Military history

6. The Sack of Rome: Clement VII, 1523–34

At this belated moment, as if fate were taunting the Church, a reformer was elected Pope, not through conscious intent but by a fluke during a deadlock of leading contenders. When neither Cardinal Alessandro Farnese nor Giulio de’ Medici could gain a majority and the bellicose Cardinal Schinner missed election by two votes, the nomination of someone not present was proposed, “just to waste the morning,” as Guicciardini says. The name of the Dutch-born Cardinal Adrian of Utrecht, former Chancellor of the University of Louvain, former tutor of Charles V and presently his Vicroy in Spain, was put forward. As the virtues of this reform-minded, austere but otherwise unfamiliar person were extolled, the Cardinals began to follow each other in voting for him until suddenly they found they had elected him—a virtual unknown, and what was worse, a foreigner! When this remarkable result could not be explained rationally, it was attributed to the intervention of the Holy Ghost.

Curia, cardinals, citizens and all expectant beneficiaries of papal patronage were appalled, Romans outraged at the advent of a non-Italian, ergo a “barbarian,” and the Pope-Elect himself anything but eager. Reformers, however, encouraged by Adrian’s reputation, were hopeful at last. They drew up programs for a Reform Council and lists of enforcements of long-disregarded Church rules needed to cleanse the clergy of corruption. Their case was summarized in the stern reminder of one adviser: “Under pain of eternal damnation, the Pope is bound to appoint shepherds, not wolves.”

Adrian did not appear in Rome until late in August 1521, almost eight months after his election, owing in part to an outbreak of plague. He made his intent clear at once. Addressing the College of Cardinals at his first consistory, he said that evils in the clergy and Papacy had reached such a pitch that, in the words of Saint Bernard, “those steeped in sin could no longer perceive the stench of their own iniquities.” The ill repute of Rome, he said, was the talk of the whole world, and he implored the Cardinals to banish corruption and luxury from their lives and, as their sacred duty, to set a good example to the world by joining him in the cause of reform. His audience was deaf to the plea. No one was prepared to separate personal fortune from ecclesiastical office, or do without the annuities and revenues of plural benefices. When the Pope announced austerity measures for all, he met only sullen resistance.

Adrian persisted. Curia officials, former favorites, even Cardinals were summoned for rebuke or for trials and penalties. “Everyone trembles,” reported the Venetian Ambassador, “owing to the things done by the Pope in the space of eight days.”

He issued rules to prohibit simony, reduce expenses, curb the sale of dispensations and indulgences, appoint only qualified clerics to benefices and limit each to one, on the innovative theory that benefices should be supplied with priests, not priests with benefices. At each effort, he was told that he would bankrupt or weaken the Church. Served only by two personal attendants, isolated by language, despised for his lack of interest in arts and antiquities, in every way the contrary of an Italian, he could do nothing acceptable. His letter to the German Diet demanding the suppression of Luther as decreed by the Diet of Worms was ignored, while his admission that in the Roman Church “sacred things have been misused, the commandments have been transgressed and in everything there has been a turn for the worse” alienated the papal court. Against popular protests and demonstrations, satiric pasquinate, insults scribbled on walls and the non-cooperation of officials, Adrian found the system too entrenched for him to dislodge. “How much,” he sorrowfully acknowledged, “does a man’s efforts depend on the age in which his work is cast!” Utterly frustrated, the outsider died unmourned in September 1523, after a year and two weeks in active office.

Rome went back to normal. The conclave, taking no chances, elected another Medici, Cardinal Giulio, who perversely chose the name of the murderous, if able, first Anti-Pope of the Schism, Clement VII. The new Clement’s reign proved to be a pyramid of catastrophes. Protestantism continued its advance. The German states—Hesse, Brunswick, Saxony, Brandenburg—one by one signed the Lutheran confession, breaking with Rome and defying the Emperor. Economic gain from disendowing Church properties and eliminating papal taxes interested them as much as doctrine, while doctrinal feuds, reflecting the quarrel of Zwingli and Luther, riddled the movement from the moment it was born. Meanwhile the Danish Church virtually seceded and the Reformed Doctrine steadily advanced in Sweden. In 1527 Henry VIII, in the act of so much consequence, asked the Pope to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, who inconveniently for Clement was the aunt of Charles V. Otherwise the Pope might usefully have decided, like his predecessors, that in such cases expedience was the better part of principle. But Charles V, double monarch of the Empire and Spain, loomed larger than Henry VIII, causing the Pope consistently to refuse the divorce on grounds, as he claimed, of his respect for canonical law. He made the wrong choice, and lost England.

