Sack of Rome (1527)
Eumenis Megalopoulos | Aug 17, 2023
Table of Content
The sack of Rome (looting) began on May 6, 1527, by the imperial troops of Charles V of Habsburg, composed mainly of German lansquenets, about 14,000 of them, as well as 6,000 Spanish soldiers and an unspecified number of bands of Italians.
Imperial troops, mostly Spaniards who had landed in Genoa under Charles III of Bourbon, had been engaged in the second part of 1526 in the Po Valley against the League of Cognac. The emperor had then brought down in reinforcement from the Tyrol the Lansquenets under the leadership of the now old von Frundsberg, who were, however, effectively opposed by Giovanni delle Bande Nere. With Giovanni dead and Milan conquered, the Spaniards and the Lansquenets met in February 1527 in Piacenza.
The Venetian possessions to the east were protected by Francesco Maria, Duke of Urbino, who had done little to prevent imperial actions in the lands of the Duchy of Milan. Spaniards and lansquenets, ill-assorted and ill-disposed toward each other, decided to move jointly southward to hunt for booty, under the partial control of Charles III of Bourbon, who could rely only on personal prestige, since the troops had not seen a penny for months.
Hungry and eager for prey, they left behind what little artillery they had. Having bypassed Florence, considered a difficult target as it was well defended, in forced marches and driven by hunger they headed for Rome. The city was virtually empty of defenders, as Pope Clement VII to save money had dismissed the troops, convinced that he could negotiate with Charles V to change sides again.
The sack of Rome had a tragic toll, both in the damage to people and artistic heritage. About 20000 citizens were killed, 10000 fled, 30000 died from the plague brought by the Lansquenets. Clement VII, who took refuge in Castel Sant'Angelo, had to surrender and pay 400000 ducats. The lanzichenecchi, of predominantly Protestant faith, were also animated by anti-papal fervor and were responsible for the greatest cruelties to religious men and women and damage to buildings of worship.
The event marked an important moment in the long wars for dominance in Europe between the Holy Roman Empire and the Kingdom of France, allied with the Church State. The devastation and occupation of the city of Rome seemed to symbolically confirm the decline of Italy at the mercy of foreign armies and the humiliation of the Catholic Church engaged in opposing even the Lutheran Reformation movement that had developed in Germany.
The affair fits into the broader framework of the conflicts for supremacy in Europe between the Habsburgs and the Valois, that is, between Francis I of Valois, King of France and Charles V of Habsburg, Holy Roman Emperor as well as King of Spain. More precisely, it fits into the second conflict that saw the two sovereigns engaged from 1526 to 1529.
The first conflict had ended with Francis I's defeat at Pavia and the signing of the Treaty of Madrid in January 1526, as a result of which the French ruler had to renounce, among other things, all his rights over Italy and return Burgundy to the Habsburgs.
The following May, however, Pope Clement VII (born Julius de' Medici), taking advantage of the Valois's dissatisfaction at having to sign a treaty containing clauses that were extremely mortifying to France, became the promoter of an anti-imperial league, the so-called Holy League of Cognac.
In essence, Pope Clement with the King of France shared the fear that the Habsburg ruler, once he had taken possession of northern Italy and already had the whole of southern Italy in his hands as a Spanish inheritance, could be induced to unify all the states of the peninsula under a single scepter, to the detriment of the Papal States, which risked being isolated and phagocytised.
The League consisted of, in addition to the pope and the king of France, the Duchy of Milan, Republic of Venice, Republic of Genoa as well as the Medici's Florence. Hostilities were initiated in 1526 by attacking the Republic of Siena, but the venture proved unsuccessful and revealed the weakness of the troops available to the pope.
The emperor, intending to momentarily control northern Italy, tried to regain the pontiff's favor, but being unsuccessful, he decided to intervene militarily. Only his forces were engaged elsewhere: on the internal front against the Lutherans and on the external front against the Ottoman Empire, which was pressing at the eastern gates of the Empire; so he arranged to foment an internal revolt within the Papal States, through the powerful Roman Colonna family, which had always been an enemy of the Medici.
