The Roman Spring of Clement VII

The Sack of Rome, 1527

by André Chastel, translated by Beth Archer
Bollingen Series XXXV:26, Princeton University Press, 321 pp., $40.00

From the fall of Babylon onward, the catastrophes of great cities—Rome of the Caesars, Jerusalem, Constantinople, Hiroshima—have been signs and wonders. The Sack of Rome in 1527 by the undisciplined troops of the emperor Charles V symbolized, like the other wondrous disasters, the defeat of one way of life and the victory, or threatened victory, of another. Before 1527 the Rome of the Renaissance had been glorious for its great works of art and splendid buildings, but tawdry and vulnerable as the seat of worldly bishops whose doctrinal orthodoxy did not excuse their indifferent conduct. The Sack occurred in the midst of the long power struggle in Italy between the French and the Hapsburg monarchies. Charles’s army, raised to dominate the north of the peninsula, failed in its task there and poured over the Apennines in the direction of Rome, so demoralized and ill-paid as to be hardly more than an armed mob.

The German Reformation was already old enough for a large number of the Catholic emperor’s troops to be Lutherans who were fiercely incredulous of the holiness of papal Rome. The pope’s diplomats and soldiers, world-weary men who had seen too much marching and countermarching to believe in the effectiveness of armies, arranged an expensive truce with the appropriate imperial official. The army of the anti-imperial League of Cognac held cautiously aloof, not wishing to engage the enemy unless the case was more urgent than it seemed. By the normal rules of the Italian war game, the forces of Charles V had been bought off. But the imperial army commanded by Charles de Bourbon was too loosely controlled to heed the rules: in early May of 1527 it suddenly appeared before Rome and launched an all-out assault. Bourbon was killed in the first attack, but within twenty-four hours his army had broken through the defenses and entered the city by the undefended bridges.

The pope, Clement VII, narrowly gained the shelter of his main fortress in the city, Castel Sant’Angelo, but this afforded him only a brief respite, and after a short period he had to seek the precarious shelter of a nearby papal town. Rome was given over to barbarous plunder and destruction for several months. The Lutheran soldiers carved their names on Raphael’s great pictures in the Vatican Palace; proud cardinals were placed in chains, and hung by their hair to make them give up their treasures; churches and holy shrines and the relics they contained were looted and defiled. It was a sacrilegious desecration of the great holy place of Catholic Christendom, effected at the very moment when the doctrines of the German Reformation were about to enter other parts of Europe, and when the name “Protestant” was about to be born.

It is hard to describe such events without falling into a certain oldfashioned rhetoric. Yet it is easy, too, to see them in a more sober and modern way. On half a dozen occasions at least during the Middle Ages, Rome had been subjected to similar storming and looting, though perhaps the damage had only been as great, comparatively, during the Norman attack of 1084. Not only was the Sack not unprecedented, its physical and social results on Rome after 1527 were quite limited. In my own book on Rome, I have argued that adjustment had been made to its demographic and social results by soon after the mid-century.1

Nor does the Sack seem to be an essential element in the history of the spiritual and temporal power of the popes: the latest book on the sixteenth-century history of this subject, by the distinguished Italian religious historian Paolo Prodi does not even mention the Sack of Rome.2 Finally, Rome did not wait for the Counter-Reformation in order to rebuild. The town-planning schemes begun by the popes before the Sack were on the whole continued—above all they were continued at St. Peter’s—by the popes who followed. Work on some of the greatest monuments of sixteenth-century Rome, notably the Farnese Palace and the Capitol Square of Michelangelo, was begun within a very few years of the Sack. Rome did not shrink into obscurity, but reemerged without delay, quite as proud as ever. Twenty-five years after the Sack the French poet Joachim du Bellay wrote of the “bold façades” of the great Roman palaces.

The distinguished art historian André Chastel has written a book on the Sack of Rome which seems to me flawed but deeply interesting. It was originally written in French (or so I infer from the introduction) to be delivered in 1977 as the A.W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts. It is a distinguished and perhaps also a deceptive book, far less conventional in its historical method than is at first apparent. Professor Chastel set himself the difficult and unfamiliar task of identifying and exploring the casual and unexpected elements in history that produce “wonders.” Very surprisingly, and this distinguishes his approach from that of most other historians, he is interested not only in events which seemed wondrous to their contemporaries, but also in events which are perceived as extraordinary and unexpected by the historian. He emphasizes the workings of chance, and of what sixteenth-century historians like Francesco Guicciardini used to call “fortuna.”

