Writing the revolution: Petrarch and the tribunate of Cola di Rienzo.
"I shall not stop writing to you daily" (Disp. 9), writes Francesco Petrarca in a letter from July 1347 to Cola di Rienzo, who had proclaimed himself Roman tribune just two months prior. If Petrarch did continue to write the tribune with such frequency, with very few exceptions any trace of such voluminous correspondence is lost to us now. (1) Considering the momentousness of his involvement with the upstart populist leader in Rome, this absence is particularly glaring in the context of the Familiares, the humanist's first collection of familiar letters that chronicles this period. Only one of the purported myriad letters he addressed to Cola di Rienzo is to be found there, although it happens to be a very telling one.
Written on November 29, 1347, from Genoa, Familiares VII 7 is a letter of reproach, through which transpires Petrarch's palpable sense of disappointment. Petrarch himself gave the letter a subtitle--a framing device he employs throughout the carefully curated collection--that designates it as a letter of "indignation mixed with entreaties regarding the Tribune's changed reputation." 1
News of the collapse of Cola's government had reached Petrarch in Genoa where he found himself in transit on his way to join the tribune in Rome. (2) He had gambled a good deal on the sudden glimmer of hope that Cola represented, and now that hope was suddenly lost. In Avignon, he was in the process of negotiating a separation from his long time patron, the Colonna family, in order to dedicate himself to the Roman cause. He found himself in a bind and his reputation was on the line. His ties to Cola di Rienzo, a persona non grata in the eyes of both the Colonna family and the papal court at large, had to be reckoned with somehow. Whitewashing his involvement with the tribune is one of the ways he went about reconciling the situation.
Apart from Familiares VII 7, the rest of Petrarch's correspondence with the Roman tribune has been relegated to less prominent places in his oeuvre. A handful of the other extant letters addressed to Cola, as well as those in which he discussed matters pertaining to the Cola debacle, come down to us in ancillary collections. These are the secretive Liber sine nomine (letters 2-4), which Petrarch intentionally kept out of circulation during his lifetime because of its controversial politics, and the Lettere disperse (letters 8-11), a posthumous repository for all other extant letters that Petrarch choose to exclude from all three of his personally curated epistolary collections but that have come down to us through other means despite his efforts to silence them.
Petrarch may have largely edited Cola out of the primary body of work that he intended to leave to posterity, in which we encounter a carefully constructed account of his life, but the Roman tribune and the movement that he stood for nevertheless appear on numerous occasions in his activities as public intellectual over the next two decades. The humanist's late career is punctuated by a variety of attempts to promote the values of Cola di Rienzo's tribunate, often more in spirit than by name, in a number of other arenas of power, from the papal court in Avignon to the imperial court in Prague. With increasing conviction from 1347 to the end of his life, Petrarch will continue to write the revolution that Cola started as though his legacy as a public intellectual and the brand of humanism he tirelessly worked to propagate depended on it. After a brief overview of Cola's rise and fall, what follows is a survey of several textual moments in the years between 1347 and 1355 in which the goals boldly put forth by the Roman tribune remained among Petrarch's abiding concerns long after his quixotic friend exited the picture. (3)
Cola di Rienzo and the Roman Revolution
The son of a Roman innkeeper and a washerwoman, Cola di Rienzo (1313-1354) was an autodidact and self-made man in every sense when it came to both his intellectual development and his political aspirations. (4) He was indeed a product of the same early humanistic ferment that Petrarch's career would spearhead, earning the latter a great many emulators throughout Italy and Europe. (5) Following the example of Petrarch's revival of the coronation ceremony with all of its classical poet laureate pomp, Cola staged a series of ceremonial spectacles to legitimize the position he fashioned for himself as Roman "tribune"--just one of many titles he quixotically recovers from the annals of Roman history. (6) Cola's antiquarian eccentricity is apparent in the colorful nomenclature he adopted for himself from his reading of classical Roman historians, which he injected into the political discourse of the time. (7) He sourced other archaizing terminology from the various ancient inscriptions found all over his native city that he attempted to reintroduce into current usage.
In late May 1347, Cola led a popular uprising that would serve as a wake up call to the noble families of Rome and send ripples through the political world in places as far as Avignon and Prague. Within the first few weeks of his short sevenmonth tenure as self-appointed leader of the city (May 19 to December 15, 1347), Cola di Rienzo sent variations of the same letter to the major city-states of central and northern Italy--including neighboring Viterbo, Florence, Lucca, Mantua, Modena and Perugia--in which he invites each to contribute arms and men to the cause of freedom not only for Rome but also for the Italian peninsula as a whole. (8) Calling himself the "libertatis, pacis iustitieque tribunus et sacre Romane reipubblice liberator," or the "tribune of liberty, peace and justice, and liberator of the Holy Roman Republic," Cola lays the blame outright on the noble families of Rome for the state of lawlessness and decay in which the once great capital has come to find itself. He makes clear what he intends to do as long as he can lay claim to his newfound status as plebeian "tribune" and Roman "liberator" (Al Comune di Lucca 16-17). The goals he explicitly states are to reform and renew justice, liberty, peace and security, according to the ancient model, in order to establish a status pacificus in Rome (Al Comune di Lucca 17). The picture he paints of the great city in his letters is not a pretty one. He describes the wretched conditions to which Rome had been reduced: peace expelled, liberty prostrate, security robbed, love damned, truth oppressed, compassion and devotion profaned (Al Comune di Viterbo, May 24, 1347, 6).
Abandoned by both the emperor and the pope, Rome had objectively fallen into the hands of two powerful baronial clans, the Colonna and the Orsini, who plundered the city for their own profit and left its inhabitants to their own devices. The corruption and negligence of the nobles hastened the decline in population since they allowed the city to descend into a permanent state of lawlessness causing many to flee to the surrounding countryside. (9) Rome was in desperate need of some form of local authority to reintroduce basic law and order to the most rudimentary level of civic life. (10) This was the void that Cola di Rienzo groomed himself to fill. (11)
Within less than a month, news of Cola's initiative reached Petrarch, who was still residing in the South of France. In an open letter (Disp. 8) addressed to both Cola and the Roman people, a sort of panegyric composed for the occasion of Cola's ascension to power, often called either his Hortatoria or his "hymn to freedom," Petrarch takes up the cause of the Roman revolution with great fervor and proceeds to recast it in his own terms, rhetorically shaping it to his own desires.
In his open letter, Petrarch likens the self-styled "liberator of the Roman people" to a new Camillus, a new Romulus, and a third Brutus. "Hail then our Camillus, our Brutus, our Romulus! Or--if you prefer to be addressed by some other name--hail author of Roman liberty, of Roman peace, of Roman tranquility. The present age owes you the fact that it will die in liberty; posterity will owe you the fact that it is conceived in liberty" (Disp. 8). (12) In his usual pedagogical mode of teaching by exemplaritas, Petrarch presents three exemplary models for his advisee to aspire to and other corresponding glorious titles. Later in the letter, he will again hold him up to the example of Caesar Augustus, revered author of the pax Romana--the esteemed period of peace to which he longed to return. (13) The superlative tone of these classical analogues accurately reflects the fact that Petrarch did indeed have high hopes for the initiative of his quixotic friend. In his only extant epistolary response to Petrarch, Cola expresses his gratitude to the humanist for calling to mind such inspirational models to emulate. (14)
Petrarch's enthusiasm for the cause does not stop at dubbing Cola the "author of Roman liberty, Roman peace, Roman tranquility." (15) He goes on to invoke more specific details from those same classical models for him to follow.
