Alison Williams Lewin

title.none: Collins, Greater than Emperor (Alison Williams Lewin)

identifier.other: baj9928.0412.005 04.12.05

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Alison Williams Lewin , St. Joseph's University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2004

identifier.citation: Collins, Amanda. Greater than Emperor: Coli de Rienzo (ca. 1313-540) and the World of Fourteenth-Century Rome. Series: Stylus: Studies in Medieval Culture. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2002. Pp. xi, 281. $55.00 (hb). ISBN: 0-472-11250-3.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 04.12.05

Collins, Amanda. Greater than Emperor: Coli de Rienzo (ca. 1313-540) and the World of Fourteenth-Century Rome. Series: Stylus: Studies in Medieval Culture. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2002. Pp. xi, 281. $55.00 (hb). ISBN: 0-472-11250-3.

Reviewed by:

Alison Williams Lewin
St. Joseph's University

Cola di Rienzo scholars have reason to rejoice: not one, but two excellent books examining the life and world of this dramatic and ultimately tragic figure have appeared within the last two years. Though this review formally addresses Amanda Collins's contribution, scholars in the field will also want to consult Apocalypse in Rome: Cola di Rienzo and the Politics of the New Age, by Ronald G. Musto (Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2003). Fortunately for readers, the books do not compete with, but rather complement, one another. I will point out their differences briefly, then focus on Collins's work.

Musto's work is magnificent: comprehensive, written in a clear, often gripping, narrative, it presents Cola's life, his intellectual and physical worlds, larger trends in politics and political theory, and rivalries within and concerning Rome. This is, in short, a comprehensive, insightful, and authoritative work, one which I suspect will stand as the standard biography of Cola di Rienzo for generations. Musto tells us of his on-again, off-again, fascination with Cola that stretches back for decades; those decades of research, deliberation, and analysis combine to make this a mature and polished work, endlessly informative and a real pleasure to read.

Having said that, what space remains for Collins? Happily, a good deal. She tells us explicitly in the introduction that she does not wish to write a biography of Cola, but rather to redress historical imbalances of past generations "by repatriating Cola within the context of the social and political history of the city of Rome in the century of the pope's absence" and by correcting a number of misconceptions "about the nature of Cola's regime and indeed, the confusion concerning his own attitude to the City and its government" (8-9).

While it is fair to say that nothing Collins examines is absent from Musto's book, nor indeed glossed over, her emphasis is much more focused on examining Cola's thought itself, from possible influences in shaping it to its development as he and circumstances changed. She singles out Cola's background as a notary, the cultural and political models of antiquity available to him in mid-Trecento Rome, his debt to apocalyptic imagery, and his notions of the prophetic future of the Eternal City itself. Most particularly, she aims to "offer a new examination of Cola's own perception of the history of Rome, with regard to the classical past, the municipal present, and the apocalyptic future, and his role with regard to each" (emphasis added; 11). Hers is thus much more an intellectual biography, showing that intellectual history as a subfield is alive and well, and has benefited considerably from the attacks it has suffered in previous generations as being disembodied, unconcerned with audience, disconnected from real events. Collins succeeds in keeping her focus on Cola's mind, on what he knew, saw, read, and could have talked about with others. This focus makes her book more dense, even difficult, at points, but illuminating and rewarding nonetheless.

Because 95 percent of what I have to say about the book is positive, let me get my few quibbles out of the way so that I can end with a bang, not a whimper (or a whine). One surprising misstatement did pull me up short, creating some temporary doubt in my mind about the author's reliability. On page 121, she states, "At the start of the thirteenth century, Francis of Assisi and Joachim of Fiore both challenged the Vicar of Christ to justify the distance he had moved from the messianic ideal." This is simply not true. Francis's goal was never to attack or even criticize the Church or its head--which is probably part of the reason he ended up as a saint, rather than a heretic. Francis sought and obtained papal approval for everything he and his followers did, every step of the way. What Francis did do was choose a different life for himself from that of clerics in the mainstream; but only his followers were bound to follow his idiosyncratic teachings. While later Franciscans may have used both Francis's life and Joachim's writings to launch a full-scale attack on the papacy, Francis himself was always completely obedient to it.

One surprising omission from the section regarding apocalyptic vision is any mention of the plague. Collins does present a case for Cola's apocalyptic views before and during the events of 1347, pre-plague, and may well have "lived in an (sic) cultural environment in which the end of the world was always nigh" (125). Somewhere, somehow, the greatest natural disaster to hit Europe must play a part in strengthening and heightening that perception. Even if Rome itself did not suffer horribly from the Black Death, news of the absolutely unprecedented death tolls elsewhere must have reached the city. Surely this was as much a context worthy of note as frescoes at Anagni and prophetic writings.