His theme is the way in which an unforeseen and catastrophic event impinges upon the consciousness of both learned and vulgar, and creates or transforms sets of artistic symbols. He hopes to explore individual and collective fantasies: of these, certainly, there were plenty to be found at the time of the 1527 Sack, which came at the high tide of one of the great waves of religious prophecy and astrological superstition. The symbolism is explained by Chastel with accurate learning: like some other distinguished historians, he thinks that God is in the details. But he also returns frequently to a sequence of historical events that were unplanned even in a military sense and involve the reader in the confusion, disorder, and unpredictability of social collapse as Chastel feels that it was actually experienced by the participants. Anyone who lived through the chaos of 1945 in Europe will recognize the atmosphere of his book, and perhaps his recollections of that period were not without influence on its composition. But the effect of all this is rather to dislocate his treatment of the subject, and to impart a rather breathless quality which somewhat impairs the intellectual organization of the main argument.

An art historian can approach the Sack of Rome from two quite different directions. On one hand he can see it as marking a break in the cultural history of Rome, in that it was preceded by an identifiable style which was proper to a group of artists and architects working in and around the papal court, and was followed in the 1530s by a style that was significantly different. That in some cases the artists responsible for the style of the later period had worked in Rome before the Sack does not affect the argument. Chastel is especially interesting on what he calls the “Clementine” style, that is, the style of the artists, including Rosso Fiorentino, Francesco Penni, and Giulio Romano, employed in the court of Pope Clement VII in the four years preceding the Sack.

Such “proto-Mannerists,” Chastel argues, were moving away from the influence of both Raphael and Michelangelo. His account of them refreshes by its freedom from irritating subtleties about what constitutes Mannerism and what does not. He writes with verve about the transformation of the style of Roman court artists after the final return of Pope Clement to Rome following the Sack, and, particularly, after the return of Michelangelo to Rome in 1534. His feeling seems to be that changes in taste, which are perhaps the most elusive of all the phantoms with which art historians seek to grapple, are imposed by the changed conditions of the time upon the patrons, rather than dictated by the patrons to the artists.

Thus, even though Clement VII had directly inspired the “proto-Mannerism” of the Roman style which preceded the Sack, after the terrible and sobering experiences of 1527-1530 the pope “saw that the style of art had to change. He too succumbed to the appeal of [Michelangelo’s] terribilità.” Thus Michelangelo was called to Rome to begin work on the Last Judgment of the Sistine Chapel by the same pope who had sponsored such different artistic styles before the Sack.

But to account for an artist’s change of style and subject is no simple matter: we may doubt, for example, whether the sparse artistic production of Sebastiano del Piombo after the Sack is to be attributed to the severity of his experiences in 1527 or to his having acquired a plump Church sinecure which excused him from the further need to labor.

Perhaps Chastel devotes rather less systematic attention than he might have done to the diffusion of the “Roman” style in Italy and abroad by artists driven from Rome by the Sack. The nature of this phenomenon has been questioned, and Chastel’s argument would be stronger for less psychological speculation about the effects on the artists of the “trauma” of the Sack and more information about the artistic effects of their dispersal. He writes interestingly of the ambitions of the Venetians to make their city, through the welcome of some of the exiled artists, “a second Rome,” but more discussion of this sort about the post-Sack diaspora would have been helpful.

A qualification should also be made about the later history of Roman artistic programs. Chastel emphasizes the great changes in taste which he considers took place in Rome during the decade after the Sack. But the secular conservatism of the Roman court, and the fact that almost all the popes to reign between 1513 and 1559 belonged to the same generation in age, meant that the methods of papal propaganda remained much the same, even if styles changed. Chastel expounds the artistic monuments that were executed in or with reference to Castel Sant’Angelo after the Sack, inspired by the part that the fortress had played in protecting the pope in 1527. It might be added that the decorative series that Pope Paul III placed in Castel Sant’Angelo in the 1540s marked the reemergence of a propagandist curial style whose topics are organized on principles very like those of the programs inspired by the Medicis earlier in the century. Perino del Vaga’s Pope Paul III as Alexander the Great is a concept like those that had been illustrated for the Medici popes by artists working in the Vatican Palace before the Sack.