The Colonna revolt produced its effects. Cardinal Pompeo Colonna unleashed his soldiers on the papal city, who sacked it. Clement VII, besieged in Rome, was forced to ask the emperor for help with a promise to change his alliance against the king of France by breaking the Holy League. Pompey Colonna calmly retreated to Naples. Clement VII, once free, did not keep the pact made anyway, and called Francis I himself to his aid.
At this point the emperor arranged for armed intervention against the Papal States (which in the city of Rome was then represented by Governor Bernardo de' Rossi) by sending a contingent of lansquenets, under the command of Duke Charles III of Bourbon-Montpensier, one of the greatest French condottieri, who was hated by King Francis.
The troops in the field, however, were commanded by General Georg von Frundsberg, an experienced Tyrolean leader of the imperial lansquenets who was famous for his hatred of the Church of Rome and the pope; according to his personal secretary Adam Reusner, he would openly express his firm intention to hang Clement VII after occupying the city. The Lansquenet army assembled by Frundsberg would be led by a number of experienced German commanders, veterans of previous wars, including Georg von Frundsberg's son Melchior, Konrad von Boyneburg-Bemelberg, Sebastian Schertlin, Conrad Hess, and Ludovico Lodron
Frundsberg's Lanzichenecchi, some 14,000 mercenary militiamen enlisted mainly in Bolzano and Merano and followed by their 3,000 women, left Trent on November 12, 1526, flanked by another 4,000 mercenaries from Cremona. They marched initially in the direction of the Adige Valley to confuse the Venetian militia and then suddenly headed for the Chiese Valley, encamping at Lodrone; here, however, given the impossibility of overcoming the Venetian-guarded Rocca d'Anfo, after traveling difficult mountain roads in the Vestino Valley and arriving in the Sabbia Valley at Vobarno, the German militia failed to overcome an initial barrage of Venetian troops at the Corona di Roè Volciano. Fearful of the arrival of League troops stationed in the Milan area and consisting of about 35,000 soldiers, Frundsberg thought it impossible to break through to Brescia. So, descending to Gavardo, he diverted the march of his lansquenets in the direction of Mantua where he intended to cross the Po.
The imperial militia overcame some weak resistance at Goito, Lonato, and Solferino and then reached Rivalta; on November 25, 1526, Frundsberg's Lansquenets, thanks in part to the treachery of the Lords of Ferrara and Mantua (mentioned below), defeated at the Battle of Governolo the troops of Giovanni dalle Bande Nere, who were attempting to bar their way near a bridge over the Mincio River; the Italian commander himself, who in the previous days had tried to slow the enemy advance with a series of disruptive raids by his light cavalry, was seriously wounded by a falconet shot, dying after a few days from the consequences of the wound. The German militia then were able to cross the Po on November 28, 1526 near Ostiglia and continued their advance; in the following days they were reinforced by two hundred men led by Filiberto di Chalons prince of Orange and five hundred Italian arquebusiers under the command of Niccolò Gonzaga.
The troops of the League of Cognac showed little cohesion and mediocre military efficiency; moreover, some Italian princes favored the advance of the imperial army; Alfonso I d'Este, duke of Ferrara, who after some uncertainties had allied himself with Charles V, provided his modern artillery pieces that reinforced the Lansquenet army before the battle of Governolo, while in Mantua Marquis Federico II Gonzaga, although formally an ally of the pope, refused to take an active part in the war. Under these conditions, the League's armies present in Italy were unable to stop Frundsberg's imperial troops, who on December 14, 1526, crossed the Taro and occupied Fiorenzuola while the papal forces led by Francesco Guicciardini and Guido Rangoni were retreating from Parma and Piacenza in the direction of Bologna. At the same time Francesco Maria della Rovere, duke of Urbino and commander of the Venetian army, from the regions of Mantua prudently kept a distance from the imperial army and cautiously remained on the defensive; he considered the Lansquenet army unbeatable in the open field and preferred above all to cover the territory of Venice.
