Charles, still remaining in Spain, and moving his pawns with magic remote control, commissioned his agents to raise a new army. They approached the Tirolese condottiere, Georg von Frundsberg, already famous for the exploits of the Landsknechte—German mercenaries—who fought under his lead. Charles could offer little money, but his agents promised rich plunder in Italy. Frundsberg was still nominally a Catholic, but he strongly sympathized with Luther, and hated Clement as a traitor to the Empire. He pawned his castle, his other possessions, even the adornments of his wife; with the 38,000 gulden so obtained he collected some 10,000 men eager for adventure and pillage and not averse to breaking a lance over a papal head; some of them, it was said, carried a noose to hang the Pope.32 In November, 1526, this impromptu army crossed the mountains and descended toward Brescia. Alfonso of Ferrara repaid the papacy for its many efforts to depose him, by sending Frundsberg four of his mightiest cannon. Near Brescia Giovanni delle Bande Nere was shot in a skirmish with the invaders; he died at Mantua on November 30, aged twenty-eight. No one remained to hinder the Duke of Urbino from doing nothing.
Frundsberg’s rabble crossed the Po as Giovanni died, and ravaged the fertile fields of Lombardy so effectively that three years later English ambassadors described that terrain as “the most pitiable country that ever was in Christendom.”33 In Milan the imperial commander was now Charles, Duke of Bourbon; created constable of France for bravery at Marignano, he had turned against Francis when the King’s mother, as he felt, had cheated him of his proper lands; he went over to the Emperor, shared in defeating Francis at Pavia, and was made Duke of Milan. Now, to raise and pay another army for Charles, he taxed the Milanese literally to death. He wrote to the Emperor that he had drained the city of its blood. His soldiers, quartered upon the inhabitants, so abused them with theft, brutality, and rape that many Milanese hanged themselves, or threw themselves from high places into the streets.34 Early in February, 1527, Bourbon led his army out of Milan, and united it with Frundsberg’s near Piacenza. The conglomerate horde, now numbering nearly 22,000 men, moved east along the Via Emilia, avoiding the fortified cities, but pillaging as it went, and leaving the countryside empty behind it.
When it became clear to Clement that he had no sufficient forces with which to stop these invaders, he appealed to Lannoy to arrange a truce. The Viceroy came up from Naples, and drew up terms for a truce of eight months: Clement and the Colonna ceased their war and exchanged their conquests, and the Pope provided 60,000 ducats with which to bribe Frundsberg’s army to stay out of the Papal States. Then, nearing the end of his funds, and supposing that Frundsberg and Bourbon would honor an agreement signed by the imperial Viceroy, Clement reduced his Roman army to three hundred men. But Bourbon’s brigands shrieked with fury when they heard the terms of the truce. For four months they had endured a thousand hardships only in the hope of plundering Rome; most of them were now in rags, many were shoeless, all were hungry, none was paid; they refused to be bought off with a miserable 60,000 ducats, of which they knew only a small part would trickle down to them. Fearing that Bourbon would sign the truce, they besieged his tent, crying, “Pay! pay!” He hid himself elsewhere, and they plundered his tent. Frundsberg tried to calm them, but was stricken with apoplexy in the course of his appeal; he played no further part in the campaign, and died a year later. Bourbon took command, but only by agreeing to march on Rome. On March 29 he sent messages to Lannoy and Clement that he could not hold back his men, and that the truce was perforce at an end.