Similarly, Francesco Salviati’s glorification of the Farnese family in his Palazzo Farnese frescoes reflects the style and methods of the Sala di Costantino in the Vatican Palace, executed by others in the 1520s. The developed Mannerist style of the artists working in Rome after the Sack differed notably from that of the Rome of Raphael and Giulio Romano, but the propagandist methods of their patrons was much the same.

Chastel also approaches the Sack from the quite different point of view of the collective attitude of the popular religious mind toward Rome and its moral failings. This is an enormous subject which constantly threatens to spill over into the history of the Reformation, though it is handled here with discretion. Essentially Chastel makes a contrast between the elitist, courtly art of papal Rome and the popular propagandist art of German—chiefly the Lutheran—woodcuts and engravings. I wish that he had not chosen to refer to the latter as “mass media,” but the point is valid. He builds on the work of Aby Warburg and others on the astrological pamphlets of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and also on that of Reformation historians.

On the eve of the sack,” he writes,

Italy was rife with superstitious calculations and obsessions. Any slightly unusual event was seen as “a sign.” Politics, collective dreams, symbols, were in constant interaction…. If any single feature is symptomatic of the period, it is the mixture of calculation and resignation brought about by the reigning obsession with astrology. Each year, predictions of dire events, catastrophes, or rectifications that would affect the future of Christianity rapidly followed one after the other.

It is hard to know whether the “obsession” with astrology was new or not, since the number of publications concerned with this subject may simply reflect a new awareness among printers that these were things that would sell. There are plenty of indications that superstitious belief in astrology had been rife at all levels of society for at least a couple of centuries.

There is a certain amorphousness about the concept of the collective psychology of a period, and the evidence presented by the prints and pamphlets Chastel refers to is harder to evaluate than he allows; it is also rather fragmentary. Before the Sack there was certainly a widely diffused feeling, not confined to the Germanic lands, that some kind of apocalyptic judgment would be visited upon Rome for its sins. But how did the currents of opinion represented by antipapal pamphleteers react to the Sack itself? Chastel tells us little about this. The Sack itself was not, apparently, described in any contemporary print or broadsheet in Italy or Germany; it is hard to think that it was in the forefront of the minds of the pamphleteers if they never even bothered to portray it.

Professor Chastel has no more in common with the recent practitioners of “psychohistory” than he has with those who have sought in the past to fuse the history of art styles with social history. Twice in this book he associates his methods with those of the late Millard Meiss, but I can find no real equivalent in the book under review to the kind of social analysis that Meiss (and before him, in a Marxist manner, Frederick Antal) tried to use.3 Chastel’s long and distinguished career has produced a series of learned and perceptive studies on the humanist background and the literary sources of works of art, especially those of the Renaissance period.4 The present book does not try to pin the history of styles into sociological categories; Chastel is (one is tempted to say) too civilized for that. If his Sack of Rome has a direct predecessor, it is probably the unfinished The Year 1000 of Henri Focillon. The collective fears and neuroses of Christian Europe in the years preceding the year 1000, which was supposed by the prophetic literature to be the immediate preliminary to the last days, have much in common with the apocalyptic fantasies of the Reformation period. As with the Sack of Rome, the prophetic fury died away when the feared event actually occurred. And with Focillon, as with Chastel, there is a poetic element in the historical analysis he makes of the artistic and religious atmosphere surrounding a central event.

The disasters of great cities are as much a literary as a historical theme. The thirty-first chapter of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which describes the fifth-century sackings of Rome, is itself a great literary tour de force; Flaubert used the agony of Carthage in Salammbô, Tolstoy the burning of Moscow in War and Peace, Thomas Mann the decadence of Venice. The predominantly literary nature of Chastel’s culture means that these classics shed more light on the subject of his book than works of systematic social analysis are ever likely to do.