In fact, even the Lansquenets, despite their seemingly unstoppable advance, were in trouble because of constant disruptive attacks and especially because of serious shortages of provisions; marching in the mud and cold with insufficient food supplies, the troops were in deplorable condition, and Georg von Frundsberg was seriously worried. On December 14, from Fiorenzuola, the imperial leader sent an urgent request for help to Charles of Bourbon, who was in Milan with the Spanish troops, who according to the plans were to join the Lansquenets. Charles of Bourbon decided to move quickly to the rescue with his troops, which, however, were showing little discipline and impatience because of non-payment of the penny. With some expedients the imperial leader managed to persuade his soldiers to obey orders, and on January 30, 1527, he set out from Milan. The Spanish troops, 6000 strong, caught up with the Lansquenet army at Pontenure, near Piacenza, on February 7. On March 7, the assembled imperial army, further strengthened by the arrival of contingents of pro-imperial Italian troops, arrived at San Giovanni in Bolognese territory.
On March 16, 1527, moreover, there were new, serious manifestations of indiscipline and sedition among the imperial troops because of extremely poor living conditions and, above all, the non-payment of the soldo due to the troops; after the riots that had begun among the Spanish units, the German lansquenets also joined the protests, and Frundsberg's personal attempt to quell the revolt was unsuccessful. The militia called for payment of the penny, and the German leader, while speaking to the troops, fell seriously ill. Stricken with a stroke, Frundsberg, after futile attempts at treatment, had to relinquish command and was evacuated to Ferrara on March 22. Now infirm, he returned to his castle in Mindelheim only in August 1528 to die there. Command of the imperial expeditionary corps was taken over by Charles of Bourbon, who had great difficulty restoring discipline.
Precisely during the days of sedition among the imperial troops, envoys from the viceroy of Naples Charles of Lannoy arrived in the camp to inform Charles of Bourbon that a truce had been established with Pope Clement VII on the basis of a payment of sixty thousand ducats to the imperial army. The pope, extremely concerned about the invasion, had decided to engage in negotiations and break the solidarity among the powers of the League of Cognac. News of the agreement, however, provoked violent protests among the imperial troops eager to retaliate for the labors of war by devastatingly plundering enemy territory; the truce was therefore rejected, and Charles of Bourbon independently decided to resume the advance after informing the viceroy that he could not oppose the troops' wishes.
The imperials, about 35,000 Spanish, German and Italian soldiers, having passed Forli, where about 500 of them got the worst of it in a skirmish with the troops of Michael Anthony of Saluzzo, crossed the Apennines and made their way to Arezzo, following, then, the Via Romea Germanica. From here, on April 20, 1527, they departed, taking advantage of the precarious situation in which the Venetians and their allies found themselves because of Florence's insurrection against the Medici. The troops defending Rome were few in number (no more than five thousand), but they had on their side the solid walls and artillery, which the besiegers lacked. Bourbon had to take the city quickly to avoid being trapped in turn by the League army.
On the morning of May 6 the Imperials began their attack. There were 14,000 Lansquenets and 6,000 Spaniards. They were joined by the Italian infantry of Fabrizio Maramaldo, Sciarra Colonna and Luigi Gonzaga "Rodomonte"; many horsemen had placed themselves under the command of Ferrante I Gonzaga and Prince of Orange Filiberto di Chalons; in addition, many deserters from the League, soldiers dismissed by the pope and numerous bandits attracted by the hope of robbery had also joined them.
The assault was concentrated between the Janiculum Hill and the Vatican. To set an example to his own, Charles of Bourbon was among the first to attack, but as he was climbing a ladder he was seriously wounded by an arquebus ball, apparently fired by Benvenuto Cellini (according to his autobiography). Hospitalized in the church of Sant'Onofrio, Bourbon died in the afternoon. This increased the momentum of the attackers, who, at the cost of heavy losses, managed to enter the Borgo quarter. The Bourbon's successor was the Prince of Orange.
