Part of the fun of researching other times and places is discovering fascinating people who have, for one reason or another, failed to rise to the attention of the wider public, even those with some interest in the milieu. “Great Characters of the Middle Ages” will be an occasional feature of this blog, in hopes of revealing some of these extraordinary people and spreading their stories.
Today’s unsung hero is the son of an innkeeper and a washerwoman, who led a popular revolution and, for a few short months, made himself Tribune of Rome. Born around 1313, the young Niccolo delighted in rambles through the countryside of Italy, exploring the numerous ruins of earlier days. He seems to have been a bright young man, who learned to read Latin and enjoyed translating the inscriptions he discovered on his journeys.
His talents did not go unnoted, and he became a notary, and was eventually dispatched as part of a delegation from Rome trying to convince the popes to return from Avignon. At the time, Rome was a dangerous place, torn between two factions ruled by powerful barons–hence the papacy’s departure in the first place. Pope Clement VI was so impressed by Cola that he made him a member of his court and sent him back to Rome in 1344. Also in Avignon, Cola met famous Italian ex-pat, Petrarch, another who wished to see the Eternal City returned to her former glory. They exchanged letters for years, while Petrarch used his influence with the Pope to encourage a return to Italy.
Cola spent the next few years building support and striving to improve his city. Finally, on May 19, 1347, he sent heralds to announce him and lead the people of Rome to a great meeting where he declared a new republic. The barons, initially caught by surprise, fought back–but the level of popular support for the movement surprised them as well, and the Colonna family army was expelled from the city.
At first, all was well. Cola, a brilliant orator and visionary, effectively rallied the populace to their civic duty. Then, he seems to have taken his new role a bit too much to heart. He wanted to unite all of Italy in this new Republic–and started to defy the Pope’s secular authority, in spite of the Pope’s support. Between Spring and Autumn of 1347, he went from a vibrant, popular leader, to a self-aggrandizing madman who bathed in the Emperor Constantine’s baptismal font and executed dogs named for the barons who conspired against him. Even Petrarch fretted over the fate of the once-promising rebellion.
Finally, the Pope lent his own considerable support to the Colonna family to return, and the weary, confused citizens of Rome were more than willing to step aside. A pitched battle was fought on November 20, an apparent victory for Cola, but one which gave him no respite, for Pope Clement VI declared him a criminal and a heretic, issuing a call for his arrest. On December 15, 1347, Cola fled Rome seeking refuge first with his allies in Naples, then hiding in a mountain monastery for two years.
That sounds like an ignominious end, however, his tumultuous life in the public eye was not yet over. Cola left Italy for the protection of Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV in Prague, only to be imprisoned there for a year, then sent to Avignon in chains. In a trial presided over by three cardinals, Cola was condemned to death–but the sentence was not carried out. He languished in prison, despite Petrarch’s pleas for his release–until Clement was succeeded by Pope Innocent VI who wanted to shake up the powers in Italy.
Returned to Rome, once again as a papal ambassador, and with the acquisition of mercenary troops, Cola entered Rome in August, 1354 and resumed his former title. Alas, this reign lasted only until October, when his rash execution of a captive soldier inflamed the populace against him. He was dragged from his palace and stabbed to death.