An excerpt from
The Man Who Believed
He Was King of France
A True Medieval Tale
Tommaso di Carpegna Falconieri
Chapter One: At Rome
Questo si è il modo, come fu scambiato lo re Giovanni, figliuolo che fu delo re Luigi, e dela reyna Clementia ragionevole re di’ Francieschi, pochi d doppo la nativit sua.
This is the manner in which King Jean, the son of King Louis, and of Queen Clémence, who was rightful king of the French, was switched a few days after his birth. —Istoria del Re Giannino
Cola di Rienzo
When the messenger arrived at Siena requesting Giannino di Guccio to go to Rome immediately to confer with Cola di Rienzo, the merchant refused. The courier had not even brought a letter with him, only a message to be delivered orally, and the prudent merchant saw no good reason to trust him. He replied that he did not know Cola and had no business with him.
Everyone was well aware that Cola di Rienzo, who had returned to govern Rome after seven years of incredible adventures, was continually on the lookout for the money he needed to pay for his military campaign against the Colonna. Hadn’t he had the condottiere Fra Moriale killed in order to seize his treasury? Wasn’t it rumored that the senator, drunk with wine, was in the habit of locking people up in order to extort ransom payments? To go to Rome would be hazardous: at best Giannino would be exposing his purse and his life to the risk of highway robbery along the Via Cassia, and at worst he would be robbed by the very man who had summoned him.
It was early September 1354. Giannino di Guccio, a merchant aged thirty-eight with a wife and children, felt no compulsion to put his life and his wealth at risk through such a reckless act. But Cola di Rienzo wanted to meet with him at any cost. He had been conducting a search throughout Tuscany for some time, and now that he had found the one he was looking for, he had no intention of letting him go. On 22 September a second courier arrived at Siena, this time bearing an official letter dated 18 September in which the senator of the Romans requested Giannino to present himself in person without delay and as unobtrusively as possible.
This document from the Capitol convinced Giannino: he disguised himself as a soldier, complete with a fake beard, and set off for Rome. But his doubts persisted. Being a prudent man, he thought it wise to bring with him Ser Angelo d’Andrea Guidaregli, a notary and his compare (which could mean either the godfather of one of his children or the best man at his wedding), whom he trusted implicitly. If he were to find himself embroiled in some shady business, Ser Angelo would certainly know how to get him out of trouble.
He reached Rome on the evening of 2 October and found lodging in the Campo de’ Fiori. When night had fallen, he had the innkeeper lead him to the Capitol, where he found Cola di Rienzo at supper. The senator was eating alone at an elevated table, with twelve to sixteen gentlemen seated at other tables. Giannino, still dressed as a soldier, advanced toward the tribune and, doffing his cap, kneeled and held out the letter. Cola di Rienzo immediately commanded him to rise and had the servants lead him to a private room. Shortly thereafter Cola ordered the trumpets to sound the signal that dinner was over and went to join Giannino. The first thing he did was invite him to take off his fake beard, saying “We know very well what you look like.”
It was barely two months since Cola di Rienzo had regained power. At the age of forty-one he had lived his life with great intensity, through periods so different from one another that they seemed like a jumble of different lives: the son of an innkeeper and a laundrywoman, he had succeeded in becoming a notary. He could speak and write so well that the people had sent him to Avignon as ambassador to the pope. There he had made friends with the poet Petrarch and had begun his meteoric rise. Seizing power in a bloodless coup, he had governed Rome from May to December 1347. In those glory days he dreamed of restoring the Roman people to their ancient grandeur: he tried to unite the cities of Italy in a league and had himself crowned “Tribunus Augustus,” intending to assume the title of emperor the following year. This dream soon fell apart, and before long it had turned into a mirage even fuzzier in outline and ever more remote. Cola fled to the Maiella Mountains, and there he began to frequent a group of heterodox Franciscan friars who were living in seclusion. While reading certain prophetic texts they had in their possession, Cola became convinced that he was the instrument chosen by the Holy Spirit to save the world and guide it toward a new age of purity and perfection. So he went to Bohemia, to the court of Charles IV, the elected but as yet uncrowned Holy Roman Emperor, hoping to be sent to Rome as the emperor’s emissary. What he got for his trouble, though, was years of imprisonment, first in a remote city on the Elbe and then, when the pope had succeeded in getting the emperor to hand him over, in a tower of the papal palace at Avignon. Accused of heresy, he might well have been burned at the stake if the sudden death of Pope Clement VI and the election of Innocent VI, who held him in high regard, had not turned the tables in his favor. The new pope was resolved to use Cola, whom the Roman people still adored, to bring the Eternal City back under papal control. So Cola left Avignon to join Cardinal Gil de Albornoz, the legate who was reconquering lost territories in Italy for the papacy. From 1 August 1354, Cola di Rienzo was once again in control of Rome’s city government. The pompous and unusual title of Tribune Augustus was abandoned, formally at any rate, and, as regent in the name of the pope, Cola now took the traditional title of senator while the cardinal legate watched carefully from his headquarters at Montefiascone, 80 kilometers to the north.