I do not desire to goad you further, nor to reproach you with bygones. I wish, rather, to offer you a way to hide your embarrassment. Even your ancestors were ruled by kings--and by kings who were not always of Roman origin but also, at one time, of Sabine, at another of Corinthian, and--if we are to believe tradition--of servile origin. But evil fortune must come to an end as well as good fortune. The restorer of the early Romans' liberty and the restorer of your liberty were both unexpected. Each age produced its Brutus. There are now three named Brutus celebrated in history. The first exiled the proud Tarquin; the second slew Julius Caesar; the third has brought exile and death to the tyrants of our own age. Our third Brutus, then, equals both the others because in his own person he has united the causes of the double glory that the other two divided between them. He is, however, more like the earlier Brutus in disguising his nature and in concealing his purpose. Like him he is young but of a far different temperament; and if he assumed the false exterior of that other Brutus, it was so that, biding his time beneath this false veil, he might at last reveal himself in his true character--the liberator of the Roman people.
(Disp. 8 112-31; Cosenza 13-14)
Petrarch lavishes many titles and honors on Cola, including placing him third in a line of legendary over-throwers of tyrants, of the caliber of the Tarquin kings and Julius Caesar. He squarely likens the Colonna and the other noble families of Rome to the tyrants of their age. There is a pronounced anti-noble sentiment underlying the way both men frame their efforts to restore peace and security to Rome. An anti-baronial movement is afoot and Petrarch is unambiguously ready to get behind it.
Freedom from "Barbarians"
When Cola took office, Petrarch offered to serve as poet to Cola's prince in the capacity of official mouthpiece and chronicler of the movement: "And since you are occupied in performing noble deeds, until you find a genius capable of recounting your deeds in worthy language, I promise you the service of my feeble intellect and of my pen--if God permits me to live. In this way I shall--to borrow Livy's words--perform my part in enhancing the memory of the most noble people in the world. Nor will my Africanus mind yielding to you for a short while" (Disp. 8; Cosenza 41). Petrarch offers his services as scribe to the cause, as the poet to his prince, the Ennius to his Scipio. His offer to set aside his labors on the Africa suggests that, for the time being, he sees Cola's new undertaking as being of greater importance. (16)
In the only letter in the Familiares addressed to Cola, Petrarch in fact makes reference to Scipio Africanus in the context of the great joy he felt for the Tribune's accomplishments: "I confess that you have caused me recently to repeat often and with great pleasure the words that Cicero has Africanus speak: 'What is this that fills my ears, so great and so sweet a sound it is?'" (Fam. VII 7; Bernardo 349). Comparisons to Scipio appear throughout his treatment of Cola, Petrarch's Scipio redivivus. Idealistic but also at turns practical, the open letter encourages the newly minted tribune to begin the morning by hearing mass and advises him to pray fervently.
I hear the following reports about you: that it is customary for you to receive the sacrament of Our Lord's body with sincerest devotion and after a most searching examination of conscience. This is doubtless as it should be for the wise man who regards the frailty of the flesh and the brevity of life and who beholds the manifold dangers that threaten on all sides. That most illustrious of Rome's generals [Scipio] would have followed the same course, I believe, had he lived in these days.
(Disp. 8; Cosenza 19-20)
Petrarch envisions Cola as the reincarnation of his beloved Scipio Africanus, the great liberator of Italy from Hannibal's invasion, "who first freed Italian soil from the foot of the barbarian, or as the embodiment of Dante's Greyhound, who was to be the savior of that low Italy 'on whose account the maid Camilla died'" (Cosenza 3).
Of course, the threat on their contemporary Rome came from the local nobility and not from barbarians, at least not at first glance. But a closer look reveals that Petrarch did indeed configure the noble Colonna and Orsini families as invading barbarians: the former reputedly of German descent; the latter from Spoleto in nearby Umbria, though his designations are not strictly reliable. (17)
Let those who desire to establish hair-splitting definitions of terms decide whether these lords, who are entirely devoid of reason, are worthy of the name men. Whether they are to be your masters, since it is your interests that are at stake, I leave you to decide yourselves, Romans, provided that you keep clearly in mind that they cannot be lords and you free men at the same time and in the same city. The one fact, however, that I can decide is that they surely are not Romans. All these, as you remember, were so fastidious about their empty titles of nobility, no matter where they came from, no matter what ill wind blew them here, or what barbarian country turned them loose, even though they roamed about in your Forum, though they ascended the Capitol attended by hordes of armed retainers, and though they trod haughtily on the ashes of illustrious Romans. I say there was not one of them who was not an alien.
(Disp. 8 88-101; Cosenza 12-13)
Here he goes so far as to make a philosophical argument against the very claim that the nobles of Rome are even human. Their lack of adherence to the human faculty of reason seems to disqualify them from being considered men. He then proceeds to assure the true born Roman citizens that their noble class are definitely not Romans, in the strict sense, because of the foreign origins of their blood lines. Cola may make a case against the noble families of Rome in his epistolary campaign to take power in the city from which vantage point he also intends to unify all of Italy, but Petrarch goes a couple of steps beyond Cola in terms of the sheer spleen he unleashes against the prior ruling class.
Petrarch picks up on Cola's anti-baronial project and skews it even further by likening them to greedy tyrants, rapacious wolves and cruel slave drivers. This is all the more shocking since one of the objects of his attack just also happens to be a branch of the very same Colonna family whose patronage Petrarch had enjoyed for nearly two decades in Avignon. His fervent backing of the Roman tribune was the beginning of the end for his life in the Avignonese court.
On the ideal bonds between podesta and the citizens of the commune, Petrarch follows with several paragraphs that are both descriptive and advisory. In a passage of central importance, Petrarch discusses the gravitas of the undertaking:
But you, most brave man, you who have buttressed the immense weight of the tottering state with your patriotic shoulders, gird yourself and watch with equal vigilance against such citizens as against the most bitter enemy. You, younger Brutus, always keep the example of the first Brutus before you. He was Consul, you are Tribune. If we compared the two offices we would find that the consuls performed many acts hostile to the welfare of the Roman plebs; indeed--and I will speak out bravely--they often treated it harshly and cruelly. But the tribunes were always and constantly the defenders of the people. If then that consul slew his own sons because of his love of liberty, realize what is expected in all circumstances from you as a tribune.
(Disp. 8; Cosenza 17)
When Petrarch joins the movement, he commits and takes Cola at his word. He unpacks in great detail the implications of the title the tribune has chosen for himself, and seizes upon it as an opportunity to implant the proper ends and responsibilities such pretensions bring with them. The responsibilities of a tribune differ from those of a consul. Whereas the latter is known for acting often against the interests of the common people, the former is their champion.
At the center of both Cola's and Petrarch's vision for the revolution is the concept of libertas, which is primarily cast as freedom from the oppression of the nobles. Petrarch goes to some length throughout the letter to emphasize the fact that freedom comes with responsibilities and often paradoxically requires control and certain sacrifices. But those challenges should not delude the people into thinking that the cup of the slave is more appealing than the abstinence of the freeman. In the concluding passage of his letter, Petrarch takes pains to lay out some of what the citizens might now be free to do:
Erase every vestige of civil fury from your midst, I beseech you. Let the flames that had been fanned among us by the breath of tyrants be extinguished by the warnings and the guarded kindness of your deliverer. Take this friendly rivalry upon yourselves: not who is to be the more powerful, but who is to be the better and more patient citizen, who is to reveal the deeper love of country, the greater humility toward his neighbors and the more implacable hatred for the tyrants. Enter this contest with your tribune: as to whether he will show greater foresight in the honest administration of government than your readiness in obeying.