Now at last Rome realized that it was the intended and helpless prey. On Holy Thursday (April 8), when Clement was giving his blessing to a crowd of 10,000 persons before St. Peter’s, a fanatic clad only in a leather apron mounted the statue of St. Paul and shouted to the Pope: “Thou bastard of Sodom! For thy sins Rome shall be destroyed. Repent and turn thee! If thou wilt not believe me, in fourteen days thou shalt see.” On Easter Eve this wild eremite—Bartolommeo Carosi, called Brandano—went through the streets crying, “Rome, do penance! They shall deal with thee as God dealt with Sodom and Gomorrah.”35
Bourbon, perhaps hoping to satisfy his men with the enlarged sum, sent to Clement a demand for 240,000 ducats; Clement replied that he could not possibly raise such a ransom. The horde marched to Florence; but the Duke of Urbino, Guicciardini, and the Marquis of Saluzzo had brought in enough troops to man its fortifications effectively; the horde turned away baffled, and took the road to Rome. Clement, finding no salvation in truce, rejoined the League of Cognac against Charles, and implored the help of France. He appealed to the rich men of Rome to contribute to a fund for defense; they responded gingerly, and suggested that a better plan would be to sell red hats. Clement had not hitherto sold appointments to the college of cardinals, but when Bourbon’s army reached Viterbo, only forty-two miles from Rome, he yielded, and sold six nominations. Before the nominees could pay, the Pope could see, from the windows of the Vatican, the hungry swarm advancing across the Neronian Fields. He had now some 4000 soldiers to protect Rome from an attacking host of 20,000 men.
On May 6 Bourbon’s multitude approached the walls under cover of fog. They were repelled by a fusillade; Bourbon himself was hit, and died almost instantly. But the assailants could not be deterred from repeated attack; their alternatives were to capture Rome or starve. They found a weakly defended position; they broke through it, and poured into the city. The Roman militia and the Swiss Guards fought bravely, but were annihilated. Clement, most of the resident cardinals, and hundreds of officials fled to Sant’ Angelo, whence Cellini and others tried to stop the invasion with artillery fire. But the swarm entered from a confusing variety of directions; some were hidden by the fog; others so mingled with fugitives that the Castle cannon could not strike them without killing the demoralized populace. Soon the invaders had the city at their mercy.
As they rushed on through the streets they killed indiscriminately any man, woman, or child that crossed their path. Their bloodthirst aroused, they entered the hospital and orphanage of Santo Spirito, and slaughtered nearly all the patients. They marched into St. Peter’s and slew the people who had sought sanctuary there. They pillaged every church and monastery they could find, and turned some into stables; hundreds of priests, monks, bishops, and archbishops were killed. St. Peter’s and the Vatican were rifled from top to bottom, and horses were tethered in Raphael’s stanze.36 Every dwelling in Rome was plundered, and many were burned, with two exceptions: the Cancelleria, occupied by Cardinal Colonna, and the Palazzo Colonna, in which Isabella d’ Este and some rich merchants had sought asylum; these paid 50,000 ducats to leaders of the mob for freedom from attack, and then took two thousand refugees within their walls. Every palace paid ransoms for protection, only to face later attacks from other packs, and pay ransom again. In most houses all the occupants were required to ransom their lives at a stated price; if they did not pay they were tortured; thousands were killed; children were flung from high windows to pry parental savings from secrecy; some streets were littered with dead. The millionaire Domenico Massimi saw his sons slain, his daughter raped, his house burned, and then was himself murdered. “In the whole city,” says one account, “there was not a soul above three years of age who had not to purchase his safety.”37
Of the victorious mob half were Germans, of whom most had been convinced that the popes and cardinals were thieves, and that the wealth of the Church in Rome was a theft from the nations, and a scandal to the world. To reduce this scandal they seized all movable ecclesiastical valuables, including sacred vessels and works of art, and carried them off for melting or ransom or sale; relics, however, they left scattered on the floor. One soldier dressed himself as a pope; others put on cardinals’ hats and kissed his feet; a crowd at the Vatican proclaimed Luther pope. The Lutherans among the invaders took especial delight in robbing cardinals, exacting high ransoms from them as the price of their lives, and teaching them new rituals. Some cardinals, says Guicciardini, “were set upon scrubby beasts, riding with their faces backward, in the habits and ensigns of their dignity, and were led about all Rome with the greatest derision and contempt. Some, unable to raise all the ransom demanded, were so tortured that they died there and then, or within a few days.”38 One cardinal was lowered into a grave and was told that he would be buried alive unless ransom were brought within a stated time; it came at the last moment.39 Spanish and German cardinals, who thought themselves safe from their own countrymen, were treated like the rest. Nuns and respectable women were violated in situ, or were carried off to promiscuous brutality in the various shelters of the horde.40 Women were assaulted before the eyes of their husbands or fathers. Many young women, despondent after being raped, drowned themselves in the Tiber.41
The destruction of books, archives, and art was immense. Philibert, Prince of Orange, who had succeeded to the quasi command of the undisciplined horde, saved the Vatican Library by making it his headquarters, but many monastic and private libraries went up in flames, and many precious manuscripts disappeared. The University of Rome was ransacked, and its staff was scattered. The scholar Colocci saw his house burned to the ground with his collections of manuscripts and art. Baldus, a professor, saw his newly written commentary on Pliny used to light a camp fire for the pillagers. The poet Marone lost his poems, but was comparatively fortunate; the poet Paolo Bombasi was killed. The scholar Cristoforo Marcello was tortured by having one fingernail after another pulled out; the scholars Francesco Fortuno and Juan Valdes slew themselves in despair.42 The artists Perino del Vaga, Marcantonio Raimondi, and many others were tortured and robbed of all that they had. The school of Raphael was finally dispersed.