While the Spanish troops were assaulting the walls between Porta Torrione and Porta Fornaci, the lansquenets, led by Frundsberg's lieutenant, the commander Konrad von Boyneburg-Bemelberg, began their ascent of the ramparts between Porta Torrione and Porta Santo Spirito. The Germans succeeded after strenuous efforts in overcoming the surrounding wall in the Porta Santo Spirito sector; captains Nicholas Seidenstuecker and Michael Hartmann reached the ramparts with their lansquenches, captured the cannons and forced the defenders to flee.
While the German lansquenets were multiplying their efforts to widen the breach and cross the walls en masse at St. Peter's Gate, a section of Spanish soldiers fortunately managed to locate a poorly camouflaged window of a cellar of the Armellini palace close to the walls that was apparently undefended; through this window the Spaniards entered a narrow tunnel that led them inside the Armellini palace where they encountered no resistance. The soldiers then turned back and widened the opening; the troops were thus able to pour in, invade the neighborhood and advance toward St. Peter's. At the same time the German lansquenets, covered by arquebus fire, captured most of the walls and, as the papal troops fell back en route, they in turn headed toward the basilica, advancing on the right of the Spaniards.
The pope, who was praying in the church, was led through the passetto to the Castel Sant'Angelo while 189 Swiss Guards (also mercenaries but loyal to the pope) had themselves slaughtered to defend his escape.
Deprived of command, the Lansquenets, hitherto frustrated by a disappointing military campaign, turned to looting and violence on the city's inhabitants starting from Borgo Vecchio and the hospital of Santo Spirito, with unprecedented and even gratuitous brutality. All churches were desecrated, treasures were stolen and sacred furnishings were destroyed. Nuns were raped, as were women who were torn from their homes. All the palaces of prelates and nobles (such as members of the Maximus family) were devastated, with the exception of those loyal to the emperor. The population was subjected to all kinds of violence and anguish. The streets were strewn with corpses and traversed by gangs of drunken soldiers dragging women of all conditions, and by looters carrying robbed items.
Pope Clement VII found himself a refugee in the impregnable Castel Sant'Angelo. On June 5, after accepting payment of a large sum for the occupiers' retreat, he surrendered and was imprisoned in a palace in the Prati district pending payment of the agreed-upon sum. However, the pope's surrender was a ruse to get out of Castel Sant'Angelo and, thanks to secretly made arrangements, escape from the Eternal City at the first opportunity. On December 7, some 30 horsemen and a strong division of arquebusiers under the orders of Luigi Gonzaga "Rodomonte" stormed the palace, freeing Clement VII, who was disguised as an ortolan to cross the city walls and then escorted to Orvieto. In pictorial iconography, Clement VII, starting in 1527, will be depicted with a white beard, apparently becoming so in three days, as a result of the pain caused him by the sack.
The actual looting lasted eight days, at the end of which, however, the city remained occupied by the troops, who also later tried to exploit the situation by demanding ransoms for prisoners. The actual withdrawal of the looters would take place only between February 16 and 18 of the following year, after the lootable had been looted and there was no longer any possibility of obtaining ransoms, but also because of the plague that had spread after months of bivouac and the desertions of many soldiers (assimilated into the population).
The sack caused incalculable damage to the city's artistic heritage. Work in the factory of St. Peter's was also interrupted and did not resume until 1534 with the pontificate of Paul III:
In addition to the large sum for the withdrawal of the occupiers, the pope as collateral had to deliver as statesmen (Onofrio Bartolini, archbishop of Pisa; Antonio Pucci, bishop of Pistoia: Gian Matteo Giberti, bishop of Verona.
On the very day the defenses of Rome gave way, the papal captain Guido II Rangoni pushed on as far as the Salario bridge with a host of horses and arquebusiers, but, seeing the situation, retreated to Otricoli. Francesco Maria della Rovere, who had rejoined the troops of the marquis of Saluzzo, encamped at Monterosi awaiting news. After three days the Prince of Orange ordered the looting to cease, but the lansquenets did not obey and Rome continued to be violated until there was something left to take possession of.
