'Arenula'—'fine sand'—'Renula,' 'Regola'—such is the derivation of the name of the Seventh Region, which was bounded on one side by the sandy bank of the Tiber from Ponte Sisto to the island of Saint Bartholomew, and which Gibbon designates as a 'quarter of the city inhabited only by mechanics and Jews.' The mechanics were chiefly tanners, who have always been unquiet and revolutionary folk, but at least one exception to the general statement must be made, since it was here that the Cenci had built themselves a fortified palace on the foundations of a part of the Theatre of Balbus, between the greater Theatre of Marcellus, then held by the Savelli, and the often mentioned Theatre of Pompey. There Francesco Cenci dwelt, there the childhood of Beatrice was passed, and there she lived for many months after the murder of her father, before the accusation was first brought against her. It is a gloomy place now, with its low black archway, its mouldy walls, its half rotten windows, and its ghostly court of balconies; one might guess that a dead man's curse hangs over it, without knowing how Francesco died. And he, who cursed his sons and his daughters and laughed for joy when two of them were murdered, rebuilt the little church just opposite, as a burial-place for himself and them; but neither he nor they were laid there. The palace used to face the Ghetto, but that is gone, swept away to the very last stone by the municipality in a fine hygienic frenzy, though, in truth, neither plague nor cholera had ever taken hold there in the pestilences of old days, when the Christian city was choked with the dead it could not bury. There is a great open space there now, where thousands of Jews once lived huddled together, crowding and running over each other like ants in an anthill, in a state that would have killed any other people, persecuted occasionally, but on the whole, fairly well treated; indispensable then as now to the spendthrift Christian; confined within their own quarter, as formerly in many other cities, by gates closed at dusk and opened at sunrise, altogether a busy, filthy, believing, untiring folk that laughed at the short descent and high pretensions of a Roman baron, but cringed and crawled aside as the great robber strode by in steel. And close by the Ghetto, in all that remains of the vast Portico of Octavia, is the little Church of Sant' Angelo in Pescheria where the Jews were once compelled to hear Christian sermons on Saturdays.
Close by that church Rienzi was born, and it is for ever associated with his memory. His name calls up a story often told, yet never clear, of a man who seemed to possess several distinct and contradictory personalities, all strong but by no means all noble, which by a freak of fate were united in one man under one name, to make him by turns a hero, a fool, a Christian knight, a drunken despot and a philosophic Pagan. The Buddhist monks of the far East believe today that a man's individual self is often beset, possessed and dominated by all kinds of fragmentary personalities that altogether hide his real nature, which may in reality be better or worse than they are. The Eastern belief may serve at least as an illustration to explain the sort of mixed character with which Rienzi came into the world, by which he imposed upon it for a certain length of time, and which has always taken such strong hold upon the imagination of poets, and writers of fiction, and historians.
Rienzi, as we call him, was in reality named 'Nicholas Gabrini, the son of Lawrence'; and 'Lawrence,' being in Italian abbreviated to 'Rienzo' and preceded by the possessive particle 'of,' formed the patronymic by which the man is best known in our language. Lawrence Gabrini kept a wine-shop somewhere in the neighbourhood of the Cenci palace; he seems to have belonged to Anagni, he was therefore by birth a retainer of the Colonna, and his wife was a washer-woman. Between them, moreover, they made a business of selling water from the Tiber, through the city, at a time when there were no aqueducts. Nicholas Rienzi's mother was handsome, and from her he inherited the beauty of form and feature for which he was famous in his youth. His gifts of mind were many, varied and full of that exuberant vitality which noble lineage rarely transmits; if he was a man of genius, his genius belonged to that order which is never far removed from madness and always akin to folly. The greatest of his talents was his eloquence, the least of his qualities was judgment, and while he possessed the courage to face danger unflinchingly, and the means of persuading vast multitudes to follow him in the realization of an exalted dream, he had neither the wit to trace a cause to its consequence, nor the common sense to rest when he had done enough. He had no mental perspective, nor sense of proportion, and in the words of Madame de Staël he 'mistook memories for hopes.'
