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“Hell itself was a more beautiful sight to behold”: The Sack of Rome in 1527

By Peter Konieczny

“I confess for my own part that I am beside myself and amazed, and the whole world seems to me altered, and I don’t know what greater hell there can be than this one, where one must wonder whether it is the beginning of the end of the world, since this must have happened by the hand of God or by some miracle rather than any other way.” ~ Francesco Gonzaga, writing from Rome in the days after the fall.

When the French king Charles VIII marched his armies into Italy in the year 1494, few would have predicted the sad situation the peninsula would find itself in over the next fifty years. Warfare between the various states in Italy – Florence, Milan, and Venice, to name a few – had long been the norm, but now foreign powers were getting involved and turning Italy into a battleground. It would be the Italians that would suffer the most, with many of their cities being sacked and plundered. The list of these would include Capua in 1501; Padua in 1509; Vicenza in 1510; Udine in 1511; Ravenna, Brescia, and Prato all in 1512; and Genoa in 1522. However, none of these cities would experience the devastation that would take place in Rome in 1527.

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Italy would see a series of wars starting in 1494, all of which saw foreign states getting involved, especially France. Around them there would be ever-shifting alliances between the Italian states, with some supporting French invaders, others fighting against them, only for roles to be reversed in later wars. However, the rise of Charles V, the scion of the House of Hapsburg, would see the balance of power change throughout Europe.

Charles was the lucky inheritor of a series of dynastic successions and marriages, which would leave him the ruler of a vast, multinational empire. He would inherit the Spanish throne in 1516 and then become the Holy Roman Emperor three years later. He was also the ruler of Austria, Burgundy, the Netherlands, the Kingdom of Naples, Sicily, and Sardinia. The only European monarch that could come close to matching his power was Francis I, King of France (1515-47), and they would go to war. Their battleground for this was largely in Italy, culminating with the Battle of Pavia, fought on 24 February 1525. Here Francis would be defeated and captured.

This was followed by the usual peace treaty, which lasted just a few weeks before Francis repudiated it. Another war was then started, with a few new players. Many were now fearing the power Charles was accumulating, so France was able to bring together England, Venice, Milan, Florence, and the papacy into what was called the League of Cognac (officially formed on May 22, 1526). The most surprising of these new enemies of the Emperor was the papacy, now under Clement VII (1523-34), because Charles had supported him to gain the papal throne. The Emperor saw it as a betrayal.

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The armies

The early months of the war saw some fighting in northern Italy, with the cities of Lodi and Milan changing hands. However, most of this time was spent in preparation, with the various players trying to raise armies – a challenging task since governments needed lots of money to pay for these troops, and money was often the thing they had so little of. Still, there were forces being sent into the field, with the papacy and the Venetians joining their forces under the command of the Duke of Urbino.

Meanwhile, the Emperor had two armies sent to Italy. The first was commanded by Georg von Frundsberg, a veteran military commander who was an eager supporter of Charles – so much so that he raised with his own funds 12,000 men. These were German mercenaries – known as Landsknechte – who were motivated by more than just money. Many of them were Lutherans – supporters of Martin Luther’s Protestant Reformation, which had emerged within the last ten years. They were enraged by the perceived corruption of the Catholic Church, and they saw Pope Clement’s betrayal of the Emperor as a crime for which to execute him.

The second army were 5,000 Spanish soldiers – elite forces – who were under the command of Charles III, Duke of Bourbon. This Charles was another experienced military commander who had served France for nearly twenty years, but then had a falling out with King Francis. Once he was stripped of his lands and wealth, Charles would switch sides and fight for the Emperor.

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A 16th-century portrait of Charles III, Duke of Bourbon – Wikimedia Commons

As these armies formed up, events in Rome were showing how unprepared the papacy was in this war. The Emperor found himself an ally in Pompeo Colonna, an Italian nobleman who had nearly become pope himself in 1523 but was outmanoeuvred by Clement for the job. Even though Colonna was a cardinal and a prominent official in the papal government, he wanted to overthrow the pontiff. The war would be his opportunity.

On September 20, 1526, Colonna led a force of 3,800 troops to Rome. Meanwhile, Clement had no one left to fight for him – because he lacked money he had recently dismissed the mercenary troops in his service, and because he was taxing the Roman residents so much the people refused to fight for him. So Colonna and his men were basically allowed to march into the city and take control of the Vatican. However, Clement was able to save himself by escaping to Castel Sant’Angelo, a building that was originally created to be a mausoleum for a Roman emperor but had been converted into a fortress during the fourteenth century.

