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Saturday, 6 May 2017

The Sack of Rome

Mutinous army of Holy Roman Empire laid waste to city


Imperial forces attack Rome
Imperial forces attack Rome
An army loyal to the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, laid siege to the city of Rome on this day in 1527, at the start of the Sack of Rome, a significant event in the conflict between Charles and the so-called League of Cognac that had profound implications for Rome’s wealth and power.

Rome at the time was part of the Papal States, who at the behest of Pope Clement VII had joined the League of Cognac – an alliance that included France, Milan, Florence and Venice – in an effort to stop the advance of the Empire, which had its centre of power in the Kingdom of Germany, into the Italian peninsula.

After the Imperial Army had defeated the French at Pavia in the Italian War of 1521-26, it would have been a logical step for Charles to march on Rome but the attack is said to have come about not through any planned strategy but after a mutiny among his troops, many of whom were hired mercenaries, after it became clear there were insufficient funds available to pay them.

Pope Clement VII, depicted by Sebastiano del Piombo in 1531
Pope Clement VII, depicted by Sebastiano
del Piombo in 1531
Aware of the rich treasures they could seize if they stormed Rome and overthrew Clement VII, 34,000 Imperial troops, an army made up of Germans, Spaniards and Italians, demanded that their commander, Charles III, Duke of Bourbon, led them towards Rome.

They left Arezzo in Tuscany on April 20 and, with the army of Florence distracted by an uprising against the Medici, proceeded without too much resistance to the walls of Rome.

The walls were substantial physically but poorly defended. Under the command of Francesco Guicciardini, the city’s garrison numbered only 8,000 men, including the 2,000-strong Swiss Guard.

They had the advantage of artillery around the perimeter of the city but though the Duke of Bourbon was himself shot dead - legend has it by the sculptor Benvenuto Cellini - the ferocity of the Imperial soldiers overwhelmed the defending army, which crumbled rapidly. The invaders swept into the city, killing almost everyone they encountered, armed or otherwise. By sunset, Rome was under their control.

The Pope’s personal protection amounted to 189 of the Swiss Guard, who fought bravely on the steps of St. Peter’s Basilica. All but 42 were killed but they created enough delay to allow Clement VII to escape along a tunnel, the Passetto di Borgo, into the fortress of Castel Sant’Angelo.

There he was besieged as the pillage of the city began. The Protestant Landsknecht – the 14,000 strong German core of the Imperial troops – are said to have harboured a particular hatred for Catholic Rome and its Renaissance treasures. Churches and monasteries, as well as the palaces of prelates and cardinals, were looted and destroyed. The rampaging soldiers would spare lives and properties only in return for ransom payments.

Clement VII escaped to Castel Sant'Angelo along a secret passage while the Swiss Guard fought on the steps of St Peter's
Clement VII escaped to Castel Sant'Angelo along a secret
passage while the Swiss Guard fought on the steps of St Peter's
Meanwhile, on May 8, Cardinal Pompeo Colonna, a personal enemy of Clement VII, entered the city, accompanied by peasants seeking to avenge the devastation to their land by Papal armies.

Clement surrendered in June, agreeing to pay a huge ransom and hand over substantial territory to Charles V, who was said to be shocked by the brutal conduct of his troops but happily accept the advantage he had gained.

The defeat effectively marked the end of the Roman Renaissance, damaging the papacy's prestige.  An estimated 6,000 to 12,000 people were murdered and the population of Rome declined in the years following from 55,000 to 10,000.

The pillaging lasted nine months, ending when there was no one left to ransom and food supplies ran out.  Ironically, many Imperial soldiers themselves died from from diseases caused by the large number of unburied bodies in the city.

Today, in commemoration of the Sack and of the Swiss Guard's bravery in protecting Clement VII, May 6 is the designated day each year for new recruits to the Swiss Guard to be sworn in.

The view across Rome from the Gianicolo hill
The view across Rome from the Gianicolo hill
Travel tip:

The Gianicolo – or Janiculum – is one of the hills outside the walls of ancient Rome from which the 1527 attack was launched. Today it provides one of the best locations to enjoy a scenic view of the centre of the city and its domes and bell towers. The Gianicolo itself is the home of the church of San Pietro in Montorio, built on what was once thought to be the site of St Peter's crucifixion. A small shrine, the Tempietto, designed by Donato Bramante, marks the supposed site of Peter's death. The hill is also the location of The American University of Rome, Pontifical Urban University, and Pontifical North American College. Other notable buildings include the Palazzo Montorio, residence of the Ambassadors of Spain, and the Villa Lante al Gianicolo, designed in 1520 by the Mannerist painter and architect Giulio Romano.

The swearing-in ceremony for the papal Swiss Guard takes place in the courtyard of San Damaso on May 6
The swearing-in ceremony for the papal Swiss Guard
takes place in the courtyard of San Damaso on May 6
Travel tip:

The protection provided to the pope by the Swiss Guard goes back to a 15th century alliance between Pope Sixtus IV and the Swiss Confederacy, which in turn resulted in the Swiss supplying a contingent of 200 mercenaries to be based permanently at the Vatican at the request of  PopeJulius II. The defence of the pontiff in 1527 remains their most significant military action. The loss of the 147 guards killed on the steps of St Peter’s is marked each year with a ceremony in the San Damaso courtyard inside the Apostolic Palace, open to members of the public, at which the year’s input of new recruits to the Guard are sworn in.


More reading:


Francesco Guicciardini - statesman, military leader, historian

How Rome was founded

Preacher Girolamo Savonarola's 'war' on the Renaissance


Also on this day:


1895: The birth of silent movie star Rudolph Valentino





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