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In 1527 the eternal city learned what happens when a leaderless, out-of-control army runs amok.

It was not the metaphorical “fog of war” but actual fog that rolled up the Tiber River early on May 6, 1527, and it made all the difference. The assault on Rome’s massive walls by troops loyal to Charles V, the Holy Roman emperor and king of Spain, concentrated on three spots around the Borgo, the district surrounding the Holy See (present-day Vatican City). The attackers struck at 4 a.m., when the air was still relatively clear, and were initially repulsed with significant losses. The imperial army had left behind its artillery in the forced march that took it south across the Apennines and bore only hand weapons, while the defenders had fortified Castel Sant’Angelo, which overlooked the Borgo and its walls, with Pope Clement VII’s artillery. While the imperial army boasted far superior numbers, Rome’s capitulation was not a foregone conclusion. Many prior sieges had failed, and well-fortified cities were often able to buy off besiegers.

But then the fog moved in, rendering Clement’s artillery useless. In the clear twilight the artillery had raked the army’s flank; now the gunners could see nothing. Those manning the walls resorted to casting down rocks on their attackers and blindly firing their arquebuses, which were none too accurate to begin with. One such shot killed Charles III, Duke of Bourbon, commander of the imperial army. For the Romans, though, this was no cause for rejoicing. Bourbon was the only man standing between the imperial army troops, an unwieldy amalgam of German landsknechte (largely Lutheran foot soldiers who hated the papacy and all for which Rome stood), hardened Spanish professionals committed to Charles V, and soldiers in the service of various Italian princes opposed to the pope. The army was poorly clothed, underfed and had not been paid in months. To such desperate men Rome meant one thing above all: loot. Had he lived, the duke might have been able to restrain his troops once they entered the city. With his death, no one remained to command the army except cavalry commander Philibert of Châlon, Prince of Orange, who was young and relatively inexperienced, and to whom only his own troops were loyal.

For a moment Bourbon’s death heartened the defenders, panicked the attackers and halted the fighting; a leaderless army is always a less effective one. But Ferrante Gonzaga, one of the Italian captains, managed to rally the imperialists and resume the assault, and the superiority in numbers began to tell. Wave after wave of attackers came up in relief, while the defenders could never rest. So many attackers coalesced at the wall’s weakest spot that they were able to pull it down by hand. By the time the fog began to lift, between 6 and 7 o’clock that morning, the invaders had breached the walls and were swarming into the Borgo.

Then it was Rome’s turn to panic. Citizen defenders abandoned their posts on the walls and ran to barricade themselves inside their homes. The 2,000-man Swiss Guard and Roman militia companies resisted the invaders in desperate close-quarters combat. But the numbers were against them, and the imperialists slaughtered many of the companies to the last man. None of the Swiss survived, aside from Clement’s personal guard. The pope, who had been saying Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica, retreated with a number of cardinals and administrative officials to Castel Sant’Angelo even as attackers took potshots at his fleeing form. The fortress was virtually impregnable; hundreds would try to breach its walls before the day was over.

By midnight imperialist troops filled the city streets on both sides of the Tiber. “The sack that followed,” writes historian Judith Hook in The Sack of Rome, 1527, “was one of the most horrible in recorded history.” She quotes Venetian senator and historian Marino Sanuto, who survived the assault and kept a diary: “Hell itself was a more beautiful sight to behold.” The sack remains one of history’s most vivid object lessons in what happens when a command structure collapses and troops run amok.

We think of the 20th century as being the most violent in Western history, and in terms of numbers killed, that’s certainly true. But medieval and early modern Europe witnessed the equally violent Hundred Years’ War and Thirty Years’ War. And let’s not forget the Italian wars, which broke out in 1494 when France invaded Italy and conquered the Kingdom of Naples. Those conflicts, dotted with a few years of uneasy peace, lasted until 1559. When peace returned to the peninsula—it would not last long —the Kingdom of Naples and the Duchy of Milan were in Spanish hands and the smaller Italian states had been reduced to second-rate powers, but otherwise the borders of the major European powers remained unchanged, and the dynasties that ruled them were intact. By the time peace returned to Rome, however, the seat of Catholicism had been defaced and had lost a third of its population.

