A Violent End to the Roman Renaissance: A 16th c. Manuscript Copy of A Contemporary Account of the 1527 Sack of Rome.

ROME. Guicciardini, Luigi (1478-1551)

Il Sacco di Roma

Italy, c. 1580 1580


Folio: 28.5 x 18.7 cm. [106] pp.

Manuscript on paper. Text in brown ink written in a late 16th c. hand, 20 lines per page. Paper with watermarks of an anchor and a bird. Bound in a fine modern calf binding, ruled in blind, title tooled in gold on front board.

A rare 16th c. Italian manuscript of Luigi Guicciardini's valuable account of the brutal and nightmarish 1527 sack of Rome. While popular in the 16th c., the text remained unpublished until 1664 (an edition that is now rare) and did not see a second edition until 1867. On the extant manuscripts and the two redactions containing notes in Guicciardini’s hand, see Farenga, "L'Historia del sacco di Roma di Luigi Guicciardini."

The Sack of Rome in 1527 brought to an end the Roman renaissance. The barbarism of the sack, which lasted for weeks and saw countless men, women, and children raped, tortured, mutilated, and murdered, repulsed and shocked all of Europe.

Guicciardini wrote his book in two parts, of which this manuscript contains the second. The first part detailed the political and military events that led up to the sack, beginning with the creation of the Holy League in April 1526, while the second part –by far the more gripping- details the events of the sack itself, beginning with the march of Emperor Charles V's army, led by Charles, Duke of Bourbon, toward Rome in April 1527.

On May 6th, all of Rome awoke to find the Imperial army outside the walls. The Emperor's army, composed of German and Spanish troops, exhausted from battle and short of provisions, made a daring attack on the city. By exploiting chance weaknesses in the city walls, the invaders entered the city, where they met very little resistance from the ill-prepared defenders.

The Spaniards, whose "only goal was to kill whomever they encountered", invaded the city in force, killing about a thousand defenders and (with a number of terrified Roman deserters who fell in with them) overtook the Borgo and Trastevere. They refreshed themselves with the food and supplies they found and marched triumphantly over Ponte Sisto, which had been –to their great surprise- largely abandoned. They took the rest of the city with great ease, with the exception of Castel Sant'Angelo, where the pope, cardinals, and anyone else fortunate to have entered before the gates closed, remained under siege for the duration of the sack.

It is at this point that Guicciardini narrates the atrocities perpetrated by the invaders. The rampaging soldiers, who had spent months unpaid and underfed, "began a terrifying slaughter". The Spaniards began raiding homes, burning to the ground those where they met the strongest resistance. The Germans were unrelenting in their slaughter -until the Spaniards convinced them to keep their victims alive in order to torture them for information about hidden treasure, and to hold them for ransom.

"So then the German lancers also began to take captive whomever they encountered, and to break into the most beautiful houses that they saw. And in a short time nearly everyone was taken prisoner (people who would not surrender themselves were burned and consumed), for they had no respect for the sacred places where many women, children, and frightened men had taken refuge.

"How many courtiers, how many refined prelates, how many devoted nuns, virgins, or wives with their little children became the prey of these cruel foreigners? Great numbers of captives of all sorts were to be seen, groaning and screaming, being swiftly led to makeshift prisons. In the streets there were many corpses. Many nobles lay there cut to pieces, covered with mud and their own blood, and many people only half dead lay miserably on the ground. Sometimes in that ghastly scene a child would be seen jumping from a window, forced to jump or jumping voluntarily to escape becoming the living prey of these monsters, and finally ending their lives horribly in the street."

Guicciardini does not shy away from detailing the fiendish ingenuity of the Spaniards when torturing their victims:

"Many were suspended by their arms for hours at a time, others were led around by ropes tied to their testicles. Many were branded with hot irons. Some endured extreme thirst while others were prevented from sleeping. A very cruel and effective torture was to pull out their back teeth. Some were made to eat their own ears noses, or testicles roasted. And some were subjected to bizarre and unheard of torments that affect me too strong to even think of them, let alone to write them."

The invaders also took great pleasure in devising ways to torment and shame members of the clergy, such as forcing a priest to administer the sacrament to a mule dressed in clerical vestments (he refused and was killed) and torturing prelates until they confessed to their debaucheries and sexual perversions (The author tells us that the Spaniards were shocked by what they learned.)

"For the sake of ridicule and punishment, they carried Cardinal Aracoeli one day on a bier through every street of Rome as if he were dead, continually chanting his eulogy. They finally carried his 'corpse' to a church where with great pleasure half of his unusual (out of reverence, I will avoid saying criminal) habits were detailed in a funeral oration, along with those of other cardinals and prelates…. A priest was cruelly and shamefully killed because he refused to administer the sacrament to a mule in clerical vestments.

After three long days, the Spanish and Germans fell upon each other. With the situation deteriorating into chaos, the commanders of the army, who had previously sanctioned the predations of their men, put an end to the looting and violence.

The Rome that fell to Bourbon's army was at the height of its Renaissance splendor and magnificence, yet the soldiers that fell upon the city, although ruthless and insatiable in their quest for riches, were blind to the value of the priceless art that surrounded them. Guicciardini remarks upon this not only to emphasize the ignorance of the enemy, but also to emphasize the luxury and excess of the Romans, emblems of their moral corruption, a corruption that made them complacent and overconfident, and thus doomed the city.

"The invaders came to set very little value on the clothing, pictures, sculptures, and other ornaments that they found, even if they were precious and of great intrinsic value. They set the highest value on gold and beautiful jewels, because they occupied little space and were easily recognized. So, when they sold a ring for example, they accepted a price based on weight alone because they attached no value to the precious stones, some even engraved with perfect antique intaglios, that adorned them… Many unflawed sculptures in marble and bronze, and medals of popes and prelates cast in various metals, which had been greatly prized for their workmanship and collected over time, fell into the hands of men who considered them worthless.

"The immense riches of the Roman nobility, preserved in their families for many centuries, were destroyed in a matter of hours. The incredible profits that had been accumulated unjustly and dishonestly through years of theft, usury, simony, and other immoral means, fell in an instant into the hands of barbarians. Money, merchandise, and delicacies from all over Europe and much of the rest of the world came pouring into that city every hour to satisfy the insatiable appetites and illicit desires of its many licentious prelates and courtiers. Because they had never feared that they might lose their possessions, the Romans were surprised, sacked, and slaughtered with incredible ease and enormous profit."

There is every indication that Guicciardini wrote his account while these events unfolded. His account ends with the news that the pope remains barricaded in Castel Sant' Angelo.