The next few months would see Pope Clement, embarrassed by the fact that Colonna had been able to enter Rome, take the fight to the cardinal. Colonna retreated to Naples, protected by the Emperor, where he continued to plot the pontiff’s downfall. More importantly, everyone realized that Rome was weak – if a small army could successfully get into the city, what could a larger imperial army do?

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The march

In February 1527 the two imperial armies would meet up in Italy and merge forces. However, they too had a major problem – no one was being paid. The Spanish, the Germans, and the Italian forces that had also joined were all expecting their wages, and when this did not come they began to mutiny. When Georg von Frundsberg suffered a stroke that would end the war for him, Charles of Bourbon took overall command of the army.

The army he had was at least 20,000 men, perhaps more than 30,000, but they had lost much of their discipline. Bourbon had to promise them a city that they could plunder – at first it would have been Florence, but the Duke of Urbino’s army got their first. It was then decided the army would make a fast march south to Rome.

As this was going on Pope Clement dithered, not knowing whether to fight or seek peace. He tried to bribe Bourbon’s army with 60,000 ducats in order to keep them away from Rome, but this was far too little to satiate the invaders. Once it was obvious that the attack would be coming, preparations to defend the city began. Renzo da Ceri, a veteran mercenary, was given the task of leading the defence, but he had little time and few troops. It was estimated that he could count on about 5,000 men to fight for him, some of which were Swiss mercenaries but others just local residents with little experience. Still, the Romans were confident they could stop an imperial attack – Clement and others were happy that their attackers included the heretical Lutherans, as this would be the perfect opportunity for God to strike down the enemies of the Church.

Portrait of Clement VII by Sebastiano del Piombo, in the year 1526.

Meanwhile Bourbon and the imperial army were rapidly marching south, sometimes travelling 50 kilometres a day. They got word from Pompeo Colonna that a secret plan was underway – that on May 9th a revolt would be started in Rome by his supporters, leading to them opening the gates of the city – the imperial army could enter without a fight. However, Bourbon knew that this would not work. His army would reach Rome before that, and they simply did not have any food or supplies left. Moreover, his troops had come all this way for plunder and booty, not to watch a coup. The commander had only one, very risky option – as soon as they reached Rome they would immediately attack the city. They would either break through the defences or die trying.

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By the night of May 5th, the imperial army had reached the outskirts of Rome. The Roman forces began to man the walls, while the Germans and Spaniards built scaling ladders. Bourbon spent some time reconnoitring the city walls, and then he rallied his men with promises of riches in booty, while warning that they would receive no mercy from the enemy if they lost.

The attack

The tense night was finally over, and at about four o’clock in the morning of May 6th, the battle for Rome began. As both sides fired their arquebuses at each other, the imperial forces made their way to the walls, with the Germans, Spanish, and Italians targeting specific locations. Some early reconnoitring had revealed weaknesses in the city walls – places where it was too low or had not been reinforced; in one spot there was a large gun-port being used as a window. The imperial troops were now trying to enter the city from these spots, while other units kept up the attack elsewhere to draw away the defenders.

The one big advantage the Romans had was that they possessed artillery and could fire over the walls into the imperial forces. However, a thick morning fog arose from the marshes outside Rome, which greatly obscured the area. Soon the Romans were firing blindly, just hoping to hit some of their targets.

The Romans were able to withstand the early attacks, and even managed to capture five imperial banners. However, as the Florentine writer Luigi Guicciardini explains, the enemy kept coming:

Since they were desperate, their natural ferocity came out more strongly and with greater violence. They attacked the same section of the wall once again in greater force, making a fierce effort to breach it; and the heavy fog continued in their favor. Despite the defense from within, they never retreated an inch or slowed down their furious attack. In grave danger now, the defenders repeatedly threw burning liquids over the wall and fired continually with artillery, arquebuses, and other firearms towards the noise made by the enemy. They fought like this on both sides for another hour without stopping. This was less difficult for the imperial troops, however, who were in large enough numbers so that they could spell each other. When one company of them had fired their arquebuses, or were fatigued enough to need a rest, another fresh squad took their places and continued the attack. Seeing the force and strength of the enemy continually increasing and neither hearing or seeing their furor abating anywhere (even though they had pushed them from the walls various times and even captured some of their ensigns), those within began to be fearful and doubtful of victory.