(Disp. 8; Cosenza 23)
Petrarch reconfigures the social sphere of Cola's post-baronial reality in terms of a new challenge that he puts forth. He attempts to rewrite the rules of the game in terms of a "friendly rivalry" that poses new objectives for daily civic competition and proposes new bonds of love and common interest that he hopes will transcend the old craving for power and bind the new society together. At least, this is the vision conjured up in Petrarch's rhetoric, which, as history tells us, was as vain an attempt as any to write a revolution in the key of utopian optimism: "And if, perhaps, love--than which there is nothing stronger--proves insufficient to bring your hearts into harmony, then may considerations of common interest persuade you. At least be united by this bond."
In the last lines of the Hortatoria, however, Petrarch acknowledges the fact that he is only capable of accomplishing so much with words alone and that there is now need for decisive action in order to achieve his objectives. Despite this final admission of the limits to what rhetoric can attain on its own, the giving of sound advice as a public intellectual or poet to the prince--while looking to the illustrious Roman past for modes of thinking and models of exemplary behavior --remains at the heart of Petrarch's humanistic project.
Risk-Taking and Regret
For the next several months, Petrarch will risk everything to place all of his hopes in the cause of the Roman tribune. Sheer optimism and enthusiasm will carry him through much of this period. Book VII of the Familiares is a turning point in this regard. In it Petrarch maps out the high point of his faith in a new dawn for Italy. (18) He will leave the familiar haunts of his beloved Valchiusa in the fall of 1347 and will spend all of the following year in Italy, between Verona and Parma. His departure from Avignon for Italy is the initial cause of his break from the Colonnas, the family that had treated him as their adoptive son for most of his formative years. (19)
Familiares VII 1 was written on September 11, 1347, on the eve of his departure for Italy, and is addressed to Barbato da Sulmona. In the context of the first of his officially sanctioned letter collections, Familiares VII 1 gives us our first glimpse into the Cola di Rienzo affair and the turbulent state of Italian politics.
See how now the Italian dust is flying because of the advance of the barbarians, and where we were once conquerors of peoples, we are now, alas, the prey of conquerors. Either our sins have deserved that punishment or some evil and gloomy constellation harasses us with its baleful light, or else (as I believe to be the case) with the virtuous being confused with the wicked, we are being punished for the crimes of others. But let it not be said that I fear all of Italy from which, rather, the rebels will have something to fear as long as the tribunal power, which has recently returned to the city, flourishes, and our capital, Rome, is not ill.
Italy as a whole may be in dire straits but Rome is a beacon of light. Petrarch is on board with the fresh start that the advent of Cola's "tribunal power" seems to portend. So, in this first letter, Book VII of the Familiares is off on an optimistic start regarding the state of affairs at least in Rome, where a glimmer of hope shines in the form of Cola di Rienzo, the still newly minted tribune of Rome. "I confess that I enjoy substantial favor with the tribune," he remarks, "a man of humble background but of lofty mind and purpose, and I also enjoy the favor of the Roman people" (Bernardo 332). His boasting of being in Cola's good graces, whom he takes to be one of the enlightened rulers of the peninsula, leads him to optimistically put forth the hope that the tribune will likewise transform Rome into an island of peace on the peninsula, a refuge for those who, like Barbato, are in search of solace from the turbulent storm of Italian politics elsewhere on the peninsula. In that same vein, Familiares VII 2 is an extended letter to a friend that delivers up a long lesson on the values of humility, the very virtues that he perceives Cola to possess.
The tune suddenly changes, however, just a few letters later. In Familiares VII 5, written on November 22, 1347, in transit on his way to Italy, we discover that Petrarch has received word of Cola's demise.
The copy of the letter of the Tribune which was sent me I have seen, read, and been amazed by; I know not what to answer. I recognize the fate of the fatherland, for wherever I turn I find reason and occasion for grief. Once Rome is torn to pieces what will happen to Italy? Once Italy is disfigured what would my life be? In this sorrow, which is both public and private, some will contribute wealth, others bodily strength, and still others power and advice. I see nothing that I can contribute except tears.
The humanist is distraught. His journey to Rome was only meant to be one facet of his trip south of the Alps, but the news was devastating. The dream of Roman libertas and a united Italy would last all of six months, during which time Petrarch would risk every semblance of security in his life: patronage, home, livelihood. This is where the letter of rebuke mentioned in the opening of this essay comes into play. The fallout that ensued would come to constitute a major transition in the development of the public intellectual and European humanist that Petrarch would go on to become. His abiding concerns for the values that Cola injected into the political discourse of the time will, nevertheless, continue to inform the persona that Petrarch will assume.
Petrarch's Thwarted Hope for "Italica libertas"
Petrarch's resentment towards the tribune lasts for several years. In late July 1352, roughly five years after the collapse of his initial contested tribunate in Rome, Cola di Rienzo was sent as a prisoner by Charles IV of Bohemia to the Papal court in Avignon. (20) The pope assembled three princes of the Church who were charged with the task of deciding "the appropriate punishment for a man who wished the republic to be free" (Fam. XIII 6 10; Bernardo 194). Cola stood accused not of having favored evil men or forsaking the freedom of his people, but of having dared to grant security and freedom to Rome, a city that knew neither of these civic virtues, and of wanting all matters dealing with Rome to be dealt with in Rome and not elsewhere. (21)
The nobility of Cola's aims was not missed by Petrarch. The absurdity of the situation did not escape him either, even if he felt that Cola deserved his fate. To Petrarch, Cola acted foolishly in the declining moments of his tribunate. Had he behaved with conviction, he would have gone down with the ship of state he had helmed, rather than abandon it, if that is what circumstance dictated, dying gloriously where he belonged, on the Capitoline. Instead, at the end of 1347, Cola was chased out of the city and had spent the intervening years in exile. In Petrarch's ruthless estimation of the situation, Cola marred his dignity through idleness and change of purpose, which is one thing that cannot be said about Petrarch during this period or in the years to come. (22)
Written on August 10, 1352, to Francesco Nelli, one of his dearest friends and closest confidants, Familiares XIII 6 is a remarkable document on a number of levels. The setting is the return of Cola to the papal court in Avignon in 1352 where he is due to await the aforementioned trial. Petrarch is particularly ruthless in his reassessment of the legacy of what he would have liked to see Cola accomplish.
I admit that he is indeed worthy of every kind of punishment, because what he wished he did not wish with as much persistence as he should have and as circumstances and necessity required. After his self-proclamation as the champion of freedom, he released all the enemies of liberty, still armed, when he might have crushed them--an opportunity fortune rarely grants to any commander. O fearful and hideous mist that veils the eyes of mortals in the midst of their greatest undertakings! Had he decided to exercise only one of his surnames and not the one necessary for the well-being of the republic (he wished to be called both Severe and Clement), if then he had exercised only his clemency against the country's murderers, he could have kept them alive, after having deprived them of all their instruments for doing harm, and, above all, disarmed them of their arrogant skills. Thus they would either have become citizens of the city of Rome instead of its enemies, or despicable enemies to be scorned rather than feared.
(Fam. XIII 6 10-12; Bernardo 194-45)
The letter is of interest not least of all for the glimpse it affords into the protoMachiavellian mind of the father of Renaissance humanism. Cola had the opportunity to crush the enemies of freedom, which he did not take. Petrarch's biggest regrets were that Cola sent mixed signals by being both severe and clement. Petrarch chides him for not having dealt with his enemies more forcefully. Once he had the foremost members of the opposition imprisoned, he should have disposed of them when he had the chance, rather than free them shortly after capture, which is what spelled the beginning of the end for the unsuspecting tribune. The advice is not unlike that of the author of The Prince years later.
