The world is all a carcass and vanity,
The shadow of a shadow, a play
While the Eternal City has been sacked by numerous invaders, it is perhaps hard to believe that the last sacking of Rome occurred less than 500 years ago, and at the hands of Christian forces, of the Holy Roman Emperor.
In 1523, two years after the death of Pope Leo X (Giovanni de' Medici) , another Medici would ascend the papal throne. But first there was the brief interregnum of the Dutchman, Adrian of Utrecht. Adrian had been tutor to Charles V during the emperor’s tender years, and the grown-up Charles now used his sizeable leverage in the Conclave of Cardinals to have his old mentor elected pope.
Adrian knew little of the ways of Rome, was found to be rather less than a Renaissance Man, and early in his papacy was judged entirely unsuitable by a number of his peers, ‘...a barbarian who had been horrified at the pagan splendours of the Vatican when he at length arrived there. Barely able to speak Latin, Adrian seemed to believe that the prime duty of the supreme pontiff was to give spiritual guidance and set a Christian example to Christians.’1
This would not do, not for the bon-vivants of Rome. Like Leo before him, Adrian too misread the growing crisis in Germany with the followers of Luther, and suffered setbacks in the ongoing struggle with the Turks, the most serious being the loss of the strategic island of Rhodes in 1522. But more than anything else it was Adrian’s style which rankled with the Roman elite, and following his timely death in 1523, many among the ruling clans of Rome looked forward to a resumption of business as usual. After all, another Medici candidate was present before the cardinals in the person of Giulio de’ Medici, cousin of Leo X, son of Giuliano, and nephew of Lorenzo the Magnificent.
Giulio’s accession was not to be in any way as simple as that, however. Allied with the Emperor, he faced the pro-French faction in the conclave, and there were others with old family axes to grind against the Medici. The election dragged on for weeks, and the cardinals were bricked in and put on meagre rations to force a decision. Giulio’s ultimate victory in mid November was seen as a win for the Emperor and Spain over the French, and laid the groundwork for new intrigues which would bedevil Giulio for much of his pontificate.
He took the name Clement VII, and although as a cardinal he had served with some distinction as secretary of state under Leo, virtually from the beginning he was regarded as a well-intentioned but wavering and indecisive pope. The Venetian ambassador at the Vatican at the time, Marco Foscari, sketched him in these terms:
‘The Pope is forty-eight years old and is a sensible man but slow in decision, which explains his irresolution in action. He talks well, he sees everything, but is very timid... He withdraws no benefices and does not give them in simony. He gives away nothing, nor does he bestow the property of others. But he is considered avaricious... people grumble in Rome. He gives largely in alms, but is nevertheless not liked. He is very abstemious, and is a stranger to all luxury. He will not listen to jesters or musicians and never indulges in the chase or any other amusement... His entire pleasure consists in talking to engineers about waterworks.’2
Perhaps it was a hangover from the glory days of Leo, or that simply too much was expected of another Medici. ‘With all his good qualities, Clement was weak, hesitant, and always a little late; and he tried to play the old Italian political game in circumstances which no longer permitted it.’ In the process, Clement ‘made certain of the Protestant schism, and lost England to Rome’.3
This latter observation concerns his refusal to annul the marriage of England’s Henry VIII to Catherine of Aragon, a matter over which, struggling with the advice of conflicting advisors, he dithered at length. But there was another catastrophe to befall the Church in the time of Clement: the sack of Rome. It may be hard for some to comprehend it now, but less than five centuries ago, Rome and the Vatican, which had survived the depredations of a thousand years of Huns, Vandals, Goths, Visigoths and Saracens, was once again overrun by hostile forces, its people butchered, raped and tortured and its treasures carted off as booty. The difference was this time the invaders could not be characterised as pagan hordes, but were themselves Christians. How that disaster came to pass is the second instalment of the tragic epic of the Emperor, the King, and the Pope.
In late 1524 the French army of Francois I was on the march once more in Italy, intent again upon taking Milan and moving on south to Naples, both with titles to which he considered he had a legal right. Milan fell readily enough, the forces of Emperor Charles V ejected and the French in control. Sensing which way the wind was blowing, Clement threw the support of Rome behind Francois, on the undertaking that the French would leave the Papal States alone on their march south to Naples.
But Clement had backed the wrong horse. Rather than resting and re-supplying his forces, emboldened with a first taste of victory Francois pressed his men on, and laid siege to the imperial stronghold of Pavia, some thirty or so kilometres south of Milan. A few weeks after the French took Milan, early on the morning of 24 February 1525, the mightiest armies of Christendom clashed head-on outside the city walls of Pavia, Christian cutting down Christian. In an unremittingly brutal clash of cannon and arquebus, sword and pike, entire French units were outmanoeuvred, surrounded and hacked down to a man by the combined Spanish-German army of the Habsburg Emperor. In spite of their numerical superiority, the forces of Francois were routed, with a number of French nobles falling at the head of their troops. The king himself, his horse shot from beneath him, kept fighting on foot until he was surrounded and taken prisoner on the field sodden with the blood of his men. Francois was conveyed back to Madrid and kept prisoner at Charles’s pleasure. From there he wrote to his mother Louise, “all is lost to me save honour and life, which is safe”.