Cola was tall and corpulent, with a full red beard. Giannino, seated at his side, was a small man with a slender body. His growth had been stunted in his youth, he would say, because of the hard labor he had been forced to perform. Cola asked him to swear to tell the truth. He then questioned Giannino about his own name and that of his father, about his mother’s name, and about his birth and his memories of childhood. And when this interrogation was over, the senator himself kneeled down before the merchant and kissed his right foot. When Giannino protested at this honor, exclaiming “My lord, who am I that you should pay me this reverence?” Cola di Rienzo answered “Not just I but all of Christendom ought to do so, for you are not who you believe yourself to be and have told me you are. Rather, you are the proper and rightful king of France, for you were the son of King Louis and Queen Clémence, and were exchanged for another a few days after your birth.”
The senator, whom we can well imagine being pleased with the dramatic fashion in which he had revealed to Giannino that he was of royal descent and gratified by the Sienese merchant’s surprised reaction, requested him to listen and began to tell his story.
He said that he had received a letter from a certain Friar Antonio, a member of the order of the Augustinian Hermits, which contained a stunning revelation about the king of France. The friar had set out for Rome in order to speak directly to the senator, of whose good reputation he had heard, but had fallen ill at Portovenere in Liguria. Fearing he might die there, he had decided to write Cola instead, in order to get the message entrusted to him by another friar named Giordano to its destination; he had also taken care to translate it from French into the Tuscan dialect. So Cola was relaying the claims of a friar who was in turn passing on a message from another member of his order.
Near Paris, in a place called Cressay, there had lived a noblewoman by the name of Marie, the daughter of Sieur Piquart de Cressay and Dame Éliabel. Guccio di Mino, a Tuscan residing in a castle near Cressay called Neauphle-le-Vieux who was employed in the moneylending firm of his relative Spinello Tolomei, used to spend time with her brothers, who were his hunting companions. On one such hunt he spent several days in the Cressay household, and Marie de Cressay fell in love with the handsome youth. One day she had a servant bring him to her chambers, and there they were married without witnesses. Guccio gave her a ring, promising to keep the wedding a secret, and they consummated the marriage, causing her to become pregnant. When her brothers, who were acting as her guardians in the absence of her deceased father, realized this, they interrogated her. Marie fearfully confessed everything. The brothers ordered Guccio to leave the area, threatening to kill him if he stayed, because they felt it was beneath them to have a Tuscan commoner for a brother-in-law. But Guccio, disguised as a pilgrim, managed to reveal himself to the servant and with her help to meet Marie to say goodbye. “I shall go back to my own land and remain there briefly before returning,” he told her. He urged her to entrust the baby—boy or girl, whichever it might be—to a wet nurse in secret, and to watch over it with care. He in the meantime would take steps to convince Marie’s brothers that he would make an acceptable in-law.