Among those trying to defend the city was a twenty-five-year-old goldsmith by the name of Benvenuto Cellini. He had come to Rome six years earlier and with his talent was able to get work making candlesticks, medallions, and other artworks for wealthy patrons. Like many others, he was pressed into military service, and he was part of a group of fifty men guarding a palace. When the fighting began, Cellini and his friend Alessandro del Bene headed to the walls to see what was happening. He writes:

When we reached the walls near the Campo Santo, we caught sight of that wonderful army, now doing its utmost to force an entrance. Just where we posted on the walls many young fellows were lying dead, killed by the enemy’s fire. The fight was at its hottest here, and the smoke as thick as you can imagine. Turning to Alessandro, I said, “Let us get home as quick as we can, for here it is hopeless. Look! They come up, and our men flee!” Then Alessandro, desperately frightened, replied, “Would to God we had never come!” And with that he turned in the maddest terror to escape. But I checked him, saying, “Since you have brought me here, I must play the man”; and aiming my arquebus where I saw the enemy was thickest, I fired at one I saw raised above the others. The cloud prevents me seeing whether he was on horseback or on foot.

Outside the walls the imperial forces continued to press on. Charles de Bourbon was in the thick of the fighting, holding up a ladder and encouraging his men, when a shot from an arquebus struck him in the groin, leaving him mortally wounded and bleeding out (Cellini believes that it was his shot, but one imagines that many Romans thought they were the one who took down the enemy commander). Guicciardini reports that Bourbon told his men, “Cover me up, soldiers, so that the enemy doesn’t learn of my death, and continue the battle courageously. My death cannot deprive you of so sure and hard-won a victory.” Others say that it took him half an hour to die, and that the commander was delirious and not making any sense.

An image from the work The Triumphs of Charles V, created in the mid-sixteenth century, depicting the death of the duke of Bourbon at the siege of Rome – British Library MS Additional 33733 fol. 7

Despite his calls for secrecy, everyone soon learned that Bourbon was dead. The imperial troops initially panicked, but the remaining commanders were eventually able to get them back in order, and, more importantly, motivate them even further by calling on them to avenge their fallen leader. Meanwhile, the undisciplined Roman defenders lost even more control, thinking that they had won the battle. Many of them abandoned their positions so they could run around the city shouting “Victory! Victory!”

If they had remained at their posts, then perhaps the imperial army could have been prevented from breaking into the city – though this may have been futile anyway, as the Spanish and German soldiers were too well-trained and too numerous to be denied. Sometime that morning – it could have been seven or ten o’clock – the attackers succeeded in entering the city. In fact, it seems that there were at least three separate places where the imperials were able to get in. Sigismondo della Torre writes that he saw the men smash open one gap:

It was made with a pick-axe in the wall by the gate into the Belvedere. This was the first entrance and it was so badly defended that, despite the fact that we could pass through only one at a time, the cowardly defenders fled and the victory was simple.

The chaos

The Spanish and the Germans were able to pour into the city, and the defence quickly collapsed. If one had hoped that Rome’s leadership could rally and fight back, that notion was dismissed by Renzo da Ceri, who shouted, “The enemy are within! Save yourselves, retreat to the strongest and safest places!”

Some Roman units did stay and fight on, but they were no match for the attackers. Sigismondo della Torre estimated that during this stage of the fighting, about 3,000 defenders were killed, compared to about 60 or 70 from the imperial side.

Because so few preparations had been made to defend Rome, the Germans and Spanish forces had few difficulties in marching into the city centre, known as the Borgo. For example, the bridges over the Tiber River could have been cut down, which could have delayed the attackers somewhat. Instead, the fleeing Roman soldiers and civilians tried to escape over them, which led to scenes of panic and disorder as they trampled each other, and many fell into the waters.

Meanwhile, in the Vatican, Pope Clement had spent the morning in prayer, only to learn that the enemy was in the city and making their way to him. The streets were filled with the noise of gunfire and shouts of “Spain! Spain! Kill! Kill!” By the time the pope and his entourage finally decided to flee, the attackers were at Saint Peter’s Basilica. The only remaining defenders were 189 Swiss Guards, and 147 were ordered to make a final stand on the steps of the basilica, while the other forty-two would escort the Pope to Castel Sant’Angelo. Those that remained behind were all killed.