Lastly, someone, be it author or editor, should have corrected a number of irritating slips and habits in Collins's prose. On page 9, we read that Cola's image has been further "slewed" by modern approaches--skewed, perhaps? Page 48 offers the unlovely construction, "Cola's attitude ... was therefore crucial to conceal," and page 102 tells us Cola was creating an image that "reflected strangely closely" the attributes of the apocalyptic Ride. I find her use of the term "junta" for the guildsmen and buoni uomini jarring and anachronistic (132; 135). I do not understand why she belatedly defines certain terms, like Fraticelli, pages after they have become usual in her text (105), or why she mentions the terms "bovattiere, popolo grasso, minuto, etc." in a note with a promise to explain them fully in chapter five. The first I can perhaps excuse, but given that some of her presentation in chapter three depends on some understanding of the other two terms, the absence of some bare- bones definition is baffling.

My final complaint addresses what I see as a growing problem, namely the tendency of authors, and editors, to use "" around a word, indicating some skepticism or qualification of it, but giving no indication what the author's hesitation about just using the word itself is. Collins holds off for the first chapters, but by the time we hit chapter four, the sneaky quotation marks leap off the page at ever-increasing rates. Why do words like exemplar, narrator, eyewitness, staffed and merchant need qualifying? I'm not saying that they don't; I would just prefer an author to use precise words rather than all-purpose punctuation marks to articulate his or her hesitations. As the text stands, I'm not sure whether "merchants" appears as it does because the people so designated aren't really merchants, but horse thieves posing as honest men, or whether they may belong to a merchant family, even business, yet not occupy themselves with trade personally or draw much of their income from such activity.

There--now I am free to give the book the generous praise it deserves. The introduction to Part I gives us the "Life and Times" of Cola, a brief overview of the major events in his and Rome's life for the first half of the fourteenth century. In so doing, she also presents an outline of major trends in his thought processes. Chapter one, "The Sacra Res Publica: Antiquity and apotheosis in the City of Rome," begins with the questions, "What was the past that Cola saw, then, from the perspective of the Trecento? Where did he claim to find (and where did he really find) his precedents, his sources, and his imagery for the so-called Holy Roman Republic" (28-29) Examining his speeches and writings closely, she argues that Cola had a wide range of sources available to him, that he was "not essentially loyal to one political philosophy or another, ancient or contemporary" (35). Nor did he rely solely on written culture; urban mythology and popular legends also appeared in his repertoire, in which visual imagery played as large a part as did rhetoric.

Because of his extensive knowledge of sources, and his particular genius in appropriating and shading ancient and contemporary themes, Cola succeeded in referring extensively to Roman Republican and Imperial institutions, the Holy Roman Emperors, and the law to fashion the office and title of Tribune for himself in 1347. In a series of addresses and ceremonies, Cola succeeded in restoring political power to the Roman people, becoming their supreme representative, and symbolically reversing the Donation of Constantine. By his actions, Collins argues, Cola created an imperial mandate for himself, restored the rights of the Roman populace, and denied the pope sovereignty over Rome--possibly over other lands as well. While many of his words and actions showed great reverence for the past, "ultimately Cola's use of antiquity was symbolic, for the legitimization of his own politics. For him the real power lay in the law" (58). Thus much of her analysis turns upon Cola's early discovery of the lex tablet dating from Vespasian's reign, and his brilliant deployment of it. It may be an overstatement, given the later developments in the book, to say that real power lay in the law; certainly it was one crucial component in Cola's construction of "a new Roman dispensation for the immediate future" (58).

Chapter two, "Plus quam Imperator: King of Kings, Lord of Lords?" reveals that "Cola was already weaving eschatological elements into the autocratic identity he constructed in 1347" (60). The ground shifts, somewhat unsteadily, from Cola's engagement with the law and Roman Imperial past to engagement on two fronts: with prophecy, and with the papacy. Joachism, the image of the Rider and the Judge, the coming of the Age of the Spirit and Cola's role in heralding this age in: all receive fine and detailed analyses, in which imagery and sources thereof are carefully examined and explicated.

In the following chapter, Collins places the specifics of apocalypticism in the broader contexts of "Anagni, Naples, Avignon, and Italian Prophetic Culture, 1200-1350." The Fraticelli appear prominently, as do their associations with the Neapolitan court. Cola's own contacts with specific persons and writings are treated judiciously: Collins mentions possible times and places for such encounters, but does not try to push her evidence. More firmly, she presents the iconography in the cathedral crypt at Anagni as highly influential, given that Cola had grown up there. She traces the sword, used in Cola's inauguration ceremony and accompanying him thereafter, as "the most visible example of Cola's Anagni heritage"-- not the twin swords of the old dispensation, of pope and emperor, but the sword of the judge, of Michael, of the defender of the Roman People, of the Spiritir, of the mouth of the Son of man, of the Apocalypse, and of the Rider Faithful and True, all associations she had laid out in chapter two. This section is in many ways the finest in the book; it is fascinating, convincing, and illuminating.

