Cola di Rienzo Leads Popular Uprising in Rome Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Cola di Rienzo led a popular uprising against the aristocratic families of Rome, ruling the city as a dictator until he was murdered by the commoners who had supported him.

Summary of Event

In 1309, Pope Clement V Clement V (pope) moved the headquarters of the Papacy Avignon Papacy (1305-1378) from Rome to Avignon (now in France), where it would remain until 1377. Although Rome was in the region of central Italy known as the Papal States and was therefore theoretically under the direct rule of the pope, the long absence of the Papacy led to a struggle for power among Rome’s aristocratic families. [kw]Cola di Rienzo Leads Popular Uprising in Rome (May 20, 1347-October 8, 1354) [kw]Rienzo Leads Popular Uprising in Rome, Cola di (May 20, 1347-October 8, 1354) Rienzo, Cola di Rome, popular uprising in Italy;May 20, 1347-October 8, 1354: Cola di Rienzo Leads Popular Uprising in Rome[2830] Social reform;May 20, 1347-October 8, 1354: Cola di Rienzo Leads Popular Uprising in Rome[2830] Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;May 20, 1347-October 8, 1354: Cola di Rienzo Leads Popular Uprising in Rome[2830] Rienzo, Cola di Clement VI Charles IV Innocent VI

Cola di Rienzo (a shortened version of his original name, Nicola di Lorenzo) was an outspoken critic of the aristocrats. In 1343, he was a member of a delegation sent from Rome to Avignon to ask Pope Clement VI to return the Papacy to Rome. Although Clement VI remained in Avignon, he appointed Rienzo to the post of notary of the civic treasury of Rome. He also declared 1350 to be a Holy Year, which would bring numerous pilgrims to Rome and help relieve the poverty of the Roman people.

On his return to Rome in 1344, Rienzo continued his public speeches denouncing the aristocrats. Although the common people were influenced by his oratory, the aristocrats failed to take him seriously. Some even amused themselves by inviting him to dinners, where they laughed at his verbal attacks. Secretly, Rienzo began planning a revolution with the commoners, financed by merchants who were eager to end the crime and bloodshed that filled Rome under the rule of the aristocrats.

On May 20, 1347, after attending a midnight mass at the church of Sant’Angelo in Peschiera, Rienzo led a group of his followers to the Capitoline Hill. Dressed in full armor with only his head bare, he made an impassioned speech against the aristocrats. A new constitution for Rome was read to the crowd, who accepted Rienzo as their leader. A few days later, he took the title of “tribune,” from the title of an official of ancient Rome who served as a representative of the common people.

The aristocrats, intimidated by the number of Rienzo’s supporters, some of whom bore weapons paid for by the merchants, were forced to swear loyalty to the new ruler of Rome. Rienzo proclaimed reforms of the financial, judicial, and political systems of Rome and enacted severe punishments for lawbreakers.

After these initial declarations, Rienzo announced his plan to unite Italy into a single nation. He sent representatives into all parts of Italy, inviting the rulers of its various regions to an assembly that would enact this goal. Many of these regional governments accepted the invitation, and the assembly began on August 1, 1347.

Following an elaborate ceremony in which he awarded himself a knighthood, Rienzo announced to the assembly that all the inhabitants of Italy were now Roman citizens and that Rome held jurisdiction over all other nations. He also declared that he and the pope held power over all other rulers. It seemed that Rienzo was attempting to transform Italy into a new Roman empire, with himself as emperor.

Many of Rienzo’s followers withdrew their support because of his increasingly grandiose pronouncements. Meanwhile, the ousted aristocrats began gathering troops outside the city. On November 20, 1347, Rienzo’s forces defeated the aristocrats’s army, leaving eighty aristocrats dead.

Despite this victory, Rienzo continued to lose popular support. Although Pope Clement VI had at first accepted Rienzo as the ruler of Rome, he issued a decree declaring him a criminal and a heretic whom the people of Rome should remove from power. Faced with his declining popularity as well as another uprising by the aristocrats, Rienzo resigned on December 15, 1347.

