On Sunday May 9, 1527, an army descending from Lombardy reached the Janiculum. The Emperor, Charles V, enraged at Pope Clement VII’s political alliance with his adversary, the King of France, Francis I, had moved an army against the capital of Christendom. That evening the sun set for the last time on the dazzling beauties of Renaissance Rome. About 20,000 men, Italians, Spaniards and Germans, among whom were the Landsknecht mercenaries, of the Lutheran faith, were preparing to launch an attack on the Eternal City. Their commander had given them license to sack the city. All night long the warning bell of Campidoglio rang out calling the Romans to arms, but it was already too late to improvise an effective defense. At dawn on the 6th of May, favoured by a thick fog, the Landsknechts launched an assault on the walls, between St. Onofrio and Santo Spirito.
The Swiss Guards lined up around the Vatican Obelisk, resolute in their vow to remain faithful unto death. The last of them sacrificed their lives at the high altar in St. Peter’s Basilica. Their resistance allowed the Pope along with some cardinals the chance of escape. Across the Passetto di Borgo, the connecting road between the Vatican and Castel Sant’Angelo, Clement VII reached the fortress, the only bastion left against the enemy. From the height of the terraces, the Pope witnessed the terrible slaughter which initiated with the massacre of those who were crowding around the gates of the Castle looking for refuge, while the sick of Santo Spirito Hospital in Sassia were massacred, pierced by spears and swords.
This unlimited license to steal and kill lasted eight days and the occupation of the city nine months. We read in a Veneto account of May 10, 1527, reported by Ludwig von Pastor “Hell is nothing in comparison with the appearance Rome currently presents” (The History of Popes, Desclée, Rome 1942m, vol. IV, 2, p.261). The religious were the main victims of the Landsknechts’ fury. Cardinals’ palaces were plundered, churches profaned, priests and monks killed or made slaves, nuns raped and sold at markets. Obscene parodies of religious ceremonies were seen, chalices for Mass were used to get drunk amidst blasphemies, Sacred Hosts were roasted in a pan and fed to animals, the tombs of saints were violated, heads of the Apostles, such as St. Andrew, were used for playing football on the streets. A donkey was dressed up in ecclesiastical robes and led to the altar of a church. The priest who refused to give it Communion was hacked to pieces. The City was outraged in its religious symbols and in its most sacred memories”. (see also André Chastel, The Sack of Rome, Einaudi, Turin, 1983; Umberto Roberto, Roma capta. The Sack of the City from the Gauls to the Landsknechts, Laterza, Bari 2012).
Clement VII, of the Medici family, had paid no attention to his predecessor, Hadrian VI’s appeal for a radical reform of the Church. Martin Luther had been spreading his heresies for ten years, but the Roman Papal States continued to be immersed in relativism and hedonism. Not all Romans though were corrupt and effeminate, as the historian Gregorovius seems to believe. Not corrupt, were the nobles Giulio Vallati, Giambattista Savelli and Pierpaolo Tebaldi who hoisted a flag with the insignia “Pro Fide et Patria” and held the last heroic stance at Ponte Sisto. and neither were the students at Capranica College, who hastened to Santo Spirito and died defending the Pope in danger.
It is to that mass slaughter, the Roman ecclesiastical Institute owes its name “Almo”. Clement VII survived and governed the Church until 1534, confronting the Anglican schism following the Lutheran one, but witnessing the sack of the City and being powerless to do anything, was for him, much harder than death itself.
On October 17, 1528, the imperial troops abandoned a city in ruins. A Spanish eyewitness gives us a terrifying picture of the City a month after the Sack: “In Rome, the capital of Christendom, not one bell is ringing, the churches are not open, Mass is not being said and there are no Sundays nor feast days. The rich merchant shops are used as horse stables, the most splendid palaces are devastated, many houses burnt, in others the doors and windows broken up and taken away, the streets transformed into dung-heaps. The stench of cadavers is horrible: men and beasts have the same burials; in churches I saw bodies gnawed at by dogs. I don’t know how else to compare this, other than to the destruction of Jerusalem. Now I recognize the justice of God, who doesn’t forget even if He arrives late. In Rome all sins were committed quite openly: sodomy, simony, idolatry, hypocrisy and deceit; thus we cannot believe that this all happened by chance; but for Divine justice”. (L. von Pastor, History of Popes, cit. p. 278).
Pope Clement VII commissioned Michelangelo to paint the Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel, conceivably to immortalize the dramas the Church had undergone during those years. Everyone understood that it was a chastisement from Heaven. There were no lack of premonitory warnings: lightening striking the Vatican and the appearance of a hermit, Brandano da Petroio, venerated by the crowds as “Christ’s Madman”, who, on Holy Thursday 1527, while Clement VII was blessing the crowds in St. Peter’s shouted: “sodomite bastard, for your sins Rome will be destroyed. Confess and convert, for in 14 days the wrath of God will fall upon you and the City.”
The year before, at the end of August, the Christian army had been defeated by the Ottomans on the field of Mohacs. The Hungarian King, Louis II Jagiellon died in battle and Suleiman the Magnificent’s army occupied Buda. The Islamic wave in Europe seemed unstoppable.
Yet, the hour of chastisement was, as always, the hour of mercy. The men of the Church understood how foolishly they had followed the allurements of pleasures and power. After the terrible Sack, life changed profoundly. The pleasure-seeking Rome of the Renaissance turned into the austere and penitent Rome of the Counter-Reformation.
Shrugs only go so far.