The Sack of Rome began on this day in 1527, during the pontificate of the second Medici pope, Clement VII (r. 1523-34) .

by Sheryl E. Reiss

The Sack of Rome began on this day in 1527, during the pontificate of the second Medici pope, Clement VII (r. 1523-34). Imperial troops loyal to the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V ransacked the city after their commander, Duke Charles de Bourbon, Constable de France, was shot shortly after the onset of the assault. The pontiff and members of his entourage fled to the Castel Sant’Angelo and watched in horror as the city was sacked. Altars were desecrated and relics were stolen and profaned. Many thousands died or were cruelly tortured, churches and monasteries were plundered, and palaces and houses were looted and burned. Graffiti, including the name of Martin Luther, defaced the walls of the Vatican Stanze, and Guillaume de Marcillat’s stained glass windows in the papal apartments were destroyed. Benvenuto Cellini’s Autobiography provides a vivid, if self-aggrandizing, account of the siege of the Castel Sant’Angelo, the sculptor claiming to have taken out Bourbon himself.

In the months after the Sack, Rome caput mundi, became, in the words of contemporaries: “Rome, the Wretched, Rome, the Sorrowful.” As a result of the Sack of Rome, nearly all the artists who had come to Rome at the outset of Clement VII’s pontificate fled the city. Polidoro da Caravaggio went to Naples and Rosso Fiorentino went to the court of King Francis I at Fontainebleau. Parmigianino went to Bologna, and in 1530 returned to his native Parma, and Perino del Vaga worked in Genoa for several years.  Perhaps the most poignant document to convey the impact of the catastrophe on artists is Sebastiano del Piombo’s letter of February 24, 1531 in which he wrote to Michelangelo Buonarroti: “I don’t feel myself to be the same Sebastiano I was before the Sack. I can’t go back to that frame of mind.”  

After Maerten van Heemskerck, The Death of Charles de Bourbon and the Sack of Rome, from The Victories of Charles V, 1556, engraving

Castel Sant’Angelo, Rome

Sebastiano del Piombo, Pope Clement VII, 1526, oil on canvas, Museo e Gallerie Nazionali di Capodimonte, Naples

Titian, Charles V with a Dog, 1533, oil on canvas, Madrid: Museo del Prado

Workshop of Guido Durantino, Large plate (grande piatto): An episode from the Sack of Rome, 1527: the assault on the Borgo, ca. 1540, maiolica (tin-glazed earthenware), New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Robert Lehman Collection, 1975.1.1120

Further reading: André Chastel, The Sack of Rome, 1527, trans. Beth Archer (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1983); Judith  Hook, The Sack of Rome 1527, 2nd ed. (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004); and The Pontificate of Clement VII:  History, Politics, Culture, ed. Kenneth Gouwens and Sheryl E. Reiss (Aldershot, U.K./Burlington,Vermont 2005).

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