Richard Wagner: Rienzi

As part of our Musical November month, and as my first contribution to the Winchester History blog, I will be looking at the story of Wagner’s Rienzi. First performed in  1842, Rienzi, der Letzte der Tribunen (usually shortened to Rienzi) is an opera by Richard Wagner. It tells the story of Cola di Rienzi in his attempt, and temporary succession, of overthrowing those in power to restore, what he considered, a failing Rome.

The opera was written by Wagner after the publication of Lord Lytton’s novel, Rienzi, a fictitious tale of Rienzi’s life. The opera follows a similar suit, perhaps not true to the facts, but certainly in keeping with the ‘revolutionary’ themes.

Before reading – or to the listen to while reading – here is a clip of Wagner’s Overture from Rienzi:


Who was Cola di Rienzi?

Born in 1313 in Rome, Nicola di Lorenzo was an Italian leader most famous for his attempts in restoring Rome to the greatness it had long before achieved.

The collapse of the Roman Empire had caused unrest across Italy – as there was no hegemonic power to oversee events, this caused a fragmentation of political identities and relationships. When Rome lost its papal authority in 1305, when it moved to Avignon in France, this only heightened the loss of pride the people of Rome had once felt, but it also sparked some response, most notably from Rienzi.

His father, Lorenzo Gabrini, was a Roman tavern keeper, and also from where the name ‘Rienzi’ was derived from. Not much is known about his mother, other than that she died when he was very young, in around 1323. After his mother’s death Rienzi moved out of Rome to live with his uncle, not to return for another 10 years.

In 1343 Rienzi was sent by the city’s government to make a pledge on behalf of the Roman popular party to Pope Clement VI in Avignon. The party had just reached ascendency and Rienzi was adamant in creating change within Roman society. Despite the fact Pope Clement sent him away with nothing more than having made him notary of the Roman civic treasury, Rienzi returned to Rome with his passionate ideas still in motion – and began plans for a revolution.

Taken from Google Maps: https://www.google.co.uk/maps/place/Avignon,+France/@43.941557,4.8332525,6z/data=!4m2!3m1!1s0x12b5eb8739bc9d07:0xe6429b6efa1d7b36
Taken from Google Maps

This revolution, he claimed, would lead to the return of the greatness of Ancient Rome. The events that followed would depict the story of Wagner’s Rienzi.

The events

On May 20th 1347, Rienzi held a meeting on Capitoline Hill, a summoning of people to a parliament which would discuss his ideas for this new Rome, the return of it as a capital to a “sacred Italy”. This “sacred Italy” was to be an Italian brotherhood, which would promote and spread peace and justice across the world. He proclaimed his administrators would be “tribunes of the peace…and liberators of the sacred Roman Republic.” Perhaps ideological and romantic views, but this certainly stirred something in those whom this parliament threatened.

During the meeting, as well as discussing reforms of political structure in Rome, Rienzi had announced a number of legal proclamations against the nobles of Rome. In doing so, many of these, led by the Orsini and Colonna families, rose against Rienzi and his claims. Despite initially repelling their attacks, on November 20th 1347, Rienzi was forced to flee, at first to the Maiella Mountains of the Abruzzi region. This was due to a decline in his popularity and support in his ideas. The stir he had caused was now dying down. This, alongside continuous attacks by nobles and the Pope labelling him as a heretic, caused him to resign barely a month after the initial attacks.

Distance of the Maiella Mountains from Rome Image taken from Google Maps: https://www.google.co.uk/maps/place/Maiella,+Majella+National+Park,+67030+Pacentro,+L'Aquila,+Italy/@42.05,14.05,7z/data=!4m2!3m1!1s0x133043a6c54550e3:0xb48866617e9360d8!5m1!1e4
Distance of the Maiella Mountains from Rome
Image taken from Google Maps

Still on the run, Rienzi ended up in Prague in 1350, hoping to gain the sympathies of  Emperor Charles IV. His attempts were unfounded and instead led to him being handed over to the Archbishop of Prague, who later handed him to Pope Clement in July 1352.

However, Pope Clement soon after died. With the arrival of a new pope, Innocent VI, Rienzi was absolved of heresy, freed and sent back to Rome in order to help Cardinal Gil Albornoz in his challenge of returning Rome as the papal authority. He returned to Rome on August 1st 1354. In some ways, it was a triumph for Rienzi, who was cleared off his charges and allowed to return to the city he had once loved so much. In others, as shown by following events, it was the beginning of the end of his ideals and of his life.

His Last Stand

Though he returned to Rome with the title of senator, and was there by the Pope’s own command, there was still much anger and resentment against Rienzi from aristocratic families. As well as continued harassment from the Colonna family, he also struggled in terms of money and therefore used this as an excuse for his rulings to be made solely by his own discretion. Due to what appeared to be a dictatorial system growing, riots broke out in Rome on October 8 1354. In his attempts to calm protests, he was met with missiles and other attacks. Fearing for his life and in an attempt to escape, he disguised himself in amongst the crowd as a rioter, but was recognised, and killed.

His death with a brutal one, his assassins gleeful at his demise. They stabbed him multiple times and apparently joked as they dragged his body to the Piazzo San Marcello, near the Colonna palace. His biographer claims that ‘because he was so fat, he burnt easily and freely.’ Not the most pleasant of pictures nor the most heroic of deaths.

His death is far more romantically portrayed in the opera, and despite the Roman people turning against him, Rienzi stands firm with his beliefs, and he perishes refusing to move from the burning Capitol square.

Further Reading

Cola Di Rienzi Proclaims Himself ‘Tribune’ of Rome

The Plot of Rienzi 

Cola Di Rienzi

Cola Di Rienzi Murdered

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