THESE DAYS, unless it is in the depths of the off season or you don’t mind spending a few hours in a queue, it is best to book a visit to the Vatican Museums online. Even then it can be a trying business that may feel less like a cultural feast than a trip to the sales. Artworks are lost behind huge tour groups, selfie sticks and guides’ batons brandished above them. Doors create bottlenecks where guards endlessly murmur, ‘Don’t stop, keep moving.’ The worst spot, unsurprisingly, is the most popular: the Sistine Chapel. As you enter, guards call out, ‘Silence’, ‘No photographs’, and direct you to join the crush that fills the room, of people staring upwards, holding audio guides to their heads, or listening to their tour leaders through earphones. And yet, as you try to hold your space against the people shoving past, it is still a dazzling, overwhelming sight.

It was a very different scene in the middle of November 1523. At that time Michelangelo’s ceiling paintings were new, having been completed only a few years earlier, while his vast portrait of Judgement Day remained a thing of the future. Several dozen hutch-like wooden cells lined the walls of the chapel, some painted red, others green, and each placed a little apart from its neighbours, to prevent those inside being overheard. There was no need to call for silence, as conversations would have been hushed and careful. This was a conclave of cardinals, meeting to choose a new pope.


Rome, 1527

It was deadlocked. For six weeks compromise candidates had been proposed and dropped (one of the first to go was England’s Cardinal Wolsey) without success. Progress was blocked by the obstinacy of two rival factions, each of which had the backing of one of Europe’s two great powers, who were in the midst of a grand struggle to dominate Italy. The group whose cells were painted red, whose candidate was Giulio de’ Medici, was supported by Emperor Charles V. The other group, with green cells, was backed by the French king Francis I. De’ Medici had fewer supporters among the cardinals – only 15 out of 39 – but, with some cardinals remaining neutral, he had enough to block the other side from winning. His cardinals were also dependable. Many were his relatives and had been appointed by his cousin, who until his death two years earlier had ruled as Pope Leo X.

By contrast all that held the other faction together was a shared desire to stop to Giulio de’ Medici. Its members included French cardinals, supporters of the popular Roman papal candidate Alessandro di Farnese, and also a group led by Cardinal Pompeo Colonna. Colonna had been a supporter of Charles V but had joined the French to thwart de’ Medici, for whom he felt a strong dislike. The Medici were allies of the Colonnas’ ancient enemies in Rome, the Orsini, while Pompeo had a personal grudge against them. Giulio’s cousin, Pope Leo X, had imprisoned his relative, Cardinal Soderini, for several years on a false charge of plotting to kill him, and Soderini had only just been freed.

Six weeks was a long time for a conclave and impatience was rising, especially outside the Sistine Chapel. Until the cardinals made a decision the Papal States were in a state of paralysis and all public business was halted. The country was also vulnerable. The duke of Ferrara had already attacked its northern borderlands, seizing two towns. As was traditional when a conclave dragged on, Romans had rioted, shouting that the cardinals should hurry up and choose somebody, anybody, it didn’t matter if he was a block of wood. The conclave guardians had been driven to making their worst threat, warning that if the cardinals did not reach a decision they would be put on a diet of bread and water. Still, the Mantuan envoy wrote despairingly that the cardinals seemed determined to spend the whole winter in conclave.

A resolution was nearer than he knew. On 16 November one of the anti-Imperialists finally cracked and switched his support to Giulio de’ Medici. Rather surprisingly it was the one who most disliked him: Pompeo Colonna. That he had given way was largely the result of de’ Medici’s ingenious tactics. The French cardinals, growing weary of the deadlock, had thrown their support behind a new compromise candidate, Cardinal Orsini, and Giulio de’ Medici, seeing his chance, said that he might also support him. Much though Pompeo Colonna loathed the thought of another Medici pope, the prospect of an Orsini pope was far worse. He and Giulio were publicly reconciled and eight days later Giulio was elected pope, taking the name Pope Clement VII.

The Romans were delighted. They had a pope; and a promising one, too. Leo X had been hugely popular, largely because of his lavish spending – which had contrasted strongly with the reign of his short-lived, stingy and much-loathed successor, the Dutch Pope Adrian VI – and everyone assumed Clement VII would be a big spender like his cousin. He was also expected to be an efficient pope, as it was well known that he had been the real statesman behind Leo’s rule. Charles V’s ambassador in Rome, the duke of Sessa, who had been working tirelessly in support of the de’ Medici, was equally pleased. Triumphantly, he wrote to his master in Madrid, The pope is entirely your majesty’s creature. So great is your majesty’s power that you can change stones into obedient children.’1 Yet, only three and half years later, something that would have seemed unimaginable would occur. A huge, starving army would advance on Rome, sent by Charles V to exact revenge on Clement VII, his former protégé.

How had things gone so wrong? The answer lay largely with Clement himself. Clement has had a poor press over the centuries and his papacy is considered one of the most disastrous of any pope – which is quite a record to hold – yet it is hard not to feel a liking for the man. He was a private person, an unfortunate quality in a religious and state leader, and where his cousin had held lavish banquets with court jesters, Clement preferred quiet occasions with scholars. He was widely regarded as one of the finest musicians in all of Italy. He was a devoted admirer of Michelangelo, from whom he commissioned a number of projects, and with whom he kept up a regular correspondence, loudly reading out Michelangelo’s jokes to the delight of the papal court.

He was also an unlikely pope. He was a love child. His mother was a Florentine woman of low birth while his father was the brother of Florence’s ruler, Lorenzo the Magnificent. Being a Medici could be dangerous as well as advantageous as the family had many enemies, and baby Giulio’s father was murdered shortly after he was born, causing him to be brought up in his uncle Lorenzo’s home. Disaster then struck the whole family. When Giulio was fourteen the Medici were flung from power and exiled from Florence and it was almost twenty years before they were able to return as rulers, with the help of Emperor Charles V’s grandfather, Emperor Maximilian. Throughout his life Giulio’s first concern was to further his family’s interests and those of their city, Florence.

After November 1523 he had two further interests to worry about: Catholicism and the city of Rome. His career in the Church owed everything to his cousin, who first promoted him into it, yet Clement had no wish to follow Leo’s style, which had been closer to that of a Roman emperor than a pope. Leo held extravagant banquets and pageants, and he used papal troops to depose the duke of Urbino, in an unsuccessful attempt to create a new state for another of his cousins, Giuliano. In 1517 Leo falsely accused five cardinals, all of whom were old enemies of the Medici, of plotting against him. By doing so he both settled some old family scores – one of the cardinals was strangled in his cell – and, by selling their five vacant cardinal posts, he gained some spending money (one of the five was Pompeo Colonna’s relative, Soderini). As has been seen, Leo also had no difficulty with nepotism and he made four of his relatives cardinals, one of them Giulio. Leo overcame the awkward matter of Giulio’s illegitimacy by arranging for proof to be miraculously found that his parents had married in secret.

Clement, by contrast, was determined to be a good pope. He piously observed fasts and ate only bread and water during Lent. He tried to clean up the Church, at least in a modest way, and, despite the fact that, thanks to his cousin’s extravagance, his papacy had inherited a huge financial black hole, he refused to sell cardinals’ positions, or even to appoint new cardinals. That he tried to rein in spending won him few friends in Rome. Yet the disasters that struck his papacy sprang from elsewhere: when he tried to do the right thing in his foreign policy.

Foreign policy was never going to be easy. The previous three decades before Clement’s election had been a violent and destructive time in Italy, when the peninsula was used as a battleground by Europe’s great powers to settle their rivalries. That Italy was fought over was no accident. During this era Europe’s rulers had grown accustomed to fighting with armies that were larger and more costly than their states could afford, and which could only be paid for with plunder. Italy was Europe’s wealthiest region and so offered rich pickings. Until now Rome had not been a victim but an aggressor, as a series of powerful popes – including Clement’s cousin Leo X – took advantage of the fighting to extend papal territory and to try and carve out new Italian states for their relatives. While other Italian cities had been wrecked, Rome remained unscathed.

At least till now. The papal conclave of 1523 had been contested so keenly because a new crisis was approaching between King Francis I and Emperor Charles V. Their personalities could hardly have been more different. Francis was something of a romantic, who viewed war in an almost medieval light, as an opportunity to show courage and gain honour. Charles V had much loftier ambitions. He was a one-man superpower, largely thanks to the poor health of his relatives. In this time Europe’s ruling families frequently arranged marriages between their children, creating a complex web of royal cousins, and if enough of them died young or childless the result could be a kind of dynastic chain reaction. So it was with Charles. Born in the Netherlands, by the time he was nineteen the deaths of his uncle and aunt, a cousin, his father, a usurping uncle by marriage and Charles’ highly placed grandparents, had left him ruler of most of modern Holland, Belgium and Austria, large parts of Germany, all of Aragon and its possessions – including Sicily and southern Italy – and finally Castile, which at that moment was in the process of conquering the Americas. He had also been elected Holy Roman Emperor.

One might think Charles would have been happy with his inheritance, but no. His mother was a depressive – possibly schizophrenic – who spent most of her life cloistered in a Spanish castle and Charles seems to have acquired her gloomy outlook. He was renowned for his chin, which was so large as to be almost deformed, and for his seriousness. Then again, he had much to be serious about. Ruling so many straggling territories meant there was more to go wrong. There was also the worry of the Turks, whose steady conquests in the Balkans and the eastern Mediterranean were causing alarm across Europe. Surveying his vast territories, which made him Europe’s most powerful leader since Charlemagne, he decided that these had not come to him by chance, but that God had given them to him for a purpose. Accordingly, he set himself a short to-do list. First, he needed to unite all Europe (by defeating the French king, Francis, who was yet another of Charles’ relatives). Second, he needed to unite Christianity (by crushing or winning round the supporters of a heretic challenging the Church, Martin Luther). Finally, he needed to save Christianity by defeating the Turks. His first task, of defeating the French, would begin in Italy.

To find his way through this minefield Clement VII needed luck and, above all, shrewd judgement. Both began to desert him even before he became pope. During the 1523 conclave a Venetian envoy reported that, in his eagerness to be elected, the future Clement had made an offer to the French to betray his supporter, Charles V, and remain neutral in any war, and possibly to support the French outright. Such a deal would explain a lot about his actions on becoming pope. At first neutral, within a year he had made a secret alliance with France.

He was far from alone. By 1524 Charles’ vast empire and his sense of God-given destiny were causing unease across Italy, provoking Venice and Milan – which had also been imperial allies – to join the papacy in its secret alliance. Unfortunately, after only a few weeks, in January 1525, the alliance ceased to be secret. Charles was furious at this betrayal, especially by Clement, whom he had helped to win the papacy. He determined to gain revenge on ‘that poltroon of a pope’, adding ominously, ‘Some day perhaps Martin Luther will become a man of substance.’ The new anti-Empire alliance went awry almost at once. Within weeks Francis I was crushingly defeated at the battle of Pavia and he himself was captured. For a short time the disaster had an invigorating effect on Italians and, filled with patriotic fervour and determined to free their land of foreign invaders, most, but not all, Italian states joined a new alliance with France, the League of Cognac, but optimism quickly faded. The League’s army became bogged down fighting Charles V’s armies in northern Italy and opportunities were lost.

In the summer of 1526 Charles strengthened his forces. His commander in northern Italy, Constable Bourbon – a French renegade who had turned against his country after his king, Francis, tried to take his lands – was sent 5,000 Spanish, who at this time were considered the finest soldiers in Europe. Across the Alps, Charles’ loyal underling in southern Germany, Georg von Frundsberg, was so keen to see Pope Clement hanged for his betrayal that he paid soldiers with his own money, pawning towns he possessed, his castle and even his wife’s jewels. His efforts paid off and he managed to raise a force of 10,000 Landsknechte. Though mercenaries, the Landsknechte had an intense sense of collective loyalty, electing officers and court-martialling any soldier who dishonoured his comrades – each company had its own executioner – so their units have been described as military republics. They also held strong religious views. Many had been won over by Martin Luther’s recent attacks on the papacy and were eager to kill some churchmen, the higher the better.