The trouble with a literary approach to events like the Sack is that it is inevitably a moralizing one. Chastel, whose work is refreshing for the unprejudiced way in which it turns to Burckhardt or Michelet as naturally as to present-day learning, twice quotes Burckhardt’s dictum that “spiritual and worldly revival” was to grow from the disaster of the Sack. He also quotes in support of this dictum, as Burckhardt does, the opinions of the humanist Bishop Sadoleto about the prospects for the growth of a spirit of reform in the Roman court. But we cannot accept these obiter dicta of the great nineteenth-century historians, as Chastel seems to do, as deciding opinions on great matters like the origins of the Counter-Reformation.

That the Sack had profound effects on the Roman court no one will deny: nor will it be denied that the style, taste, and political climate of Paul III’s pontificate (1534-1549) were widely different from what Burckhardt called the “frivolity and depraved behavior” of that of Leo X (1513-1521). But the Counter-Reformation, or even, to put it more narrowly, the progress of the various reforming currents inside the Roman court, is an affair that cannot be confined within the bounds marked by nineteenth-century historians whose views were affected by things very different from those affecting us, and who were denied a huge amount of the evidence that is available to us. The Counter-Reformation cannot be thought of simply as “spiritual and worldly revival” (kirchlich-weltliche Restauration, in Burckhardt’s phrase); least of all can it be considered, as Burckhardt thought it to be, as a movement whose moral content was owing to the stimulus provided by the reformers.

As an example of the way in which the Sack may be thought of as having contributed to Catholic reform, we may take a career which at first examination seems to confirm Chastel’s ideas, that of the great model of a Counter-Reformation bishop, Gian Matteo Giberti. Giberti had been one of the political and administrative leaders of the Roman court before the Sack, and a main inspirer of the policies of the struggle for the “liberty of Italy” which ended with the Sack. His experiences in 1527 as the captive of the imperial soldiers were appalling, and they might be expected to have provoked the trauma that determined his subsequent reforming career.

But this is not at all the opinion of his modern biographer, Adriano Prosperi, who thinks that while the Sack did produce a revulsion in Giberti against some of his former worldly occupations, it did not mark the kind of clean break in his life that might be expected.5 The difficulty here resembles the one we noted about Sebastiano del Piombo. Giberti was a pious man before the Sack, just as we may presume Sebastiano to have been by temperament an indolent man. Both were sobered and shaken by their grim experiences. Sebastiano was said to have remarked after the Sack that he was not the same Sebastiano as he had been before it. But although the Sack may be said to have made both men into different persons, and even though it may be said to have turned both toward religion, it still did not make both of them into the same kind of person. The wondrous and the terrible must affect men-in different ways, and the collective history of the passions, which Chastel has the candor to aspire to write, seems to me to be something that lies outside our grasp, and may always do so.

Professor Chastel has little to thank his translator for. Examples of homonymous translation abound; thus the English text has “reparations” (for réparations, repairs, p. 105); “deviations” (for déviations, divergences from a norm, p. 17); “authority express” (for authorité expresse, explicit powers of command, p. 15). My favorite mistranslation is “one of those accidents which bereave pilgrims” (p. 47), meaning, in the context, some pilgrims who fell off a bridge and were killed by drowning. Sometimes, at critical stages of the argument, meaning has been reduced almost to vanishing point, as in the case of “the revelatory obsessions which, through astrologic or prophetic calculations, constitute noteworthy mental blocks and deviations” (pp. 16-17). At that point my mental block was almost complete.


Translation June 2, 1983

  1. 1

    In Renaissance Rome 1500-1559: A Portrait of a Society (University of California Press, 1976).

  2. 2

    Il sovrano pontefice: un corpo e due anime: la monarchia papale nella prima età moderna (Bologna, 1982).

  3. 3

    Painting in Florence and Siena after the Black Death (Princeton University Press, 1951).

  4. 4

    Notably Art et humanisme à Florence au temps de Laurent le Magnifique (1959), and Fables, Formes, Figures, 2 vols. (1978).

  5. 5

    Tra evangelismo e Controriforma: G.M. Giberti (1495-1543) (Rome, 1969).