Clement VII and the sack of Rome

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The Sack of Rome 1527 - The Darkest Hour of the Landsknechts

Giulio de’ Medici, who finally emerged as Pope Clement VII in November 1523, was not only a tried administrator but a prelate hardened by much experience of armed conflict. As a youth in 1497 he had taken part in an attempt to restore the family to power in Florence; indeed, Guicciardini, commenting on this, remarked that he was more suited to arms than to the priesthood. He entered the crusading Order of Knights Hospitaller of St John, and joined the household of his cousin, Cardinal Giovanni de’ Medici, accompanying him – and unlike him, avoiding capture – at the Battle of Ravenna in 1512. After Giovanni’s accession as Leo X Giulio was promoted to the cardinalate and office of Vice-Chancellor, and – as already mentioned – served as papal legate to the army in the campaign against Francis I in Lombardy in 1515 and in the war of Urbino. He took part in crusade planning in 1517 and in the Marche campaign in 1520, and was again legate to the army in the war in Lombardy in 1521. He continued to be active under Adrian VI, and in April 1522 was credited with defeating an attempted Bentivoglio coup at Bologna. The English ambassador at Rome reported (quoted here in his own words with archaic spelling),

Cardinal de Medicis, as legat of the said citie, made soche provision… that, the armye being within, with the aid of the peple issued out and slewe diverse of ther enemys…and put the whole [French and Bentivoglio] armye to flight so that the said Citie by the wisdom and diligence of the said Cardinall is savid for the Churche.

Yet after he became pope in November 1523 Giulio was for ever stamped – thanks to contemporary writers such as Guicciardini and Giovio, who observed him closely – with the reputation of timidity and vacillation. This was the pope who in May 1527 would have to face the sack of Rome, the gravest, most terrifying and humiliating challenge of armed force faced by any pope throughout the whole history of the papal monarchy, worse than in 1084, 1112, 1303, 1413, 1494 or indeed 1798 or 1870.

It could be argued that Clement lacked several of the indispensable qualities to be an effective Renaissance pope, and could do little about it. Of these essentials, he lacked first large resources of money. Second he lacked an aspiring and dependable son, nephew or other close male relative anxious to make a career in the Church or the papal state. His second cousin Giovanni Salviati, on whom Leo had conferred the red hat in 1517, was to prove quite able as a diplomatist, but he was probably too Florentine and parentally dominated to be potentially a Machiavellian new prince. It is worth noting, however, that Machiavelli had sent him a copy of his Art of War, about which the young cardinal wrote appreciatively in September 1521, assuring the author that the defects in organisation of modern armies, including the army of the Church, could be overcome by adopting his precepts. Another second cousin, Ippolito, who would become a cardinal in 1529, was altogether too young and too headstrong to fill the role of a prince within the papal state, and even he yearned in preference for power in Florence. Third, and most important of all Clement’s deficiencies, the second Medici pope lacked fortuna.

This third deficiency was most evident from the course of war in Italy in 1524–25 between the forces of Charles V and Francis I. Having at first continued cautiously to support the imperial cause, Clement, much influenced by Gianmatteo Giberti, his former secretary now promoted to a major post (‘datarius’) in the papal chancery, wavered and switched to France. How can this fatal step be explained? The Pope had of course pro-French tendencies going far back in his career, and may have been dazzled by Francis I’s successes in Lombardy in the autumn of 1524. He may even have had hopes, in spite of its dangers, about the foolhardy expedition to the south of James Stuart, Duke of Albany, or at least wanted to avoid exposing Rome to any threat from Albany’s large army. If only that adamant Swiss, Cardinal Schiner, had still been around, maybe Clement would have been dissuaded from switching to France, but Schiner had died at Rome in December 1522, a year before his former partner in anti-French campaigns became pope. An official agreement was signed with Francis in January 1525, but the timing could not have been worse, on account of the sensational defeat and capture of Francis in the Battle of Pavia at the end of February. This left Clement, by a stroke of extraordinarily bad luck, in a position of weakness from which it would take long to recover. Giberti, falling back on the argument that it was all a miraculous demonstration of God’s will, encouraged the cardinal legate, Giovanni Salviati, to send a note of congratulation to Charles V and express the Pope’s hope that peace would follow, that this was what he had always desired. In fact, a treaty negotiated with the Emperor and signed on his behalf by Lannoy, viceroy of Naples, seemed to give Clement almost all he could want. It included the guaranteed integrity of the papal state, with Reggio and Rubiera, which had been seized again by Alfonso d’Este during the long papal vacancy in autumn 1523, handed back, and Francesco II Sforza accepted as Duke of Milan. Unfortunately for Clement, nothing was done to implement this treaty.