If he did not already have trouble enough, Clement also faced enemies from the south. Pompeo Colonna, who had extensive estates and castles south of Rome, was eager to avenge himself for, as he saw it, Clement’s theft of the papacy, that had been rightfully his. Colonna allied himself with the kingdom of Naples – which was yet another of Charles V’s territories – and it was he who struck the first blow against Clement. That he managed to do so was wholly Clement’s fault as, though highly intelligent, Clement could be very gullible. In the summer of 1526 Pompeo had his cousin Vespasiano, whom Clement liked and – unwisely – trusted, convince him that the Colonna wanted only peace. Clement, struggling to deal with the financial black hole left by his cousin, decided to save money by standing down the troops he had guarding Rome from the south.

That it was a poor saving became painfully clear at dawn on 20 September 1526 when Colonna’s troops seized Rome’s San Giovanni and San Paolo gates and poured into the city. Compared to the other attacks on Rome that we have seen, this was more like a military parade than a sack. The Romans, who felt resentful towards Clement for having raised their taxes, refused to fight and instead went out to watch as Pompeo’s troops marched across the town and then fought their way through the Santo Spirito Gate and into the Borgo, as the old Leonine City was now known. Pompeo failed in his main objective of capturing Clement, who saved himself at the last minute by fleeing along the raised escape passage to the Castel Sant’Angelo. The raid was still a humiliation for the pope. Worse, it showed his vulnerability. Clement was helpless against the raiders who pillaged the papal palace and stole every horse in the papal stables.

During the following months Clement gained his revenge. He raised armies, which, together with those of his League allies, destroyed Colonna fortresses south of Rome and captured a string of towns from imperial Naples. Unfortunately, Naples and the Colonna were no longer his real threat. In February 1527 Bourbon’s 5,000 Spanish linked up with Frundsberg’s 10,000 Landsknechte and, with Bourbon in command, the huge combined army, whose camp followers and prostitutes outnumbered its soldiers, began moving slowly southwards. Emperor Charles V made his intentions clear. He wanted to hold a general council of the Church, which could mean only one thing: he intended to see Clement replaced as pope. If Frundsberg’s Landsknechte had not already hanged him.

First, though, they had to reach Rome, which was no easy matter. Though it contained the most formidable soldiers in Europe, Bourbon’s army was, like any army of this era, highly unstable, being less an arm of the state than a kind of rogue state in its own right, loyal only to itself. Having entered papal territory in early March it then had to stop outside Bologna to shelter from atrocious late winter weather. Idleness soon led to trouble. The Spanish troops, who were owed more back pay than the Landsknechte, mutinied, and Bourbon saved his own life only by fleeing to the Landsknechte and hiding in a horse stall. The Landsknechte then rebelled too, and when their commander Georg von Frundsberg tried to control them he became so worked up that he had a stroke and was forced to abandon his soldiers and return to Germany.

It was not a promising start to the campaign. To Pope Clement, though, the simple fact that a large imperial army had crossed into papal territory had a demoralizing effect. In mid-March, without consulting his League allies, and despite the fact that his forces were making good progress in the south, Clement made a unilateral peace with Charles V’s ruler in Naples, the imperial viceroy Charles de Lannoy. Clement’s allies were furious. Yet one can see why Clement was tempted as it was an excellent deal. Lannoy agreed that all imperial troops would leave papal territory at once, while Clement’s ally, the duke of Sforza of Milan – who was at the heart of the whole conflict – would regain his lost dukedom. The war was over and Rome and Florence were safe. As his part of the truce, Clement agreed to end his attacks on Naples and also to hand over 60,000 ducats, which would be given to the Landsknechte to persuade them to go home to Germany. Happy in the knowledge that he had nothing further to worry about, Clement, for a second time in less than a year, saved money by standing down his troops.

But he had been gulled again. In Charles V’s rickety empire it was often unclear who had authority over whom, an ambiguity which Charles and his commanders found very useful. That Clement had made peace with Charles’ man in Naples, Lannoy, did not mean he had made peace with the commander of Charles’ army in northern Italy, Bourbon. Lannoy, who was known for his double-dealing, probably intended to trick Clement all along, though he made a pretence of acting in good faith. He sent an envoy to Bourbon’s army, which was still sheltering from the weather outside Bologna, who handed over Clement’s 60,000 ducats and ordered Bourbon to leave papal territory. To Bourbon, though, retreat was not an option. Charles V had secretly instructed him to take Rome if he could, while even the pope’s ducats were not enough to cover his troops’ back pay. Bourbon knew they would be satisfied only if they plundered a large city: either Florence or Rome would do. Accordingly he had his soldiers fake a second mutiny and then told Lannoy’s envoy that he was unable to leave papal territory as his army was now out of control.

Finally, at the beginning of April, having slimmed down his forces, reducing the camp followers to a meagre three prostitutes per company, Bourbon and his army resumed their march south, sacking and burning small towns along the way. The weather was as bad as before, with heavy snow and driving rain that left rivers so swollen that Bourbon had to leave behind his three heaviest guns. On 15 April he was met by the perfidious viceroy of Naples, Lannoy, who brought another stash of money. This had been extracted from the Florentines, who had melted down treasures from their churches in the belief that this would convince Bourbon to leave. The invasion was being financed by its victims. Bourbon pocketed the money and marched on, his army larger than ever, as it had now been joined by several thousand Italian adventurers, eager to gain some plunder.

On 25 April, Clement, who had finally seen the worthlessness of his truce with Lannoy, changed his mind yet again and rejoined the League of Cognac. Though he had stood down most of his troops he was not entirely at the mercy of Bourbon’s forces. The Venetians, in spite of Clement’s treacherous unilateral peace, had ordered the League’s army, which was commanded by the duke of Urbino, to march south, shadowing Bourbon’s forces. If this was good news for Clement, it was not that good. The duke of Urbino, who was violently short-tempered, and had personally murdered two people by the age of 21, one of them a cardinal, was the very same duke of Urbino who Clement’s spendthrift cousin, Leo X, had tried and failed to rob of his dukedom. The League army’s commander-in-chief was no friend of the Medici.

Urbino soon showed his priorities. In late April, Bourbon’s army neared Florence, where a large anti-Medici faction was ready to welcome them into the city. Urbino saved the day, reaching Florence before the Imperialists, cowing the anti-Medici rebels and keeping Bourbon’s army at bay. His actions, though, were intended as a favour not to Clement but to himself. In exchange for Urbino’s help, the pro-Medici Florentines handed back a small area of territory that Urbino had failed to regain since Leo X tried to steal his dukedom. Urbino might be commander of the League army but he was working strictly for himself.

Worse, the saving of Florence put Rome in greater danger. Bourbon, fearful that the League army would foil him again, began a rapid, forced march. At Siena, which was an imperial ally, he slimmed down his forces again, dismissing more camp followers and abandoning all his remaining artillery. His army, its load lightened, then began a dash southwards. The weather was still terrible and the river Paglia was so swollen that to avoid being swept away, his cavalry clutched the manes of their horses and his soldiers clung to one another’s shoulders. Despite this the army made rapid progress, covering 30 to 50 kilometres each day.

As they drew closer to Rome, Bourbon received word from Clement’s other enemy, Cardinal Pompeo Colonna, who proposed that he and Bourbon should attack Rome together. On the night of 9 May Colonna would have his supporters in the city rouse the populace in revolt against Clement, and at dawn the next morning they would open the Porta del Popolo to Bourbon’s troops. The plan made a good deal of sense. Bourbon’s tactics, as far as he had any, were strangely out of time. During the battles that had been going on for the previous thirty years in Italy, European warfare had become transformed. Medieval tactics involving knights and pikemen had given way to methods that looked ahead to those of the Napoleonic era, in which artillery and soldiers armed with arquebus guns were the key to winning battles. Campaigns were frequently decided by sieges, around which a new science was evolving, of elaborate bastions, of trenches and counter-trenches, and of underground mines and counter-mines, and in which defenders had a strong advantage over their attackers. It was unheard of for a city to be attacked by storm.

Yet, without artillery, Bourbon had no other options. His army raced on to Viterbo, past Lake Bracciano and to Isola Farnese, carried forward by its hunger, its momentum and its fear of the League army that its soldiers knew was close behind them. On the afternoon of 5 May, four days before Colonna’s proposed uprising, the army reached Rome. Though his soldiers were exhausted, cold and starving, Bourbon did not wait but immediately sent out a force to cross the Tiber, and another to skirmish at the walls of the Leonine City. Neither achieved anything but high casualties. Reluctantly, Bourbon had his soldiers set up camp on nearby Monte Mario while he himself rode out to make a careful inspection of the Leonine Wall looking for weak spots. He soon found one.


What kind of Rome lay waiting for him? Compared to our earlier glimpses of the city, some of which have been a little hazy, Rome in 1527 can be seen in sharp detail as we are almost spoiled for information. Where before we have relied on archaeological discoveries, legal documents or perhaps a telling line in a letter or a satirical poem, there are now paintings of the city, sketches, maps and city guides for visitors in different languages. There are numerous buildings that have survived comparatively unscathed across the ages. There is also a new form of writing that was unheard of in the unegotistical Middle Ages, and was rare even in classical times: the personal account. With the rise of printing a century earlier and with more people able to read and write than ever before, the literary selfie had arrived. At times it seems as if everyone who was anyone produced their version of great events, to exaggerate their own roles and smear their enemies.

If a Roman from 1081 had found themselves transported forwards four and a half centuries, their greatest surprise would have been the discovery that their city had moved. By 1527 Rome had completed a process that had been going on for more than a millennium, as it shifted slowly westwards, pulled by the river and the magnet of Saint Peter’s tomb. By the sixteenth century, Romans had abandoned their ancient heartland – the seven hills – for the malarial lowlands beside the Tiber. This change had brought another. The suburban, garden city of the eleventh century had been replaced by two sharply distinct landscapes. Most of the area within the old city walls was now countryside. The disabitato – which meant the uninhabited part – was made up of fields and vineyards, along with occasional churches, farmhouses and country retreats for wealthy Romans. The Forum, which had been the Frangipani’s power base, was now called the Campo Vaccino (the cow field), and the southern part of the Capitoline, the Tarpeian Rock, was Monte Caprino, or Goat Hill.

As to the smaller, inhabited, abitato, a visitor from 1081 would have found it oppressively crowded. Packed into its streets were more Romans than the city had contained for a thousand years. Since the popes had returned to Rome from Avignon in the 1420s Rome had boomed. In May 1527, as chance would have it, we know precisely how many Romans there were, as the city’s first ever census had been taken only a few weeks earlier. In early 1527 Rome had a total of 54,000 inhabitants, excluding infants. Six years earlier, prior to a series of troubles – which we will come to – the population had been considerably larger, and may have been as high as 85,000. And of course there were also pilgrims who, as in medieval times, were a constant presence. In jubilee years Rome had more visitors than inhabitants, thronging the Borgo, staying in the city’s hundreds of lodging houses and, as ever, buying straw for their bedding in St Peter’s Square. St Peter’s itself was something of a disappointment – it was a building site – but pilgrims who came at Easter, Ascension or Christmas could watch the pope appear on the portico above the church’s entrance to bless the Veronica cloth. And there were the other great churches to visit, with their famous relics. San Giovanni, despite having burned down twice, still displayed Peter and Paul’s heads.

Yet if Rome was larger than it had been for many centuries, it had slipped behind other cities. To visitors from northern Italy, or northern Europe, whose towns had mechanical clocks and a new sense of time and precision, Rome was old-fashioned. It was also falling behind economically. Unlike other great cities in Europe and the Middle East, Rome had comparatively few artisans. Most Romans worked as shopkeepers or innkeepers in the pilgrim trade, or as bankers, jewellers, painters, medal makers or silversmiths. Directly or indirectly, almost everyone in Rome now worked for the Church.

