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Or again, supposing Rienzi desirous of avoiding the ridiculous odium of declaring war against the universe with a handful of Romans covered with tinsel and rags; supposing him bent on keeping up his cosmopolite rôle, and intent on imitating the history of Gregory VII., transferred to the profane forms of the age; then, compelled to follow the Pope, at whatever price, he must needs pass over to the enemy, and betray the revolution, and add infamy to shame. These two hypotheses were realised, one after the other, in the chequered course of Cola di Rienzi.* After the public troubles which agitated Rome, says a philo-Romish historian, the party of Italian patriotism began at last to understand that 'Italy's noblest expression was the Pope: the revolt which essayed to awaken from their tomb the tribunes of pagan Rome had a character of ludicrous impotency, while the Rome of the apostles preserved that impress of magnificence which by her was communicated to Italy at large."+
Well might principalities and powers be uneasy, however, at the rise and progress of the tribune revived. Well might they be perturbed at the actual achievements and possible after-fortunes of him and his following:
-What if they should heave with thoughts
The first steps of every popular champion, as Mr. Merivale observes, are bold and decided. At the outset he has a distinct object before him; he knows what his grievances are, if not their true remedies. He may delude himself as he proceeds with the fancy that he is reconstructing, but there is no deception about the fact that he is pulling down. His days and years are marked by the successive demolition of real and substantial things, while his new creations are perhaps no more than ideas.§ It may, perhaps, be said of Rienzi, in the first flush of innovating or restorative zeal, as Macaulay says of Machiavelli, that, in the energetic language of the prophet, he was "mad for the sight of his eyes which he saw," liberty extinguished, commerce decaying, &c.: "He pines for the strength and glory of ancient Rome, for the fasces of Brutus and the sword of Scipio, the gravity of the curule chair, and the pomp of the triumphal sacrifice." His feeling would be that of Shakspeare's antique Roman (modern antique, some will call him):
Brutus had rather be a villager,
Than to repute himself a son of Rome
Under these hard conditions as this time
* See Ferrari, Hist. des Révolutions d'Italie, t. iii. ch. vii. † Capefigue, L'Eglise au Moyen Age, t. ii. ch. xix. Talfourd, The Castilian, I. 1.
See Merivale, Romans under the Empire, vol. ii. ch. xix.
Macaulay's Essay on Machiavelli-which, by the way, concludes with an aspiration for the time "when the foreign yoke [on Italy] shall be broken, when a second Procida shall avenge the wrongs of Naples, and a happier Rienzi shall restore the good estate of Rome."
Julius Cæsar, I. 2.
A passage in one of M. Villemain's later Lectures* tells us that, in Italy of the fourteenth century, while the literati sought out old manuscripts, and vaunted the genius of the old Romans, and kept repeating the names of Cicero and Brutus, something of the same rapture affected the common people too. The unlettered multitude, like the lettered few, dreamt of recovering the power, and equalling the achievements, of their ancestors. This imitative movement, as Villemain calls it, was more particularly natural at Rome, where ruins existed with such eloquence as the savants would never rival. But it happened to this plagiarism of the heroic, as to the plagiarisms of style, perpetrated by writers of that day, who tried to imitate Livy or Cicero. The form was copied, the genius was missing. Instead of resuscitating the ancient memories of the tribunate, a new patriotism should have been created, befitting the Italians of latter-day Rome. Ce saint empire romain, a mere parody of the empire of the Cæsars, was represented at Rome by a "magistrat sans pouvoir." Rienzi was continually among the people, telling them about Brutus and Horatius Cocles, pointing out the ruins to them, inventing history for them, when his knowledge of it failed. Some of his most inspiring allusions were founded on errors of the Latinists. In the Church of St. John Lateran an immense tablet of brass was kept, whereon was inscribed a decree in which the Senate recognised various privileges of the Emperor Vespasian, and among others, the right of extending the pomarium. Rienzi interpreted this word as the same with pomarium, an orchard; and he thence inferred that the whole of Italy, the garden of Rome, belonged of right to the Eternal City. M. Villemain is at one with every sober critic in pitying the "quelque chose de fastueux et de théâtral”+ which mingled with, and mannerised, and marred all the best measures of the tribune, even in his best days. The late Mr. Justice Talfourd, in his vacation rambles through Avignon, records "the fantastic recollections of Rienzi, the theatrical tribune of a scenic Rome, here idly plotting the renewal of a pictorial republic"-and elsewhere speaks of that "halfhero, half-mountebank" Rienzi.§ Mr. Landor makes Petrarch say, in an Imaginary Conversation with Boccaccio, that Cola Rienzi might have established good and equitable laws, the enaction of which would have been countenanced by the Papacy even, from hatred of the barons, and with the hope of eventually perverting and subjugating the people as before. But, "the vanity of this tribune, who corresponded with kings and emperors, and found them pliable and ductile, was not only the ruin of himself and of the government he had founded, but threw down, beyond the chance of retrieving it, the Roman name." Sir Bulwer Lytton, indeed, carefully distinguishing between the period of Rienzi's power as Tribune, and that of his power as Senator, finds the Tribune vain, haughty, fond of display, but cannot descry these faults in the Senator. He finds in the Tribune vast ambition, great schemes, enterprising activity-which sober into less gorgeous and more quiet colours in the portrait of the Senator. He finds that in neither instance did Rienzi fall from his own faults, and that the vulgar moral of ambition,
Cours de Littérature Française.