Cola's return to the court at Avignon gave Petrarch pause to think about their shared past. In Familiares XIII 6, Petrarch reflects on the perils and the pitfalls of his all too hasty and overzealous involvement in the Cola debacle from the beginning. (23)
But enough of this, for I speak too passionately, interrupting the separate stages of my account and saddened, as you see, to have placed my last hope for Italian liberty in that man whom I had long known and loved. Once he had dedicated himself to such an undertaking, I had allowed myself to cherish and admire him above all others. Therefore the more I had hoped in him, the more I now grieve for my last hope, and I confess that, however this may all end, I cannot but marvel at the way it began.
(Fam. XIII 6 15; Bernardo 195)
The solitary singer of Laura is not usually conceived of as an impulsive political player; however, in Familiares XIII 6 he confesses to having allowed his enthusiasm to get the best of him.
Recently there came to the Curia Nicola di Lorenzo--I should not say that he came but that he was led there captive--once a truly feared tribune of the city of Rome yet now the most miserable of men. What is even worse, miserable though he is, I know not whether he is worthy of pity. While he might have died with great glory on the Capitoline, he instead suffered imprisonment in Bohemia and shortly afterward in Limoges, to his shame and that of the Roman name, and even to that of the republic. How involved my pen was in praising and advising him is better known than I would perhaps wish. I loved his virtue, I praised his aims, I admired his spirit. I rejoiced with Italy, and I foresaw the sovereignty of the Holy City and peace throughout the entire world. I was unable to conceal my joy that sprang from so many sources. I seemed a participant in all this glory by sending him words of encouragement in his endeavors, words that he felt very strongly, according to the reports of his messengers and indications in his letters.
(Fam. XIII 6 5-6; Bernardo 193-94)
Once again, the feeling of disappointment is palpable in the humanist's words. Petrarch admits to having been swept away by his frenzy for the promise Cola di Rienzo showed in the early stages of his time in office, but all that hope was misplaced and his praise was premature. Petrarch was spurred on by the joy of the tribune's initial triumphs and by the fact that he was so warmly received in so many corners of the peninsula. The humanist dispatched letters, made moves, even sought to join the revolution in Rome and cut ties with longtime friends and patrons in Avignon in order to realign himself with the dream of Roman liberty and Italian unification. Now at a distance of roughly five years since Cola's tribunate had run its course, the humanist seizes the opportunity to reassess what made that brief moment in time so special. Petrarch recounts the motivations that drove him to join the movement in Rome so fervently from so early on.
All the more eagerly I tried to think of ideas to enkindle his fervent spirit. Since I knew very well that nothing fires a noble heart more than glory and praise, I would include praises, perhaps overdone in the minds of many but truly warranted in my opinion; commending him on his accomplishments I would encourage him to other endeavors.
(Fam. XIII 6 7; Bernardo 194)
The humanist saw the value in what Cola was doing and claims that he rose to the occasion and did everything he could to advise him--the way a courtier would goad a prince to proceed in the right direction. Petrarch tried to speak truth to power the best he could, but his advocacy and advice were not enough to cure his fearless demagogue of the demons of his own personality.
I still have a number of my letters to him for which I feel no regrets; unaccustomed as I am to being a prophet, I indeed wish that he had not tried to be one! In any event, what he was doing and seemed about to do at the time I was writing him certainly deserved, not only my praise and admiration, but that of all mankind. I know not whether these letters merit destruction simply because he preferred to live shamefully than to die honorably; but one ought not to deliberate on impossible things. Although I would very much like to destroy the letters, I shall be unable to do so; once in the public domain, they are no longer within my control.
(Fam. XIII 6 8; Bernardo 194)
Some of his letters, Petrarch admits, are cause for a certain amount of embarrassment for him, which as we have seen was the cause for silencing most all of them in his official letter collections. Despite this epistolary self-censorship, he nevertheless remains proud of the values behind what they set out to achieve, despite the fact that the quixotic populist leader he was betting on ultimately failed. Reliving the humiliation of the defeat of his idealistic fool's errand of ever supporting Cola so wholeheartedly, he is reminded of how much he risked at the time to go to Rome to take his place alongside his latter-day Brutus, his Scipio redivivus. In the process, he ended up putting a lot of strain on his relationship with the Colonna family, as noted above, especially Giovanni Colonna, of whom he continues to speak with great familial fondness right up to the end of his life in his letter to posterity, the Posteritati, found at the end of the Seniles. (24)
In the spring of 1353, he will leave his life and his ties in Provence definitively in order to dedicate himself to the cause of Italy in a variety of capacities. No one would consider Petrarch to be a systematic political thinker; however, the abiding concerns that are apparent in every aspect of his involvement in Italian and European politics remain consistent throughout his opus. For much of the rest of his life, Petrarch will continue to lobby on behalf of the same core values that drove Cola di Rienzo's meteoric flash across the Roman night sky.
Papal Mission to Reform the Government in Rome
During the time of Cola's exile, between the end of 1347 and 1352, Petrarch continued to rally on behalf of the liberation of the Roman people. His letters to the council of four cardinals who were commissioned in 1351 by the Pope with the task of reforming the government in Rome attest to this commitment. (25) In two consecutive letters (Fam. XI 16 and 17), both addressed to all four men collectively, bearing the dates November 18, 1351, and November 24, 1351, Petrarch adapts the arguments he employed in the context of Cola's campaign to his new addressees, who represent a renewed hope as well as another chance to "champion suppressed liberties" and bring political change to Rome and Italy. This time the intervention is to be carried out under the authority of the Pope, but Petrarch's ultimate goals remain the same: assure security, justice and peace for the people of Rome so that the city might rise again to attain its former glory.
In the first of the two letters, Petrarch even continues his invective against the nobles. He lists the transgressions of the tyrannical Colonna and Orsini clans as follows:
I would think considerable progress had been made, had I persuaded those proud spirits to be citizens and not oppressors of citizens, nor would I then expel them from the ranks of office with the rigor of a Manlius. But in the name of God who has compassion for human affairs, O most gentle fathers, if you have any feeling for the Roman name, I ask you to consider whether they have seized the Roman Republic for the sake of giving succor with their own wealth to public poverty. Would that they had this in mind! I could then grant pardon to their bountiful ambition and admit them to candidacy regardless of their place of origin. But believe me, they are contemplating the opposite course; they doubtless enkindle, more than they appease, the insatiable hunger of their avarice with the remains of a devastated city. But they will perhaps try to deny this and conceal with the impudence of a single word the vicissitudes of an entire life, which are known to all, wishing to appear as Roman citizens and lovers of their native land. It is not so. Indeed it is a capital offense for them to be called citizens or men rather than princes or lords.
(Fam. XI 16; Bernardo 123)
The letter contains a sustained tirade against the Colonna and the Orsini families in Rome, whom he does not call "spirto gentil" in the mode of one of his political ideals, but rather "proud spirits." (26) As he makes explicit in the letter, they are noncitizen outsiders, which is a trope we encountered above in the Hortatoria. The mission is to free the Roman people from the "foreign" domination of the nobles, who hail either from the Rhine, in the case of the Colonna, or from Spoleto, in the case of the Orsini. His desire is to free the Roman people in order to facilitate selfgovernment, or Roman libertas, which should also sound familiar. The general thrust of his mission remains anti-baronial.