He was born in the year 1313, in the turbulent year that followed the coronation of Henry the Seventh of Luxemburg; and when his vanity had come upon him like a blight, he insulted the memory of his beautiful mother by claiming to be the Emperor's son. In his childhood he was sent to Anagni. There it must be supposed that he acquired his knowledge of Latin from a country priest, and there he lived that early life of solitude and retirement which, with ardent natures, is generally the preparation for an outburst of activity that is to dazzle, or delight, or terrify the world. Thence he came back, a stripling of twenty years, dazed with dreaming and surfeited with classic lore, to begin the struggle for existence in his native Rome as an obscure notary.
It seems impossible to convey an adequate idea of the confusion and lawlessness of those times, and it is hard to understand how any city could exist at all in such absence of all authority and government. The powers were nominally the Pope and the Emperor, but the Pope had obeyed the commands of Philip the Fair and had retired to Avignon, and no Emperor could even approach Rome without an army at his back and the alliance of the Ghibelline Colonna to uphold him if he succeeded in entering the city. The maintenance of order and the execution of such laws as existed, were confided to a mis-called Senator and a so-called Prefect. The Senatorship was the property of the Barons, and when Rienzi was born the Orsini and Colonna had just agreed to hold it jointly to the exclusion of every one else. The prefecture was hereditary in the ancient house of Di Vico, from whose office the Via de' Prefetti in the Region of Campo Marzo is named to this day; the head of the house was at first required to swear allegiance to the Pope, to the Emperor, and to the Roman People, and as the three were almost perpetually at swords drawn with one another, the oath was a perjury when it was not a farce. The Prefects' principal duty appears to have been the administration of the Patrimony of Saint Peter, in which they exercised an almost unlimited power after Innocent the Third had formally dispensed them from allegiance to the Emperor, and the long line of petty tyrants did not come to an end until Pope Eugenius the Fourth beheaded the last of the race for his misdeeds in the fifteenth century; after him the office was seized upon by the Barons and finally drifted into the hands of the Barberini, a mere sinecure bringing rich endowments to its fortunate possessor.
In Rienzi's time there were practically three castes in Rome,—priests, nobles, and beggars,—for there was nothing which in any degree corresponded to a citizen class; such business as there was consisted chiefly in usury, and was altogether in the hands of the Jews. Rome was the lonely and ruined capital of a pestilential desert, and its population was composed of marauders in various degrees.
The priests preyed upon the Church, the nobles upon the Church and upon each other, the beggars picked the pockets of both, and such men as were bodily fit for the work of killing were enlisted as retainers in the service of the Barons, whose steady revenues from their lands, whose strong fortresses within the city, and whose possession of the coat and mail armour which was then so enormously valuable, made them masters of all men except one another. They themselves sold the produce of their estates and the few articles of consumption which reached Rome from abroad, in shops adjoining their palaces; they owned the land upon which the corn and wine and oil were grown; they owned the peasants who ploughed and sowed and reaped and gathered; and they preserved the privilege of disposing of their own wares as they saw fit. They feared nothing but an ambush of their enemies, or the solemn excommunication of the Pope, who cared little enough for their doings. The cardinals and prelates who lived in the city were chiefly of the Barons' own order and under their immediate protection. The Barons possessed everything and ruled everything for their own profit; they defended their privileges with their lives, and they avenged the slightest infringement on their powers by the merciless shedding of blood. They were ignorant, but they were keen; they were brave, but they were faithless; they were passionate, licentious and unimaginably cruel.
Such was the city, and such the government, to which Rienzi returned at the age of twenty, to follow the profession of a notary, probably under the protection of the Colonna. That the business afforded occupation to many is proved by the vast number of notarial deeds of that time still extant; but it is also sufficiently clear that Rienzi spent much of his time in dreaming, if not in idleness, and much in the study of the ancient monuments and inscriptions upon which no one had bestowed a glance for generations. It was during that period of early manhood that he acquired the learning and collected the materials which earned him the title, 'Father of Archæology.' He seems to have been about thirty years old when he first began to speak in public places, to such audience as he could gather, expanding with ready though untried eloquence the soaring thoughts bred in years of solitary study.