The other loser on that morning in Pavia was a man safely far to the south of the clashing swords, Clement. For the time being, however, Charles resisted any urge to move south upon Rome and his former ally, but opted to reach terms with Clement in a new treaty. After a year of captivity, Francois secured his release bypledging his solemn word to Charles that he would desist from his territorial ambitions.4
He never had the slightest intention of doing so. Upon his return to Paris, Francois and Clement entered into yet another treaty, the French king blessed with the Pope’s absolution for breaking the vow he had given to Charles. Thus the so-called Holy League of Cognac was formed, with the Pope, France, Venice, Milan and Florence all lined up against the Habsburg emperor: a formidable alliance against a formidable foe.
But Charles faced other, even potentially bigger problems. That same year, 1526, he had to respond to a threat from the east, the Turkish forces of Sulaiman the Magnificent, and for a time it appeared the squabbling between Christian elements would be a serendipitous sideshow to aid the overthrow of Christendom by the Ottoman Muslims. The Christian world received a reprieve, however, when Sulaiman found the supply lines of his advancing troops were overstretched, and was forced to postpone the next critical phase of his western campaign. In doing so, he freed Charles to deal afresh with the French and their allies in Italy.
Pope Clement had continued to dither over which side to take, leading on Francois against Charles and then vice versa, in a bizarre menage a trois which finally cracked the patience of the Emperor. During the winter of 1526 a powerful German force crossed the Alps under the command of seasoned campaigner George Frundsberg, and efforts by Francois failed to halt their advance into Italy. In February 1527, just two years after the Battle of Pavia, another strong Imperial force was assembled in northern Italy, when Frundsberg’s army linked up with a Spanish force under the command of the French turncoat, the Duke of Bourbon. They marched on Rome.
Francois promised Clement more troops: they never came. Clement attempted to muster what Italian forces he could against the approaching horde, but gathered scant support. In a last desperate act he tried to bribe the approaching Spanish-German army, but with its soldiers now straining at the leash at the prospect of the legendary riches awaiting them in Rome, Clement’s offer was met with contempt. At the last, Clement prayed that the ineffable power of his office, as the representative of God on earth and spiritual head of all Christendom, might still deliver him and Rome from their fate, but his prayers too went unheard.
On the spring morning of 6 May 1527, the Eternal City came under assault from its attackers. Unfortunately for the Romans sheltering in their homes from the cannon fire, Frundsberg had recently died from a stroke, and to make matters worse, the Duke of Bourbon lay mortally wounded by a Roman sniper. By the time the pitiable defence was thrust aside, a horde of thousands of underpaid Germans and Spaniards was on the loose within the walls of Rome, and there was no-one of any real authority remaining at their head to prevent the orgy of death and pillage that followed.
The Pope was still on his knees praying as the imperial forces ‘stormed the city and sacked it amid such scenes of violence, murder, rape, looting and destruction that the Sacco di Roma has remained in the European memory even after many still more frightful events. The pope fled to the castle of San Angelo and later to Orvieto... As for the city, the sack was rightly seen at the time as the end of a great age. The Rome of the Renaissance was no more.’5
Drunken soldiers menaced the streets, nuns were raped and priests murdered, palaces and churches pillaged and burned by the hundreds, nobles tortured for ransom and hacked to death if they could not pay. Smoke curled from burnt out buildings and scavenging dogs gnawed at the rotting limbs of the unburied dead. As the days and terrible nights passed, the city was given over to a ghastly carnival of sexual violation and unremitting brutality, anarchy befitting depiction by Bruehgel or Bosch.
‘A mob of soldiers dressed an ass in bishop’s vestments and demanded that a priest should offer it the Host. The man, in last defence of his office, swallowed the wafer himself and was murdered - slowly. Those nuns who were killed after being raped were fortunate, for their sisters were dragged around like animals, to be auctioned off to man after man before finding the relief of death. Luther was proclaimed pope in a mock ceremony. The venerable relics of Rome, the tombs of the popes, were despoiled.’6
It was a hammer blow to the Church of Rome delivered by Spanish and German Christians who considered themselves facing a papal anti-Christ, and who used the unfinished Saint Peter’s basilica as their stables. Although Charles was said to have been horrified at news of the acts perpetrated by his own men, they would nonetheless occupy Rome for the remainder of that terrible year, and after they finally departed it would take Rome decades to begin to recover. The very spirit of Rome had been shattered: ‘After 1527 there was a failure of confidence; and no wonder.’7
1. Chamberlin, R., The Bad Popes, p255: Sutton Publishing, Phoenix Mill, 2003
2. Alberi, E., Le Relazioni degli Ambasciatori Veneti al Senato durante il secolo decimosesto, p126, quoted in Chamberlin, R., op cit, p260
3. Elton, G.R., Reformation Europe, p80: Collins, London, 1967
4. Seward, D., Prince of the Renaissance: The Life of Francois I, p151. Francois bartered the freedom of his own sons as hostages in exchange for his release, and they would remain in captivity for four years, until the Treaty of Cambrai in 1529, when their freedom was bought with four and a half tons of gold. Francois threw fistfuls more of it into the streets after signing the treaty and securing the release of his sons, much to the delight of the citizens of Cambrai. Sphere Books, London, 1974
5. ibid, p83
6. Chamberlin, R., op cit, p278
7. Clark. K. Civilisation, p125: Penguin Books, London, 1987
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