Part II: "The Eternal City Limits" opens with "The Roman Revolution." Here she insists on restoring Roman popular revolutions to their rightful place in the city's history, and in the minds of those who witnessed and participated in them. The militia of each rione, the barons, the role of the Senators all receive brief but informative treatment. Most importantly, she shows that Cola's revolution was not an isolated phenomenon, but rather one in a series of popular, military, and baronial revolutions occurring in the twelfth through the fifteenth century in Rome.

Chapter four, "Bene me ricordo como per suonno: The Nature of the Evidence," examines the sources describing Cola's Tribunate in order to create an "objective reconstruction of the 'real' parameters of Cola's exercise of power and justice within--and beyond--Roman society" (140). Collins examines the sources critically: the Roman Chronicler, chronicles originating outside Rome, Petrarch, notarial records, Cola's own letters, and guild and civic statutes. While giving credit to the work of others, particularly Gustav Seibt and Giuseppe Billanovich, she constructs a peculiarly Roman context for Cola's revolution, pursuing with admirable focus her stated intention of relocating Cola's words and deeds, and contemporary records of them, in historical perspective.

"Ad perpetuam rei memoriam: The New Social History of Fourteenth-Century Rome" then turns to the economic and social structures of Trecento Rome. The agricultural basis of Rome's economy, its dependency on the presence of the curia, the conflicts, both economic and social, between the baronial elite and relative newcomers--all appear in concise and precise descriptions and analyses. More relevant to Collins's theme is the relation of all these various groups to Cola and his agenda; here too we find precise distinctions among and within groups. Her most insightful conclusions are that to succeed, individuals needed backing of both clients and patrons; and that little can be said about the political stance of any one group, composed as each was of individuals. Many would not bother with the messiness of this situation; the reader benefits because Collins takes the time to do so.

Ultimately, Collins concludes, Cola failed because he failed to bridge the gap between upper and lower popolo within Rome. While his regime relied upon and boosted the authority of the Roman group roughly equivalent to that of the Tuscan popolo grasso--the urban aristocrats, he also initially appealed to and seemed to promote the voices and interests of artisans, their confraternities, and the military (189). Collins narrates the complex maneuvers and negotiations among these various groups in the years following 1347, and Cola's constant efforts to balance their interests and authority against his own and that of Rome as a whole. Her detailed and accessible account provides a fascinating window into this multifaceted, fractious urban world, and shows how Cola's short-lived success depended upon his ability to keep all these diverse constituencies content--a success that seems doomed to failure, in hindsight, given their diverse goals.

Lastly, Collins examines Cola's position as notary, and asks what part this profession played in shaping his thoughts and, more generally, what roles notaries had played and did play in Trecento Roman politics. In many ways, after the high drama and complexity of the preceding chapters, chapter six seems like an afterthought. True, notaries held unique positions of public trust; true, they often had access to the business and secrets of all classes because of their ability to draw up binding contracts; true, notarial training was one of the few ways in which a talented plebeian could rise to a position of overt political authority (the Church providing the other main avenue). Of interest is the examination of the role notaries other than Cola played in government, before, during and after Cola's brief revolution, so far as the sources allow us to identify individuals as notaries.

Most astonishing, and what makes this chapter's placement understandable, is the information that the first and second people to launch the brutal and fatal attack on Cola's person in 1354 were notaries. Cecco dello Viecchio and Lorenzo of Trevi stabbed Cola first, not barons whom he had humiliated nor popolo minuto whom he had disappointed. Collins's hypothesis, quite plausible when explained, is that both had grown tired of Cola's use of the city's government to pursue his own private vendettas against the Colonna. Cola's retributive measures served no public good, in fact harmed it, and wasted money sorely needed for more widespread urban projects. Just as Cola had initially been a strong supporter of the papacy, whom he hoped would save Rome, and had become its enemy only when Clement VI failed to restore himself and Rome to their proper grandeur, so these disaffected notaries had initially supported Cola and his vision of a buono stato, then turned against him when he failed to make good his promises. Thus the section on notaries makes sense in the larger scheme of the book, though much of its content would have seemed to fit more naturally in chapter four, along with all the other professions and social groups in Rome.

In conclusion, Collins wishes to diminish the overstated claims of "the most diligent of Cola's historians, Konrad Burdach, [who] saw Cola as occupying the twin roles of religious and political leadership on the eve of both the Renaissance and the Reformation, and thus carrying the world forward into a new era" (239). Not only Burdach is at fault; the introduction gives a brief survey of the various weighty burdens Cola has been made to bear throughout the centuries between his time and our own. Collins comes to a much more limited, but supportable conclusion: that the period between 1300 and 1500 "affected forever the concept and exercise of power in the forms of national identity, ecclesiastical authority, civic autonomy, and social status." The Roman revolution of 1347 must be, and I believe has been, ably rehabilitated in this study "both as an integral part and as a reflection of the world it shook" (240).