But the brothers, who had already promised her to a nobleman of the vicinity and for that reason wanted to keep the matter from becoming public knowledge, sent the girl to give birth in a nunnery in Paris, where the abbess was a relative of theirs. They told her what had happened and asked her to keep Marie there until she gave birth; after that the abbess could dispose of the infant as she saw fit, as long as it disappeared without trace. In the nunnery a male child was duly born to Marie, whom she called Giannino. The abbess chose a wet nurse for him named Amaloth, who lived not far from Cressay and who was supposed to bring him up and pass him off as her nephew.
At just this time, before Amaloth had even left the nunnery with the baby, the queen of France also gave birth to a boy child. There was great rejoicing in Paris, and a search for a wet nurse to supply milk for the new-born prince was immediately launched. The royal bailiffs charged with this task knew that there was a young woman, noble and beautiful, who had just given birth in the nunnery. They went there attended by physicians and searched until they found her. They then forced the abbess to reveal, under oath, who she was. The abbess, greatly distressed, revealed Marie’s identity and begged them to leave her alone, so as not to dishonor both her brothers and the nunnery. But the bailiffs needed to act fast, and after consulting the physicians they decided to entrust the king’s son to Marie de Cressay to be nursed.
And so Marie became the prince’s wet nurse. She and Amaloth shared the same room, one giving her breast to the royal offspring, the other to Giannino. No one else was present. But by chance little Giannino died while lying in bed beside Amaloth. Marie then took her dead child into her own bed, and gave the king’s son, who was alive and flourishing, to Amaloth to suckle. The wet nurse was compelled by threats and promises to go along with this exchange.
Marie then began to wail, expressing all her love for the child she had just lost. The royal bailiffs, the chevaliers, and the ladies in waiting all came running to see what had happened, and found Marie with the newborn baby dead in her arms. Believing that it was the prince (and Marie allowed them to think so), they too began to wail loudly. The deceased child was buried, and Marie left the prince to be wet-nursed by Amaloth, passing him off as her own. Marie had switched one baby for the other not out of special affection for the surviving infant, but on account of her love for Guccio, which was strong enough to make her reason thus: “If Guccio returns from his own land and finds his son dead, he will cease to love me, and I will have lost my honor, my son, and my husband.”
But six years passed before Guccio came back to her. Since Marie’s brothers had been sent by the king to guard certain territories many days’ journey from Paris, the merchant was able to meet his wife, who was living in her family home together with the son of the king of France, who had grown into a beautiful child. “Who is this boy?” Guccio asked, and Marie answered: “This is your son.”
Guccio was delighted and spent several days in secret with her. When he left he said to Marie, “See that you send this boy to me in Paris.” Several days later Marie did so. But Guccio kept him in Paris for no more than a few days and then sent him to his own native city in Tuscany. Marie never saw either one of them again.
Many years passed, and in 1345 Marie’s life was drawing to a close. At that point she summoned Friar Giordano, who was living as a hermit near Cressay. The narrative contained in the letter which Cola di Rienzo had received and was now summarizing for Giannino, shifted at this point from the third person to the first-person viewpoint of Giordano himself:
And before she died she sent for me, Friar Giordano, a hermit living near Cressay, and made a general confession to me, and told me the whole story. She imposed on me the task of looking for the child, and, should I find him alive, of immediately informing the pope and the college of cardinals, and the current king of France. I was then to reveal all to the man himself, so that he might be restored to his royal dignity.
After Marie’s death, Friar Giordano began trying to trace Guccio. But upon discovering that Guccio was also dead, he gave up, and remained trapped for several years in a kind of despair, on account of the fact that he was quite unable to reveal what had happened to the pope and the king in the absence of any proof. He had no idea where to find the son of the king, and justified his inaction this way: “I thought he must be dead, considering that more than half of the people died in ’48.”
