Academic journal article Annali d'Italianistica

Writing the Revolution: Petrarch and the Tribunate of Cola Di Rienzo

Academic journal article Annali d'Italianistica

Writing the Revolution: Petrarch and the Tribunate of Cola Di Rienzo

Article excerpt

Introduction

"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. …

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