notice the small bronze statue resting on a pedestal half way up the hill between the two staircases – a monument to Rome’s 14th-century bad boy, Cola di Rienzo. With right hand extended and left on a sword, the hooded figure faces across the city’s northern plain (once the Campus Martius) beckoning all to turn in his direction.

Statue of Cola di Rienzo

Erected in 1887, the statue honors the papal notary who took on Rome’s nobility in the early modern period, declared himself Tribune of the people and led a short-lived revolt that turned the city on its ear.  Born in 1313, Cola was raised about 500 yards south-east of the Capitoline along the Tiber where his father had a tavern. A self-taught classicist, Cola was a friend of the great Tuscan scholar and poet Petrarch and the two maintained a lively correspondence. In 1344, Cola di Rienzo served as a notary at the papal court of Pope Clement VI then located in Avignon. With the papacy in France, Rome was in the hands of warring Nobles who made life  miserable for the populace. As the anonymous contemporary biographer of Cola wrote : “[T]he city of Rome was in agony. It had no rulers; men fought every day; thieves were everywhere; nuns were insulted; there was no refuge; unwed orphans were assaulted and led away in dishonour; wives were taken from their husbands in their very beds; laborers going out to work were robbed, and where? Within the gates of Rome!”

Into the fray stepped Cola di Rienzo. Fashioning himself as a protector of the people, he convinced a number of local merchants and lower nobles to wrest control of the city’s government from the ruling families. On May 18, 1349, the Friday before Pentecost, Cola met at a secret location on the Aventine Hill with his one hundred “good men.” From there they marched down to the Church of Sant’Angelo in Pescheria just behind the remaining arch of the Portico d’Ottavia and by the then active fish market. This was Cola’s neighborhood and many of his followers lived close by. These included the Vallati whose reconstructed house is across the square from the Church of Sant’Angelo, the Savelli who controlled the palace built on top of the Theater of Marcellus, and the Cenci whose compound was also near to the fish market.

Arch of Portico d’Ottavia with Church of Sant’Angelo in Pescheria behind

Giuseppe Vasi, Piazza di Pescaria, 1752 (fish market in foreground)

Casa dei Vallati

Savelli palace above remains of the Theater of Marcellus

Not only was the area around the Church of Sant’Angelo his neighborhood but in the early days of the Roman Republic, it had been the site of a meeting of the plebeians who gathered after selecting their leaders on the Aventine to confirm their newly gained rights from the Roman Senate. Cola knew his Roman history and used his march from the Aventine to the Church of Sant’Angelo for some political theater.

After spending Saturday night at the church, Cola, dressed in military armor and with banners flying, led his men on Sunday morning May 20 through the medieval streets behind the Church of Sant’Angelo and up the hill to the Senatorial palace on the Capitoline. One of his banners is still on display in the Capitoline Museum.

Processional banner, St. George slaying dragon, Capitoline Museum

Standing on a platform on the Capitoline plaza, Cola di Rienzo denounced Rome’s barons, including the powerful Orsini and Colonna families, and announced several laws to bring the wealthiest men of Rome under his control including prohibiting fortresses in the city limits and requiring their monetary assistance to the general population. Titles were important to the new ruler, and he became the self-proclaimed “tribune”, “liberator of the people” and ultimately, “Tribunus Augustus.” While initially tolerated by Pope Clement VI, Cola soon lost papal favor (likely due to noble undermining) as well as support of his mercantile followers. After seven months, the reign of Cola di Rienzo was over and he was run out of town. With the blessings of a new pope, Innocent VI, he made another attempt at power, arriving back in Rome in August 1354. This time his reign was even shorter, and he was put to death by a mob on October 8, 1354.

It would take another five hundred years before the name of Rome’s would-be liberator of the fourteenth century would be attached to the liberation movement that swept the papacy from temporal power in Rome and brought not only a small statue to the Capitoline but inspired nineteenth-century novels, poems, a play by Wagner (“Rienzi”) and the name of a street that runs from the Tiber to Vatican City.*

*For further information, see Jacobs, “Cola di Rienzo and the reenactment of an ancient tale – finding the Prata Flaminia in fourteenth-century Rome”, Renaissance Studies Vol. 33 No. 5 (2018).

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