The Church could pay well and its gold had had a striking effect on the city’s population. In the early sixteenth century few Romans were really Romans. Less than a quarter of them had been born in the city or even in the Papal States. Rome in 1527 was the most cosmopolitan city in Europe, and its people were more diverse than they had been since imperial times, a thousand years earlier. More than half came from other Italian states and almost a fifth from outside the peninsula. Rome had Lombard builders, architects, artisans and labourers. Rome’s river port was worked by Genovese sailors. There were Tuscan bankers, jewellers, shopkeepers, printmakers, painters and sculptors, German bakers and cooks, and German and French innkeepers. To warm the nights of the city’s numerous Spanish churchmen there was a thriving colony of Spanish prostitutes, one of whom inspired a play that was a huge hit in Spain. One of the few European countries that was hardly represented, curiously enough, was England, though there had been a sizeable English colony only a century earlier. It was as if the English were already preparing themselves for their break with the Catholic Church.

As well as economic migrants, the city was home to refugees escaping violence. Lombards fled the endless wars fought over Milan by Europe’s great powers. Albanians and Balkan Slavs fled Turkish occupation. Jews fled a new wave of persecution in Portugal, Spain, and Spanish-conquered Sicily and southern Italy. For the most part they found Rome a welcoming sanctuary. The two Medici popes, Leo X and Clement VII, were known for their tolerance and in 1527 Rome had a thriving Jewish community of almost 2,000, which included every profession from doctors, bankers, musicians and rabbis to the poorest artisans and traders. When Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel he sought out Jewish Roman models for Old Testament figures. Though life for Rome’s Jews could be precarious at certain seasons. Easter passion plays in the Colosseum could work Christians into violence and Carnival, in the last days before Lent, also had its dangers. Races were held on the long Via del Corso, in which Jews old and young were made to run semi-naked, as crowds, many of whom had placed bets on the runners, jeered and threw filth. Jews were not alone in having to run the gauntlet on the Corso. There were also races for young Christians, old Christians, for donkeys and for water buffalo. Pope Alexander VI, formerly Rodrigo Borgia, introduced a new race for Rome’s prostitutes.

Most of the city’s immigrants lived in areas that a visitor from the eleventh century would have found dimly familiar. They were medieval and, thanks to medieval city planning, their inhabitants lived cheek by jowl in permanent chaos. Compared to those of classical times, homes in 1527 were still small – a few had four floors but most had only two – yet they were festooned with balconies, outside stairways, overhangs and porticoes that encroached on every free inch of space. Below them lay a labyrinth of courtyards, archways and dark, winding alleys that were congested with obstacles and, most of all, congested with Romans: Romans doing their laundry or cutting up animal carcasses; Romans selling their wares or cooking their dinner. Rome in 1527 stank as it had not done since the glory days of Empire: of rubbish, offal and fish bones, of filthy water from tanneries and dyers, and of dung, both animal and human.

Rome was also a city of that most medieval of constructions, fortress towers. A visitor from the eleventh century, if he or she climbed one of the city’s hills, would have been astonished by the city’s appearance. Rome now had a pincushion or porcupine look. In 1081 it had possessed a dozen fortress towers. Now there were hundreds. Offering both status and security from one’s neighbours, during the high Middle Ages towers had become a must for every Roman who was anyone, and even shopkeepers built them. Some sprouted from ancient triumphal arches. The Church soon joined in and spindly bell towers, or campanili, sprang up beside churches across the city. One even appeared on the portico of the Pantheon. Rome also had a new skyline. Where it had once been overlooked by the temple to Jupiter Best and Greatest on the Capitoline Hill – now a quarry for stone – from the 1250s it was dominated by a large new church that stood on the other, northern end of the Capitoline: Santa Maria in Aracoeli.

Fortress towers did not stand alone but rose up from medieval palaces that were built around courtyards, and had outside stairways, often covered to keep their inhabitants dry. To Romans of the High Middle Ages these homes were a vast improvement on the ad hoc homes of their eleventh-century ancestors, which had been built out of the city’s crumbling ruins. These had long ago fallen out of fashion and in 1527, aside from the pope’s fortress, the Castel Sant’Angelo, the only classical building that was still inhabited was the old Pierleoni fortress, the Theatre of Marcellus, which had lately been converted into a palace and was now the home of the Portuguese ambassador.

By the 1520s fashions had changed once again, and if many rich Romans remained in their families’ medieval palaces, with small windows and dark, poky rooms, few wanted to do so. They wanted to live in a new Renaissance palace – still relatively rare, though steadily growing in number – whose rooms were spacious and filled with light. Rome’s new housing was designed with a new sense of the rational, with each level assigned a clear role, from the storerooms and stables on the flood-prone ground floor, to the halls, dining rooms and owners’ bedrooms on the temperate first floor – the piano nobile – to the servants’ quarters that, just as in ancient Roman mansions, baked beneath the roof.

One of Rome’s first new palaces was the Palazzo San Marco, which was begun in 1455, and is better known by its later name of Palazzo Venezia (it was here that, almost five centuries later, Mussolini would appear on the balcony to address huge crowds of supporters). Two decades later, Rome’s palace boom really took off, when Pope Sixtus IV introduced a new law that allowed high clergy, who until then had been required to bequeath any palace they built to the Church, to leave palaces to their relatives. It would not be the last time that Rome’s architectural beauty would be nourished by dubious financial arrangements. Palaces and grand new houses sprang up across the city. One of the largest was built by Sixtus’ nephew, Cardinal Raffaele Riario, who had money to spend, having won a huge sum gambling with the son of Sixtus’ successor, Pope Innocent VIII, and who demolished a fourth-century church to build his grand new home, the Palazzo della Cancelleria. In 1523 it would be given to Pompeo Colonna by Giulio de’ Medici, as part of the deal he made for Colonna’s support in the conclave.

The greatest Roman home, naturally, was in the Vatican. In the 1520s the Vatican Palace was in the midst of becoming Europe’s largest palace. It had accomplished this feat in a complex series of stages. At the beginning of the thirteenth century a palace was built here which gradually supplanted the Lateran as the main papal dwelling. In the 1480s Pope Innocent VIII built a modest second palace on the Vatican hill, which overlooked its medieval predecessor several hundred yards below and was named the Belvedere for its fine views. Two decades later the syphilitic warrior Pope Julius II had his architect, Bramante, draw up a plan to link the palaces by two immensely long wings. By 1527 one wing was already complete and overlooked what would become a gargantuan courtyard that occupied three levels as it climbed the hill.

Beneath its Renaissance palaces Rome had new Renaissance streets. An eleventh-century visitor would have found these puzzlingly alien: straight, wide and uncluttered, with high, clean-lined buildings. It was almost as if Rome’s ancient ruins had come back to life. And, in a way, that was exactly what had happened. In 1527 the Italian Renaissance was at its height and classical design was much admired. The architecture of Rome’s new buildings emulated that of Rome a millennium and a half earlier.

Rome’s new streets, and especially their names, could be read like a book that recounted Rome’s violent and nepotistic recent history. Just as Roman emperors had left their mark with new set of baths or a new forum, Renaissance popes – who could behave very much like Roman emperors – did so in more functional ways. The habit was inspired by a disaster. One evening during the 1450 Holy Year, when the Sant’Angelo Bridge was crowded with people leaving the Borgo for their inns across the river, a mule started bucking. In the panic that followed almost two hundred pilgrims were crushed to death or fell into the Tiber and drowned. Afterwards a number of measures were taken to remove the city’s worst bottlenecks and to make it more easily traversable for pilgrims. In time for the 1475 Holy Year, Sixtus IV – a worldly, power-player pope, whose nephew was the assassin of baby Giulio de’ Medici’s father – built Rome’s first new bridge for more than a thousand years. It was intended to ease pressure on the Ponte Sant’Angelo and, naturally, Sixtus named it after himself, as the Ponte Sisto.

After the Ponte Sisto came new roads. For the 1500 Holy Year, Pope Alexander VI (previously Rodrigo Borgia) built the Via Alessandrina, which cut through the Leonine City. Alexander VI’s successor, Pope Julius II, was in many ways even more alarming than his Borgia predecessor. The nephew of the Sixtus IV who had built the Ponte Sisto, he had a foul temper, suffered from syphilis and dressed in armour to lead his troops in battle. Julius built the Via Giulia, that linked the Ponte Sant’Angelo with his uncle’s Ponte Sisto. Across the river Julius built another new road, the Via Lungara, which linked the Vatican with Trastevere, each of which had their own walls, and which until then had only been reachable from one another by passing across the river twice and going through the main part of Rome. Finally, Julius’ successor, Clement’s cousin, Leo X, built the Via Leonia that extended halfway across the city, from Porta del Popolo in the north to the centre of the city.

Yet if Renaissance Rome’s popes built new bridges, palaces and streets, they were responsible for comparatively few new churches. In the 1470s Pope Sixtus IV built Santa Maria del Popolo, a traditional Renaissance design - octagonal with a small dome - which, like his Ponte Sisto, had pilgrims in mind: it lay just inside the city’s northern gate where most of them first entered Rome. Sixtus also built the beautiful Santa Maria della Pace, near Piazza Navona. However, most churches of this era were built not by the papacy but by professional guilds or fraternities of foreign nationals. The city’s German community built Santa Maria dell’Anima, close to what is now Piazza Navona, and the Spanish of Rome created San Pietro in Montorio on the Gianicolo Hill.

The great majority of Rome’s churches in the 1520s were still medieval. Many dated from the glory days of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries when the city had thrived and drew Italy’s finest artists, from Pietro Cavallini to Jacopo Torriti, to create magnificent mosaics, frescoes and statues. Yet there was something a little odd about Rome’s high medieval churches. When they were built the Gothic style held sway and across Europe churches rose up with tall, pointed arches; but not in Rome. Roman church builders refused to bow to fashion and remained uniquely conservative. Arches stayed Romanesque and mosaics were so closely modelled on the city’s earliest church decoration that they included imagery that had nothing to do with Christianity: shepherds, dolphins, and rural scenes. Today’s visitors to Rome’s medieval churches may struggle to find a sense of passing time, as their decorations seem strangely alike.

If early sixteenth-century popes built few churches at least they had a good excuse: they were engaged on building one church that was Europe’s greatest construction project since classical times. It is a change that a visitor from 1081 would have found profoundly shocking. In 1527 Rome’s greatest and most famous church, St Peter’s, which had drawn pilgrims from across Europe for more than a thousand years, was half demolished. Only the cathedral’s frontage, which faced on to Saint Peter’s Square, and the eastern part of the nave, remained standing. The rest was in chaos, with giant new pillars rising out of a construction site. In its midst, a temporary building had been put up to shelter the altar and Saint Peter’s tomb beneath.

In some ways St Peter’s was a victim of its own success. Three centuries earlier it had quashed its old rival the Lateran Basilica once and for all, when Innocent III had ‘Mother of all churches’ – a title the Lateran had long claimed – written in giant letters on the archway above in its nave. As if stung by its demotion the Lateran Basilica burned down not once but twice, in 1308 and 1361. Saint Peter’s corpse had won a crushing victory, drawing the whole city westwards towards it, while his head in the Lateran was left increasingly remote, exiled to a kind of village with a cathedral and a palace surrounded by empty fields. Naturally, Renaissance popes wanted to be buried near Saint Peter’s body, and they also wanted to be buried in proper style. The demolition of St Peter’s, which many Romans regarded as an act of gross vandalism, was first set in motion by the syphilitic warrior pope, Julius II, who claimed the old building was unsafe. It was true that a leaning nave wall was cause of concern, but Julius’ real reasoning seems to have been less selfless: demolition allowed him to build himself a splendid tomb.