Some Roman families on the side of the Lansquenets managed to save their property. These included, in addition to the Colonnas, the Gonzagas and the Farnese family. For while one of Alexander's sons (the later Pope Paul III), Ranuccio Farnese, was siding with Pope Clement VII, his other son Pier Luigi was a commander among the Lansquenets. Upon entering Rome, Pier Luigi quartered himself in the Farnese palace, thus saving the family's property.
At the time of the "Sack," the city of Rome had, according to the papal census taken in late 1526 and early 1527, 55035 inhabitants, mainly composed of colonies from various Italian cities, with a Florentine majority.
Such a small population was defended by about 4,000 men-at-arms and the 189 Swiss mercenaries who formed the pontiff's guard.
Centuries-old maintenance deficiencies at the ancient sewer system had turned Rome into an unsanitary city infested with malaria and bubonic plague. The sudden crowding caused by the tens of thousands of lansquenets severely aggravated the hygienic situation, furthering beyond measure the spread of contagious diseases that decimated both the population and the occupants.
By the end of that dreadful year, Rome's citizenry was reduced almost in half by the approximately 20,000 deaths caused by the violence or disease. The victims included high prelates, such as Cardinal Cristoforo Numai da Forlì, who died a few months later from the suffering endured during the sacking. As in many other places in Europe due to religious wars, a period of poverty was determined in 16th-century Rome.
The reasons that induced the Germanic mercenaries to indulge in such heinous looting and for such a long time, that is, for about ten months, lay in their frustration with a hitherto disappointing military campaign and, above all, in the burning hatred that most of them, Lutherans, had for the Catholic Church.
Moreover, in those days soldiers were paid every five days, that is, by "fives." However, when the commander of the troops did not have enough money to pay the soldiery, he authorized the so-called "sacking" of the city, which usually lasted no longer than a day. Sufficient time, that is, for the troops to make up for the lack of pay.
In this particular case, the Lansquenets had not only gone without pay, they had also gone without their commander. In fact, the Frundsberg had hastily returned to Germany for health reasons, and the Bourbon was a casualty in the field.
Without pay, without a commander and without orders, in the grip of a rabid aversion to Catholicism, it was easy for them to indulge for such a long time in the sacking of the no longer eternal Rome.
In addition to the history of the city of Rome, the sack of 1527 had such momentous significance that Bertrand Russell and other scholars point to May 6, 1527 as the symbolic date on which to place the end of the Renaissance.
Beginning with the sack a turning point for the entire Catholic world would begin. The logics of family power and the questionable customs that had dominated the papacy had given rise to Lutheran criticism and the birth of Lutheranism.
The sack of Catholic Rome by a rancorous and contemptuous Protestant army, just ten years after the publication of Luther's theses (1517), is one of the elements that forced the Church (and families) to react. Paul III Farnese, successor to Clement VII Medici, called the Council of Trent in 1545, resulting in the birth of the Counter-Reformation.
The sack of Rome, ordered by Charles V of Habsburg and occurring within the War of the League of Cognac (1526-30), is framed as a resounding event within one of the conflicts of the 16th century that would later lead to the partition of Europe between the Habsburgs and France culminating in 1559, with the Peace of Cateau-Cambrésis.
Before the sack, Rome was the main destination for any European artist eager for fame and wealth, for prestigious commissions from the papal court. The sack generated a veritable diaspora, which brought, first to Italian and then European courts, the "grande maniera" style of Raphael's and Michelangelo's pupils.
In the years following the sack, however, the Counter-Reformation marked a new style that was more didactic and comprehensible, sometimes tinged with gravity and celebratory grandeur toward the Catholic Church. A clear example is the evolution of Michelangelo Buonarroti himself, who in 1508-1512 had painted the vault of the Sistine Chapel with biblical depictions, and who returned to the same place in 1536-1541 with the cautionary Last Judgment.
- Sack of Rome (1527)
- Sacco di Roma (1527)
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