But evidently the heir to the throne of France had not died in the great plague of 1348. Friar Giordano, in fact, began to encounter him in his dreams, kneeling before the king, his father, and begging, “Father, give me your blessing, for I wish to go to liberate the sepulcher of Christ.” The prince began to appear to him every day in this posture, as soon as the friar fell asleep. So Giordano started to pray, asking the Lord Jesus Christ to reveal to him a way of finding this blessed son of the king. After several days of prayers and fasting, Giordano finally dozed off while kneeling before the altar. Then it seemed to him that he beheld the king’s son holding the standard of the Church in his hands. The royal youth appeared to be saying, “I will never rest until I have placed this ensign over the gates of Jerusalem.” And he continued, “the sepulcher of Christ must needs be emancipated and free, and every faithful Christian must be able to visit it safely.”
No sooner had Giordano awoken than he looked around for the prince, believing that he must be near at hand. Not seeing him, he felt great sorrow. Then he took counsel with some fellow religious, who said to him:
You are old and no longer fit for travel. Dispatch someone to visit all the places between here and Rome. Set down the confession of the woman in an orderly written document, and then the revelation you have had, so that he whom you send may be well informed when approaching the bishops and the lords of those places to find out if he is alive. And if he is found living, the bishop or lord of the place in which he resides should be urged to make the matter manifest to the pope and his cardinals, and to the king of France who now rules, and to his barons. And if he is not found, you are excused in God’s eyes; and say nothing to them about it, for you might be punished for having kept the matter secret for so long.
So this was the reason that Friar Giordano had written a letter to his fellow friar, Antonio, who had often traveled from France to Rome and was acquainted with all the territories that lay between, both entreating and commanding him to set off toward Rome to find out who Guccio di Mino and Spinello Tolomei had been, and to locate the son of the king, thanks to whom “general peace will prevail throughout Christendom, and the Holy Land be regained.” Once he had tracked down the prince, Antonio was supposed to alert the bishop or lord of the place in which he found him, so that he might inform the pope immediately. Not knowing the name of the royal offspring, which Marie had been unable to tell him, Giordano wrote to Antonio that the one he sought “will be named Giannino di Guccio, believing himself to be Guccio’s son.”
Here matters came full circle. Friar Antonio, prevented from continuing his search because of a grave illness which he feared would soon carry him off, had written to Cola di Rienzo to ask him to complete it instead. He confirmed that the mission had been entrusted to him by Friar Giordano, whose disciple Antonio declared himself to be, describing his master as a holy man who had lived “as a hermit in the service of God, eighty years of age or more.” Giordano had heard Marie’s confession in 1345; at that time the king’s son must have been twenty-six or twenty-eight years old.
Friar Antonio’s letter was dated 25 August 1354: “That was the feast day of Saint Louis, who was king of France and made the passage [to the Holy Land] several times. And he for whom I am looking is descended from him, and will follow in his footsteps.”
Such a prophecy could not have failed to stir Cola di Rienzo, who had a strong faith in dreams, signs, and coinciding dates. When the senator received the letter on 6 September, he spotted the best clue to be found in the narrative: the fact that Guccio had worked for the Tolomei. Since they were a well-known family in Siena, he directed his men to look for Giannino there.
Cola, therefore, was telling Giannino a tale that a dying woman had confessed to a friar, who had written about it to a fellow friar, who in turn had written to him. Giannino hesitated to believe this reconstruction, declaring that he continued to regard himself as the son of Guccio and Monna Maria, just as he had always done; he requested the tribune not to trouble himself any further over the matter. But Cola urged him to overcome his astonishment. He showed him the letter of Friar Antonio, which contained Marie’s confession, and “told him of numerous kings who had been switched at birth, being one who had all of ancient history at his fingertips . . . and so many things did the tribune tell him, that Giannino assented.”
