Rome, Sack of

views updated Jun 27 2018


ROME, SACK OF. The conquest of Rome on 6 May 1527 by troops of the Holy Roman emperor Charles V (ruled 15191556) has traditionally been viewed as a turning point in the history of papal Rome and in Renaissance culture. While recent research has highlighted economic, political, and social continuities between pre- and post-sack Rome, a consensus remains that the event, which occurred during the Italian Wars of 14941559, had cultural repercussions of lasting significance.

The conquest itself was brief. Around dawn on 6 May 1527, an imperial army composed primarily of Spanish and German troops besieged the poorly defended city. Their commander, Charles de Bourbon-Montpensier (14901527), died in the initial assault, but by sunset virtually all of Rome had fallen to his men. His successor, Philibert of Orange-Châlon (15021530), could not control the victorious troops, who proceeded to spend months desecrating sacred objects, ransacking the city, and torturing its citizens in order to extract ransoms. Pope Clement VII (Giulio de' Medici; reigned 15231534), who had taken refuge in the Castel Sant'Angelo, formally capitulated on 5 June, and remained a captive there until early December. Only in February 1528 did the occupying army leave Rome.

The sack resulted most immediately from Clement VII's decision to join with Florence, France, Milan, and Venice in the League of Cognac (22 May 1526), an alliance formed to limit Charles V's power on the Italian peninsula. As Bourbon-Montpensier's army advanced southward, the particular goals of the Venetians and the French had come to outweigh the interests they shared with the papacy. In March 1527, the pope had agreed to a truce with Charles de Lannoy, the imperial viceroy of Naples, but Bourbon-Montpensier and his men had refused to honor it. Historians disagree about whether or not Charles V authorized the attack on Rome; certainly he abhorred the atrocities that followed. Meanwhile, Clement discovered that he could not count on the league's armies either to come to his rescue or to mount a coherent counteroffensive. Having been effectively abandoned, in 1529 the pope made peace with Charles V, whom he crowned as Holy Roman emperor in Bologna in February 1530. Thus, he adjusted with some success to the emperor's now decisive hegemony on the peninsula.

The cultural impact of the sack was felt acutely throughout Europe. Many artists and architects, including Rosso Fiorentino (Giovanni Battista di Jacopo, 14941540) and Sebastiano Serlio (14751554), sought safety and patronage elsewhere, and in so doing promoted the diffusion of High Renaissance Roman culture. In humanists' rhetoric, claims that the papacy would soon initiate a golden age perforce gave way to more modest expectations. Religious interpretations of the event varied, but there was a widespread consensusshared even by Pope Clement himselfthat moral failings of the clergy were in part to blame for the catastrophe. His successor, Paul III (reigned 15341549), did much to restore the papacy's prestige, political influence, and cultural centrality, but any optimism was tempered by a new awareness of political contingency and by nostalgia for an idealized age of cultural efflorescence that was widely perceived to have already passed.

See also Charles V (Holy Roman Empire) ; Italian Wars (14941559) .


Primary Sources

Guicciardini, Francesco. The History of Italy. Translated and edited by Sidney Alexander. New York, 1969. Translation of La storia d'Italia, Book 18, first printed in 1564, includes an account of the sack.

Guicciardini, Luigi. The Sack of Rome. Translated and edited by James H. McGregor. New York, 1993. Translation of Historia del sacco di Roma, Paris, 1664. Adequate English rendition marred by a misleading critical apparatus.

Secondary Sources

Chastel, André. The Sack of Rome, 1527. Translated from the French by Beth Archer. Princeton, 1983.

Gattoni, Maurizio. Clemente VII e la geopolitica dello Stato Pontificio. Vatican City, 2002.

Hook, Judith. The Sack of Rome, 1527. London, 1972.

Kenneth Gouwens

Sack of Rome

views updated Jun 08 2018

Sack of Rome

An assault on the city of Rome that occurred on May 6, 1527, by the armies of Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor. The popes and emperors had been contending for power in the Italian peninsula for centuries, with the other major powers of the continent taking sides in the conflict to advance their own interests. In 1494, France entered the fray by invading northern Italy, making alliances with several Italian cities and briefly occupying the city of Naples. By the early sixteenth century the advantage in this conflict had shifted to the Holy Roman Empire; to offset the imperial armies Pope Clement VII had allied with France in the League of Cognac that also included Milan, Venice, and Florence. A polyglot army of thirty-five thousand Spaniards, Germans, Italians, and French under the command of Charles III, the Duke of Bourbon, was fighting in northern Italy on behalf of the Holy Roman Empire in the spring of 1527. Poorly fed and going for several weeks without pay, these troops mutinied and forced their commanders to march on Rome, which was defended by a small force of five thousand militia, including the Swiss Guard responsible for protecting the pope, and cannon set atop the city's ancient walls.

On the day of the attack, the Duke of Bourbon was killed, leading to a complete breakdown of discipline among the imperial troops. By sunset the attackers were breaking through the gates of the city, while the Swiss Guard took positions on the steps of Saint Peter's Basilica, while Clement escaped through a secret passage to the fortified Castel Sant' Angelo. The remaining defenders quickly surrendered and were massacred, while the armies of Charles V degenerated into a violent mob, killing, raping, and plundering without restraint. The sack continued for three days while the pope remained a prisoner in the Castel Sant' Angelo. For several weeks afterward the leading citizens of Rome suffered the ransacking of their houses and kidnapping for heavy ransom payments. Realizing that the members of the League of Cognac would not relieve the city or stage any kind of counterattack, Clement finally surrendered on June 6, one month after the siege began, he was forced to pay a huge ransom and give up papal territories in northern Italy to the emperor.

The imperial troops finally retreated from Rome in February 1528, leaving the city heavily damaged and the Papacy permanently weakened in its long-standing conflict with the Holy Roman Empire. Clement agreed to formally crown Charles V as emperor in February 1530. In the meantime, Rome's primacy in the artistic and cultural life of the Renaissance came to an end, as important artists fled the city to seek patronage elsewhere. The Sack of Rome also freed the emperor of any need to fight in Italy, Charles V turned with full force against the Protestant princes of Germany.

See Also: Charles V; Paul III