After the Peace of Madrid, in January 1526, when Francis I was released from captivity, and in turn proceeded to break the terms that had been agreed, Clement again needed to act decisively. In a long letter or harangue addressed to him in March Guicciardini reproached him for not being as firm and astute as he had been as a cardinal, and insisted that decisive action could still save the situation and ‘liberate the Apostolic See and Italy from this atrocious and disgraceful servitude’. The Pope should act boldly, Guicciardini complained; for instance, he should retake Reggio ‘or play some trick on Cardinal Pompeo Colonna’, who was certainly the most aggressive, pro-imperial and ambitious member of the Sacred College. He (Clement) could yet emerge as ‘the most glorious pope in two hundred years’.

For brief periods Clement appeared to muster some strength. The signing in May 1526 of the Holy League of Cognac with Francis I, an avowedly aggressive alliance, seemed to signify a new beginning. In a letter of self-justification sent to the Emperor in June 1526 the Pope was emphatic that Charles should withdraw from Italy, reproaching him for the non-fulfilment of treaty obligations and his violations of papal territory including Parma, and his forcing Clement to seek other allies and to take arms in self-defence. In July Guicciardini, now commissary general of the papal army, saw that immediate action was imperative: a rapid move to capture Milan had every chance of victory over the unpaid, unprepared, numerically inferior imperial forces in Lombardy. That this did not happen seems to have been mainly the fault of the Duke of Urbino, who first hesitated because the Swiss troops had not arrived, and then, having made in July several unsuccessful attempts to attack Milan, retreated; in August and September he lost more time, in spite of receiving French reinforcements, by carrying on the fairly pointless siege of Cremona, then held by imperial forces.

Perhaps it would have made a difference if Clement VII had appointed a resolute cardinal legate to the army and applied himself with furious vigour, as Julius II would have done, to rallying the coalition and insisting on action. The blame, it has to be repeated, falls on the Duke of Urbino, that same Francesco Maria della Rovere who had failed his uncle Julius II in 1511 and been ousted from Urbino by Leo X, only to be reinstated in his dukedom under Adrian VI and – in spite of his known resentment against the Medici for the way they had treated him – reappointed Captain of the Church by Clement. Meanwhile, as well as losing the military initiative, Clement received a crushing reply to his ‘justification’, aimed at depriving him also of the moral high ground. This reply, handed to Castiglione on 18 September 1526, took the argument back to fundamentals, even playing the Lutheran card. The Pope, the Emperor insisted, had drawn the sword that Christ ordered Peter to put up. It was beyond belief for the vicar of Christ to acquire worldly possessions at the cost of even one drop of human blood. No one was coming to attack the Holy See, so there was no need of weapons or troops.

As for Guicciardini’s suggestion to play a clever trick on Cardinal Pompeo Colonna, Clement was instead the victim of an outrageous demonstration by that overpowerful dissident, who in spite of the above assurance did come to attack the Holy See, and moreover did so in the Emperor’s name. Pompeo had nearly been elected pope himself in 1523 but was finally persuaded to switch his votes (rather reminiscent of Ascanio Sforza in 1492) in exchange for the vice-chancellorship and other compensations; his fury at Clement’s desertion of the Emperor in 1525 and signing later of the League of Cognac led him to call an armed march on Rome by the Colonna and their supporters in September 1526. Here was a cardinal – not only that, but the Vice-Chancellor of the Church, head of the whole machinery of papal government – declaring war on the Pope: it was one of the most bizarre and anarchic episodes in a long trend of violent behaviour on the part of a secularised minority in the Sacred College. According to Paolo Giovio, whose biography of Pompeo was highly partisan and stressed his love of family and military honour, 8000 knights and 3000 infantry commanded by Pompeo’s brother were involved in this expedition, with artillery drawn by buffaloes and men, helped at difficult points by Pompeo himself.63 When they reached Rome the cardinal shut himself up in his palace, leaving his followers do as much damage as they could, looting and terrifying the inhabitants of Rome, though they did not succeed in laying hands on Clement.