Even with their sacrifice, the escape of the Pope was just barely achieved. Since enemy soldiers were firing at Clement, his friend and personal physician Paolo Giovio covered the Pope’s white vestments with his own scarlet cloak to better conceal him. They did make it to the safety of Castel Sant’Angelo, but as one observer noted, “so narrow was the pope’s escape that had he tarried for three creeds more he would have been taken prisoner within his own palace.”

Castel Sant’Angelo was now the only place left in Rome that could be defended, and thousands rushed there. Of course, it was not prepared either, so at the last minute they rushed to get food from nearby shops. Three thousand managed to get in, including Benvenuto Cellini, before someone decided to drop the portcullis, “even though it slid down and was secured only with great difficulty because it had not been inspected earlier and cleaned of rust.”

Even those who got inside were not safe, with many “of no military use” being thrown out. Meanwhile, a few cardinals who were still outside were raised by ropes into the fortress. As for the thousands of Romans who could not get in, they looked for palaces and anywhere else they might think to find safety. A Frenchman named Grolier was able to get into the house of a Spanish bishop, and from there he watched the sack:

Everywhere cries, the clash of arms and the shrieks of women and children, the crackling of fire and the crash of falling roofs. We were numb with fear and held our ears, as if we alone were preserved by fate to look on the ruin of our country.

The stories that emerged from the first few hours are truly horrific – and there are quite a lot of them. The imperial troops were now spreading throughout the city, and in a frenzy continued to attack, murder, and rape with no control. Everyone was targeted. At the convent of Santa Rufina, the soldiers, who believed the nuns would be easy prey, were shocked to see the women defend themselves, first by dumping boiling water and oil from windows, and then by wielding cleavers, spits, and skewers in hand-to-hand combat. Those nuns were finally overwhelmed and killed by the soldiers, but they did stop the attackers long enough to allow the nuns from the nearby Santa Cosimata convent to escape.

One of the very few safe places in Rome was the palace occupied by Isabella d’Este, the Marchioness of Mantua and a powerful figure in Italian politics. She had extensive family connections on both sides of the conflict, including a son who was serving in the imperial army. When the city fell, troops were sent to her palace with specific orders that it be protected. Isabella then opened her doors to the Roman people, allowing 1200 women and 1000 men to take shelter there in safety.

The first few hours after the fall saw the few remaining pockets of resistance destroyed. The one exception was Castel Sant’Angelo, which still had its cannons and was using them to fire at the imperial troops. Benvenuto Cellini writes of how he got involved in the fighting again:

I took up my post near some big guns, which were under the charge of a bombardier called Giuliano the Florentine. This Giuliano, hanging over the battlements of the castle, saw his poor house being sacked and his wife and children outraged; so, lest he should massacre his own kith and kin, he did not dare discharge his guns, but threw his fuse upon the ground, and wailed, aloud, and tore his face. And other bombardiers were doing the same. Therefore I seized one of the fuses, and, with the help of some who were calmer in their minds, pointed some swivels and falconets where I saw a chance, slaughtering therewith a great many of the enemy. But for this, those who came into Rome that morning, marching straight to the castle, might have made an easy entry, for the artillery were doing nothing to stop them. I kept up the fire, for which several cardinals and noblemen blessed me, giving me the greatest encouragement.

Since the range of the guns could reach a large part of the city, this meant the attackers were still under threat, and the safer thing to do was to continue attacking homes and buildings rather than be out in the open. As the hours passed, the imperial troops began to shift their attention from fighting to securing plunder. Luigi Guicciardini sets the scene:

When they had realized that all the defenders had fled and that they were truly in control of the city, the Spanish troops began to capture houses (along with everyone and everything that was in them) and to take prisoners. Those that they came upon as they fled in confusion through the streets, they also took captive rather than killing them. The Germans, however, were obeying the articles of war and cutting to pieces anyone they came upon (an act that is very necessary in the first hours of victory). When they saw how the Spanish were acting, the Germans began to fear betrayal. They were quickly persuaded, however, by the Spanish captains that since the city was abandoned by its defenders, and that great riches must have been hidden in it, it would be a grave mistake not to keep alive anyone who might be able to show them where treasures were hidden or give them the names of people outside Rome who would pay them ransom.