Supreme office, like sudden disaster, often reveals the man, and revealed Clement as less adequate than expected. Knowledgeable and effective as a subordinate, Guicciardini writes, he fell victim when in charge to timidity, perplexity and habitual irresolution. He lacked popular support because, disappointing expectations of a Medici, he “gives away nothing and does not bestow the property of others, therefore the people of Rome grumble.” Responsibility made him “morose and disagreeable,” which was not surprising as in his conduct of policy every choice proved unwise and the outcome of every venture worse than the last. “From a great and renowned Cardinal,” wrote Vettori, he was transformed “into a little and despised Pope.”

The rivalry of France and the Hapsburg-Spanish combination was now working itself out in Italy. Trying to play off one against the other after the Italian habit, Clement managed only to gain the mistrust of both and lose a dependable alliance with either. When Francis renewed the war for Milan in 1524, his initial success decided Clement, in spite of the Papacy’s recent pact with the Empire, to enter into a secret treaty with Francis in return for his promise to respect the Papal States and Medici rule of Florence, Clement’s primary interest. On discovering the Pope’s double dealing, Charles swore to go to Italy in person to “revenge myself on those who have injured me, particularly that fool of a Pope.” In the following year at the decisive and climactic battle of Pavia, the Spanish-Imperialists defeated and took prisoner the King of France. Upon this disaster for his ally, Clement reached a new agreement with the Emperor while retaining the secret hope that it would not be long before France would re-establish the balance of power, allowing him to regain his power of maneuver between the two. He seems to have seen no advantage in constancy, no disadvantage in infidelity, but only the momentary dictates of unstable fortune.

A year later, Charles released Francis from prison on condition of his pledge, incorporated in a treaty, to renounce French claim to Milan, Genoa, Naples and everything else in Italy, besides ceding Burgundy. It was not a pledge the proud King of France, once back on his own ground, was likely to obey, nor did he. On regaining his throne, he opened overtures to Clement, who saw his awaited opportunity to liberate the Papacy from the heavy Spanish hand, even though past experience of inviting France into Italy had a bitter history. He nevertheless took Francis as a partner in a Holy League with Venice and Florence on condition that he would take up arms against the Emperor while the Pope would absolve him from breaking his word to his erstwhile captor. Needless to say, the Italian states were engaged in all these arrangements and when it came to hostilities were trampled and battered.

By 1527, hardly a part of Italy had escaped violence to life and land, plunder, destruction, misery and famines. Regions that were spared profited from the distress of others. Two English envoys traveling through Lombardy reported that “the most goodly countree for corne and vynes that may be seen is so desolate that in all that ways we sawe [not] oon man or woman in the fylde, nor yet creatour stirring, but in great villaiges five or six myserable persons,” and in Pavia children crying in the streets and dying of hunger.

Clement’s misjudgments having prepared the way, Rome itself was now to be engulfed by war. Imperial forces made up of German Landsknechte and Spanish companies, with a French renegade, the Constable de Bourbon, in command, crossed the Alps to combat the Holy League and take control of Rome and the Papacy, forestalling any similar intent by the French. As it turned out, French promises having outrun depleted capacity, no French army was to enter Italy that year to support the Pope. At the same time, and probably with a helpful hint from Charles V, an uprising by the pro-Imperial Colonna party erupted in Rome, led by Cardinal Pompeo Colonna, whose fury of ambition and hatred of the Medici fired him with a scheme to bring about Clement’s death and impose his own election upon a conclave by force of arms. His raiders raised havoc, bloodied and killed fellow-citizens, looted the Vatican but missed the Pope, who escaped through a private passageway—built for such emergencies by Alexander VI—to refuge in Castel Sant’ Angelo. Decked in the papal robes, some of Colonna’s men strutted in mockery in the piazza of St. Peter’s. Terms were agreed upon and the raiders withdrawn, following which the Pope, doubtless absolving himself, violated the agreements and assembled sufficient forces to lay waste Colonna properties.

The Colonna raid suggested to Clement no necessity to organize defense. He clung to negotiations. His maneuvers and treaties over the next months with the Spanish Ambassador acting for Charles V and with this state and that are too twisted to follow and were, in any event, fruitless. Concerted policy and determined action could have disabled the invaders in Lombardy, whose mixed forces were mutually hostile, unpaid, undisciplined, hungry and mutinous. All that held them was their commanders’ promise of loot and rich ransoms in Rome and Florence. The difficulty was that the Holy League’s available forces were in no better condition, and unity and leadership as always conspicuously absent. Charles V, bred in Spanish orthodoxy and reluctant to attack the Holy See, agreed to an eight-month armistice in return for payment of 60,000 ducats to his troops. Enraged by this postponement of plunder, the troops mutinied and marched for Rome. Their way south was actively aided by food and free passage provided by the dukes of Ferrara and Urbino in revenge for wrongs each had suffered at the hands of Medici popes.

