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Mapping a Roman Legend: The House of Cola di Rienzo from Piranesi to Baedeker


In the early 1830s, the founders of Rienzi, Mississippi, named their new town after the fourteenth-century Roman demagogue Cola di Rienzo (or Rienzi). In doing so they took part in a contemporary trans-continental craze for Cola and everything for which he stood—which they saw as republicanism, anti-Catholicism, and the rights of the individual against tyranny and privilege. Luminaries from Voltaire to Byron championed his cause, making Cola a minor celebrity: an appropriate hero for a small group of Protestant settlers in the American South, but also the inspiration for political groups and individuals across the United States and Europe. Tourists to Rome could even visit Cola di Rienzo's house, a medieval structure along the Tiber that eighteenth- and nineteenth-century itineraries featured prominently along with the usual monuments of classical and papal Rome. This article traces Cola di Rienzo's evolution as a symbolic figure—from unsuccessful rebel to protonationalist revolutionary—through the fortunes of his so-called house. Its concrete presence in Rome gave substance and focus to his legend across Europe, even though the house never belonged to him.

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