§ Ibid., p. 156.
† Tableau de la Littérature du Moyen Age, XIIIme Leçon.
blasted by its own excesses, is not the true moral of the Roman's life; that, both in his abdication as Tribune, and his death as Senator, Rienzi fell from the vices of the People. "The Tribune was a victim to ignorant cowardice-the Senator, a victim to ferocious avarice." The strange apathy of the People is traced by Sir Edward to the fact that Rienzi was excommunicated-which curse would be the more effective as against one who "owed his rise as much to religious as to civil causes." For Rienzi, we are reminded, aimed evidently to be a religious reformer, and imparted a religious character to all his devices, ceremonies, and watchwords. "The monks took part with his enterprise, and joined in the revolution. His letters are full of mystical fanaticism. His references to ancient heroes of Rome are always mingled with invocations to her Christian Saints. The Bible, at that time little read by the public civilians of Italy, is constantly in his hands, and his addresses studded with texts. His very garments were adorned with sacred and mysterious emblems." Nor has Sir Edward any doubt that the ceremony of Rienzi's knighthood, which Gibbon ridicules as an act of mere vanity, was but another of his religious extravagances; for he peculiarly dedicated his knighthood to the service of the San Spirito; and his bathing in the vase of Constantine was quite of a piece, not with the vanity of the Tribune, but with the extravagance of the fanatic.*
The same elaborate apologist, not to say eulogist, much less panegyrist, of the "last of the Tribunes," contends that, for a man who rose to so great a power, Rienzi's faults were singularly few-and that as for crimes, he committed none. "He is almost the only man who ever rose from the rank of a citizen to a power equal to that of monarchs without a single act of violence or treachery. When in power, he was vain, ostentatious, and imprudent-always an enthusiast-often a fanatic; but his very faults had greatness of soul, and his very fanaticism at once supported his enthusiastic daring, and proved his earnest honesty." It is evident, the dissertator adds, that no heinous charge could be brought against him even by his enemies, for all the accusations to which he was subjected, when excommunicated, exiled, fallen, were for two offences, which Petrarch rightly deemed the proofs of his virtue and his glory: first, for declaring Rome to be free; secondly, for pretending that the Romans had a right of choice in the election of the Roman emperor. 'Stern, just, and inflexible as he was when Tribune, his fault was never that of wanton cruelty. The accusation against him, made by the gentle Petrarch, indeed, was that he was not determined enough-that he did not consummate the revolution by exterminating the patrician tyrants." What, then, on the whole, we are asked, are such offences as an "unnecessary ostentation, a fanatical extravagance, and a certain insolent sternness,' -what the splendour of a banquet, or the ceremony of knighthood, or a few arrogant words-compared with the vices of almost every prince who was his contemporary? This is the way to judge character: we must compare men with men, and not with ideals of what men should be. We look to the amazing benefits Rienzi conferred upon his country. We ask his means, and see but his own abilities." In this view of the case he might seem to exemplify a stanza in Wordsworth's Ode to Enterprise :
* See Appendix and Notes to Sir E. B. Lytton's "Rienzi."
