Reform, renewal, and renaissance: The thought of Cola di Rienzo in its historical context

Thomas Charles Giangreco, Fordham University


In 1347 the government of the city of Rome was briefly seized by a popular insurrection led by Cola di Rienzo (1313?-1354), a notary of humble origins. Between May and December of 1347, and again in 1354, Cola boldly but unsuccessfully attempted to reform the government of Rome and restore the social and economic life of the city. Taking the title of tribune to reflect his political populism, Cola sought to repair the damage caused by the absence of the papacy in Avignon and the depredations and lawlessness of the Roman barons. Influenced by Joachite ideas of apocalyptic reform, Cola espoused an ambitious political program based on the restoration of papal residency, the re-establishment of law and order, economic revitalization, and pan-Italianism. A detailed study of Cola di Rienzo's thought will be undertaken with the goal of arriving at a clear understanding of the various ideas of renewal and reform expressed therein. Cola's ideas for civic reform, his views on the empire and the papacy, the apocalyptic dimension of his thought, and the relationship of his ideas to the Italian Renaissance will be studied in detail with the goal of placing these ideas in their proper historical context. Such a study will show that Cola di Rienzo was an ardent, if somewhat romantic reformer whose ideas were in line with those of other reformers of the Middle Ages. Cola di Rienzo was not, as he has sometimes been portrayed, a forerunner of Garibaldi, Mussolini or Marx, but rather a man of his time who must be understood as such. When examined closely, the reform thought of Cola di Rienzo will show that he was not the forerunner of subsequent historical movements or ideologies, but rather a fourteenth-century Roman keenly aware of the state into which his city had fallen since the papacy abandoned Rome for Avignon in 1305. Cola di Rienzo clearly saw what was wrong in Rome and had a bold vision for the future, but sadly, he lacked the political skill to bring about the reforms the city so desperately needed. Understood in its proper historical context, the story of Cola di Rienzo becomes a fourteenth-century tragedy rather than a premonition of modernity.

Subject Area

Middle Ages|European history

Recommended Citation

Giangreco, Thomas Charles, "Reform, renewal, and renaissance: The thought of Cola di Rienzo in its historical context" (1997). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI9730090.