Clement the Sixth, a Frenchman, was elected Pope at Avignon, a man who, according to the chronicler, contrasted favourably by his wisdom, breadth of view, and liberality, with a weak and vacillating predecessor. Seeing that they had to do with a man at last, the Romans sent an embassy to him to urge his return to Rome. The hope had long been at the root of Rienzi's life, and he must have already attained to a considerable reputation of learning and eloquence, since he was chosen to be one of the ambassadors. Petrarch conceived the highest opinion of him at their first meeting, and never withdrew his friendship from him to the end; the great poet joined his prayers with those of the Roman envoys, and supported Rienzi's eloquence with his own genius in a Latin poem. But nothing could avail to move the Pope. Avignon was the Capua of the Pontificate,—a vast papal palace was in course of construction, and the cardinals had already begun to erect sumptuous dwellings for themselves. The Pope listened, smiled, and promised everything except return; the unsuccessful embassy was left without means of subsistence; and Rienzi, disappointed in soul, ill in body, and almost starving, was forced to seek the refuge of a hospital, whither he retired in the single garment which remained unsold from his ambassadorial outfit. But he did not languish long in this miserable condition, for the Pope heard of his misfortunes, remembered his eloquence, and sent him back to Rome, invested with the office of Apostolic Notary, and endowed with a salary of five golden florins daily, a stipend which at that time amounted almost to wealth. The office was an important one, but Rienzi exercised it by deputy, continued his studies, propagated his doctrines, and by quick degrees acquired unbounded influence with the people. His hatred of the Barons was as profound as his love of his native city was noble; and if the unavenged murder of a brother, and the unanswered buffet of a Colonna rankled in his heart, and stimulated his patriotism with the sting of personal wrong, neither the one nor the other were the prime causes of his actions. The evils of the city were enormous, his courage was heroic, and after profound reflection he resolved upon the step which determined his tragic career.
To the door of the Church of Saint George in Velabro he affixed a proclamation, or a prophecy, which set forth that Rome should soon be restored to the 'Good Estate'; he collected a hundred of his friends in a meeting by night, on the Aventine, to decide upon a course of action, and he summoned all citizens to appear before the church of Sant' Angelo in Pescheria, towards evening, peacefully and without arms, to provide for the restoration of that 'Good Estate' which he himself had announced.
That night was the turning-point in Rienzi's life, and he made it a Vigil of Arms and Prayer. In the mysterious nature of the destined man, the pure spirit of the Christian knight suddenly stood forth in domination of his soul, and he consecrated himself to the liberation of his country by the solemn office of the Holy Ghost. All night he kneeled in the little church, in full armour, with bare head, before the altar. The people came and went, and others came after them and saw him kneeling there, while one priest succeeded another in celebrating the Thirty Masses of the Holy Spirit from midnight to early morning. The sun was high when the champion of freedom came forth, bareheaded still, to face the clear light of day. Around him marched the chosen hundred; at his right hand went the Pope's vicar; and before him three great standards displayed allegories of liberty, justice, and peace.
A vast concourse of people followed him, for the news had spread from mouth to mouth, and there were few in Rome who had not heard his voice and longed for the 'Good Estate' which he so well described. The nobles heard of the assembly with indifference, for they were well used to disturbances of every kind and dreaded no unarmed rabble. Colonna and Orsini, joint senators, had quarrelled, and the Capitol was vacant; thither Rienzi went, and thence from a balcony he spoke to the people of freedom, of peace, of prosperity. The eloquence that had moved Clement and delighted Petrarch stirred ten thousand Roman hearts at once; a dissatisfied Roman count read in clear tones the laws Rienzi proposed to establish, and the appearance of a bishop and a nobleman by the plebeian's side gave the people hope and encouragement. The laws were simple and direct, and there was to be but one interpretation of them, while all public revenues were to be applied to public ends. Each Region of the city was to furnish a contingent of men-at-arms, and if any man were killed in the service of his country, Rome was to provide for his wife and children. The fortresses, the bridges, the gates, were to pass from the custody of the Barons to that of the Roman people, and the Barons themselves were to retire forthwith from the city. So the Romans made Rienzi Dictator.