If there be movements in the patriot's soul
When but a single Mind resolves to crouch no more.*
But to return to Sir Bulwer Lytton's summing up of Rienzi's ways and means, resources and restrictions, lets and hindrances, and decline and fall: "His treasury becomes impoverished-his enemies revolt-the Church takes advantage of his weakness-he is excommunicated-the soldiers refuse to fight, the people refuse to assist, the barons ravage the country, the ways are closed, the provisions are cut off from Rome. A handful of banditti enter the city-Rienzi proposes to resist them-the people desert-he abdicates. Rapine, famine, massacre ensue-they who deserted, regret, repent-yet he is still unassisted, alone-now an exile, now a prisoner, his own genius saves him from every peril, and restores him to greatness. He returns, the Pope's legate refuses him arms-the people refuse him money. He re-establishes law and order, expels the tyrants, renounces his former faults:-is prudent, wary, provident-reigns a few weeks-taxes the people, in support of the people, and is torn to pieces! One day of the rule that followed is sufficient to vindicate his reign and avenge his memory-and for centuries afterwards, whenever that wretched and degenerate populace dreamed of glory or sighed for justice, they recalled the bright vision of their own victim, and deplored the fate of Cola Rienzi. That he was not a tyrant is clear in this-when he was dead, he was bitterly regretted. The people never regret a tyrant! From the unpopularity that springs from other faults there is often a reaction; but there is no reaction in the populace towards their betrayer or oppressor. A thousand biographies cannot decide upon the faults or merits of a ruler like the one fact, whether he is beloved or hated ten years after he is dead. But if the ruler has been murdered by the people, and is then repented by them, their repentance is his acquittal."+
Rienzi was murdered, says the annotator, because the Romans had been in the habit of murdering whenever they were displeased. "They had very shortly before stoned one magistrate, and torn to pieces another. In the same causes and the same career, a people may be made to resemble the bravo whose hand wanders to his knife at the smallest affront, and if to-day he poniards the enemy who assaults him, to-morrow he strikes the friend who would restrain."+ The people of Rome could claim no exemption from the general stigma affixed on the populace in general, and simply as such, by an English contemporary of the Tribune himself:
O stormy people, unsad and ever untrewe,
*Wordsworth, Poems of the Imagination. To Enterprise.
† Appendix I. to "Rienzi." Edit. 1848.
+ Ibid., Notes.
SA jane is a small coin of Genoa (Janua). The meaning is, Your praise is dear enough at a farthing. See Bell's Chaucer, vol. ii. p. 154.
Chaucer, Canterbury Tales: The Clerkes Tale.
The change for the worse in Rienzi's character and habits, plans and policy, which is so universally recognised by historians, Sir Edward Lytton would, as we have seen, limit exclusively to his first lease of power-to the ante-Avignon period, when he was Tribune, as distinguished from his restoration period, when Senator. The change itself, the deterioration in simplicity, sincerity, singleness of eye and aim, is so palpable as to furnish a trite text for the common-places of morality. Singular was the prudence, and opportune the boldness, he manifested at first, says his poet-friend in the Pentameron. "His modesty, his piety, his calm severity, his unbiased justice, won to him the affections of every good citizen, and struck horror into the fastnesses of every castellated felon." According to this believer, he might by degrees have restored the republic of Rome, had he preserved his moderation: he might have become the master of Italy, had he continued the master of himself: but he allowed the weakest of the passions to run away with him:* he fancied he could not inebriate himself soon enough with the intemperance of power. "He called for seven crowns, and placed them successively on his head. Not content with exasperating and concentrating the hostility of barbarians, he set at defiance the best and highest feelings of his more instructed countrymen, and displayed his mockery of religion and decency by bathing in the porphyry font of the Lateran. How," exclaims Petrarch, "my soul grieved for his defection! How bitterly burst forth my complaints, when he ordered the imprisonment of Stefano Colonna in his ninetieth year! For these atrocities you know with what reproaches I assailed him, traitor as he was to the noblest cause that ever strung the energies of mankind." And afterwards the poet is made to affirm in his wrath, that the calmness, the sagacity, the sanctitude of Rienzi, in the ascent to his elevation, rendered him only the more detestable for his abuse of power. And to Boccaccio's suggestion, Surely the man grew mad, Petrarch's answer is, that men often give the hand to the madness that seizes them. "He yielded to pride and luxury: behind them came jealousy and distrust: fear followed these, and cruelty followed fear. Then the intellects sought the subterfuge that bewildered them; and an ignoble flight was precluded by an ignominious death."+ Hence has the Last of the Tribunes come to be classed, by such writers as Walpole, with mere demagogues like John of Leyden and Massaniello, Jack Cade and John Wilkes.
"Wilkes is undone," wrote Walpole to Mann, in 1768; "and though
*The question of Rienzi's intemperate habits is thus dealt with, in passing, by his devoted English apologist: "We must compassionate even more than condemn the man to whom excitement has become nature, and who resorts to the physical stimulus or the momentary Lethe, when the mental exhilarations of hope, youth, and glory, begin to desert him. His alleged intemperance, however, which the Romans (a peculiarly sober people) might perhaps exaggerate, and for which he gave the excuse of a thirst produced by disease contracted in the dungeons of Avignon-evidently and confessedly did not in the least diminish his attention to business, which, according to his biographer, was at that time greater than ever."-Notes to Appendix I. to "Rienzi."
Landor's Pentameron, Second day's interview.
In one of his Letters to Mann, in 1779, Horace Walpole relates how the citizens of London, revolted from the Court on the late disgraces, have voted Wilkes into the post of Chamberlain, a place of fifteen hundred pounds a year. And adds: "How Massaniello and Rienzi and Jack Cade would stare at seeing
Oct.-VOL. CXXIII. NO. ccccxc.