A macabre carnival

Medieval Rome had a long tradition of being looted and plundered, but not necessarily by armies. It was done by those living there and took place during times of peace. Joelle Rollo-Koster has explored this fascinating aspect of history, when the Eternal City experienced its own unique form of popular culture. This mostly happened when a pope died and there was a period of time in which the Catholic Church would try to select a new pontiff.

There are accounts of this happening again and again in the Middle Ages – Rome would be abuzz as cardinals sequestered themselves and decided who would be selected to the seat of St Peter. When news or even rumours emerged that someone had been chosen, it could lead to the people attacking and plundering that person’s home. For example, in 1406 Angelo Corraro was chosen to be Pope Gregory XII. An eyewitness described what happened next:

What was formerly the private dwelling of the newly elect is openly and publicly sacked, and everything that is stolen and carried off is considered holy. Not only do the people carry off the furnishings, but also the tiles, the inner walls, the stones, even the outside walls, and they fight over all of these because they are holy.

It was a kind of symbolic stripping of wealth from the one who was now becoming the pope, becoming the servant of God. The Church condemned these practices, but little could be done to stop them. Rollo-Koster noted that while this had a certain carnivalesque aspect to it, these episodes were most pronounced during times of political uncertainty, when the people were dissatisfied with the ecclesiastical leadership. She also found that the events of the 1527 Sack of Rome had much in common with earlier lootings: the papacy had been overthrown, its leadership was again isolated (this time in Castel Sant’Angelo), and there was the same atmosphere of dissatisfaction – but in this case coming from the German Landsknechte, who had only in recent years turned away from Catholicism and embraced Lutheranism. In this way, the people sacking Rome now were emulating centuries of tradition, but on a far larger, and more horrific, scale.

The Sack of Rome from a painting by Pieter Brueghel the Elder – Wellcome Images

Even close to five hundred years later, it is difficult to read, let alone write, about the terrible events that were taking place in Rome in the first few days after the fall of the city. Many of the episodes are bizarre and terrible, as what you see is the inflicting of suffering in the name of mockery. There was the priest who was taken to a church to give holy sacraments to a mule dressed up in religious clothing – he refused and was murdered. There was a cardinal who had been captured and was being paraded around the streets of Rome in a coffin, while his captors performed a mock eulogy. There were soldiers who made people climb into cesspits and feel through the excrement for anything of value that might have been lost or hidden there.

Luigi Guicciardini describes the Germans as if they were at some kind of great party:

The Germans… now wore silks and brocades; huge gold chains hung across their chests and shoulders; and their arms were covered with bracelets inset with jewels of enormous value. Dressed up like mock popes and cardinals, they went for pleasure rides through Rome on beautiful hackneys and mules. Their wives and concubines, proud and richly dressed, accompanied them. The women’s heads, necks, and breasts were covered with the largest pearls and the most perfect jewels pried from pontifical miters and sacred reliquaries. Their pages and servants were lustily and militarily dressed with various gashes and gores in their clothes. They had helmets of heavy gold and the barrels of their arquebuses were made of solid gold stripped from the altars and holy places of Rome.

While Guicciardini and others condemn the Germans for their sacrilege, they found that the Spaniards and Italians within the imperial army were more interested in plunder and money, and were more savage in their efforts to get it. Everyone that could be caught – men, women, even children as young as three years old – had to pay a ransom for their freedom.

Again Guicciardini provides some of the details:

Indeed their hopes of becoming rich made them torture such people more violently than others. Many were suspended by their arms for hours at a time; others were led around by ropes tied to their testicles. Many were suspended by one foot above the streets or over the water, with the threat that the cord suspending them would be cut. Many were beaten and wounded severely. Many were branded with hot irons in various parts of their bodies. Some endured extreme thirst; others were prevented from sleeping. A very cruel and effective torture was to pull out their back teeth. Some were made to eat their own ears, or nose, or testicles roasted; and others were subjected to bizarre and unheard-of torments that affect me too strongly even to think of them, let alone to describe them in detail.

There were some people who tricked the soldiers into thinking they were just servants, and got away with paying a small ransom; others who paid would find themselves captured by different men and forced to pay again. There were some who could not take the torture and found a way to end their suffering, such as jumping out of a window or plunging an unguarded dagger into their heart.