In Familiares XI 16 and 17, Petrarch expresses many of the same sentiments we encountered in his correspondence with the Roman tribune, only now his scope has shifted from the local and the secular to the spiritually mandated power of the Church operating more broadly on the European stage. (27) Despite the difference in the arena of power, his appeal, nevertheless, remains strikingly similar, despite the new tone compromise that underlies it. He proceeds to solicit the same kind of assistance in order to achieve many of the very same goals. This time around, however, he gives the cardinals some very specific political advice, which he couches in an anecdote borrowed from Livy (Livy 9 46):
Here reference should be made to what seems a small item related by Titus Livy, but it provides clear evidence of the nobility's arrogance and the people's independence. Gneus Flavius, a scribe's son, very humble in origin but otherwise sagacious and eloquent, was made curule aedile. That so upset the horrified nobility because of its novelty that, for the occasion, many of them removed their gold rings and other ornaments as though in mourning. Unperturbed, he calmly opposed his unshakable perseverance to their arrogance. Thus, during his visit to a sick colleague, some young nobles who happened to be present when he entered the bedroom did not stand, out of contempt. He had his curule chair brought at once, and having thereby become a more noble despiser than his despising young nobles, he disdainfully looked down upon them in their envy from the seat of public office and not from an ordinary chair. This single act of independence indeed makes him for me most worthy not only of the aedileship but even of the consulship. I have purposely left this discussion to the end because the two senators who still remain from the great number of conscript fathers can surely be viewed as successors to the two consuls. (28) Just as that magistracy had a limited term, so does this one, whereas the senatorial office did not. If I were to begin narrating how often men ruthlessly struggled for this consulship, I would stray from the central purpose of my letter, to which I now hasten. Let it suffice to say that, when the common people of Rome demanded a share even in the highest office, the nobility considered it a terrible disgrace and resisted them with all its strength. (29) In this area as well it finally had to succumb to defeat. Following much violent struggle, they first arrived at the compromise to create four military tribunes with consular powers rather than additional consuls. Not even this satisfied the wishes of the common people, and what they had long been denied because of puffed-up arrogance was obtained through the power of justice. Thus, a plebeian consul sat next to a patrician one; and both ruled a single fatherland, and the empire acquired through their common effort an equal majesty. (30)
(Fam. XI 16 28-32; Bernardo 125-26)
Petrarch's advice in the immediate aftermath of Cola's failure now swings toward compromise. What is needed is a mixed government in which the interests of both the plebs and the patricians are represented. Most remarkable of all is that the anecdote from Livy recalls the recent efforts of his disgraced friend and man of similarly humble origins, Cola di Rienzo, who bore the same resentments against the noble class. Similarly, it was the noble class--backed by the pope--that ran him out of town much like the trials and tribulations of Livy's Gneus Flavius. The specter of the Roman tribune haunts Petrarch's further interventions in the politics of the city he loves.
In the same way the pope will assemble a committee of judges to sentence Cola to the punishment he deserves not even a year later, Petrarch here breeches the subject of punishment for the nobles who have been the root cause of the problems Rome faces:
Thus the mistress of peoples, fallen into all kinds of wretchedness and mourned by no one, torn not by her own hands, as was once the case, but by foreigners, has lost the ancient solace for her misfortunes: "To admit no kings but to serve its subjects." And yet one hesitates to oppose this kind of harm, and overlooks a question worthy of consideration before all others, namely, what types of appropriate punishments should be used against such public plunderers, or at least how distant from public office in a free state should these enemies of freedom be kept? Surprisingly this alone is the question to be resolved: whether the Roman people, once rulers of all peoples, ought to reacquire as much liberty as will allow it today to participate with local tyrants in its own governance on its own Capitoline."
For Petrarch, it is not right that the enemies of freedom escape the reach of justice, whether they are baronial families or not. Exacting just punishment on the nobles who abused the situation to their own benefit is foremost among his concerns in righting the wrongs that were committed against the city in order to ensure that they will not occur again in the future:
Cowardly and self-indulgent without reason and scornful of all things, the nobility abusing the excessive submissiveness of the Roman commoners, shamefully dragging them in a triumph as if they were captured Carthaginians or Cimbrians condemned to the yoke. And yet, no law prescribes, no custom allows, and no words have ever proclaimed that one may triumph over conquered fellow citizens. At this point, so that not even a single doubt interfere and so that no suspicion arise that my words be touched with even the slightest animosity, let me say that of the two families involved in controversy I have never disliked the one; as for the other, as everyone knows, not only do I love it, but I have always cherished it with intimate devotion, for no princely family is dearer to me, as is Rome, Italy, and the peace and security of good citizens.
Petrarch turns the question of punishment into a problem of legality, of custom. What are the rules of engagement that dictate the way we treat our fellow citizens in the civic space? In his Hortatoria to Cola and the People of Rome he had attempted, as we saw above, to institute an ethos of friendly rivalry and love, which are not the modes of conduct that have informed the behavior of the two noble families whom he blames for creating the situation. Of course, it is also here at the end of this passage that Petrarch makes explicit his highly affective relationship to the Colonna family. In case it was not clear that he is acting selflessly in the interest of what is best for Rome, Petrarch is even going against his adoptive family. (31) It is a question of principle. He is anti-noble on pure principle, even though it cuts close to home. When it comes to prioritizing the peace and security of ordinary citizens, he refuses to let cronyism, familial privilege, and affective bonds get in the way. The abiding concerns of Petrarch's political intervention remain consistent.
From the Pontiff's Men to the Holy Roman Emperor
Throughout this period, Petrarch went on to expand the scope of his plea for a renewal not only of pontifical but also of imperial interest in a peaceful Rome as well as in the unification of Italy. His first attempt to reach out to the uppermost echelon of European power dates to February 24, 1351. Written from Padua, Familiares X 1 is the first in a long series of letters addressed to Charles IV of Bohemia. (32) In the Holy Roman Emperor, ever the idealist, Petrarch seeks "a resolute defender of our freedom" ("libertatis nostre promptissimum assertorem"). (33) For the next fifteen years, the Italian humanist will indefatigably continue to shower the Emperor with exhortations to descend into Italy to restore the empire with Rome as its head--Roma caput mundi being its famous motto. (34)
In Familiares X 1, Petrarch calls upon the supreme ruler of earthly things, the Holy Roman Emperor in Prague, to perform his Christian role for mankind: that is, to take his place in Rome where he can whip the rest of Italy back into shape, restore the serenity of peace to the peninsula. His is a Dantesque dream of a universal monarchy, the paragon of law and order in human affairs across Christendom. What Henry VII, also known as "alto Arrigo" in Paradiso XXX 137, was to Dante's dream of a universal monarchy, Charles IV was to Petrarch's analogous aspiration. (35) Of course, the coincidence is not casual. Charles is, after all, Henry VII's grandson. To fill the shoes of Cola in the previous incarnation of his quixotic dream to restore the seat of empire to Rome, in Familiares X 1, Petrarch casts the emperor in the role of the ardent defender of Italian liberty. The liberator of Italy this time is Charles IV of Bohemia.
Because of his newfound itinerant lifestyle after breaking with the Colonna family in Avignon in the wake of the Cola di Rienzo debacle, Petrarch only received Charles IV of Bohemia's response (Laureata tui) to his initial missive (Fam. X 1) two years later, even though he responded to the original in a matter of months. The emperor's response all but outright dismisses the first of Petrarch's calls for an imperial intervention in Italy. In closing, the Holy Roman Emperor echoes a sentiment found also in the opening of the letter. He suggests that Petrarch need not be too overzealous about his cult of antiquity. "You must, therefore, my friend, know how to compare the past with the present in such a way that the moral integrity of the prior is restored, and the disgraceful iniquity of the latter is repelled, which without a whirlwind is a very difficult thing to do" (Laureata tui 8 588). Drawing on the past for models of excellence and political virtue to follow, in the opinion of the emperor, has its limits and can only get us so far, the Emperor gently chides.