The building that was to replace the old St Peter’s had been designed, like many of Rome’s new buildings in the early sixteenth century, by Bramante, who declared it would be as if the Basilica of Maxentius – one of the largest buildings of the late Roman Empire – were topped by the dome of the Pantheon. Romans replied by naming him Bramante Ruinante (Bramante the wrecker). It was not by chance that no building on this scale had been attempted since late antiquity. Bramante used moulded concrete techniques that had remained forgotten or misunderstood for a thousand years. It was only in the previous decades that Renaissance scholars had studied these methods, which had been described by the classical architect and writer Vitruvius, and brought them back into use.

The popes had, of course, also completed another great church, though this was not for the Romans but strictly for their own private use: the Sistine Chapel. Constructed rather hurriedly between 1477 and 1481, its walls were then decorated with paintings by some of the greatest artists of the era: Sandro Botticelli, Pietro Perugino and Filippino Lippi. As for the chapel’s ceiling, it might never have been touched if the building had been better constructed. In 1504 a huge crack appeared in the roof above the altar. It was made safe by placing large metal rods beneath the floor and the roof. Pope Julius II was not prepared to leave his uncle’s Sixtus’ chapel ugly and so, for a huge fee, he hired a 33-year-old artist named Michelangelo Buonarroti to paint over the mess. At first Julius wanted Michelangelo to depict the twelve apostles but when Michelangelo complained that this would be ‘a poor sort of thing’, Julius – at least according to Michelangelo – let him paint whatever he liked. The result, twelve years later, was 1,200 square metres of extraordinary imagery, most of it by Michelangelo’s own hand, that revolutionized Western art.

That Renaissance popes had devoted their resources to a private chapel is not surprising. Compared to their medieval predecessors, who were constantly rubbing shoulders with their Roman subjects, Renaissance popes were aloof and princely. The great processions of the Middle Ages, in which popes rode or walked barefoot among crowds of Romans, mostly vanished during the Avignon years, when the popes abandoned Rome for Provence. By 1527 only one or two processions were still held, such as those that marked the lavish feasts of Corpus Christi and Saint Mark. The most splendid procession was the rarest: the possesso, where a new pope paraded through the city to claim it as his own. Likewise, most papal ceremonies were now held behind closed doors before a select audience of high churchmen and foreign ambassadors. In medieval times popes had frequently celebrated mass and preached but in the Renaissance they became increasingly mute. Monks now did most of the preaching and services were dominated by laborious rituals, such as the vesting – dressing – of the pope.

Yet, if the Sistine Chapel had been costly to build and decorate, its expenses were dwarfed by those of rebuilding St Peter’s. It was this vast outlay, in fact, that was largely to blame for the dire predicament in which the Romans found themselves in 1527. Julius II’s successor, Leo X, who had numerous other expenses, from banquets and elephant pageants to predatory wars, began a fund-raising campaign to pay for the building work. In 1517 he sent a monk named Johann Tetzel to tour Germany selling indulgences, which supposedly had the power to release one’s dead relatives from purgatory, or reduce the length of one’s stay there. Tetzel’s salesmanship – he used the memorable catchphrase, ‘The moment a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs’  caught the eye of another monk, named Martin Luther, who was so incensed that he wrote a denunciation of Church corruption, the 95 Theses. It was the first of a series of memorably pithy, irate pamphlets which, thanks to printing, rapidly went viral across Germany. As has been seen, Luther’s writings had inspired the Landsknechte with loathing for the Roman Church. Luther also gave them a sense of divine destiny by prophesying that it was God’s will that Rome should be destroyed.

It was not only Tetzel’s marketing campaign that had offended Luther. Luther had visited Rome in 1510, arriving full of idealism and departing thoroughly disillusioned. It was not very surprising. Romans were expert at fleecing every kind of visitor, including German monks, while the papal court was very far from the Christian simplicity Luther admired. It was a place of superficiality and fashion, where success came to those who could charm the right people, or had a talent for ad-libbing poetry in Latin. Life at the pinnacle of the Church was also luxurious. The two papal dining halls employed a wine steward, three bakers, five chief cooks, six stewards and numerous assistant cooks. As well as the pope, the Vatican Palace was home to several dozen high churchmen, each of whom had his own large household of servants.

The papacy was gaudily splendid abroad, too. Like Europe’s princes in this era, popes had to spend big and look the part, to be heard. The papacy operated a network of nuncios, legates and revenue-seeking apostolic collectors, who travelled to every corner of Europe and whose lifestyle was calculated to impress. The papacy even had its own postal system, which, at least by Renaissance standards, was fast and efficient, and made Rome Europe’s communications centre.

Naturally, all of these arrangements were expensive, and eleventh-century church reformers such as Gregory VII would have turned in their graves had they known how their successors raised money. The rot began at the end of the Avignon years, during the Great Schism, when Europe had three rival popes, each of whom was painfully short of funds. By the sixteenth century highly dubious money-raising techniques had become the norm. As well as taxing the Papal States to the hilt, and borrowing vast sums from a network of bankers – whose relatives they appointed as cardinals – Renaissance popes, like Renaissance princes, made an art of selling Church positions, and there was hardly a post, religious or bureaucratic, that was not up for sale. Bishoprics and cardinals’ posts were routinely sold. So was the income from profitable abbeys, cathedrals and churches, which could be bought much like an annuity. One reason the papacy needed an efficient postal service was so that it could learn quickly when some distant bishop had died, whose post the papacy could give to a supporter or sell. When short of cash – as they always were – popes created new positions that were sold like a modern annuity: the buyer would pay a large sum and then be reimbursed with annual income over time. There were even low-ranking posts calculated to appeal to small investors, and places in the papal police force, the servientes armorum, were bought by Rome’s smiths, bakers and barbers.

Almost everyone in the papal court had rights to the income of an abbey or cathedral or church that kept them financially afloat. Favoured high churchmen sometimes had as many as two dozen, which yielded huge sums. Having purchased positions, courtiers were entitled to sell them or bequeath them to their relatives. This leads us to something else that medieval church reformers would have found profoundly disturbing. If in the eleventh-century the Church had a problem with procreating priests, in the Renaissance it had a problem with procreating popes. Under the reign of Innocent VIII in the 1480s it not only became acceptable for popes to have illegitimate children, but for popes to openly acknowledge and promote their progeny. Alexander VI – previously Rodrigo Borgia – legitimized his son Cesare, made him a cardinal and then helped him conquer an Italian state for himself (which Cesare was prevented from doing only because his father died before he could finish the job). Alexander’s daughter, Lucrezia Borgia, married members of no fewer than three of Italy’s best families: Giovanni Sforza, Alfonso of Aragon the duke of Bisceglie (murdered by Cesare in the Vatican) and finally Alfonso d’Este, son of the duke of Ferrara.

By comparison the two Medici popes were examples of virtue, as neither had children. Claims that Clement VII was the real father of his nephew Alessandro were almost certainly false, while rumours at the time suggested that his cousin Leo X’s main interest was in his own gender. However, childlessness was no safeguard against nepotism. Leo made four of his close relatives cardinals and, as we saw earlier, he used papal forces to expel the duke of Urbino from his lands to try and provide a state for his cousin, Giuliano. Clement, who wanted to be a good pope, refused to appoint any new cardinals, despite the fact that he was desperately in need of the cash, which a sale or two would have provided. Yet, as will be seen, when he was in deep trouble even Clement weakened.

That the Church was run along these lines cannot be defended, but from its very earliest days Western European Christianity had always been something of a nut of two halves. For every self-denying austerity churchman there was another who was happy to enjoy some worldly pleasures, and the Church went through regular cycles in which each of these forces gained ascendancy over the other. The real difference between Christianity in the eleventh century and five centuries later was one of power. In the eleventh century, thanks to the intervention of the Church reformer Emperor Henry III, purists took control of the Church. By contrast, in the 1520s the new purists – Martin Luther and his supporters – remained firmly outside. If Charles V had intervened and made Martin Luther pope, as was not inconceivable, there would have been no Reformation.

The Romans had no illusions about their rulers. They frequently became the subject of that scathing, world-weary humour which was so distinctively Roman, and which – thanks to the wealth of documentation available – becomes visible at this time. In the 1520s a high-class Roman prostitute was referred to as ‘an honest courtier’. Popes and members of their court were routinely reviled in foulmouthed writings placed on a battered ancient statue, which Romans called Pasquino, in the Parione district. In one of these Pasquino complained that he had been insulted in a most offensive way. Another talking statue asked what the insult had been. Had he been called a liar or a thief? A cuckold or a forger? A fornicator who had knocked up some girl? No, replied Pasquino, the insult was far, far worse. He had been called a cardinal.

Yet it was not papal extravagance that aggravated the Romans, but rather its absence. High-spending Leo X was immensely popular, so much so that on his death he became the first pope to have his statue set up on that bastion of civic, anti-papal Rome, the Capitoline Hill.

By contrast his short-lived successor, the Dutchman Adrian VI, who tried to clean up the Church and cut extravagance, was loathed, and his death was greeted with a classic example of Roman black humour. The morning after Adrian died a note appeared on his doctor’s door, thanking him for saving the nation. One can see the Romans’ point of view. Austere popes may have been good for the reputation of the Catholic Church but they were no use to the Romans. Adrian’s brief reign saw a halt to all the city’s building projects and caused an exodus of scholars and artists. By contrast under high-spending Alexander VI, Julius II and Leo X, the city thrived.

After Adrian VI, the news that another Medici had been elected was greeted with excitement but well-meaning Clement soon disappointed. Conscious of the financial black hole his cousin had left, Clement spent frugally and taxed heavily, even taxing clergymen, who had previously been exempt. Clement, like Adrian VI, was unlucky in having inherited a huge financial mess, but both popes were also plain unlucky. Leo X’s eight-year reign had been free of sudden and unexpected disasters but he was hardly cold in his grave when things started going wrong. The humanist Piero Valeriano joked grimly Adrian VI arrived in August 1522 with the plague, which was almost true: the disease preceded him by three months. It struck again two years later, now under Clement, and again in September 1525, when it ravaged the city for five months. These outbreaks may have been less lethal than the earlier and far greater bubonic plague epidemic – the Black Death – but they still caused numerous deaths, especially among children who had no immunity, while the city was struck by other problems too. Clement’s war with Charles V caused food prices to leap in 1526 and in the same year the Tiber broke its banks and Rome was disastrously flooded. Plague, war and famine – three Apocalypse horsemen out of four – caused Rome’s population to fall sharply in the years before 1527, perhaps by as much as a third.

These disasters tell us a surprising truth about Renaissance Rome. A visitor from 1081 would have found that in many respects the city had been far more comfortable to live in during the eleventh century. Certainly, its infrastructure had been in a far better state. Many of Renaissance Rome’s sewers, which had been one of the city’s first achievements, had become blocked and, as the street level rose thanks to fires and floods, were all but unreachable to repair. A stinking open sewer, the Chiavica di San Silvestro, ran right across the city, from the Trevi area to the Tiber. The aqueducts were no better. In the 1520s, when Rome had far more inhabitants than it had done for a thousand years, only a single aqueduct still worked – the Acqua Vergine – and it produced a feeble flow of water. Attempts to repair it were hampered by the fact that the Romans appeared to have to have forgotten where its underground course began.

As Rome’s aqueducts declined, so did Romans’ drinking habits. Though a couple of springs supplied water to the Leonine City and a few lucky Romans had wells, in 1527 most Romans washed with, cooked with and drank Tiber water. It was decanted for a week to allow sediment to fall away and was then considered clean. Visitors from elsewhere in Italy were appalled, and rightly so. The Tiber was Rome’s main sewer, rubbish dump and morgue and classical Romans would never have dreamed of drinking its water. Yet Renaissance Romans not only drank it but claimed to enjoy its taste. Clement VII, when he paid a visit to Marseilles in 1533, insisted on taking several barrels of it with him so he would not have to risk drinking the local supply.

Then there was the question of hygiene. To put it simply, Renaissance Romans stank. Classical Romans would have been disgusted, as even their household slaves smelt far sweeter. By 1527 it was standard practice for most Romans – like most Europeans – to enjoy a full body wash only during major life events: in other words, when they were born, before their wedding night, and when they died. For all other occasions a quick dab at appropriate areas would do. Romans’ clothes were cleaned hardly more often than their owners and their outer garments were given a thorough wash only once a year. Romans in 1527 would have itched and scratched as constantly as they had in 1081, if not more so.