The Italian wars were essentially a continuing conflict between the French monarchy and the Spanish for control of Italy. Fueling it were royal ambition for possessions, an urge to dominate trading routes, and a ruling class for whom war was a way of life and the gateway to glory and fame— and useful besides to check population growth and channel the energies of restless youth outside one’s own borders.

Italy was a convenient, perhaps inevitable, field for this conflict. It was, first of all, rich. Genoa and Venice divided between them the world of foreign trade with the East, and each maintained trading relations with the Muslim world in the eastern Mediterranean. Italy was divided among kingdoms like Naples and Sicily; republics like Venice, Florence and Genoa; duchies like Milan and Savoy; tiny marquisates like Montferrat; and the Papal States, under the pope’s rule. These varied political entities were themselves frequently in conflict with each other, making and breaking alliances with all the bravura and intrigue of Mafia dons. Following the ins and outs of Italian politics of the era is like trying to keep track of a game of three-dimensional chess. But the basic moves all revolved around the large and predatory ambitions of the French king and the Spanish emperor, and alliances among the Italian states swayed on which of the two was most dangerous at any time.

This was as much a concern for Clement VII as for the Sforza dukes of Milan or the Medici in Florence. The Papal States spanned the middle of the Italian peninsula, they were sizable, and they were in play. The pope himself was, of necessity, a player; he could and did raise armies, and most of the popes were ambitious to enlarge their territory, if only to place their relatives in positions of power around the peninsula. The pope also ruled Rome, and its fortunes depended largely on his treasury and the way he handled it. The city itself was riven with factions. The powerful Orsini family despised the rival Colonna family, and vice versa, while the Colonnas also hated Clement VII—in 1526 Cardinal Pompeo Colonna organized a raid on the Holy See that forced the pope to flee to Castel Sant’Angelo. Popes made alliances of their own with other Italian states, and broke them with the same regularity as the others. Like all Italian rulers, popes needed a third eye to watch their backs. They needed to be men of their time, a time when, as Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt writes in Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, “A man in Italy was forced to be either hammer or anvil.”

Further complicating the situation was the state of the papacy, which had emerged from a period of dominance by the Borgia family, Spaniards so ruthless and profoundly corrupt that Cesare Borgia, Pope Alexander VI’s son, regularly got away with murder, poisoning both political opponents and members of his own family. For the Borgias, and for most other popes of the time, the papacy was as much an opportunity for personal and familial aggrandizement as it was a spiritual office. The system was ripe for reform, and the Protestant adherents of Martin Luther were not the only people calling for it. Within Rome itself the obvious corruption vitiated much of the enthusiasm the citizens of Rome might have felt about defending the papacy against attack. Clement VII, indeed, was no favorite in the city where he lived, a fact that would add to his humiliation on that terrible May 6.

The sack of Rome need not have happened had Clement been more decisive and Charles V less irresponsible. Lantern-jawed Charles—the jaw a prominent family feature consequent of generations of inbreeding among the Habsburg royals —was young and arrogant and regarded the papacy as a sort of client state. But the bulk of his ambitions centered on northern Italy, specifically Milan. That is also where the ambitions of France’s King Francis I lay. In 1515 Francis led an unusually large army—nearly 40,000 men— across the Alps and fought a two-day battle at Marignano against the Swiss, who had come to the aid of Milan. When it was over more than 10,000 Swiss dead littered the battlefield, and Francis I held the city.

But not for long. Six years later Pope Leo X’s army joined with imperial forces to drive the French out of Italy. Soon after Clement VII came to power, however, the alliance with the emperor began to look like a liability. The French were once again in Italy, driving toward Naples through the Papal States, and Rome stood in the way. It was only expedient for Clement to forge a secret treaty with the French and their allies among the northern Italian states. Charles V did not take news of the treaty well. “I shall go into Italy and revenge myself on those who have injured me,” he declared, “especially on that poltroon the pope.” Excepting the “I” in that sentence—the emperor himself remained in Spain throughout the war—Charles kept his word. In 1525 the imperial army met the French at Pavia and destroyed them, taking Francis captive. The ransom would cost him dearly.