The nobles refused to believe in a change which meant ruin to themselves. Old Stephen Colonna laughed and said he would throw the madman from the window as soon as he should be at leisure. It was near noon when he spoke; the sun was barely setting when he rode for his life towards Palestrina. The great bell of the Capitol called the people to arms, the liberator was already the despot, and the Barons were already exiles. Rienzi assumed the title of Tribune with the authority of Dictator, and with ten thousand swords at his back exacted a humiliating oath of allegiance from the representatives of the great houses. Upon the Body and Blood of Christ they swore to the 'Good Estate,' they bound themselves to yield up their fortresses within the city, to harbour neither outlaws nor malefactors in their mountain castles, and to serve the Republic loyally in arms whenever they should be called upon to do so. The oath was taken by all, the power that could enforce it was visible to all men's eyes, and Rienzi was supreme.
Had he been the philosopher that he had once persuaded himself he was; had he been the pure-hearted Christian Knight of the Holy Spirit he had believed himself when he knelt through the long Office in the little church; had he been the simple Roman Tribune of the People that he proclaimed himself, when he had seized the dictatorship, history might have followed a different course, and the virtues he imposed upon Rome might have borne fruit throughout all Italy. But with Rienzi, each new phase was the possession of a new spirit of good or evil, and with each successive change, only the man's great eloquence remained. While he was a hero, he was a hero indeed; while he was a philosopher, his thoughts were lofty and wise; so long as he was a knight, his life was pure and blameless. But the vanity which inspired him, not to follow an ideal, but to represent that ideal outwardly, and which inflamed him with a great actor's self-persuading fire, required, like all vanity, the perpetual stimulus of applause and admiration. He could have leapt into the gulf with Curtius before the eyes of ten thousand grateful citizens; but he could not have gone back with Cincinnatus to the plough, a simple, true-hearted man. The display of justice followed the assumption of power, it is true; but when justice was established, the unquiet spirit was assailed by the thirst for a new emotion which no boasting proclamation could satisfy, and no adulation could quench. The changes he wrought in a few weeks were marvellous, and the spirit in which they were made was worthy of a great reformer; Italy saw and admired, received his ambassadors and entertained them with respect, read his eloquent letters and answered them with approbation; and Rienzi's court was the tribunal to which the King of Hungary appealed the cause of a murdered brother. Yet his vanity demanded more. It was not long before he assumed the dress, the habits, and the behaviour of a sovereign and appeared in public with the emblems of empire. He felt that he was no longer in spirit the Knight of the Holy Ghost, and he required for self-persuasion the conference of the outward honours of knighthood. He purified himself according to the rites of chivalry in the font of the Lateran Baptistry, consecrated by the tradition of Constantine's miraculous recovery from leprosy, he watched his arms throughout the dark hours, and received the order from the sword of an honourable nobleman. The days of the philosopher, the hero, and the liberator were over, and the reign of the public fool was inaugurated by the most extravagant boasts, and celebrated by a feast of boundless luxury and abundance, to which the citizens of Rome were bidden with their wives and daughters. Still unsatisfied, he demanded and obtained the ceremony of a solemn coronation, and seven crowns were placed successively upon his head as emblems of the seven spiritual gifts. Before him stood the great Barons in attitudes of humility and dejection; for a moment the great actor had forgotten himself in the excitement of his part, and Rienzi again enjoyed the emotion of undisputed sovereignty.