Renaissance Romans also lived less long than their eleventh-century predecessors. As well as measles, typhus and tuberculosis, early sixteenth-century Romans had a constant fear of plague, while malaria was as lethal as ever, especially – as always – to poor Romans who could not escape the city in late summer. Romans’ love of Tiber water would have afflicted them with waterborne diseases. Finally, if this were not already enough, there was a wholly new health threat: the French Disease, also known as the Great Pox, the French Pox and – by the French – the Neapolitan Disease. Today we call it syphilis. It seems to have originated in the Americas and first became known in Europe in 1495 when it was contracted by French troops besieging Naples. Within months it was causing alarm and intense discomfort across Italy. It produced rubbery growths on the genitals that could grow as large as a bread roll, as well as the pustules that devoured skin and bone, and purple rashes to the face that marked out sufferers. As well as Pope Julius II, celebrity victims included Cesare Borgia, three sons of the duke of Ferrara, Charles V’s grandfather, Emperor Maximilian, and a good number of cardinals. Observers at the time noted that it seemed especially fond of priests.

If there were more diseases to catch in 1527 than five centuries earlier, one might hope that medicine had improved. It was undeniably more impressive. In 1527 a sufferer could pray to specialist saints or could seek help from a whole array of professionals, including street tradesmen selling quack remedies, apothecaries who had shops filled with drugs, surgeons who patched up wounds – and who doubled as barbers – while, for those who had money to spend, there was a wealthy and educated elite of professional physicians who looked with scorn on all of the rest.

Yet these professionals were not justified in their disdain. Italian medicine may have grown as an industry but its thinking had barely changed since 1081, or for that matter since 408. Renaissance doctors still followed the ideas of classical Hippocrates and Galen, to which had been added a little further wisdom from Arab medical writers such as Avicenna. They still viewed bad health as stemming from an imbalance of the four humours. Many accepted that sickness might be caused by sinfulness or evil spells and did not question Aristotle’s claim that women were defective males. A visit to the doctor in 1527 was hardly more likely to cure you than it had been five or fifteen centuries earlier, and though Rome had more hospitals in 1527 than it had in 1081, they were so infested with sickness that it was usually wiser to stay at home.

Romans were certainly safer staying at home rather than stepping into the street outside. Rome, like other Italian cities at this time, had a murder rate that was four times higher than that of crime-ridden late 1980s New York. Serious crimes often sprang from the prevailing honour system, under which a show of disrespect could bring a quick and violent response. The system, which extended across the Mediterranean – and in a gentle way still does – was nothing new and had been present throughout Rome’s long history. What was new in 1527 was that interrogations of suspected criminals by Roman magistrates were carefully documented and the records have survived. For the first time we have a clear picture of the city’s crime.

The worst honour crimes usually involved seduction of females. The honour system had no sense of gender fairness and male promiscuity won little disapproval, but if an unmarried Roman’s sister or daughter opted for night-time pleasure her whole family was shamed. The disaster could be overcome if the seducer then married the girl – and preferably handed over a cash payment by way of an apology – but if he did not do so, or if, horror of horrors, a Roman’s wife were seduced, then injury or murder could well follow.

Fortunately, most honour crimes were less dramatic. Romans frequently insulted one another – quick, biting repartee was much admired – and these insults could inspire all kinds of petty trouble, from brawls among washerwomen by the Tiber, to a prostitute’s rejected client daubing her door with excrement. The honour system was also responsible, in an indirect way, for legal suits concerning injuries brought about by rampaging bulls. By tradition, Renaissance Romans who wanted to impress a girl would rent an ox from the city’s slaughterhouse, together with a pack of specially trained dogs. If all went well the dogs would bite at the unfortunate ox’s ears, causing it to become so demoralized that it would let itself be led tamely by a rope to the home of the girl who – as the suitor hoped – would then applaud from her window. If all did not go well, the city authorities had to deal with the denunciations of irate shopkeepers and injured passers-by.

Yet Romans had little fear of the authorities. In Rome, as throughout Italy, police were despised as a useless, crooked force that tyrannized the helpless and kowtowed to the strong and there was a certain amount of truth in this view. Magistrates, too, inspired little terror. They could torture suspects but, compared to those of classical Rome, when slaves could be lacerated with whips, ripped apart on racks and burned with scalding hot plates, Renaissance Roman tortures were feeble. Males had their hands tied behind their backs, were hauled up by a rope, held for a short time and then dropped (a process known as the strappado). Females were more likely to have their fingers or toes pinched. Transgressors often regarded their torture with a certain pride. As for the city’s jails, these were used less to inflict punishment than to remove those who disturbed the peace or who were found tiresome: incurables, cripples, vagabonds, drunks, people with mental problems, and epileptics. Many were held in the Carceri di Tor di Nona by the Tiber, which was built from the ruins of the classical-era river port (inmates of lower cells occasionally drowned). VIP prisoners were held in the city’s maximum security jail, Castel Sant’Angelo. Only in extreme cases were Romans taken up to the city gallows, which, appropriately enough, appear to have been placed on the Tarpeian Rock, from where citizens had been thrown in Rome’s earliest days.

One phenomenon against which Renaissance Rome’s authorities were noticeably helpless was mobs of stone-throwing boys. These were a plague in many Italian cities but especially in Rome, where the problem became acute from the 1480s. Youths and small boys, wearing heavy coats to protect themselves, would unleash showers of stones against one another. Sometimes hundreds became involved, fighting battles that might be local (Trastevere versus the Monti area across the river) or political (pro-French versus pro-imperial) or religious (Christians versus Jews). As well as one another, the boys would attack anyone who seemed vulnerable or different, from poor farmers just in from the countryside, to foreigners, to Jews. In tough times the rich were also targets, and prostitutes were frequent victims.

These terrible mobs exacerbated a change that had been going on for several centuries. A visitor from 1081 would have been surprised by how few females – or at least respectable females – they saw on the streets. In Renaissance Rome, much as in classical Rome, respectable women, if they were visible at all, were usually to be found looking out from the safety of their doorway or peering down from a window. They had been forced from the streets not only by stone-throwing boys but also by fears for their own reputation. The city’s streets were now seen as places of immoral, honourless prostitutes.

Respectable Roman women found their lives were also restricted in other ways. Renaissance Italy had no powerful female rulers: no Marozia or Matilda of Tuscany. The daughters of leading families disappeared from sight after marriage, vanishing into an indoor life of domesticity and pregnancy. Women who did try to exert influence were criticized or ridiculed. Pope Leo X’s sisters, who lobbied Clement VII for favours to their husbands and sons – the kind of lobbying that everybody at the papal court was engaged in – became, quite unfairly, scapegoats for Clement’s financial troubles. This diminution of female independence had been growing across Europe for several centuries. It was caused in part by another change: the replacement of female inheritance by dowries. Yet not all women accepted their lot. Intriguingly, it was Renaissance Italy that saw a visible fightback, in the form of two of the world’s first true feminist writers, both of them from Venice: Modesta Pozzo and Lucrezia Marinella, who wrote the strikingly titled The Nobility and Excellence of Women.

Some Roman females were self-employed and financially independent, but not from choice. In 1527 the city had a thriving population of prostitutes that has been estimated at between 700 and 1,000: a good number for a city of 55,000. They were highly visible, dressing up – like their classical forebears – in men’s clothing, and loudly calling out to passers-by. During Carnival they were known to hurl perfumed eggs at potential customers. Their presence may seem a little surprising in the capital city of Catholic Christianity, a religion that venerated virginity and chastity, but Rome was also a city of single males, whether members of the male papal court, or wifeless immigrants. Male Romans outnumbered female Romans by six to four. Besides, in this era Christianity was fairly tolerant of prostitution. No Renaissance pope acted against prostitutes, and though there were attempts to restrict their presence to the district around Augustus’ tomb, many roamed wherever they chose, even seeking out custom in churches.

A select few had access to Rome’s most desirable locations. These were Rome’s courtesans: high-class prostitutes who, like Japanese geishas, were valued both for their bedroom skills and for their wit and intellect (qualities which were considered a little unseemly in respectable women). Roman courtesans, who were famous for their large, circular beds discreetly enclosed by hangings, included fine poets and letter-writers who could recite beautifully in Italian and Latin. Some were celebrities of their time and one, known as Imperia, had a string of high-ranking admirers, including the painter Raphael, the Tuscan banker Agostino Chigi – who accepted Imperia’s daughter as his own – and also Cardinal Giulio de’ Medici, the future Pope Clement VII.

Spending time with an alluring, witty courtesan on her circular bed was by no means the only pleasure to be found in Rome. Despite the city’s failing infrastructure, life could be sweet, especially for wealthy Romans, and early sixteenth-century Rome would be remembered as something of a golden age. Rich Romans’ drinking water may have become fouler over the centuries but this was not true of their food, which, for those with money to spend, was lavishly sophisticated. Ingredients were now to be found in Domitian’s old athletics stadium, the Circus Agonalis – which by 1527 had been paved and was beginning to evolve into the Piazza Navona – and to which the city’s main food market had recently moved from the Capitoline Hill (the fish market was still beneath the arches of Portico d’Ottavia). Along with a wide selection of meats, vegetables and fruit, Romans could enjoy a good number of items that are still favourites today, from ricotta cheese and buffalo mozzarella to mushrooms, truffles and artichokes. Dried pasta, though it was expensive compared to fresh, could also be found, and fresh pasta came in many of the forms it does now, from macaroni and pappardelle to tortelli and ravioli.

As ingredients grew more varied, so did the dishes made from them. Eleventh-century Romans may have enjoyed a good diet but their meals were fairly simple, consisting largely of roasts or stews that were mopped up with bread. By contrast, great Renaissance banquets would have impressed a Roman emperor, though he might have found it a little sweet. Luxury Renaissance Roman dishes were highly flavoured with spices from the Orient: ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon and above all, sugar, which, as a novelty, was added to almost everything, including meats. Dentists thrived. Salty flavours were despised as food of the poor, who used salt as a preservative. Renaissance Rome, like classical Rome, had star chefs whose names were known throughout good society. One of these was Bartolomeo Scappi, who in April 1536 held a famously vast banquet in the home of Cardinal Campeggio in Trastevere, whose 200 dishes were recorded. Highlights included lamprey pie, cold roast carp in sugar and rice water, and hake in mustard sauce. The finale was intended for effect rather than taste: a gigantic pie was brought to the table and when the pastry was cut open a flock of live songbirds flew out.

Wealthy Renaissance Romans also enjoyed intellectual pleasures. After a fine dinner a host might take his guests to see his collection of ancient Greek vases, classical statues and antique manuscripts. This was the age of humanism and the rediscovery of the classical past. Humanists were very much products of new technology: the printing revolution that had begun three generations earlier, which had made books and education more affordable than they had ever been. Humanists, who called themselves literati, or men of letters, were brought together by a shared fascination with classical times, and also a desire to produce written works in good Latin. Most were not from wealthy families, so they struggled financially. These days they might be described as perpetual students.

In the early sixteenth century humanists were found all across Europe – the most renowned was Erasmus of Rotterdam – but many were drawn to Rome and its antiquities. They formed associations, which met in the gardens of leading members to discuss antiquities and read out Latin writings. They also set themselves the task of trying to correct medieval myths and rediscover the city’s ancient topography. To this end they scoured monasteries for forgotten texts, sifted through the city’s ruins, and deciphered ancient inscriptions. Poggio Bracciolini pointed out that the ancient pyramid beside Porta San Paolo was not, as had long been claimed, the tomb of Romulus’ brother Remus, but of a classical Roman named Cestius (not such a hard discovery, seeing as the name Cestius was written on its side in huge letters). By 1527 humanists had discovered that the equestrian statue of an emperor was not Constantine but Marcus Aurelius, that Rome’s ruined baths were not ancient palaces, and that the Colosseum was an amphitheatre rather than a temple to the sun.

