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…
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