In fact, Giannino already knew the story that the king’s son had been switched for another baby in the cradle: he had heard it from a French knight whom he calls Francesco Guifredi of Paris, who had fallen ill at Siena while making the pilgrimage to Rome in the jubilee year of 1350 and whom the merchant had visited in hospital and treated with great courtesy. Now Cola di Rienzo was telling him that the prince who had been switched as a babe was none other than—himself. Giannino, who had shown the capacity to earn a lot of money and had held positions of prestige and responsibility, was no fool. But Cola’s ability to persuade was exceptional. It was his best and most effective weapon, as he himself well knew. The senator, who had also heard the story previously from other sources when he was in Avignon, probably gave a fuller explanation of the position of King Jean I in the royal house of France, proving to Giannino that he was not only the son of a king, but the king himself, in person. Louis X the Quarrelsome, king of France and Navarre and eldest son of Philippe IV the Fair, had died on 5 June 1316, leaving his second wife, Clémence of Hungary, a member of the Anjou dynasty, pregnant. From the death of Hugues Capet in 996, it was the first time that a king of France had died without leaving a living male heir. A few months after the death of her husband, the queen brought a difficult pregnancy to term, giving birth on 15 November 1316 to a boy child to whom she gave the name Jean, on account of a vow she had made to John the Baptist. Little Jean, known to history as the Posthumous, was thus already king of France (the first to be called Jean) when he emerged from the womb; at that moment France was governed by a regent, his uncle Philippe, count of Poitiers, the brother of Louis X. But the infant only survived for four days, and so at his death the throne was inherited by the regent, who became Philippe V the Long. Now, had Jean survived, he would, past all doubt, have been “the king of France in reason and in right,” being the eldest male offspring of King Louis X, who had in turn been the eldest male offspring of Philippe IV the Fair, the heir and successor of Philippe III, the son of King (and Saint) Louis IX.
Giannino and Cola spent the whole night together in conversation. At dawn the senator summed up how they were to proceed. First, Giannino was to be escorted to safety inside the walls of Castel Sant’Angelo. Cola would then write letters to the pope, the emperor, all the kings of Christendom, and the communes and lords of Italy, inviting each of them to send two ambassadors to Rome. To these would be revealed “a great and excellent fact, which will be advantageous to all of Christendom.”
Upon the arrival of these representatives, Cola would dress Giannino in royal robes, surround him with Roman princes and barons, and finally reveal him for who he really was. He would request the pope and the other lords to treat with “him who improperly holds the crown of France” and convince him to cede the kingdom to Giannino/Jean in peace and concord. Should the reigning king not agree to this, then the senator would order the commune of Rome with all its forces, together with the allied kings, lords, and communes to move against him and allow Jean to advance into the kingdom of France. Cola and the allies would swear an oath not to give up on their undertaking until the kingdom had been restored to its natural lord. In fact, the senator concluded, Rome is the head of the world and for that reason has the right to recognize who ought to rule in any kingdom, especially the kingdom of France “of which the first king was a Roman, from whom are descended all the kings and royals that there have been in France.”
The style in which this claim was couched was pure Cola di Rienzo, displaying his chronic taste for pomp and ceremony, rhetorical emphasis, and spectacular revelations. Political ideas bordering on the fantastic, and political machinations no less imaginary, aimed at planting those ideas in the shifting sands of reality, were not new to Cola either. The main features of his golden period, those few months in 1347 when Cola had believed he could become lord of the world, all returned. Back then he had repeatedly sent magniloquent letters to the leaders of Europe; had summoned two ambassadors from every power to which he wrote, many of whom had responded, initially at least, to his missives; had promised unheard-of revelations which he had gone on to actually pronounce; and had celebrated his own glory with ostentation and arrogance.
His intention now was much the same. He would prepare a solemn pageant, in which the central and decisive moment would be the revelation of the “rightful king of France.” Having secretly revealed to Giannino his royal nature, Cola di Rienzo would now declare it publicly before the nations of the earth. The affair would reflect honor on him, as the new prophet who had brought the truth to light. And it would reflect honor on Rome, the city that ruled the world and the repository of imperial power, to which King Jean of France would certainly pay homage.
So in the mind of the man who was called “the last of the Roman tribunes,” who was determined to restore to the Eternal City its ancient magnificence, the advantage to be derived from “revealing” the true sovereign of France was perfectly clear. As Cola saw it, France would revert to the status of a vassal kingdom.