The more fortunate among them had some form of income from the Church. Some were hired as spin doctors or diplomats and Alexander VI, the Borgia pope, employed them to write eulogies of himself: a task in which their classical knowledge proved invaluable, as they could look back to ancient poets’ fawning praise of their emperors. But for every humanist who earned a decent living there were others who were on the breadline and whose stories reveal much about how Roman society functioned. Piero Valeriano, a humanist who came to Rome from Venice, endured four hungry years before finally enjoying a breakthrough. It came when Clement VII’s high-spending cousin Leo X was elected. It was Valeriano’s good fortune that his old Greek tutor was a friend of the new pope, and through his lobbying, Valeriano gained income from enough Church benefices for a comfortable life. Eight years later, when Leo died and was replaced by the stingy Dutch Pope Adrian VI, Valeriano, like many humanists, appears to have left Rome and it was he who made the cutting observation that Adrian had arrived with the plague. Yet he soon landed on his feet, becoming tutor to Clement VII’s illegitimate nephews, Alessandro and Ippolito de’ Medici. Valeriano was luckier than many other humanists, who struggled on tiny incomes from Rome’s university, La Sapienza, and struggled even more when, as was often the case, it was closed because of building repairs or an outbreak of the plague.

Artists, or at least those of them who were successful, had a much easier time. Popes such as Julius II and Leo X were generous patrons and under their rule renowned artists, who in the past had been treated as social inferiors, were welcomed into Rome’s highest society. A few, such as Raphael, became so rich they built themselves palaces. In the first decades of the sixteenth century Rome was the greatest artistic centre in Italy and though some artists left when the stingy Dutch Pope Adrian VI cut spending, many stayed, including Sebastiano del Piombo and Parmigianino. Another Roman resident in 1527 was the Florentine silversmith and sculptor Benvenuto Cellini, famous for his outrageously self-aggrandizing autobiography. Rome’s artists had their own club and Cellini describes attending one of its dinners, to which every guest was required to bring a city prostitute as his guest. One of the leading artists of the era, Giovanni Antonio Bazzi openly used his gay nickname, Sodoma.

If Rome could be a delightful place for the rich, though, life for less wealthy citizens was a different matter. Their existence was little better than it had been for their poor forebears five or twelve centuries earlier. Their homes frequently lacked kitchens, so they relied on inns and street stalls, and ate what poor Romans had always eaten: a mush of vegetables, cheap grain and beans, perhaps garnished with a little pork fat, tripe or some pigs’ trotters. The very poorest Romans lived in homes that would have been hardly more comfortable than Romulus’ hut. One stood right by St Peter’s. Struggling females enjoyed one privilege that their eleventh-century predecessors had not had: they could anonymously give away unwanted newborn babies. They used a twelfth-century invention, the ruota, a cylindrical device built into the walls of orphanages. Mothers placed the newborn into the device from the street, rang a bell and the baby was then taken by those inside.

If rich and poor Romans led very different lives they had one thing in common: all were less politically independent than their twelfth-century ancestors, and more under the thumb of the papacy. The days were long gone when the city’s great and middling citizens rode out with their pope to Testaccio Hill for the carnival games, or walked barefoot with him on one of his great processions around the city. Compared to the medieval papacy, the papacy of 1527 was aloof, private, and above all powerful. If the Romans had learned anything from the bleak decades when the popes abandoned them for Avignon, it was that they needed their popes. The city wilted without them. The hundred years since the popes had returned saw steadily rising papal control. The last attempt by Rome’s leading families to challenge papal power, in 1511, was easily swatted away by Julius II. Thereafter Rome’s leading families were excluded from the papal court, which, as in the late eleventh century, was filled with Tuscan and German outsiders. Rome still had great families, notably the Medici’s allies the Orsini and their enemies the Colonna, but both were a diminished force. The Colonna posed a threat to Clement only because they had Charles V’s empire behind them.

Likewise Rome’s civic government, which had been dominated by the city’s old families, had seen its powers steadily whittled away. Its officials who, as in medieval times, struggled to defend the city’s ruins from papal stone theft, found themselves increasingly sidelined. This was an era when the city’s antiquities were pillaged on a grand scale, as the Colosseum, the forums, the Palatine Palace, and ruined classical temples were denuded of stone, which was used to build palaces, the Ponte Sisto bridge and, most of all, the new St Peter’s. By the 1510s destruction was intense. Among its casualties was Rome’s other pyramid classical tomb that had stood near St Peter’s, and also a triumphal arch near the Baths of Diocletian, the Temple to Ceres on the Via Sacra, and part of the Forum Transitorum, which was burned for lime. The only restraint to the destruction was papal conscience, which led popes to try to preserve at least the more interesting remnants.


In the early spring of 1527 Pope Clement must have wished he had made more of an effort to woo the Romans, as now he badly needed their help. While Bourbon’s army made its dash for Rome, Clement belatedly appealed to his subjects at a great council of Rome in the church of Santa Maria in Aracoeli on the Capitoline. Clement begged them to fight, assuring them that they would only need to hold out for three days as they would then be rescued by the League army.

On the afternoon of 5 May Romans could see the threat facing them as a huge force advanced towards the city. It was larger than any that had approached Rome for many centuries, containing 700 lancers, 800 light cavalry, 3,000 Italian adventurers, 5,000 Spanish and 10,000 Germans. At almost 20,000 men it was five times the size of Robert Guiscard’s army. Yet the Romans’ situation was better than it might have been. The Romans, who only eight months before had happily watched Pompeo Colonna’s soldiers process through the city, responded to Clement’s call, declaring that they would live or die beside him, like the sons of Mars of ancient times. Their change of mind seems to have been inspired by Colonna’s raid. The humiliation Clement had suffered left his subjects more sympathetic towards him.

The city was fairly well defended. Its walls were antiquated, it was true, but they still formed a formidable barrier to an army with no artillery. Despite Clement’s disastrous decision to stand down his troops once again, Rome had a good-sized force of defenders. As well as a mixed bag of civilians from the city’s various districts – those who had not been stolen away by the city’s wealthy to defend their palaces – there were 4,000 regular soldiers and 2,000 Swiss troops. Most formidable of all, there were a further 2,000 members of the elite Italian Black Bands force, which had been led by Clement VII’s cousin Giuliano until his death a few months earlier. Rome also had a highly competent commander, Renzo da Ceri. Only three years earlier Renzo had thwarted another imperial army, also commanded by Bourbon, which besieged Marseilles for a month, only to be humiliatingly forced to retreat. Everything suggested that Renzo was now about to enjoy an even greater triumph. Without food or shelter the imperial army could not survive outside the walls for more than a few days and the League army was expected to arrive shortly. A desperate imperial retreat to Naples beckoned.

Renzo organized the city’s defences as skilfully as he could in the short time left to him. Aware that, as well as Bourbon’s army to the north and west of the city, he might also have to deal with a Colonna attack from the south, he manned the south and eastern Aurelian Walls, though with his worst troops: Roman civilians and even some monks and priests. He placed his best soldiers in the parts of the city that were directly threatened by Bourbon’s armies: in the Borgo, in Trastevere and along the north section of the Aurelian Walls. Renzo recognized that the Borgo was the city’s weakest spot, and that the greatest part of the Borgo was by the Santo Spirito Gate, where the walls were lower than elsewhere and faced on to high ground, and where Pompeo Colonna had broken through eight months earlier. Renzo placed artillery at a number of locations, which between them fully covered the danger area. His heaviest guns he placed in Castel Sant’Angelo. He also wanted to cut the bridges over the Tiber so that, if the Borgo and Trastevere fell, the city beyond the river could be saved, but this was prevented by the Romans, who had no wish to see their city disrupted. It was a decision they would soon regret.

On the night of 5 May 1527 Roman defenders could see the campfires of the 20,000 imperial troops on Monte Mario. On the Capitoline Hill, Rome’s ancient citadel, the great bell rang, tolling the alarm and the streets below rang with shouts of, ‘Arms, arms!’ The Romans’ greatest fear was of betrayal: an understandable concern with so many Colonna supporters in the city. But, as events would soon show, danger would come in quite another form, which neither Rome’s defenders nor the Imperialists had foreseen.

Outside the walls in the small hours of the morning, Bourbon made the traditional speech to urge on his troops. He ordered them to build scaling ladders from fences and any other wood they could find. His hope was to break into the city in the same way as Robert Guiscard had four and a half centuries earlier. His soldiers were to scale the walls and make for the weak spot that Bourbon had noticed when he made his inspection hours earlier. It was close to Santo Spirito Gate in a part of the Leonine Wall that had been constructed around a poorly camouflaged private house, and in which a gun port had been made from a window that was too large for safety. Yet, compared to Bourbon, Robert Guiscard had had a great advantage: surprise. Bourbon’s troops were to assault the exact area that the Roman commander, Renzo, had anticipated would be attacked.

Sure enough the Imperialists soon found themselves struggling. After a firefight between arquebusiers on both sides, Bourbon, wearing a white cloak over his armour, urged his soldiers to hurl themselves at the walls. In the face of arquebus and artillery fire the attackers suffered high casualties and before long the defenders had captured five of their battle standards, which they carried in triumph back to the Borgo. But then, just when things were going well for the Romans, the battleground became quietly and gently transformed. Luigi Guicciardini, who ruled Florence for the Medici at this time, and later wrote an account of the 1527 disaster in Rome, described how, ‘about this time a heavy fog began to appear, which spread itself thickly over the ground and became increasingly dense as the day approached. This often happens in the middle of spring, and this fog was so thick that people could not see each other at a distance of six feet.’2

Thanks to the fog, which was made denser by gun smoke, those on the city walls and in the Castel Sant’Angelo could not see to aim and they were forced to fire blind, aiming towards the sound of the enemy. Before long the Imperialists’ superior numbers began to tell. Renzo, who had been on a section of the Aurelian Walls, hurried to the Borgo to take personal command and ordered in reinforcements, but there were none to be found. But then, just as the Imperialists were gaining ground, they were struck by a disaster: one that would have grave consequences for the Romans. As Guicciardini tells us: Monseigneur de Bourbon was to be seen encouraging the troops … holding onto one of the ladders leaning against the wall with his left hand, and with his right hand signalling and urging the men to ascend it. Suddenly he was shot through by a ball from an arquebus …’3

Struck in the forehead, Bourbon died instantly. Benvenuto Cellini, the silversmith and autobiographer, who was never one to let the truth spoil a good story, offered his own version of the event. Encouraged by a friend who wanted to see what was happening, he found himself on the walls by Campo Santo in the midst of the fighting. Though his friend panicked and wanted to run, Cellini would have none of it:

I checked him and shouted, ‘Now you’ve brought me here, we must show that we’re men.’ At the same time I pointed my arquebus towards the thickest and most closely packed part of the enemy, taking direct aim at someone I could see standing out from the rest … We all fired, twice in succession, and I looked cautiously over the wall. The enemy had been thrown into the most extraordinary confusion, because one of our shots had killed the Constable of Bourbon. From what I learned later he must have been the man I saw standing out from the others.’4

News of Bourbon’s death spread rapidly on both sides of the walls. For a brief time the defenders imagined they were saved, but then the imperial commanders rallied their forces, transforming their soldiers’ shock into hunger for revenge. The attack was renewed more fiercely than before and the Romans, seeing they might be defeated, desperately flung burning liquids over the wall and fired into the fog. It was no use. Around ten o’clock a small band of Spanish troops were seen inside the city. Whether they had got in through the oversized gun port or by scaling the walls is unknown. As to what happened next, all the sources are broadly agreed, though they differ as to who was most to blame. Guicciardini, whose brother was leading papal troops under the League commander, the duke of Urbino – and leading them very ineffectually – had no wish to let any other papal commander look good. Accordingly, he portrayed Renzo da Ceri as both incompetent and cowardly, saying that he shouted out, ‘The enemy are within! Save yourselves, retreat to the strongest & safest places!’5 Other sources report that Renzo resisted bravely, trying to kill any who fled from the walls. Whatever he did, his efforts were to no avail. Panic swept through the defenders and resistance collapsed.