Commanders of the Imperial force, fearful of the savagery they felt preparing to break loose on the Eternal City, were amazed to meet no signs of defense, receive no overtures for parley, no reply to their ultimatum. Rome was demoralized; among its several thousands of armed men, not 500 could be rallied into bands to defend or even to blow up the bridges. Clement seems to have counted on Rome’s sacred status as its shield of defense, or else was paralyzed by irresolution. “We are on the brink of ruin,” wrote a papal secretary of state to the Papal Nuncio in England. “Fate has let loose upon us every kind of evil so that it is impossible to add to our misery. It seems to me that the sentence of death has been passed on us and that we are only awaiting its execution which cannot be long delayed.”

On 6 May 1527, the Spanish-German invaders breached the walls and poured into the city. The orgy of human barbarity that followed in the See of St. Peter’s, the capital of Christendom for 1200 years, was a measure of how far the image of Rome had been demeaned by its rulers. Massacre, plunder, fire and rape raged out of control; commanders were helpless and their chief, the Constable de Bourbon, was dead, having been killed the first day by a shot from the Roman walls.

The ferocity and bloodthirstiness of the attackers “would have moved a stone to compassion,” according to a report in the Mantua archives, “written in a trembling hand.” The soldiers looted house by house, killing anyone who offered resistance. Women were violated regardless of age. Screams and groans filled every quarter; the Tiber floated with dead bodies. Pope, cardinals, Curia and lay officials piled into Sant’ Angelo in such haste and crush that one cardinal was drawn up in a basket after the portcullis was dropped. Ransoms were fixed on the wealthy and atrocious tortures devised to make them pay; if they could not, they were killed. Priests, monks and other clergy were victimized with extra brutality; nuns dragged to brothels or sold to soldiers in the streets. Palaces were plundered and left in flames; churches and monasteries sacked for their treasures, relics trampled after being stripped of jeweled covers, tombs broken open in the search for more treasure, the Vatican used as a stable. Archives and libraries were burned, their contents scattered or used as bedding for horses. Surveying the scene, even a Colonna wept. “Hell has nothing to compare with the present state of Rome,” a Venetian reported.

Lutherans of the feared Landsknechte delighted in the scene, parodied the papal rites, paraded through the streets in the rich vestments of prelates and the red robes and hats of cardinals, with a leader playing the part of Pope riding on an ass. The first wave of carnage lasted eight days. For weeks Rome smoked and stank of unburied corpses gnawed by dogs. The occupation lasted nine months, inflicting irreparable damage. Two thousand bodies were estimated to have been thrown into the Tiber, 9800 buried, loot and ransoms estimated at between three and four million ducats. Only when plague appeared and food vanished, leaving famine, did the drunken satiated hordes recede from the “stinking slaughterhouse” they had made of Rome.

It was a sack, too, of spiritual authority. The Vandals who perpetrated the sack of A.D. 455 were aliens and so-called barbarians, but these were fellow-Christians, propelled, so it seemed, by an extra lust in defiling the tarnished lords of the Church. Troy too had once believed in a sacred veil of protection; when the moment came, Rome counted on its sacred status but it was found to have vanished.

No one could doubt that the Sack was divine punishment for the worldly sins of popes and hierarchy, and few questioned the belief that the fault came from within. The aggressors agreed. Appalled by the event and fearing the Emperor’s displeasure at “these outrages on the Catholic religion and the Apostolic See,” the Commissary of the Imperial Army wrote to Charles V, “In truth everyone is convinced that all this has happened as a judgment of God on the great tyranny and disorders of the Papal court.” A sadder insight was articulated by Cardinal Cajetan, General of the Dominicans, reform spokesman at the Lateran, Papal Legate in Germany in the dealings with Luther: “For we who should have been the salt of the earth have decayed until we are good for nothing beyond outward ceremonials.”

Clement’s humiliation was twofold. He had to accept terms imposed by the victors and remain their prisoner in Sant’ Angelo until he found funds for his ransom, while at news of his helplessness, Florence promptly expelled the agents of Medici rule and re-established a republic. Elsewhere a shift of opinion against the scandal of an imprisoned Pope caused the Emperor to open the doors of Sant’ Angelo, whence, disguised as a merchant, Clement was escorted to a shabby refuge in Orvieto, where he remained, still hoping that France would come to redress the balance. In the following year, Francis came indeed, launching an army against Naples. When he was defeated once again and again required to renounce all claims in Italy, the Pope was forced to come to terms with Charles V, now the undisputed master of Italy. In cold and penury, sleeping on straw, he journeyed to Bologna to reach the best agreement he could, with little room now for maneuver. He was obliged to invest Charles, as King of Spain, with the Kingdom of Naples and crown him as Emperor. Charles in return was to provide the military aid to restore the Medici to Florence. In one thing the Pope had his way: as Pope he still retained authority to refuse the General Council for reform that Charles wanted. His underlying objection was personal: a fear that his illegitimate birth, rather casually overcome by Leo, might be invoked to invalidate his title.

