It is the 6th of May 2022. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. I'm your guest host, Sam Leanza Ortiz.
Today's show takes us to one of my favorite places, the city of Rome, which was brutally sacked by rogue mercenaries on this, the 6th of May in 1527.
To say that all roads lead to Rome is cliché, but in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, European geopolitics wove a long, winding web of paths to Rome.
Important in its own right, Rome was the seat of religious power, a political player as the Borgia and Medici families held the papal throne, and furthermore, it was geographically positioned among Italian city-states that were up for grabs.
The sacking of May 6th was a deadly blow among the many bruises wrought by the Italian wars, which began in 1494, when the French king, Charles VIII, invaded Italy – sensing weakness in the northern and central regions after the death of Lorenzo de Medici.
The French house of Valois and the Spanish house of Aragon were vying for power in the south, while the French encroached on imperial and independent territories in the north, particularly the wealthier cities of Genoa and Milan.
In this milieu, Machiavelli penned The Prince, arguing for a unified Italian peninsula whose political powers were hamstrung by the papacy.
Farther up the continent, a little thing called the Protestant Reformation was kicking off, radically altering the makeup of powers fighting in Italy. What’s more, the Ottoman Turks remained a constant threat, only being beaten off (barely) less than a century ago.
Roman Christendom seemed to be taking hits on all fronts. Hedging his bets with the empire, Pope Leo X entered an alliance with Holy Roman Emperor Charles V in 1521 against the Turks, the French, and Venetians – who were constantly on the nerves of the papacy.
Later that year, Leo X (also known as Giovanni di Medici) died, and his cousin Giulio ascended as Clement VII.
As the papacy changed hands, so did the emperor change his tack. The forces of Charles V continued to raid their way down the peninsula with no sign of stopping.
At this point, the imperial army was largely composed of German mercenaries who were known to wreak havoc when they went underpaid. At the time of the siege, they had gone without pay for some time under the command of Charles, Duke of Bourbon – the brother of Francis I, who had switched sides to serve under the emperor.
They attacked Florence, the seat of Medici power, and then set their sights on Rome.
To Charles V’s credit, he never ordered an attack on Rome, but his unruly army had gotten out of control and was determined to receive their pay, even in plunder.
On the foggy morning of May 6, they scaled Rome's walls, easily overrunning the poorly manned garrisons. Charles of Bourbon was killed early on, but his death did not deter his armies from having their way with the city and its people.
Thousands sought refuge in the papal fortress of the Castel Sant'Angelo that remains today on the banks of the Tiber, but many were trampled to death in the chaos.
Clement tried to fight as soldiers approached the papal residence, but the recently-formed Swiss guard whisked him away through a tunnel from the Vatican to the safety of the Castel. To commemorate this small victory, the Swiss guard now swears in its new members on the 6th of May every year.
The dreadful sack left Rome in shambles, either killing or displacing half of the city’s residents, numbering in the tens of thousands. Churches were desecrated, holy relics destroyed, neighborhoods ransacked, and women raped.
The initial sack turned into a siege that lasted weeks, driving survivors to the brink of plague and starvation. Pope Clement finally managed to escape Rome in December and did not think it safe to return until the following summer.
Peace between the pope and the emperor came two years later in the Treaty of Barcelona, which revived the alliance of 1521 against the Turks, renegotiated Imperial lands on the peninsula, and ultimately absolved the men involved in the sacking.
The Italian wars raged on until 1559 when the French were driven out, but Rome, or at least what was left of it, was left alone for the remainder of the conflict.
Those who survived interpreted what had happened to them in a myriad of ways. Connections to martyrdom were obvious and numerous in literary and artistic depictions. Some thought it a judgment, a purge of the lavish corruption that had marked recent papacies.
Others blamed the Reformation, suspecting Lutheranism among the German mercenaries who had scrawled Martin Luther’s name across a fresco by Raphael.
Rome and its inhabitants would rebuild from this disaster, though it marked a turning point in the history of the city and the history of the church. This sixteenth-century sacking effectively ended the Roman Renaissance, much like the fifth-century sacking ended the western Roman empire.
Within the church, the papacy and its powers had been severely curtailed, limiting but undoubtedly shaping Rome's response to the Reformation, which would not be formally constructed until the close of the Council of Trent in 1563.
Finally, once again on the Almanac, we see the pain and destruction of Christians taking up arms against one another –– a reminder that sin and death remain all too real in this fallen world that longs for Christ's return.
The last word for today comes from Psalm 62:
Yes, my soul, find rest in God;
my hope comes from him.
6 Truly he is my rock and my salvation;
he is my fortress, I will not be shaken.
7 My salvation and my honor depend on God;
he is my mighty rock, my refuge.
8 Trust in him at all times, you people;
pour out your hearts to him,
for God is our refuge.
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 6th of May 2022, brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org.
This show has been produced by Christopher Gillespie.
This show has been written and read by an enthusiast of Roman pastas; I’m Sam Leanza Ortiz, filling in for a man who applied to be a Swiss guard on account of the uniforms, but was denied on account of the height requirement – he’s Dan van Voorhis.
You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.