The number of deaths cannot be calculated. Two thousand corpses were thrown into the Tiber from the Vatican side of Rome; 9800 dead were buried; there were unquestionably many more fatalities. A low estimate places the thefts at over a million ducats, the ransoms at three million; Clement judged the total loss at ten million ($125,000,000?).43
The sack lasted eight days, while Clement looked on from the towers of Sant’ Angelo. He cried out to God like tortured Job: Quare de vulva eduxisti me? qui utinam consumptus essem, ne oculus videret— “Why didst Thou take me out of the womb? Would that I had been consumed, that no eye had seen me!”44 He ceased to shave, and never shaved again. He remained a prisoner in the Castle from May 6 to December 7, 1527, hoping that rescue would come from the army of the Duke of Urbino, or from Francis I, or Henry VIII. Charles, still in Spain, was glad to hear that Rome had been taken, but was shocked when he heard of the savagery of the sack; he disclaimed responsibility for the excesses, but took full advantage of the Pope’s helplessness. On June 6 his representatives, possibly without his knowledge, compelled Clement to sign a humiliating peace. The Pope agreed to pay over to them and the imperialist army 400,000 ducats; to surrender to Charles the cities of Piacenza, Parma, and Modena, and the castles of Ostia, Cività Vecchia, Cività Castellana, and Sant’ Angelo itself; he was to remain a prisoner there until the first 150,000 ducats had been delivered, and was then to be removed to Gaeta or Naples until Charles should determine what to do with him. All those in Sant’ Angelo were allowed to depart except Clement and the thirteen cardinals who had accompanied him. Spanish and German soldiers were put in charge of the Castle, and kept the Pope nearly always confined in a narrow apartment. “They have not left him ten scudi worth of property,” wrote Guicciardini on June 21.45 All the silver and gold that he had salvaged in his flight was surrendered to his captors, to make up 100,000 ducats of his ransom.
In the meantime Alfonso of Ferrara seized Reggio and Modena (to which Ferrara had age-long rights), and Venice took Ravenna. Florence expelled the Medici a third time, and proclaimed Jesus Christ king of the new republic. The whole edifice of the papacy, material and spiritual, seemed to be collapsing into a tragic ruin that awoke the pity even of those who felt that some punishment was deserved by the infidelities of Clement, the sins of the papacy, the greed and corruption of the Curia, the luxury of the hierarchy, and the iniquity of Rome. Sadoleto, peaceful in Carpentras, heard with horror of Rome’s fall, and mourned the passing of those halcyon days when Bembo and Castiglione and Isabella and a hundred scholars and poets and patrons had made the wicked city the home and summit of the thought and art of the age. And Erasmus wrote to Sadoleto: “Rome was not alone the shrine of the Christian faith, the nurse of noble souls, and the abode of the Muses, but the mother of nations. To how many was she not dearer and sweeter and more precious than their own land!… In truth this is not the ruin of one city, but of the whole world.”46