The passagetto (“secret” passage from
the Vatican to the Castle Sant’ Angelo)
is contained along the wall to the right
of the picture. You can see the Vatican
in the distance at the end.
What triggered the 1527 attack was that in order to check the awesome power of the Emperor Charles V (who ruled what is today Germany, Austria, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Spain, the Netherlands, Belgium, and much of northern Italy) France, Venice, Milan, Florence and the Papacy teamed up in the League of Cognac. Great name, but not a great idea. It was the mice out to kill the cat and it was a disaster. The Imperial army handily defeated the French—the only ones in the coalition who had a real army (and in those days the French were considered the best fighters in the world—who knows what happened to them) but the Emperor didn’t have any money to pay the troops for their service. Their commander, Charles de Bourbon was French—yes, a French commander for the German Army fighting France! It seems that when Charles’s wife, Suzanne died—she had been the Bourbon heir—the Queen Mother of France, Louise of Savoy, seized the Bourbon lands and wouldn’t give them back to the widowed husband to whom they had been left by Suzanne’s will. The King refused to intervene against his mother and so Charles, pissed, sided with the enemy despite his position of Marshal of France. (The Marshal was the head of the army.) Pity because Charles de Bourbon was a good soldier, a great soldier. Anyway now he had a German army who hasn’t been paid and no money to pay them. The army was restless. Pope Clement VII knew this was a dangerous situation and that he was in trouble and sued for a truce, but the army was in no mood to pay attention—the loot from Rome would suffice for the money due them from the Emperor. Charles de Bourbon had excellent command of his army and could have negotiated a settlement with Clement, but the artist Benvenuto Cellini shot and killed Charles in the initial attack. That was the mistake. The army was enraged and went wild, storming the city. With Charles dead there was no one who could bring the army under control. Rome had only about 12,000 troops to defend it. The Imperial attack was a massacre—all but 42 of the Pope’s Swiss guard were killed defending the Pope, but because of their bravery Pope Clement was able to flee through the “secret” passage way linking the Vatican with the Castel Sant’Angelo where he would be safe. As Clement fled through the passagetto, Imperial soldiers took pot shots at the papal figure as he passed the occasional break in the wall. The worst of the sack lasted three days but for a month the Imperial troops dominated the city without discipline. Churches were pillaged of their ornaments and relics. The palaces of the Cardinals were ransacked, art destroyed, precious objects carried off. Monasteries and convents were destroyed, monks and nuns killed, the nuns often raped. Ordinary Romans were not safe—those who took refuge in Churches were often slain as the clung to the altars begging for mercy. The Emperor had the upper hand. Clement feared him and was anxious to win his alliance. The Pope had some dynastic concerns for which he needed the Emperor. (We will talk more about that when we get to Henry VIII and his failure to get an annulment.) The Emperor Charles V was Catholic—devoutly so—but he wasn’t on the scene and many of the Imperial troops, being German, were recent converts to Lutheranism. That certainly didn’t help restore unity to Christendom. Some historians claim that it brought the renaissance to a crashing end, but in fact Rome recovered quickly and went on to bigger and better triumphs of art, architecture, music, literature, and certainly to a papacy that would become imperial in its own right. As for Saint Peter’s it brought the construction to a temporary halt but by 1534 Clement had commissioned Michelangelo to fresco the Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel (it would be frescoed between 1537 and 1541.) Michelangelo would be named the chief architect of Saint Peter’s in 1546. And so the work continued. But don’t let me forget to tell you about Antonio da Sangallo and his stealing from the basilica in the interim before Michelangelo.