The outcome justly alarmed Clement VII. Imperial power dominated northern Italy and controlled the Kingdom of Naples to the south, while the rest of Italy appeared impotent. Clement secured a temporary peace, but the emperor had no intention of respecting it, and the pope soon entered into the League of Cognac—with France, Venice Florence and Milan—to oppose the emperor’s ambitions. Armies once more formed, the various Italian states casting their lots while German landsknechte poured over the Alps to join the emperor’s Spanish forces, and war was once more joined. It was an indecisive war, the league’s forces trailing around after the imperial army without ever really engaging it. When the imperial army got to Florence and realized how difficult a siege would be, it turned south. Charles V not only didn’t lead his army but also failed to send it supplies and, most of all, money. The troops were forced to live off the land, and they grew increasingly angry and mutinous, constantly threatening to halt in their tracks until paid.

They never were paid. Instead, they were told Rome waited and was easy pickings. By early May 1527 they were at the city gates.

The sack of Rome was unthinkable, for it wasn’t just any city of pilgrimage, the city to which all roads were said city. It was the center of the Catholic world, the to lead. St. Peter’s bones lay there, as did those of many other saints. Rome was the home of learning and the high arts. It was sacred. People at the time sensed an aura about it unique among cities, believing it endowed with a kind of divine immunity.

Apparently not. Once inside its walls the imperial army raged through the streets, killing everyone they encountered —men, women, children, armed or unarmed, it made no difference. Stampeding citizens were crushed to death on the bridges from the Borgo over the Tiber. Thirteen cardinals managed to reach Castel Sant’Angelo, as did hundreds more officials and ordinary citizens, but others fell off the drawbridge as it was being raised. Spanish troops broke into the Hospital of San Spirito and either killed the patients or cast them alive into the Tiber. The attackers looted and defiled the tombs of popes and saints, as well as many churches. They stole Constantine’s golden cross and the Sacred Lance of Longinus, believed to be the spear that had pierced Christ’s side. It was pointless to take refuge in churches—the imperialists slaughtered 500 men on the high altar in St. Peter’s.

As the sack wore on, the invaders tortured householders and merchants to find out where they had hidden their wealth or to extract ransom money. In his biography of Rome, British historian Christopher Hibbert quotes Luigi Guicciardini, brother to the great Italian statesman and historian Francesco Guicciardini: “Many were suspended for hours by the arms; many were cruelly bound by the genitals; many were suspended by the feet high above the road or over the river, while their tormentors threatened to cut the cord.” People were branded, nailed in casks, had their teeth pulled; still others were forced to eat their own ears, noses or roasted testicles. Cardinals were not immune to such treatment. “Nuns,” writes Hibbert, “like other women, were violated, sold in the streets at auction and used as counters in games of chance. Mothers and fathers were forced to watch and even to assist at the multiple rapes of their daughters. Convents became brothels into which women of the upper classes were dragged and stripped.”

Rome had a population of some 55,000 at the time; contemporary accounts estimate that 10,000 were put to the sword in those first days. Corpses were left to rot in the streets while the pillage and torture went on. No one was safe, not even those who supported the imperial cause. The invaders broke into and sacked the Spanish and German national churches. They looted all but a few of the city’s many palaces, destroying several entirely. The Lutheran troops loosed most of their venom on the Catholic sanctuaries. They turned St. Peter’s into a stable and ransacked the papal library for its treasures. From the walls of the Sistine Chapel they stripped tapestries based on Raphael’s designs (later tracked to Mantuan noble Isabella d’Este, then to Saracen pirates, who took them to Tunisia, where they disappeared). Imperial troops used the Raphael Rooms of the papal palace as barracks, building fires on the floors and marking the walls with Lutheran graffiti. Cruelty had no limits, sacrilege no bounds.

At Castel Sant’Angelo, in the meantime, the papal artillery still commanded a portion of the Borgo and the bridges over the Tiber, but little else. As for the army of the League of Cognac, which had always avoided direct battles with the imperial army, it began a slow approach to Rome but stopped short of actually attacking the city. The Duke of Urbino, its commander, refused to attack the city unless given thousands more troops. He would, in short, not attack Rome. From the imperial side a principle object of the war had been to depose the pope, but Clement VII was secure in Castel Sant’Angelo. The Spanish troops began the slow process of building siege machinery and made six attempts to mine the stronghold and blow it up, none of which succeeded. But the lack of a commander able to control the troops remained a serious problem for the imperialists, and it was not too long before the situation reached a stalemate. Charles V still had not paid his troops, he sent no instructions, and he ignored desperate requests for guidance. The army had Rome—it had stripped it of its wealth, satisfied its lust. Now what?