But Colonna, Orsini and Savelli were not men to submit tamely in fact, though the presence of an overwhelming power had forced them to outward submission, and in his calmer moments the extravagant tribune was haunted by the dream of vengeance. A ruffian asserted under torture that the nobles were already conspiring against their victor, and Rienzi enticed three of the Colonna and five of the Orsini to the Capitol, where he had taken up his abode. He seized them, held them prisoners all night, and led them out in the morning to be the principal actors in a farce which he dared not turn to tragedy. Condemned to death, their sins confessed, they heard the tolling of the great bell, and stood bareheaded before the executioner. The scene was prepared with the art of a consummate playwright, and the spectators were delighted by a speech of rare eloquence and amazed by the sudden exhibition of a clemency that was born of fear. Magnanimously pardoning those whom he dared not destroy, Rienzi received a new oath of allegiance from his captives and dismissed them to their homes.
The humiliation rankled. Laying aside their hereditary feud, Colonna and Orsini made a desperate effort to regain their power. By a misunderstanding they were defeated, and the third part of their force, entering the city without the rest, was overwhelmed and massacred, and six of the Colonna were slain. The low-born Rienzi refused burial for their bodies, knighted his son on the spot where they had fallen, and washed his hands in water that was mingled with their blood. It was his last triumph and his basest.
His power was already declining, and though the people had assembled in arms to beat off their former masters, they had lost faith in a leader who had turned out a madman, a knave, and a drunkard. They refused to pay the taxes he would have laid upon them, and resisted the measures he proposed. Clement the Sixth, who had approved his wisdom, punished his folly, and the so-called tribune was deposed, condemned for heresy, and excommunicated. A Neapolitan soldier of fortune, an adventurer and a criminal, took possession of Rome with only one hundred and fifty men, in the name of the Pope, without striking a blow, and the people would not raise a hand to help their late idol as he was led away weeping to the Castle of Sant' Angelo, while the nobles looked on in scornful silence. Rienzi was allowed to depart in peace after a short captivity and became a wanderer and an outcast in Europe.
In many disguises he went from place to place, and did not fear to return to Rome in the travesty of a pilgrim. The story of his adventures would fill many pages, but Rome is not concerned with them. In vain he appealed to adventurers, to enthusiasts, and to fanatics to help in regaining what he had lost. None would listen to him, no man would draw the sword. He came to Prague at last, obtained an audience of the Emperor Charles the Fourth, appealed to the whole court, with impassioned eloquence, and declared himself to be Rienzi. The attempt cost him his freedom, for the prudent emperor forthwith sent him a captive to the Pope at Avignon, where he was at first loaded with chains and thrown into prison. But Clement hesitated to bring him to trial, his friend Petrarch spoke earnestly in his favour, and he was ultimately relegated to an easy confinement, during which he once more gave himself up to the study of his favourite classics in peaceful resignation.
Meanwhile in Rome his enactments had been abolished with sweeping indifference to their character and importance, and the old misrule was reëstablished in its pristine barbarity. The feud between Orsini and Colonna broke out again in the absence of a common danger. The plague appeared in Europe and decimated a city already distracted by internal discord. Rome was again a wilderness of injustice, as the chronicle says; every one doing what seemed good in his own eyes, the Papal and the public revenues devoured by marauders, the streets full of thieves, and the country infested by outlaws. Clement died, and Innocent the Sixth, another Frenchman, was elected in his stead, 'a personage of great science, zeal, and justice,' who set about to reform abuses as well as he could, but who saw that he could not hope to return to Rome without long and careful preparation. He selected as his agent in the attempt to regain possession of the States of the Church the Cardinal Albornoz, a Spaniard of courage and experience.
Meanwhile Rienzi enjoyed greater freedom, and assumed the character of an inspired poet; than which none commanded greater respect and influence in the early years of the Renascence. That he ever produced any verses of merit there is not the slightest evidence to prove, but his undoubted learning and the friendship of Petrarch helped him to sustain the character. He never lacked talent to act any part which his vanity suggested as a means of flattering his insatiable soul. He put on the humility of a penitent and the simplicity of a true scholar; he spoke quietly and wisely of Italy's future and he obtained the confidence of the new Pope.