But there was much more to it. Even in 1347 Cola di Rienzo, while enamored of Rome and its ancient culture, had already been filled with fiery religiosity and had based both his political program and his faith that he himself was called to hold power on signs from heaven. Now, in 1354, seven years later, even vaster horizons beckoned to him. For some time he had been convinced that he was a prophet, an emissary of the Holy Spirit, perhaps even the equal of such figures as John the Baptist and Francis of Assisi. His mission on earth, which he had discovered in a book entitled Oraculum Cyrilli (The Prophecy of Cirillo) composed by Franciscan spirituals under the spell of Joachim of Fiore, was essentially to announce the coming of the new era of perfection, the third age (or age of the Holy Spirit) of Joachimite thought, and to rouse Emperor Charles IV to action. If he saw Charles IV as a bearer of salvation, the role Cola saw for himself was to return to Rome and govern it in the emperor’s name, paving the way for the imperial coronation there and compelling the emperor to strive for the reestablishment of universal order, primarily by launching an attack on the carnal church of Avignon. These projects, which he had set out with great oratorical ability and energy in 1350, had cost him a long period of imprisonment. It is highly likely that Cola di Rienzo had had to make a solemn and complete abjuration of any heresy and confess himself a faithful Christian, devoted to the keys of Saint Peter. But even if he had abandoned the beliefs of the followers of Joachim of Fiore, a few fundamental convictions must have remained, above all the notion that the world was in disorder and that it needed to be set right. Indeed, such convictions, far from being the exclusive prerogative of radical groups, were shared by large sectors of society at that time.
For at midpoint in the fourteenth century, there were many who maintained that the world had plunged into chaos. Not that this way of thinking represented a novelty: mankind has often been convinced that those alive at a given moment are living at the worst time in history. But around 1350 such grim sentiments about life appeared to be confirmed by many unequivocal signs that went far beyond things like comets and babies born with two heads. Rich merchants were now going bankrupt after a century of splendor: the collapse of the Bardi and Peruzzi firms marked the end of an epoch. No less painful for Giannino must have been the failure of the Tolomei company, which left his relatives poverty-stricken. Along with financial crisis went demographic crisis. Cities that had expected to go on building walls of increasing diameter for their growing populations were now losing inhabitants. And the inhabitants they did have were restless and turbulent in their attempts to achieve popular governments, for even small artisans and manual laborers now wanted a voice in politics. Nor were the cities able to feed all their citizens, since the food supply was becoming increasingly precarious.
Shortage of bread and abundance of war were like the wings of a triptych, in which the central panel was the scourge of the century—the bubonic plague, which had reappeared in the West after an absence of eight centuries. Arriving from the East in 1347, it spread throughout almost all of Europe in four years, laying low at least a third of the population and leaving behind a sense of despondency and permanent fear in the hearts of the people. From that time forward the plague was to remain endemic in the European population, surfacing periodically in epidemic form during the next four centuries. Even worse than the epidemic of 1348 was the one that would occur fifteen years later, because its main victims would be children and youths. “Free us, O Lord, from plague, famine, and war.”
So the idea that there was a fourteenth-century crisis was one that people alive at that time already held. The negative Renaissance image of the Middle Ages sprang from their grim astonishment at what was happening to them, and the memories of it they passed on to their descendants. A question of economics and subsistence, of demography and culture it may have been, but in the eyes of contemporaries the crisis was particularly characterized—and explained—by a handful of situations that told them that the world was askew. The three main ones were that Jerusalem was again in Muslim rather than Christian hands, that the pope was residing at Avignon rather than at Rome, and that two pretenders, both laying claim to the kingdom of France, were waging a bloody contest for the crown.
The conflict that was tearing the kingdom of France apart would later be called the Hundred Years’ War. It was caused, in dynastic terms, by the fact that the king of England and the king of France each regarded himself as the legitimate heir of the Capetian crown. This came about because the dynasty founded by Hugues Capet had become extinct in the direct male line when the last son of Philippe IV the Fair had died. His three male offspring had acceded to the throne one after the other without sons who survived them and would have been able to succeed in their turn. In consequence, the crown had been allotted to a cousin, Philippe VI, who was the son of Charles of Valois, called the Landless, the brother of Philippe IV the Fair. Edward III, king of England, however, boasted a much closer blood relationship to the direct Capetian line, since he was the son of Isabelle, the daughter of Philippe the Fair. In France they invoked the Salic law, according to which females could not succeed to the throne of France, whereas the English for their part emphasized the direct line of descent, which from their point of view made Isabelle the heir and allowed her son to rule France as well as England. And so the two contenders, and subsequently their sons and grandsons, fought over the crown of France for over one hundred years (1337–1451). In the end it was kept by the Valois.