The viciousness and desire for wealth would soon lead the imperial troops to turn on one another. Guicciardini tells one such story:

About ten Spaniards happened to find themselves together inside a shop full of merchandise, and they began to rummage through it. One of them came upon a huge number of worthless metal slugs or counters in a sack, and blinded by greed and fury, imagined they were gold ducats. He let the rest of them know what he had found, and they quickly locked themselves inside the shop. Since they didn’t want to share the treasure, which they imagined they had found, with others, they made a determined effort to keep everyone else out of the shop. A company of Germans happened along and seeing such care being taken by those within to prevent anyone from entering, they concluded that the cause was the abundance of booty (which it was). Rather than waste time, they set fire to the shop, declaring it was unfair that the lancers should win this war, while the Spanish alone enjoyed the spoils. And before they left they had burned the shop with just about everyone and everything in it – a fitting punishment for the insatiable greed of the Spanish, but one that exemplifies the fury of the Germans as well.

No saviours

Could there be a rescue of Rome? Those hopes depended on the joint Venetian-Papal force commanded by the Duke of Urbino. They had been slowly following the imperial force as it headed south. On May 8th a messenger arrived from Rome with a letter pleading for help:

Illustrious generals of the League. Your Excellencies do not have a moment to lose, for as you will perceive from this letter the enemy have taken the Borgo by assault. Monseigneur Bourbon has been killed by a shot from an arquebus, and a man has just arrived here who was present at the removal of his body. More than 3,000 of the enemy have fallen: Your Excellencies must make haste since the enemy are in the greatest confusion. Quick. Quick, without loss of time.

While a more daring military commander might have ordered a rapid march to Rome to try to take back the city, the Duke of Urbino decided the situation was hopeless. “If the Borgo is taken,” he replied, “then is Rome in an evil case, even if the city holds out until our arrival!”

The troops under his command would spend the next few days attacking some of the Duke’s personal enemies before slowly heading south. Pressure from his own men led the Duke to authorize two small groups to try to go to Rome, but these soon failed – one of them because their commander had injured himself falling from his horse. By May 22nd the Venetian-Papal army had reached Isola Farnese, about twenty kilometres away from Rome, but the Duke had no intention of going any further. He declared that he would not attack the city without another thirty thousand men plus artillery. On June 1st the Duke ordered a retreat northwards.

Francesco Guicciardini was furious at this pathetic attempt. He would let his feelings be known in a letter:

I need not say whose the fault is… I am no general and do not understand the art of war, but I may tell you what all the world is saying: if, when the news of the capture of Rome had reached us, we had pressed on to the relief of the Castello, we should have released the pope and his cardinals and might have crushed the enemy and saved the unhappy city. But all the world knows what our haste has been. You would really think that our object was not the deliverance of this unhappy pope, on whom we all depend, or the rescue of this great city in its death agony, but some trifling matter.

A city destroyed

On May 10th Pompeo Colonna arrived in Rome with another 8,000 soldiers. While at first this just added to the number of plunderers, the rebel cardinal was soon able to bring some sense of order into the city. He opened his own palace to allow people shelter, and began negotiations with Pope Clement. Orders were sent to stop the looting and killing, and very gradually the soldiers started to follow them.

By now word of the sack was spreading throughout Italy, and eventually across Europe. We have many letters from those who survived – the Venetian diarist Marino Sanuto recorded forty-two messages from thirteen individuals. For example, the servant of one ambassador wrote:

The gates of Rome stand open, unguarded, and everyone is free to come and go as they please, since the troops have gathered in the Borgo, on the other side of the Tiber, and fortified themselves and keep there all the treasure and the plunder they have gathered. The roads are all impassable, and at every turn there are people waiting to plunder and to take prisoner anyone they can who is fleeing with plunder from the city of Rome.

Meanwhile, a Spanish eyewitness recorded:

The rich shops of the merchants are horses’ stables; the most splendid palaces have been devastated, many houses burned down, the doors and windows broken down and carried away; the streets have been turned into rubbish heaps, the stench of corpses is frightful. Humans and animals are given the same burial; in the churches I have seen human remains being eaten by dogs.