Charles IV's subtle critique of Petrarch's mode of thinking about real political questions through the lens of the past, especially Livy, touches on what will go on to become one of the cornerstones of humanistic political thought through the Renaissance and beyond. His political theory is largely based on a poetics of exemplaritas, or drawing on illustrious examples from the past in order to hold them up to models of excellence for the present. This practice will become a norm of sorts for authors up through Machiavelli's Discorsi sulla Prima Deca di Tito Livio and beyond, without forgetting Hobbes's notable translation of Thucydides. Petrarch's abiding concerns remain consistent throughout the rest of his career.
Starting in Book X of the Familiares, he presents himself as an engaged public intellectual who continuously strives to make the ancient myth of Rome a living reality, and he manages to turn heads elsewhere in the court of Prague by means of his humanistic agenda. Correspondence with the imperial chancellor Jan ze Streda (also known as Johann von Neumarkt) will come to dominate the next several years of Petrarch's epistolary output, jettisoning the Italian humanist to European respectability and prominence.
When Petrarch finally receives the Emperor's response two years later, he responds, on December 23, 1353, to each of his points one by one in Familiares XVIII 1. The same message continues--fight the nobles, free the people, in the background anyway--in the letters he addresses to Charles IV. Petrarch is still in search of someone capable of freeing the people from the corrupting influence of the careless, self-interested nobles in Rome and the rest of Italy. He is still looking for the catalyst for unification.
The emperor's dignified response can be broken down into three main points. Petrarch addresses them each, one by one. The emperor advises Petrarch that Italy is not what it was in antiquity. Petrarch responds with: "Your first excuse for the delay is the changing times, which you exaggerate with so many words that I am compelled to admire and praise the writer's skill rather than the Emperor's spirit. What is there at present, I ask, that did not previously exist?" (Bernardo 37). It is easy to say that the present is not like the past, but this is not an excuse in Petrarch's mind, but rather a rhetorical flourish.
The emperor's second point is even more cowardly. He claims that it is difficult to govern an empire. After giving the emperor a brief history lesson, in which he corrects his mistaken attribution of a quote about wild "belva" to Augustus, Petrarch launches into more political optimism: "[The empire] is an extremely powerful monster, but one that a skilled hand may control; it is an enormous but manageable monster, untamed only if not handled with care. Be bold, act, seize the reins in your hands and ascend the throne that is yours; if you are fearful, it will find other occupants" (Bernardo 39). This is his opportunity to elevate the political discourse of his time, and to raise the emperor's awareness of what needs to happen in his beloved Italy. If the emperor is worthy of his title, then he will rise to the occasion and shape the world in those ways that he sees fit. Petrarch is unbridled in his advocacy for an imperial intervention from a restored seat of power in Rome.
Finally, Charles IV warns that the use of force should be avoided except as a last resort. Petrarch can do nothing but agree with the emperor's sentiments regarding the judicious use of hegemonic violence and he invokes the great Roman humanist playwright Terence to justify the point. Despite agreeing with him that violence is not necessary, Petrarch does everything but accuse the emperor in any case of being all too rooted in cowardice:
For upon whose honor do the kingdom's misfortunes weigh, if not its ruler's? You say that the empire's freedom has been destroyed: you, as father of the empire, will restore it; that the Romans have been subjected to the yoke of slavery: you will remove it from their backs; that justice has been prostituted in the brothel of greed: you will restore it to its sacred chambers; that peace has fled the minds of mortals: you will return it to its proper abode. For you have been born to it, destined to this office, so that you might do away with the republic's ugliness and restore its pristine face to the world.
(Fam. XVIII 1 35-36; Bernardo 41)
The language here is redolent of that of Cola di Rienzo in his assessment of the situation in Rome when he stepped up as tribune: "the empire's freedom has been destroyed" ("dirupta est imperii libertas"), "the Romans have been subjected to the yoke of slavery" ("sumpta Latinis servitus"), "justice has been prostituted in the brothel of greed" ("ad avaritie lupanar prostituta iustitia"), and "peace has fled the minds of mortals" ("pax e mentibus lapsa mortalium"). These are all the same symptoms of decay and decline that Cola had set out to remedy in his good intentioned campaign to restore order to Rome, no matter how quixotic his attempt might have been.
In fact, Petrarch then goes on to conclude the letter with a nod to a special someone. He puts forth the familiar example of Cola di Rienzo. If someone of such humble origins as Cola managed to accomplish so much, it is fair to assume that someone with the stature of the emperor could take it to the next level. He remarks:
A few days ago, a man of low station rose above all others. He was not a Roman king, not a consul or patrician, but a Roman citizen of little fame, having no titles of his own and no statues of his ancestors, in short, not exemplary at that time for any virtue, and yet he declared himself the avenger of Roman liberty! A splendid declaration of an obscure man! At once, as you know, Tuscany eagerly offered him her hand and recognized his rule; gradually all of Italy, and then Europe, were following suit, and the entire world was on the move. What need is there for more? This we did not read but saw, and already justice seemed to be making its return together with peace and their companions, cherished faith, peaceful security, and finally traces of the golden age. Yet in the very flowering of events, he withered. Do not blame him or anyone else; I do not condemn the man nor do I absolve him; I am not his judge but I do know what I believe. He had assumed the title of tribune, the most humble of Roman honorary titles; if the title of tribune could achieve so much, what might the title of Caesar accomplish?
(Fam. XVIII 1; Bernardo, 38. Emphasis added)
In this letter Petrarch gives Cola the acknowledgement he deserves. Here he points out the extent to which the humble tribune's initiative was warmly received by neighbors in Tuscany and even in the rest of Europe. The tides were turning in his favor and so the pump may just be primed to bring change to the political economy of Rome and Italy as a whole. If Cola was able to do what he did, he says, just think of what the imperial court could do. Cola was merely a plebeian tribune; Charles IV is emperor.
Though he enlarges the scope of his political aspirations, his abiding concerns remain the same: libertas and tranquilla pax. Time passes, prior projects fail, but Petrarch's message endures. From the short-lived tribunate of Cola di Rienzo that got the ball rolling in real, though rather quixotic political ways, Petrarch adapted his goals to the diplomatic council he lavished on the four cardinals who were sent to Rome in the aftermath of Cola's campaign to straighten things out again and reform the local government in the capital. At the same time, Petrarch also engaged in correspondence with the Holy Roman Emperor in Prague which led him to be taken seriously in new ways on the international stage and in turn resulted in the forging of a new identity, namely that of public intellectual, arguably making him the first European humanist. Through it all, Petrarch never changes his song. No one would credit Petrarch for being a systematic political thinker per se, but what emerges in this survey of his personal letters is a portrait of the father of Renaissance humanism speaking the same truth to power throughout the period that spans from the rise of Cola di Rienzo in 1347 to the crowning of Charles IV in 1355. Though he enlarges the scope of his vision, the same enduring concerns can be found at the heart of his political and humanistic project.
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Foresti, Arnaldo. "Sognando la riforma del governo di Roma." Aneddoti della vita di Francesco Petrarca. Ed. Antonia Tissoni Benvenuti. Padova: Antenore, 1977. 26367.
Maire-Vigueur, Jean-Claude. "Il comune romano." Storia di Roma dall'antichita a oggi. Roma medievale. Roma: RR inedita, 2004. 117-58.