Actually, though, a third pretender appeared on the scene for a while: the merchant Giannino di Guccio. If he was really Jean I of France, in other words the firstborn male child of the eldest son of Philippe the Fair, then he ranked higher than either of the two main contenders for succession to the throne.
Returning to the widespread conviction in the fourteenth century that the world had fallen into a state of terrible disorder and that it was necessary to restore it to a condition of peace, we come to the heart of the matter, and we begin to see why Cola di Rienzo had decided to “recognize” Giannino. If we put ourselves for a moment into the world of metapolitical fantasy inside Cola’s head, we realize that Giannino represented, in a certain sense, a real trump card, a panacea able to cure all ills.
Cola was utterly convinced that the one thing necessary to heal the world was a “man of destiny.” Indeed, he had once been persuaded that he himself was the one who would lead mankind into a better future (and had been regarded as such by many others, Petrarch among them). Then he had transferred the mandate onto the person of Emperor Charles IV, keeping the role of herald and prophet for himself. And now it was the turn of the “king of France.”
The fundamental reason that Giannino, alias King Jean, represented yet another man of destiny for Cola di Rienzo was that he would have been in a unique position to reverse the three major political calamities that were afflicting Christendom: the loss of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, the Avignonese captivity of the papacy, and the war in France. Why would he have been able to accomplish this? First of all because of his dynastic position, which would render the claims of the other pretenders completely unsustainable. The world would be set free from the catastrophe of war, something for which Cola had expressed a desire many years earlier when, on 1 August 1347, he had written to the kings of France and England urging them to peace and harmony. Once recognized as king of France (and supplied with timely advice), Jean would certainly take steps to ensure that the pope should no longer reside at Avignon but rather return to Rome, just as Cola di Rienzo, his old friend Petrarch, and many others with them had been hoping for some time. Finally, the liberation of the Holy Sepulcher: Cola had once expressed his desire to construct an oratory in Jerusalem. On another occasion he had asked to be enrolled in the crusades. But it was Jean’s destiny to succeed in the great enterprise by right of blood, inasmuch as he was a direct descendant, through an unbroken chain of consecrated sovereigns, of good king Saint Louis, who had set out on one last crusade and had died in the midst of it. The son of Louis X, Jean I (who bore the same name as one of the sons who had died in infancy of Saint Louis) was the one who would complete the mission of his ancestor. Friar Giordano, who saw things exactly the same way, had repeatedly seen the young man in his dreams in the act of requesting a blessing prior to departing for Jerusalem. And the letter that had reached Cola from Friar Antonio (himself convinced that the son of the king had a salvational role to play) happened to be dated on precisely the feast day of Saint Louis. The senator of Rome was convinced, and said so in writing, that that letter had come to him by the will of God.
Jean I of France, acknowledged in the person of the merchant Giannino di Guccio, would thus be the instrument through which Christendom would attain peace, the pope would resume his mission at Rome, and the Holy Land would be reconquered from the infidels. And the merit of launching the process of restoration, by placing the true king of France on his throne, would be Cola di Rienzo’s. In a world that, wisely governed by its legitimate sovereign, had finally recovered its proper, natural political order, those other sources of bitter distress that all could see, famine and pestilence, would be eliminated.
To what extent were Cola di Rienzo’s plans capable of realization? How would those who were affected react? Would the pope heed him? Would the king of France regard Giannino as a noble rival, equal to the king of England, or merely as a clown? The senator of Rome may never even have asked himself these questions: an expert at contriving spectacular intrigues and uttering emphatic declarations, he had never been able to foresee what might follow from his own provocative actions.