The situation rapidly deteriorated. The city had no food. Hundreds of corpses rotted on the streets. Graves opened in search of plunder remained open. The stench was unbearable, and then plague swept in and spread rapidly. The city had no government, no services, no sanitation, scant fresh water. Over the previous century or so the popes had slowly built up a system of government that actually worked; that was no more. Shops had remained shuttered since early May.

The city had the imperial army as much as the army had it, and the hot Roman summer had begun. In places the stacked bodies made streets impassable, and hundreds more were dying each day of the plague and starvation, including imperial troops. On July 10 the army, increasingly mutinous, as much a danger to its own commanders as to the citizens of Rome, left the city for the summer, leaving behind just 2,000 troops to guard Castel Sant’Angelo. They lived off the land in central Italy, quickly reducing it to a wilderness. Not until February 1528 did the invaders leave for good.

In December 1527, having paid off the imperialists with whatever funds he could raise, the pope had escaped from Castel Sant’Angelo and taken refuge in Viterbo, leaving Rome half empty and in ruins. The invaders had destroyed 30,000 homes and driven off or killed half the population. The pope refused to shave after that day, as a sign of mourning for the city; all portraits of him rendered after 1526 show him with an ever-lengthening beard. In 1530 in Bologna he ultimately crowned Charles V—on his first visit to Italy—Holy Roman emperor. Clement, having recovered neither his reputation nor his health, died in 1534. Romans had saddled the never popular pope with blame for the horrors of the sack. A group of them impaled his body with a sword where it lay in St. Peter’s and replaced the inscription on the bier, CLEMENS PONTIFEX MAXIMUS, with INCLEMENS PONTIFEX MINIMUS. They would have dragged his body through the streets had not a cardinal, one of his Medici relatives, stopped them.

Rome eventually recovered and became the city it is today. Subsequent popes under- took rebuilding projects, new palaces  sprang up, the Holy See was restored, the rebuilding of St. Peter’s resumed.

But in many ways Rome’s agony was a turning point. Some scholars date the end of the Renaissance to the sack of the city. During and after, humanists and artists fled Rome in a great diaspora, scattering to other Italian cities. Scholars lost entire libraries, even if they themselves managed to survive, and a great many works of art vanished with the departure of the imperial army. Above all, the sack once and for all destroyed any sense that Rome enjoyed divine immunity. News of Rome’s fate occasioned a rash of sensational reports that spread rapidly all over Europe, and one scholar even credits it with the birth of sensational journalism.

Politically, the sack established Spanish hegemony over the Italian peninsula and made it clear the papacy was a second-rate power. It also evinced the lack of national feeling in Italy. Ancient family feuds, the constant intrigue, the Machiavellianism that characterized relationships among Italy’s many states made it impossible for the peninsula to unite against a common enemy. The League of Cognac was the last chance before the 19th century for Italy to become one nation, and it had failed.

But the sack also ensured that the Papal States would remain a temporal power and retain control of middle Italy. Charles V had engendered sympathy across Europe for Clement VII and Rome. Even his own Spanish clergy and aristocracy remonstrated with Charles, and what the emperor had done he was now compelled to undo. Not only did he not take the Papal States for his own, thereby leaving intact much of the political status quo in Italy, he guaranteed Medici rule over Florence; Clement VII was, of course, a Medici. Charles spent the rest of his reign trying to persuade Europe the sack of Rome had been none of his doing.

Charles abdicated in 1555 and went to live in a Spanish monastery, where clocks lined the walls of his room. Jacob Burckhardt suggests the sack of Rome “lay heavy on his conscience.” Perhaps. If Rome were indeed a city sacred to God, Charles would have much to answer for when he faced his Maker.


Anthony Brandt has written for The Atlantic and American Heritage and is an editor of the National Geographic Press Adventure Classics series. For further reading he recommends The Sack of Rome, 1527, by Judith Hook, and Rome: The Biography of a City, by Christopher Hibbert.

Originally published in the July 2013 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.