Miglio, Massimo. Scritture, scrittori e storia. Roma: Vecchiarelli, 1991.
Modigliani, Anna. L'eredita di Cola di Rienzo: Gli statuti del Comune di popolo e la riforma di Paolo II. Roma: RR inedita, 2004.
Pastore Stocchi, Manlio. "Petrarca e i potenti della terra." Francesco Petrarca: da Padova all'Europa. 2 vols. Padova: Antenore, 2007. 37-50.
Petrarca, Francesco. Le familiari (Libri XI-XV). Ed. and trans. Vittorio Rossi, Umberto Bosco, and Ugo Dotti. Torino: Aragno, 2007.
--. Lettere a Petrarca. Ed. Ugo Dotti. Torino: Nino Aragno Editore, 2012.
--. Lettere all'imperatore. Carteggio con la corte imperiale di Praga (1351-1364). Reggio Emilia: Diabasis, 2008.
--. Lettere disperse. Ed. Alessandro Pancheri. Parma: Fondazione Pietro Bembo, 1994.
--. Letters of Old Age. Trans. Aldo S. Bernardo et al. New York: Italica Press, 2005.
--. Letters on Familiar Matters. 3 vols. Trans. Aldo S. Bernardo. New York: Italica Press, 2005.
--. "Petrarch's Coronation Oration." Studies in the Life and Work of Petrarch. Ed. Ernest Hatch Wilkins. Cambridge: Mediaeval Academy of America, 1955.
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Wilkins, Ernest Hatch. Studies in the Life and Work of Petrarch. Cambridge: Mediaeval Academy of America, 1955.
(1) Eight of Petrarch's letters to Cola survive: Fam. VII 7, Sine nom. II-IV, and Disp. 8-11. Other writings that address Cola's controversial rise and fall include: Eclogue 5: "The Shepherds' Affection"; Sine nom. VIII-IX; Fam. VII 1; VII 4-5; XI 16-17; XIII 6-7; Sen. I 4; Fam. XV 1; XVIII 1; De remediis I 89; and Invectiva in Gallum. For Cola's acknowledgment of their friendship, and recognition of Petrarch's reverence for Rome, see Di Rienzo, Epistolario, XV, Cola di Rienzo a Francesco Petrarca, July 27, 1347.
(2) Cola di Rienzo was chased from the city, which left Petrarch's dreams of a renewal of the imperial splendor in shambles. Petrarch had already expressed his intentions to leave his outpost in the south of France before his departure, and he would make his break definitive upon his return a few years later.
(3) Petrarch's obsession with the notion of a renovatio or translatio imperii is a recurring theme in his correspondence with the Imperial Court in Prague. See, for example, Fam. X 1; X 6; XII 1; XVIII 1; XXI 1; XXIII 2; XXIII 9; XXffl 12; XXIII 15-16. His fervent support of Cola in general also attests to his particular fervor for Rome's revival. For a more philosophical exposition of his ideas on a united Italy, see Sine nom. IX.
(4) For a biographical sketch, see Collins, Greater Than Emperor 15-26; Di Carpegna Falconieri, Cola di Rienzo; and Musto, Apocalypse in Rome. For more than fifty of Cola's letters, some familiar but most official-political in nature, see Epistolario di Cola di Rienzo.
(5) For Petrarch's intention to influence and initiate a movement in his own humanistic image, see his Coronation Oration. For an expression of Petrarch's retrospective self-satisfaction late in life regarding his legacy in the form of the intellectual cultural movement he was leaving behind, see Sen. XVII, 2.
(6) In the first two months of his tribunate he officially referred to himself in the salutatio of his letters as: "Nicholaus severus et clemens, libertatis, pacis iustitieque tribunus et sacre Romane reipubblice liberator" ("Severe and clement Nicholaus, tribune of liberty, peace and justice and liberator of the holy Roman republic"). After the christening ceremony he staged on August 1 before an audience of ambassadors from the major city-states of central and northern Italy, he changed his title to: "miles Nicolaus severus et clemens, liberator Urbis, zelator Ytalie, amator orbis et tribunus augustus" ("Severe and clement, Sir Nicolaus, liberator of Rome, zealot of Italy, lover of the world and august tribune").
(7) In Disp. 8, Petrarch gives Cola some stern instructions, including a very specific definition of the role and responsibilities that come along with the title "tribunus" he adopted, rather than, say, "consul." For a further discussion, see below.
(8) The purpose of his epistolary campaign was to restore liberty (libertas), peace (pax) and justice (iustitia) to the Roman people and their provinces, as well as to renew the ancient friendship (amicitia) that had once united Italy as a whole. Cola di Rienzo al Comune di Firenze, late June 1347, Epistolario VII (19-20): "Ad salutatem, libertatem, pacem et iustitiam sacri Romani populi et Romane provincie, ad reconciliationem totius sacre Ytalie et antique amicitie renovationem inter sacrum Romanum populum, vos et ipsam sacram Ytaliam universam [...]" ("For the welfare, liberty, peace and justice of the sacred people of Rome and of the Roman provinces, for the reconciliation of every corner of sacred Italy and for the renewal of ancient friendship among the sacred Roman peoples, you and all of sacred Italy [...]"). Translation mine. See also, Cola di Rienzo, Epistolario, V, Al Comune di Lucca, June 7, 1347 (17).
(9) For a description of the state of the city prior to Cola's restoration of order, see Al Comune di Lucca 16: "[...] nec mirandum erat, cum ipsa sacra civitas, que ad consolationem animarum constructa fuit et que fidelium omnium debet esse refugium, facta erat offensionis silva; et spelunca latronum, potius quam civitas, apparebat" ("It was not surprising, then, when this very holy city, which was built for the consolation of souls and which should be a refuge for all the faithful, had become a forest of crime; and it seemed to be more a den of thieves, than a city"; translation mine). For an indication of the chaos of the situation in and around Rome at the time from Petrarch's own experience, see Fam. IV 8: "But so that I might learn from fresh experience how sad things always accompany joyful things, we had scarcely left the walls of the city when I, together with those who had followed me on land and sea, fell into the hands of an armed band of thieves. How we were freed from them and were forced to return to Rome, how upset the people were because of this, how we left on the following day supported by an escort of armed men, and the other events on our trip would make too long a story for me to recount here" (Bernardo 196).
(10) For the reconstruction of the socio-political climate of fourteenth-century Rome, see Miglio, Scritture, scrittori e storia; Maire-Vigueur, "Il comune romano"; and Modigliani, L'eredita di Cola di Rienzo.
(11) His ambitions from the very beginning were not limited to Rome alone. Petrarch and Cola also longed for a united Italy, and the fact that Rome would assume a role of central importance in such a project was obvious to both of them at the time. In the mid-fourteenth century, however, there was a vacuum of power in the great Urbs of antiquity.
(12) In his third letter to Charles IV of Bohemia, which is discussed below, Petrarch will again fashion Cola in the image and likeness of Brutus, calling him this time the "vindex libertatis," the "avenger of liberty," the same epithet that Brutus bears in Livy.
(13) See Petrarch, Disp. 8. The coordinates of the prince or statesman and the poet-teacher are players in the Cola-Petrarch dynamic.
(14) For Cola's embrace of Petrarch as teacher, see Cola di Rienzo a Francesc Petrarca, July 27, 1347, Epistolario XV (37-8): "[I]n gratissimo exhortamine vestro, per exempla laudabilia bonorum veterum, per eccitationes ad virtutum amplexus, nos sumus et fuimus plurimum recreati" ("In your very gratifying letter of exhortation, you have summoned the praiseworthy examples of the heroes of old to spur us on to emulate their virtuous deeds, whereby our spirits are and have been thoroughly revived").