For two years, Rienzo lived as a hermit among monks in the mountains east of Rome. Meanwhile, the struggle between the aristocrats and the commoners continued. After the Holy Year, the aristocratic families seized all power in Rome, forcing the papal representative to flee. Encouraged by the pope, a group of Roman citizens appointed an elderly, respected Roman named Giovanni Gerroni Gerroni, Giovanni as the ruler of Rome with the title of “rector” on December 26, 1351. He had not been in office long when he discovered a conspiracy plotting his downfall. Declaring himself unequal to the task of ruling Rome, he left the city.

The aristocrats took power again. Once again the commoners rose in rebellion, this time selecting Francesco Baroncelli Baroncelli, Francesco as their leader. He proved to be no more effective against the aristocrats than the previous leader. Many Romans wished for the return of Rienzo. Despite his vanity and extravagant ambitions, he seemed to be the only popular leader capable of defeating the aristocrats.

In 1350, Rienzo traveled to the court of Charles IV Charles IV (Holy Roman Emperor) , king of Bohemia (later to be the ruler of the Holy Roman Empire), in an attempt to win his aid in regaining power in Rome. Charles IV reported his visit to Pope Clement VI Clement VI (pope) , who ordered him to be placed under the custody of the archbishop of Prague. Rienzo was again declared a heretic, given a death sentence, and held prisoner in Avignon beginning in August of 1352.

Clement VI died on December 6, 1352. The new pope, Innocent VI Innocent VI , was more sympathetic to Rienzo’s cause and thought he might be useful in returning papal authority to Rome. Innocent VI lifted the charge of heresy and freed him from imprisonment. On August 1, 1354, Rienzo returned to Rome with the new title of “senator.”

Rienzo’s behavior during his second period as the ruler of Rome was even more dictatorial than before. Desperate for money to pay the soldiers who protected him from the aristocrats, he raised taxes to extremely high levels. He arrested wealthy merchants and forced their families to pay large ransoms for their release.

One of Rienzo’s most notorious actions occurred when he arrested one of his supporters, Pandolfuccio di Guido dei Franchi, on suspicion of attempting to overthrow him. Without a trial, Rienzo had him beheaded. Many of the people of Rome had respected this man and were outraged by his execution. This act, along with heavy taxes and Rienzo’s erratic behavior, turned many against him.

On October 8, 1354, a mob surrounded the palace in which Rienzo lived. He attempted to address the crowd from the balcony of the palace but could not be heard over their shouts. The mob began throwing stones at him and set fire to the wooden fortifications surrounding the palace. Rienzo attempted to escape by disguising himself to blend in with the crowd, but he was soon recognized and taken prisoner.

After confronting the crowd in silence for a time, Rienzo was stabbed with a sword by one of his former officials. The mob began to beat and tear at his body and his head was cut off. His corpse was left hanging by its feet for two days, then taken down and burned.


Rienzo has been viewed as both a patriot and popular hero and as a dictator whose desire for glory brought him down. He saw himself as a visionary and vigorously pursued his dreams. However, the political and social turbulence that marked Rome in the late Middle Ages brought an end to his dreams of leading Rome to rediscover its strength and importance in the Mediterranean world.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cheetham, Nicolas. “Avignon and the Great Schism (1305-1389).” In Keepers of the Keys: A History of the Popes from Saint Peter to John Paul II. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1983. Describes the move of the papacy to Avignon and the career of Cola di Rienzo as seen by Clement VI.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Collins, Amanda. Greater than Emperor: Cola di Rienzo and the World of Fourteenth Century Rome. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2002. This biography of Rienzo focuses on his power and the environment in which he governed. Bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"


    The Life of Cola di Rienzo. Translated by John Wright. Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1975. The anonymous fourteenth century biography that is the primary source of information on Rienzo. Contains an excellent introduction by the translator, who provides a concise historical background of the period and the various critical views of Rienzo’s character.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Musto, Ronald G. Apocalypse in Rome: Cola di Rienzo and the Politics of the New Age. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003. A biography of Cola di Rienzo that describes his role as tribune. Bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Petrarca, Francesco. The Revolution of Cola di Rienzo. 3d ed. New York: Italica Press, 1996. A translation of Petrarch’s letters and the letters of Cola di Rienzo as well as from the Church’s archives. The introduction by Ronald G. Musto provides valuable information on the letters and Rienzo. Bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wood, Diana. “Propriissima Sedes Beati Petri: The Problem of Old Rome.” In Clement VI: The Pontificate and Ideas of an Avignon Pope. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989. An account of the struggle between Clement VI and Cola di Rienzo.

Categories: History