At the death of Charles Bourbon, the troops of Charles V storm the walls of Rome, from a sixteenth-century engraving.

Before long the gates had been opened and Imperialists were pouring into the Borgo, shouting ‘Spain! Spain! Kill! Kill!’ So began an event that still has the power to cause great shock even five centuries later, and which has been described as the sixteenth century’s 9/11. In every regard it seems to have been far more terrible than any of the other sacks the city had suffered. Of course, this may be in part because the others have been remembered in less detail. Yet the situation on 6 May 1527 was undeniably horrific. The imperial army was not only fired up by desperation and by religious passion; it also lacked the restraining influence of authoritative commanders. Georg von Frundsberg was in Germany, having never recovered from his stroke, and Bourbon was dead. Even had he lived, it is highly doubtful that he would have been able to exert much control over his troops during the first hours, but he might have later. Without him his soldiers felt freer, and also had cause to seek revenge.

Many Romans had assumed that if Rome fell the result would be much as it had been eight months earlier when they watched Colonna’s troops process through the city. Instead the Borgo became a slaughterhouse. A few defenders managed to save themselves in the initial confusion by merging with the attackers, but most were not so lucky. Some tried to flee across the river in boats and many drowned. Only a handful of the elite Black Bands survived. The Swiss made a stand by the obelisk in front of St Peter’s, where they were torn apart. The imperial soldiers, with nobody left to oppose them, then went through the Borgo like a scythe, killing all they met. The commander of the Swiss Guards, Röust, who had been carried heavily wounded to his quarters nearby, was cut to pieces in front of his wife. A monk from the monastery of San Salvatore reported that ‘Everyone in the Santo Spirito hospital was killed apart from the few who managed to flee.’6 A good number were thrown alive into the Tiber. The same monk also reported that all the orphans in the La Pietà orphanage were killed and that many ‘were thrown from windows into the street’.

As the slaughter began, people tried to flee to the safety of the Castel Sant’Angelo, including Pope Clement VII. He had been praying and attending mass in St Peter’s and, as during the Colonna raid, was persuaded to leave just in time. As he hurried down the papal escape passage to the castello, he and his entourage were spotted by Spanish troops, who took pot shots at him from below. A large crowd of soldiers, churchmen, merchants, nobles, courtiers, women and children soon formed outside the castello, pressing so tightly that they prevented the gate from being closed. By the time the portcullis was finally dropped a large number had got inside. As Archbishop Pesaro of Zara reported, the situation brought out Clement VII’s ruthless side: ‘The pope was told that there were many people in the castle, most of them of no military use, and there was little grain, so many of the useless ones were thrown out.’7 Their fate is unknown. Yet there was still room inside for the right sort of person. Elderly Cardinal Pucci, who had hurled abuse at the attackers during the fighting on the walls, and who was knocked down and trampled in the ensuing panic, was hauled up by rope through a window. Another cardinal, Armellino, was pulled over the battlements in a basket.

Among those who had managed to get into the castello was Benvenuto Cellini. As fearless as ever, he went directly up to the guns where, as he recounts in his autobiography, he found their commander, Giuliano the Florentine, ‘tearing at his face and sobbing bitterly’. Giuliano did not dare fire in case he hit his own house, where he could see his wife and children being set upon. Fortunately, Cellini was made of sterner stuff:

I seized one of the fuses, got help from some of the men who were in such a sorry state, and lined up some heavy pieces of artillery and falconets, firing them where I saw a need. In this way I slaughtered a great number of the enemy. If I had not done so the troops who had broken into Rome that morning would have made straight for the castle and could easily have entered, as the artillery was not in action … Anyhow, all I need say is that it was through me that the castle was saved that morning.8

The imperial forces had captured the Borgo but not the rest of the city. The Castel Sant’Angelo Bridge that led to it was impassable, as it could be raked by the fire of the large guns in castello itself. After a hurried discussion the imperial commanders decided to launch an attack on Trastevere, which lay behind its own defensive walls half a mile south of the Borgo. By now the fog had lifted so the defenders had a clear view, but the heart had gone from them and resistance was feeble. Imperial forces broke through the walls by San Pancrazio Gate on the Gianicolo Hill and, seizing control of the district, gorged themselves on food they found there.

Ponte Sisto, Rome’s new bridge that connected Trastevere to the main part of the city, was beyond the range of the guns on Castel Sant’Angelo, and the imperial forces advanced cautiously, only to find it was all but undefended. By then it was evening and the Romans had fled back to their homes. The army crossed the river and split into its two main elements: the Landsknechte made their way to Campo de’ Fiori and the Spanish to the Piazza Navona. For a time both contingents kept formation, ready to fend off an attack. Then, when none came, soldiers began to slip away.

It was now that the city’s trials truly began. One observer remarked that Rome made hell itself look a place of beauty. Another told how the imperial soldiers, ‘threw the bodies of little children out of doorways into the street. And women were dragged out and outraged on the ground … crying and wailing so loudly that all the city could hear.’9 A third reported that ‘large numbers of the priests are naked and that it is a terrible thing to see the great number of dead, and most of all the little children younger than ten years old’, and that the soldiers ‘are exhausted from lack of sleep, drunk on blood, killing everything’.10 Guicciardini, though he did not witness events himself, also gave a graphic account, which, since he thoroughly disliked both Rome and the Romans, has a discernible whiff of Schadenfreude:

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 or man 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.11


The Germans plunder Rome, from a nineteenth-century engraving.

It is unclear how long the violence and destruction lasted. Guicciardini claims that the imperial commanders, concerned that their soldiers were beginning to turn on one another, managed to restrain them after three days: the traditional amount of time allotted to a sack. Another source, Buonaparte, though, writes that after three days the Prince of Orange – who had assumed command after Bourbon’s death – ordered the soldiers to stop sacking the city and begin taking prisoners instead, but the soldiers replied that as Bourbon was dead they no longer had a commander, and carried on more brutally than before. In view of difficulties Bourbon and Frundsberg had had in controlling their troops, Buonaparte’s account seems all too plausible.

The sack was unusual in that clergy were not spared. Alaric and Totila had treated them with respect but now if anything they were treated more cruelly than non-churchmen. The cardinal of Como reported that the soldiers killed monks and priests on the altars of churches and took prisoner or raped many young nuns. One priest was killed because he refused to administer the sacraments to a mule that the Landsknechte had dressed in clerical vestments. The 80-year-old cardinal of Gaeta and Ponzetto, who could hardly walk, was forced to parade around the city in a Landsknechte cap and uniform. A group of Landsknechte put the cardinal of Aracoeli – who was still very much alive – in a coffin and carried him around the city singing funeral dirges, before stopping at a church to give him a funeral speech, in which they ascribed every kind of monstrosity to him.

Not everyone was sorry at the churchmen’s fate. Guicciardini, who, as we saw, was no lover of the Romans, recounted with a certain glee how:

many of these men wore torn and disgraceful habits, others were without shoes. Some in ripped and bloody shirts had cuts and bruises all over their bodies from the indiscriminate whippings and beatings they had received. Some had thick and greasy beards. Some had their faces branded, and some were missing teeth; others were without noses or ears. Some were castrated and so depressed and terrified that they failed to show in any way the vain and effeminate delicacy and lasciviousness that they had put on with such excessive energy for so many years in their earlier, happier days.12


German Landsknechte ridiculing the pope, engraving from Gottfried’s Historical Chronicle, 1619.

Church property fared no better than churchmen. The altar of St Peter’s was piled with the corpses of those who had fled there in hope of finding sanctuary. Even the tomb of Julius II, who had been a firm ally of the Empire, was looted. Rome’s churches were robbed of their silverware, their chalices and vestments. Guicciardini reported that

The sumptuous palaces of the cardinals, the proud palaces of the pope, the holy churches of Peter and Paul, the private chapel of His Holiness, the Sancta Sanctorum, and the other holy places, once full of plenary indulgences and venerable relics, now became the brothels of German and Spanish whores.

and that the Landsknechte

committed shameful acts on the altars in the most sanctified places.13

Churches, including St Peter’s, were used as stables for horses of the imperial cavalry. Relics likewise fared poorly. St Peter’s and St Paul’s heads were flung into the street. The head of John the Baptist was stripped of its silver decoration and thrown to the ground, only to be saved by an old nun. The Veronica cloth that for centuries had been a symbol of Rome, copies of which innumerable pilgrims had taken home as souvenirs, was lost. By one account it was burned, by another it was sold in an inn.

After five days of carnage a new force of marauders appeared: on 10 May, just as he had promised, Cardinal Pompeo Colonna arrived with a further 8,000 troops, who quickly joined in the looting. Colonna settled some private scores with Clement VII for destroying his properties outside Rome, by burning down Clement’s vineyard by Ponte Milvio and also the Medici Villa Madama on Monte Mario. Yet compared to the other Imperialists, Colonna and his army were angels of restraint. Pompeo stopped his troops’ rampage after a short time, while he himself was distraught when he saw what was happening to Rome, his city.

After a few days the soldiers’ focus began to alter, from simple violence and destruction to something more profitable. By all accounts the Spanish were the first to look to self-enrichment, though the Landsknechte – who were described as being less worldly but more violent – soon followed suit. Not that the change brought much of an improvement to the Romans. Having been slaughtered, they now found themselves imprisoned and tortured, as their captors forced them to agree to high ransoms, and to reveal where their valuables were hidden. Guicciardini describes their fate with his usual Schadenfreude:

Many were suspended by their arms for hours at a time; others were led around by ropes tied to their testicles. Many were suspended by one foot above the streets or over water, with the threat that the cord suspending them would be cut. Many were beaten and wounded severely. Many were branded with hot irons in various parts of their bodies. Some endured extreme thirst; 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, or nose, or testicles roasted; and others were subjected to bizarre and unheard of torments that affect me too strongly even to think of them, let alone to describe them in detail.14

Buonaparte tells of how some Romans had sticks pushed beneath the nails of their fingers and toes, or had melted lead poured into their throats. Castration appears to have been common and one source claims that numerous testicles could be seen lying in the streets.

Artists and humanists were not exempt. The painters Perino del Vaga and Giulio Clivio were tortured and had all their possessions taken. Gianbattista Rosso lost all his property and was forced to act as a kind of porter for his captors, heaving their loot about. Parmigianino was luckier, though not much. When the imperial army broke into the city he was working on a painting of the Madonna and Child, which so impressed the soldiers who captured him that instead of demanding money they ransomed him for watercolour portraits of themselves. Unfortunately, he was then caught by another less art-conscious group of soldiers who took everything he had.

Parmigianino’s experience was common, and many Romans paid out one extortionate ransom only to find they then had to pay again to another set of captors. A Florentine, Bernardo Bracci, was taken by some cavalrymen to the German Bartolomeo bank (the imperial forces took care not to sack the banks, especially the German banks, so hostages could borrow money for their ransoms), but as he was led across the Ponte Sisto, he was stopped by one of the imperial commanders, the marquis of Motte. On learning that Bracci was going to borrow 5,000 ducats for his ransom, Motte declared, ‘This is a very small ransom. If he won’t pay another 5000 ducats to my account, I order you to throw him into the Tiber immediately.’15 So Bracci doubled his debt.

For some the pain of torture proved too strong to bear. One hostage, Girolamo da Camerino, crept slowly towards the window of his house, where he was being held, and leapt out and killed himself. Another hostage, Giovanni Ansaldi, had agreed to a ransom of 1,000 silver ducats, only to be tortured for a second time because his captors had changed their minds and decided they wanted gold ducats instead. When they were not watching, Ansaldi grabbed a dagger from one of them, killed him and then killed himself.