The Pope took his revenge on the Colonna in November 1526 with a punitive campaign worthy of Alexander VI, demolishing their fortresses and devastating their lands. According to the papal bull condemning Pompeo, which was published in February 1527, the latter’s purpose had been to seize Clement, alive or dead, and to rule as pope in his place, apparently without election by his peers, or any other of the normal formalities. It is hard to imagine how on earth Pompeo can have justified to his conscience and his confessor this treasonable presumption, or justified using force in a manner more calculated to endanger than defend the Church. Though formally deprived of his cardinalate and other offices, he was not punished for long. In fact, he was soon needed to intercede on Clement’s behalf with much more fanatical enemies than himself, and give refuge to fellow cardinals and others in danger.

Meanwhile in September 1526 the Job-like Clement had also had to bear the shock of the Turkish victory at Mohács in Hungary, and news of the loss to Christendom of that country. Like Adrian and Leo before him when such tidings of disaster arrived, Clement declared that he himself would take part in a military expedition and as vicar of Christ was prepared to lay down his life. It was no clearer than the avowals of previous popes, whether he meant by this simply to be ready for martyrdom, or was prepared even to fall in combat. A war-planning council of five cardinals was set up, but it is fairly clear that the Pope’s distractions in Italy, quite apart from his shortage of money, meant that nothing would be done.

Worse than the Colonna raid was to come in the spring of 1527, with the League of Cognac coalition not only continuing to do nothing, but even failing to protect Rome from the mainly Spanish army advancing under the Duke of Bourbon’s command and the horde of Lutheran ‘landsknechts’ under George von Frundsberg. The latter were mercenary foot soldiers, first raised by the Emperor Maximilian in the early years of the century from the south German lowlands. Less disciplined than the Alpine Swiss on whom they were supposedly modelled, landsknechts were a brutal new phenomenon in European warfare. Armed with huge pikes and swords, swaggering in feathered hats and slashed breeches, inspired by Lutheran slogans but furious for want of food and wages, Frundsberg’s undisciplined troops were a terrifying prospect for Rome, even if the Spaniards, demoralised after Bourbon’s death, proved to be equally brutal and avaricious.

For all his military experience, Clement did not strike a heroic pose as he cowered in the Castel Sant’Angelo amid the horrors of the sack and the passive experience of hearing and watching Spanish sappers undermining it; one correspondent in Rome wrote in horrified anticipation of seeing ‘a pope and a whole flock of cardinals blown into the air by fire’. Most of the cardinals, those not with the Pope in the safety of the castle, fared much worse in the terrible months of May and June 1527, suffering torture and mockery to extort from them money and valuables, not only from the landsknechts but also from the Spanish captains whom some had paid handsomely for protection. Few offered physical resistance, in spite of their well-stocked armouries, guards and military retainers. An exception may have been Cardinal Giovanni Piccolomini, who probably considered himself untouchable, having a solidly pro-imperial and pro-German family background from his great uncle Pius II onwards. Nevertheless, according to one of the most reliable accounts – a letter of Cardinal Scaramuccia Trivulzio of Como to his secretary, sent later from Civitavecchia – Piccolomini suffered twice over. After he had bought off the Spaniards, the cardinal’s palace was then assaulted by landsknechts. Since the latter were said to have kept up the attack for four hours before the cardinal surrendered, it sounds as though there was counter-fire from within, and the dead piled up on both sides. Cardinal Piccolomini was paraded through the streets, bareheaded and in a shabby garment, kicked and punched and forced to make another ransom payment, before gaining refuge with Cardinal Pompeo Colonna.

In December 1527 Clement eventually bought his escape to Orvieto, and by then could again pin some hope on relief by the forces of the League of Cognac. For a French army, led by Odette de Foix, Vicomte de Lautrec, had gained much success in Lombardy and Emilia; early in 1528 it advanced down the Adriatic coast; it won many more victories before laying siege to Naples in April. There Lautrec was deadlocked. The city, defended by imperial forces, was still holding out in August when Lautrec himself died of disease; the remnants of his army had to withdraw northwards. Once again fortuna had been cruel to the Pope. Or had the papacy met its deserts as the victim of military force, hoist by its own petard after itself sponsoring so much war and slaughter?