Clement’s major activity thereafter was a war to restore his family’s rule of Florence. Under Imperial command, the dregs of the troops that had sacked Rome were among those used to besiege his native city, which, after holding out for ten months, was forced to yield. He spent on this enterprise as much as Leo on Urbino and for similar purposes of family power. The problems of Medici succession, now resting on two dubious Medici bastards, one a mulatto, distracted him from the problem of the Protestant advance or any serious consideration of how the Church should meet it. In his last years the German states reached a formal divorce from the Papacy and formed the Protestant League.

Clement died despised by the Curia (according to Guicciardini), distrusted by monarchs, detested by Florentines, who celebrated his death with bonfires, and by Romans, who held him responsible for the Sack. They dragged his corpse from its grave and left it hacked and mutilated, with a sword thrust through the heart.

Terrible in its physical impact, the Sack had seemed unmistakable as a punishment. The significance of the Protestant secession took longer to register on the Church. Time and perspective are needed before people can see where they have been. Recognition by the Papacy of its misgovernment developed slowly. Midway in the pontificate of Clement’s successor, Paul III (the former Cardinal Alessandro Farnese), not quite thirty years after Luther’s overt break, with the summoning of the Council of Trent in 1544, the long laborious recovery “of what had been lost” began.

What principles of folly emerge from the record of the Renaissance six? First, it must be recognized that their attitudes to power and their resultant behavior were shaped to an unusual degree by the mores and conditions of their time and surroundings. This is of course true of every person in every time, but more so in this case because the mores and conditions of the Italian governing class of this period were in fact so exotic. The local determinants of papal conduct—in foreign relations, political struggles, beliefs, manners and human relationships—must be sifted out in the hope that abiding principles may appear.

The folly of the popes was not pursuit of counter-productive policy so much as rejection of any steady or coherent policy either political or religious that would have improved their situation or arrested the rising discontent. Disregard of the movements and sentiments developing around them was a primary folly. They were deaf to disaffection, blind to the alternative ideas it gave rise to, blandly impervious to challenge, unconcerned by the dismay at their misconduct and the rising wrath at their misgovernment, fixed in refusal to change, almost stupidly stubborn in maintaining a corrupt existing system. They could not change it because they were part of it, grew out of it, depended on it.

Their grotesque extravagance and fixation on personal gain was a second and equal governing factor. Once, when reproved for putting the temporal power of the Papacy before “the welfare of the True Church which consists of the peace of Christendom,” Clement VII had replied that if he had so acted he would have been plundered to his last farthing, “unable to recover anything of my own.” This may stand as the excuse of all six. None had the wit to see that the head of the Church had a greater task than the pursuit of his “own.” When private interest is placed before public interests, and private ambition, greed and the bewitchment of exercising power determine policy, the public interest necessarily loses, never more conspicuously than under the continuing madness from Sixtus to Clement. The succession from Pope to Pope multiplied the harm. Each of the six handed on his conception of the Papacy unchanged. To each—with some larger view in the case of Julius—the vehicle of Church government, Saint Peter’s See, was thesupreme pork barrel. Through sixty years this conception suffered no penetration by doubt, no enlightenment. The values of the time brought it to extremes, but personal self-interest belongs to every time and becomes folly when it dominates government.

Illusion of permanence, of the inviolability of their power and status, was a third folly. The incumbents assumed that the Papacy was forever; that challenges could always be suppressed as they had been for centuries by Inquisition, excommunication and the stake; that the only real danger was the threat of superior authority in the form of a Council, which needed only to be fended off or controlled to leave them secure. No understanding of the protest, no recognition of their own unpopularity or vulnerability, disturbed the six minds. Their view of the interests of the institution they were appointed to govern was so short-sighted as to amount almost to perversity. They possessed no sense of spiritual mission, provided no meaningful religious guidance, performed no moral service for the Christian world.

Their three outstanding attitudes—obliviousness to the growing disaffection of constituents, primacy of self-aggrandizement, illusion of invulnerable status—are persistent aspects of folly. While in the case of the Renaissance popes, these were bred in and exaggerated by the surrounding culture, all are independent of time and recurrent in governorship.

* Not counting one who reigned for 26 days and one foreigner for less than two years.

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