(15) Disp. 8 325-27: "Romane libertatis, Romane pacis, Romane tranquillitatis auctor."
(16) On July 28, 1347, Cola responds to Petrarch--the only surviving letter Cola wrote to his friend, see Epistolario XV 38: "Et utinam persone vestre presentia Rome foret!" ("If only you were present at Rome in person!" Cosenza 38).
(17) See Disp. 8: "But what makes the cup of grief and shame overflow is the thought that you have had as tyrants strangers and lords of foreign birth. Enumerate the ravishers of your honor, the plunderers of your fortunes, the destroyers of your liberty. Think of their separate origins. The valley of Spoleto claims this one; the Rhine, or the Rhone, or some obscure corner of the world has sent us the next" (Cosenza 11).
(18) Fam. VII 1-4 were written in Provence, while letters VII 7-18 (with the exception of 8 and 9) were written in this period in Italy.
(19) Petrarch would subsequently try to right himself with members of the Colonna family, even while standing up against their influence in the city (Rome) that he loved equally, if not more. When Stefano Colonna is killed in one of the battles that ensues after Cola releases the nobles he had imprisoned, Petrarch writes a heartfelt letter of consolation to his father even though he had openly supported Cola's side of the affair.
(20) Familiares VII 7 is not the only time in the collection that Petrarch makes his position clear with respect to his controversial ties to the Cola di Rienzo debacle. In Familiares XIII 6, he recapitulates the situation to his regular interlocutor, Francesco Nelli.
(21) Fam. XIII 6 19-21: "He is not being blamed for what good men dislike in him; and he is considered guilty not for the outcome of his endeavors but for their initiation. Nor is he accused of favoring evildoers, or forsaking liberty, of fleeing the Capitoline when nowhere else could he have lived more nobly or have died more gloriously. What is it then? Only one charge is directed against him, and if he is condemned for it, he will, at least for me, be not infamous but worthy of eternal glory. The crime is that he dared to have wanted the republic safe and free, and to have all matters dealing with the Roman Empire and Roman power dealt with in Rome. O crime worthy of the cross and of vultures, that a Roman citizen should grieve to see his land, the rightful mistress of all others, enslaved to the basest of men! This indeed is the nature of his crime, this is why his punishment is sought" (Bernardo 196; emphasis added).
(22) For an impassioned outpouring of Petrarch's dream to reform the state of things in Rome, see Sine nom., VII. For analysis of this tendency in his work, see Foresti, "Sognando la riforma del governo di Roma" 263-67; Wilkins, Studies in the Life and Works of Petrarch 179-81, 186-92; Pastore Stocchi, "Petrarca e i potenti della terra" 39-42. For two thematically related letters, also discussed below, see Fam. XI, 16 (November 18, 1351) and Fam. XI, 17 (November 24, 1351).
(23) Fam. XIII 6 10-11: "Upon his arrival, then, the pontiff immediately assigned three princes of the church to hear his case. Their assignment was 'to decide the appropriate punishment for a man who wished the republic to be free.' O tempora, o mores--as I am compelled to exclaim again and again! I admit that he is indeed worthy of every kind of punishment, because what he wished he did not wish with as much persistence as he should have and as circumstances and necessity required" (Bernardo 194). See also, Fam. XIII 6 9: "He who filled evil men throughout the world with terror and fear, he who gave good men the most joyful hope and expectation, entered the Curia humble and despised. He who was once accompanied by the entire Roman populace and by the foremost citizens of Italian cities was unhappily walking hither and yon, accompanied by two guards, through a crowd eager to see the face of the man whose name was recently so celebrated" (194).
(24) Petrarch, Sen. XVIII 1: "Returning from there, for many years I was under his brother, Giovanni Cardinal Colonna, not as under a master but under a father, or rather, not even that, but with a most loving brother or with myself in my own home" (Bernardo 675).
(25) See Fam. XI 16 9-10: "It must occur to reasonable men that it was neither by chance nor without reason, but by divine decree that the Roman pontiff assigned to you from among the cardinals of the Sacred College this glorious and meritorious burden, although in balance not too weighty. In addition to your profound wisdom and abundant learning, experience has taught three of you knowledge of Roman affairs. The fourth is indeed not only of Roman origin but, as some believe, a descendent of the noble and ancient family Cornelia, and yet--O genuine piety, O sweet love of the fatherland!--also a powerful defender of the common people against the proud nobility and a champion of suppressed liberties" (Bernardo 121).
(26) The letter then moves into a brief excursus on the nature of true nobility (Bernardo 122-23). For the political ideal of the spirto gentil, see Rvf. 53.
(27) Fam. XI 16: "Thus, having been chosen by God as judges in this sacred cause, leave no room for indolence, for human requests or favors. But to summarize briefly the heart of my doubts and thought, I believe that an ancient controversy is being repeated, and I pray that none of the ancient arrogance will be added to the new tyranny" (Bernardo 121).
(28) After Cola's fall, when Betrand de Deaulx occupied the city in the name of the Church in 1348, the senatorial regime was reinstated with Bertoldo Orsini and Luca Savelli. Petrarch rightly places these two men in roles that are descended of the two ancient consuls.
(29) See Livy 4 6 8.
(30) The first plebeian consul was Lucius Sextius in 366 BCE. See Livy 6 42 9.
(31) Fam. XI 17: "I shall therefore speak out of sincerity, serving my conscience rather than glory, not from the desire that my words be praised buy that my silence not be blamed. Nor will it greatly matter whom my words offend as long as they do not offend justice. It is certainly difficult to attack the powerful, particularly if they are dear friends, but that man is a friend of truth who places it before friends and all other matters. Therefore, I lay aside my feelings to question these foreign tyrants, though they be very dear to me and close friends of long standing" (Bernardo 128).
(32) After Fam. X 1, see also, Fam. XII 1; XVIII 1; XIX 1 and 12; XXIII 2, 15 and 21; not to mention all of the letters he began to exchange with other members of the imperial court in Prague. See Dotti, Lettere all'imperatore.
(33) Using language that recalls political canzoni of the Canzoniere, like Spirto gentil, Rvf 53, Petrarch appeals to the gentle heavenly spirit in the Emperor. See Fam. X 1 2: "Nos equidem sperabamus te, celitus nobis missum, libertatis nostre promptissimum assertorem; tu refugis et ubi facto opus est, longissimis consultationibus tempus trahis" ("We truly hoped that you, like a messenger from heaven, would be a resolute defender of our freedom. You flee instead; when there is need for action, you waste time in tedious deliberations" Bernardo 49).
(34) Charles IV of Bohemia was not officially crowned Emperor until 1355, although he had been proclaimed king of the Romans in Avignon in 1346 upon his father's abdication. Petrarch's first letter to Charles IV (Fam. X 1) was written February 24, 1351, but the Emperor's response did not reach Petrarch until 1353, following his second appeal in Fam. XII 1 (written February 1352). Both appeals were written prior to Petrarch's personal acquaintance with the Emperor in 1354.
(35) See Fam. X 1 13: "[...] Iuventus labori apta, otio senectus; profecto autem ex omnibus optimis ac sanctissimis curis tuis nulla gravior quam ut italicum orbem tranquilla pace componas" ("Youth is more suited to toil, old age to repose. There is little question that, of all your most worthy and holy cares, none is more important than restoring a tranquil peace to Italy" Bernardo 51).
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|Date:||Jan 1, 2016|
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