The debate about the sack of Rome – whether it represented scandalous sacrilege and disaster or a providential judgement of God on a corrupted body – was only just beginning. One writer in the court of Charles V, Erasmus’s friend Juan de Valdés, made a pretty clear case for the latter point of view, in a polemical dialogue that attacked the whole concept of papal war and deplored all the horrors it had perpetrated. The protagonist, called Lactancio, is answered by an apologetic archdeacon, who uses the old argument of necessary defence of the Church; at one point he concedes, ‘I agree that all those things are very cruel, but the people of Italy would look down on a pope who didn’t wage war. They would think it a great insult if a single inch of Church land were lost.’

Whether or not there was any truth in the fictitious archdeacon’s assertion, it is paradoxical that, relatively soon after Clement VII’s return to Rome in October 1528 and reconciliation with Charles V in the Treaty of Barcelona (29 June 1529), the Pope seems to have recovered more purpose than he had shown for years. Charles, not without a tinge of remorse for what had happened, now stood as guarantor of both the papal lands in Italy and of a Medici principate in Florence, to replace the popular republic that had been set up there in 1527. After the successful imperial siege of Florence (1529–30) and final overthrowal of the republic, Clement endeavoured to take a strong line with cities in the papal state that had again tried to throw off papal rule during the period of crisis. Ancona was one example. On the strength of allegations that Ancona was threatened by Turkish naval attack – allegations strongly denied by the city’s own ambassadors – he sent a force to take it in 1532, suppressed the ancient civic constitution and appointed as cardinal legate and governor Benedetto Accolti. Archbishop of Ravenna and a papal secretary since 1523, Accolti had been made a cardinal in 1527, and commanded a troop of 4000 Spanish infantry in the siege of Florence. At Ancona he supervised the building of a new fortress complete with its own gun foundry, and his government was reputedly so oppressive that he was eventually removed and put on trial under Clement’s successor. His interests appear to be neatly expressed by the inventory of his possessions, drawn up after his arrest in 1535, where scarcely any devotional objects, books or works of art are listed (one of the few exceptions was a portrait of Julius II), but several swords and daggers and six or seven handguns.

Perugia also had to be dealt with. Clement appointed as legate in Umbria his second cousin Ippolito de’ Medici, the bastard son of Giuliano, Duke of Nemours, who had been raised to the purple at the age of eighteen in January 1529. The purpose of his legation was to dispossess Malatesta Baglioni of Perugia, who was then serving the republic of Florence as military commander against the besieging imperial and papal army. Ippolito never went there, and delegated the administration to a series of vice-legates, the first of whom in 1529–30 was Ennio Filonardi, Bishop of Veroli, but the condition of Perugia deteriorated and reached a point of crisis under Clement’s successor.

Ippolito de’ Medici’s opportunity for greater glory came in 1532 when he was sent as papal ambassador to Charles V’s brother Ferdinand, Archduke of Austria and King of Hungary. Ippolito arrived in Ratisbon (modern Regensburg) with a retinue of five prelates, ten secretaries and an armed guard of thirty to forty gentlemen, most of whom were former military captains, and with 5000 ducats in hand with which to enrol troops. His office was extended to that of papal legate to Ferdinand’s army against the Turks in Hungary, and the Venetian ambassador reported on 1 September that he had set off by boat down the Danube accompanied by ten gunners (arquebusieri). Ippolito was described as ‘dressed like Jupiter’ – modified in a subsequent letter to ‘wearing military habit’. Unfortunately, a portrait by Titian showing him in full armour does not survive; Vasari mentions it in his life of the artist as painted at Bologna at the same time as the well-known portrait of the Cardinal in the costume of a Turkish warrior (which it seems unlikely that he was wearing on the above occasion). Ippolito intended to select horses at Vienna and proceed at once to the battlefront, but when he reached the imperial army, which was on full alert, the Turks on the other side of the river made no move. Eventually the campaign was called off and Ippolito was said to have expressed his disappointment with such rage that Ferdinand imprisoned him for a day. The Mantuan agent in Rome, Fabrizio Peregrino, whose graphic and opinionated dispatches will frequently be quoted in the following pages, heard of this episode and commented that Ippolito had wanted madly to play the part of a war captain (‘voleva pazzamente fare il capitano di guerra’). After the papal election in 1534 he quickly left the Apostolic Palace and planned to leave Rome altogether, according to Peregrino, to reduce the expense of maintaining so many military captains and bravi.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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