Many of the letters that emerged in the days following the fall of Rome dealt with the demands from Imperial troops for ransoms. Those who had been captured needed their relatives and friends to send them money. For example, a Venetian named Giovan Barozzi sent this message to his brother on May 12th:

I am a prisoner of the Spaniards. They have fixed my ransom at 1000 ducats on the pretext that I am an official. They have, besides, tortured me twice, and finished by lighting a fire under the soles of my feet. For six days I had only a little bread and water. Dear brother, do not let me perish thus miserably. Get the ransom money together by begging. For God’s sake do not abandon me. If I do not pay the ransom, now amounting to 140 ducats, in twenty-six days they will hack me to pieces. For the love of God and of the Blessed Virgin help me. All the Romans are prisoners, and if a man does not pay his ransom he is killed. The sack of Genoa and of Rhodes was child’s play to this. Help me, dear Antonio; help me for God’s sake, and that as quickly as possible.

The following days would see two new miseries unleashed on the city – famine and plague. Food had become scarce, while disease from decomposing bodies would spread. This would only add to the death toll, with many of the attackers among the victims. It is impossible to know how many people died during this period, but one Spaniard claimed that he had buried 10,000 corpses and had thrown another 2,000 into the Tiber River.

Once it became clear that no army was coming to Rome’s rescue, Pope Clement VII formally surrendered on June 7th. The pope was kept confined in Castel Sant’Angelo for the next several months. He made promises, including payment of a ransom of 400,000 ducats for his release, which were never kept, but by December some imperial officers arranged for his escape.

A miniature of a scene from the Triumphs of Emperor Charles V: Clement VII imprisoned in Castel Sant’Angelo negotiating for his release – British Library MS Additional 33733 fol. 8

The imperial army finally began marching out of Rome on February 15, 1528. The shell of the city, which was before home to over 55,000 residents, now had just 10,000 people left. Some believed that it would take 200 years before Rome would recover.

Who was blamed for the Sack of Rome? The writers and chroniclers could pick from many people – Charles V for launching the campaign into Italy, Clement for his weak leadership in defending the city, the Italian people for not unifying against foreign attackers. One Spanish commentator said this was God’s justice for “In Rome all sins are openly committed – sodomy, simony, idolatry, hypocrisy, fraud.” It is perhaps the only way that those who plundered and murdered could justify their actions – by telling themselves that the victims deserved it.

Others would pour out their grief in words, and we have many accounts of reactions within Italy. The writer Pietro Aretino penned several works about the Sack of Rome, and at the beginning of a poem he likens its destruction to that of a person:

On the sixth of May the sole Mistress
and pillar of this great world
violated, begging and on her knees,
bloodstained, cried for others and herself.

Was anything really accomplished by the Sack of Rome? In one sense, not really. The War of the League of Cognac would continue until 1530, and then France and the Empire would fight three more wars in Italy before their dispute would be settled. In other ways it did matter. Pope Clement did survive, but he and his immediate successors were now under the control of Charles V, and they would no longer serve as the key players in ecclesiastical and secular affairs. More importantly, any hope of a reconciliation between the Catholic Church and the Lutherans was gone. In this way the Sack of Rome marked the beginning of a new era of religious violence and warfare between Protestants and Catholics, one that would last for nearly three hundred years.

Further Readings:

The Sack of Rome by Luigi Guicciardini, translated by James H. McGregor (Italica Press, 1993) – Luigi Guicciardini’s Historia del sacco di Rome is the most thorough and best-documented account of the events of 1527. It was written in the weeks and months following the attack, by a man who, although he was not an eyewitness, had excellent access to information and to many of the main players in this drama.

The Sack of Rome, by Judith Hook (Palgrave Macmillan, 2003)

Rome: A History in Seven Sackings, by Matthew Kneale (Simon & Schuster, 2017)

The Italian Wars 1494–1559: War, State and Society in Early Modern Europe, by Michael Mallett and Christine Shaw (Longman, 2012)

The Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini, translated by Anne MacDonell (Alfred A. Knopf, 2010)

Remembering the Renaissance: Humanist Narratives of the Sack of Rome, by Kenneth Gouwens (Brill, 1998)

Rollo-Koster, Joelle, “The Politics of Transition: Pillaging and the 1527 Sack of Rome,” in Aspects of Violence in Renaissance Europe, ed. Jonathan D. Davies (Ashgate, 2013), 41-60.

This article was first published in Medieval Warfare magazine, issue IX:3 – you can buy that issue here. You can also get new issues of the magazine, now called Medieval World, through our Patreon – click here to learn more.

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