The Sack of Rome: The End of the Roman Renaissance


Warhafftige vnnd kurtze bericht Jnn der Summa, wie es ietzo, im tausent Funff hundert vn(d) Siben vnd zwayntzigsten Jar Den vj.tag May, durch römischer Kayserlicher, vnd hi- spanischer Küniglicher Mayestet kriegs volck, Jn eroberunng der Stat rom ergangen ist ...

[Augsburg: Heinrich Steiner] 1527


Quarto: 20 x 14.8 cm. [24] pp. A-C4


Modern marbled boards. Printed on heavy paper. Title lightly foxed and with some light stains. A little finger-soiling to text, else fine with wide margins. Single pinprick wormhole in blank lower margin. With three woodcuts: A battle scene on the title page, soldiers advancing (by Hans Weiditz) on verso, and a mounted knight on the final leaf (by Weiditz or Jörg Breu).

An anonymous account of the Sack of Rome by the mercenary soldiers of Emperor Charles V in May 1527, an event that sent shock-waves through Europe and marked the end of the Roman High Renaissance. The barbarism of the sack lasted for weeks and saw countless men, women, and children raped, tortured, mutilated, and murdered.

On May 6th, all of Rome awoke to find Charles V’s mercenary army outside the walls. The German and Spanish troops, exhausted from battle and short of provisions, threatened to mutiny against their commander, Charles III, Duke of Bourbon, and forced him to make a daring attack on the city. By exploiting chance weaknesses in the city walls, specifically, a small window, no longer in use and obscured by debris, that led into a cellar within the city, the invaders entered the city, where they met very little resistance from the ill-prepared defenders.

The Spaniards, whose only goal seemed to be killing 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.

The German landsknechts took captive whomever they encountered, and broke into the most beautiful houses that they saw. In a short time nearly everyone was taken prisoner (people who would not surrender themselves were burned), for the invaders had no respect for the churches and shrines where many women, children, and frightened men had taken refuge. 

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 the Emperor’s army was at the height of its Renaissance splendor and magnificence (and it is worth remarking that 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.) In the aftermath, Rome’s population fell dramatically, and it would take the city decades to recover.

Five different German-language reports of the sack were printed. This one, “perhaps written in late summer 1527, seems to draw on a large number of [unpublished and published] reports and information that can be described as entirely reliable.” Although the writer does not identify unconditionally with the imperial army, he is sympathetic to the Imperial army’s “anti-clerical and anti-papal actions, especially by the German landsknechts.” But if criticism of the invaders is at all is encouraged, it is mostly very subliminal, through the pitying of the victims, the people of Rome as the object of the harassing conquerors.

“The pamphlets about the ‘Sack of Rome’ included such details as the Pope's flight to Castel Sant'Angelo and his later capture, the extensive plundering of churches and palaces by the imperial soldiers, the savagery they visited upon the inhabitants of the city (especially on the members of the clergy.) At the same time, the death of Bourbon during the assault on Rome’s walls, the mockery of the Pope by the imperial landsknechts, and the conflicts between German and Spanish soldiers over the distribution of the immense loot are given some attention…

“For the contemporary reader of the (often contradictory) published reports, it may have been impossible to achieve an approximate, let alone verifiable, picture of the Sack. The general lack of background reports adds to this. It also remains questionable whether an average ‘reader’ actually did a critical content comparison of several pamphlets that might be accessible to him. Even about such central events as the capture of the Pope or the death of Bourbon, there are no coincident accounts; the general chaos in Rome largely eludes a solid reporting.”(Rainer Brüning, »Kriegs-Bilder« Wie Flugschriften über die Schlacht bei Pavia (1525), den Sacco di Roma (1527) und die Belagerung Wiens (1529) berichten)

VD16,W-739; USTC 705620; Brüning (Kriegsbilder) R1