It was in this way that by an almost incredible turn of fortune, the outcast and all but condemned heretic was once more chosen as a means of restoring order in Rome, and accompanied Cardinal Albornoz on his mission to Italy. Had he been a changed man as he pretended to be, he might have succeeded, for few understood the character of the Romans better, and there was no name in the country of which the memories appealed so profoundly to the hearts of the people.
The catalogue of his deeds during the second period of power is long and confused, but the history of his fall is short and tragic. Not without a keen appreciation of the difference between his former position as the freely chosen champion of the people, and his present mission as a reformer supported by pontifical authority, he requested the Legate to invest him with the dignity of a senator, and the Cardinal readily assented to what was an assertion of the temporal power. Then Albornoz left him to himself. He entered Rome in triumph, and his eloquence did not desert him. But he was no longer the young and inspired knight, self-convinced and convincing, who had issued from the little church long ago. In person he was bloated with drink and repulsive to all who saw him; and the vanity which had so often been the temporary basis of his changing character had grown monstrous under the long repression of circumstances. With the first moment of success it broke out and dictated his actions, his assumed humility was forgotten in an instant, as well as the well-worded counsels of wisdom by which he had won the Pope's confidence; and he plunged into a civil war with the still powerful Colonna. One act of folly succeeded another; he had neither money nor credit, and the stern Albornoz, seeing the direction he was taking, refused to send him assistance. In his extremity he attempted to raise funds for his soldiers and money for his own unbounded luxury by imposing taxes which the people could not bear. The result was certain and fatal. The Romans rose against him in a body, and an infuriated rabble besieged him at the Capitol.
It has been said that the vainest men make the best soldiers. Rienzi was brave for a moment at the last. Seeing himself surrounded, and deserted by his servants, he went out upon a balcony and faced the mob alone, bearing in his hand the great standard of the Republic, and for the last time he attempted to avert with words the tempest which his deeds had called forth. But his hour had come, and as he stood there alone he was stoned and shot at, and an arrow pierced his hand. Broken in nerve by long intemperance and fanatic excitement, he burst into tears and fled, refusing the hero's death in which he might still have saved his name from scorn. He attempted to escape from the other side of the Capitol towards the Forum, and in the disguise of a street porter he had descended through a window and had almost escaped notice while the multitude was breaking down the doors of the main entrance. Then he was seen and taken, and they brought him in his filthy dress to the great platform of the Capitol, not knowing what they should do with him and almost frightened to find their tyrant in their power.
They thronged round him, looked at him, spoke to him, but he answered nothing; for his hour was come, the star of his nativity was in the house of death. In that respite, had he been a man, courage might have awed them, eloquence might have touched them, and he might yet have dreamed of power. But he was utterly speechless, utterly broken, utterly afraid. A whole hour passed, and no hand was lifted against him; yet he spoke not. Then one man, tired of his pale and bloated face, silently struck a knife into his heart, and as he fell dead, the rabble rushed upon him and stabbed him to pieces, and a long yell of murderous rage told all Rome that Rienzi was dead.
They left his body to the dogs and went away to their homes, for it was evening, and they were spent with madness. Then the Jews came, who hated him also; and they dragged the miserable corpse through the streets; and made a bonfire of thistles in a remote place and burned it; and what was left of the bones and ashes they threw into the Tiber. So perished Rienzi, a being who was not a man, but a strangely responsive instrument, upon which virtue, heroism, courage, cowardice, faith, falsehood and knavery played the grandest harmonies and the wildest discords in mad succession, till humanity was weary of listening, and silenced the harsh music forever. However we may think of him, he was great for a moment, yet however great we may think him, he was little in all but his first dream. Let him have some honour for that, and much merciful oblivion for the rest.
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