Even those who assumed they would be left in peace were not safe. The home of the Portuguese ambassador, who was also the king of Portugal’s nephew, in the old Theatre of Marcellus, became filled with fleeing Romans and their valuables. Unfortunately, word then reached the imperial forces and two Spanish captains soon appeared, who offered to fly their flag over the residence and protect it in exchange for a large sum. To the dismay of the Romans hiding inside, all of whom wanted to pay off the Spanish, the ambassador haughtily sent the officers away, telling them that to fly any flag would be a dishonour to his king. The two officers left, but returned soon afterwards with a large force of Spanish and Landsknechte armed with artillery. The ambassador then opened the palace gates and within a short time his residence had been wrecked; all those inside were taken prisoner and he found himself being dragged naked through the streets. The vast sum of half a million ducats was eventually extracted from him and his guests.

Not even pro-imperialists were safe. One of the very first palaces to be sacked was that of Pompeo Colonna, which was invaded after his servants forgot to hang out a banner saying to whom it belonged. Four cardinals who were well-known supporters of Charles V, and who had crowds of pro-Imperialists sheltering in their palaces, avoided the mistake made by the Portuguese ambassador and took in Spanish officers as protection, though it did them little good. As days passed their Spanish guests, observing the wealth of valuables all around them, demanded huge pay-offs, not from the cardinals themselves but from their refugee guests. Having got their money, the Spanish then informed the cardinals that their comrades the Landsknechte were keen to sack their palaces and that they could only be stopped by a further large payment.

At this point the cardinal of Siena, who had close links with the Landsknechte, decided it was time to make a stand and he announced he was not paying another penny. Within hours his palace had been stripped, his guests were either dead or taken prisoner, and he himself had been beaten up and dragged to the Borgo to raise a 50,000-ducat ransom. The other three pro-Imperialist cardinals crept out from their palaces late in the night and hurried to Pompeo Colonna’s palace. Yet, as Cardinal di Como reported, a group of women with Cardinal della Valle did not get into Colonna’s palace quickly enough and were taken, screaming, crying and begging. Even the marquesa of Mantua, whose son Ferrante was a commander in the imperial army, found herself endangered. Together with some 2,000 Romans who were crowded into her palace, she paid out 52,000 ducats to the Spanish, only to be threatened by the Landsknechte. Twice her son Ferrante persuaded them to leave her in peace but she had no confidence in their promises and eventually fled with her guests to Ostia. The moment she left, her palace was sacked.

The most distressing details of what happened in 1527 often do not come from written accounts but, a little surprisingly, from legal documents. Roman notary records show how, as well as enduring attacks, robbery, rape and torture, Romans were also struck by the plague, which, in the chaos of the sack, soon grew into a full epidemic. Even before the sack began, one notary, Pietro Paolo Amodeus, lost eight children to the disease. Another document tells of how a Paduan priest, Paolo de Caligariis, came to take possession of his new church, Santa Cecilia de Turre in Campo, only to find that he could not get upstairs as the upper level was filled with the corpses of plague victims.

Notary documents also show how ordinary Romans tried to preserve some sense of normality in the horror, by having legal contracts carefully drawn up between themselves and their tormentors, as receipts for ransoms paid. Most were with Spanish soldiers, as it seems the Landsknechte were unwilling to be troubled with paperwork. Some Romans also drew up legal protests. One couple made a complaint against the pro-empire cardinal, Enckenvoirt, and also to an Imperialist captain, Aldone. The couple had placed their three children in Enckenvoirt’s palace for safety but they had then been taken prisoner by Captain Aldone, along with all the others sheltering in the palace, despite the fact that under imperial army rules no one under the age of fourteen was to be taken. Though the parents paid ransom money, Enckenvoirt still handed the three children over to Aldone. Whether the parents ever retrieved their children is unknown.

High above the nightmare in the Castel Sant’Angelo, Pope Clement, surveying a disaster that he was largely responsible for, decided to grow a beard as a sign of mourning for Rome. Other churchmen followed his example and, before long, beards would become a new fashion across Italy. As time passed what remained of Clement’s hopes fell away. The League army that he had believed would come to the rescue in three days never appeared. Its commander, the duke of Urbino, who, as has been seen, had little love for the Medici, was enjoying a little revenge. Instead of hurrying to Rome he took a detour to Perugia, where he set about removing the city’s ruler, Gentile Baglione: a papal appointee who Urbino considered an enemy of his own small state. Afterwards, Urbino marched his army towards Rome, only to come up with a series of reasons why he should not attack and snatch Clement to safety, including the claim that he required a whole army of Swiss troops. After 27 May he no longer needed excuses as the Spanish had surrounded the castello with siege works. There was no hope of reaching Clement.


Landsknechte mercenaries besieging Castel Sant’Angelo, sixteenth-century engraving.

Bad news filtered into the castello from the outside world. The papal state was haemorrhaging territory. As well as Perugia, papal authority had been lost in Rimini, the duke of Ferrara had taken Modena and Clement’s supposed ally, Venice, had occupied Ravenna and Cervia. The worst news, though, came not from papal territory but Tuscany. When they heard of Rome’s fall the Florentines had risen up against the Medici, forcing out Clement’s two illegitimate nephews, Alessandro and Ippolito. Clement’s eight-year-old niece, Catherine, was held in the city as a hostage. The Medici had lost their heartland.

Yet despite all the discouraging news life could have been worse for the thousand-odd soldiers, cardinals, prelates, ambassadors, merchants, bankers, wives, children and courtesans who were hiding out in the Castel Sant’Angelo. When imperial troops first burst into the Borgo there had been a rush to seize provisions from nearby shops and, as the archbishop of Zara recounted, the effort had paid off:

We had grain and wine to last a month, as well as some salted meat and cheeses, around 40 bullocks had been brought in, which we got through in less than eight days, and then we had the salted meat and a little ham and cheese and some rice, and we had good bread and excellent wine, all of it Greek.

The archbishop appears to have quite enjoyed himself:

I was always well in myself and I was neither fearful nor exhausted, nor had nightmares. Thanks be to God! Every day we said litanies and day and night we read the psalms, leaving none out. And the pope often celebrated mass and gave a generous indulgence, a copy of which I brought here … And in truth, we were so many in the castle that it truly seemed like there was religion with us, and many cardinals and prelates celebrated.16

The one who was enjoying himself most of all, naturally, was Benvenuto Cellini, who confessed that, ‘My drawing, my wonderful studies and my lovely music were all forgotten in the music of the guns, and if I told all the great things I did in that cruel inferno, I would astonish the world.17Cellini described how he took a shot at a Spanish officer who, thanks to the sword he was wearing across his front, was instantly sliced in two. The pope was so impressed that he personally gave Cellini his blessing and forgave him all the killings that he had committed or might commit in the future in the name of the Church. Cellini – in one of the few incidents he describes that actually rings true – was then ordered by the pope to remove precious stones from his golden tiaras and other treasures, so they could be sewn into the linings of his clothes. Cellini built an improvised oven to melt down the remaining gold. He described how, during a break from his work, he took a shot at a man riding on a mule below the castello, and ‘hit him with one of the projectiles I was using, right in the face. The rest of the shot struck his mule and the animal fell down dead …

The man I had hit was the Prince of Orange.’18 Cellini, at least by his account, had bagged his second imperial commander of the conflict.

The Prince of Orange really was hit by a shot from the castello, though he suffered only a grazed cheek. It was as well he survived, as he was responsible for saving a large part of the Vatican library, which he did by commandeering it as his wardrobe. Nor was he the only imperial commander who tried to restrain the destructive efforts of his troops. Legal documents also show there were instances of individual kindness by soldiers. Two Spanish officers gave the nuns of Campitelli 30 ducats as a dowry for an eleven-year-old orphan, and after the sack a Spanish officer with a bad conscience returned several valuables he had taken to the canons of St Peter’s, for the salvation of his soul. But such acts seem to have been sadly rare.

Cellini’s enjoyment of the music of the guns could not go on indefinitely. With food running short and plague breaking out in the castello, the holdouts knew they had to strike a deal. So did the imperial commanders, who wanted to end matters before their army dissolved into chaos. Negotiations between the parties stalled. The Spanish captains insisted Clement must leave Rome and become their prisoner in the Spanish-ruled town of Gaeta down the coast. Clement prevaricated with cunning and a great deal of prayer. The deadlock was eventually resolved, rather unexpectedly, by Pompeo Colonna. On 1 June Clement invited him for an audience. The occasion became an emotional one for both men, who broke into tears at what had happened to Rome, and within a week an agreement was reached. Clement avoided being taken to Spanish territory but agreed to provide, in stages, 400,000 ducats as ransom for himself and everyone else in the castello. As collateral he handed over seven of his closest associates, none of whom, understandably enough, was very keen to go. On 7 June the Castel Sant’Angelo’s garrison marched out through the gate, flags flying, accompanied by almost all of the churchmen, artists, bankers, wives, children and courtesans who had been sheltering there. Clement remained with a handful of colleagues, guarded by imperial troops.

It seemed that, after a long and terrible month, the dreadful business was finally over. Unfortunately, Clement did not have anything like 400,000 ducats to give, while the imperial soldiers, who by now were regularly mutinying and were all but ungovernable, would not leave until they had been paid. It was a new impasse. The imperial commanders, who were as eager to be gone as Clement was for them to go, appealed to Charles V for money but the emperor felt his army should be able to pay for itself and he sent a mere 100,000 ducats, not in gold but in bills of exchange.

On 10 July, as plague raged through the city and food became scarce, the imperial army, aside from a couple of thousand left to guard the pope, marched off to pillage the nearby countryside, where they caused such devastation that it remained an unproductive wasteland for years to come. In September, the Landsknechte who had been left in Rome built a gibbet and were dissuaded with difficulty from hanging the seven hostages Clement had handed over as collateral. In early October their comrades returned from the countryside to their quarters in Rome, again mutinying and demanding their pay, which their commanders did not have and the pope could not give. The imperial army was slowly wasting away and deaths and desertions had already cut its numbers by almost half. As the weather grew colder its remaining soldiers began to destroy the city in a new way, ripping out doors, door frames, panels and the timbers of houses to burn as firewood.

In the depths of autumn Clement was approached with an unexpected request. William Knight, envoy to King Henry VIII of England, had completed a long and unhappy journey through terrible weather, at the end of which he had almost been killed by hungry locals outside Rome. He had brought Henry’s appeal to declare invalid his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. Henry’s timing could hardly have been worse. Catherine of Aragon was yet another of Charles V’s relations; in this case his aunt. Henry had set in motion the annulment just eleven days after imperial troops first burst into Rome. If he had asked for a divorce a year or two earlier, Clement – then an ally of England at war with Charles V – would have agreed without a murmur. With great difficulty William Knight managed to smuggle his request into the Castel Sant’Angelo via the chamberlain of a Venetian cardinal. Knight offered Clement two possible papal bulls. One gave permission for Henry to marry Anne Boleyn. The second, rather surprisingly, offered a compromise, under which Henry would take Anne as his second wife while keeping Catherine as his first. At this moment, when Lutheranism was a rising force and Christianity was in flux, polygamy – which had a strong presence in the Bible – had a number of enthusiasts. Clement, a master at prevarication, told Knight that it would take a little time to complete the paperwork.

Knight soon enjoyed easier access to the pope. In early December the deadlock in the Castel Sant’Angelo was finally ended. It was broken when imperial commanders, who by now lived in terror of their own soldiers, conspired with Clement to sneak him out of the city. A new deal, the latest of many, was struck. Of the seven hostages Clement had handed over in June, and who had nearly been lynched by the Landsknechte, two had recently managed to escape by getting their guards drunk. Clement said he would replace them with his two illegitimate nephews, the Medici heirs, Ippolito and Alessandro. As neither nephew was anywhere near Rome, Clement offered in the meantime three of his remaining associates in the castello, including two cardinals. It was a disingenuous offer, as Clement had no intention of handing over his nephews, yet it was enough to break the impasse. On 6 December 1527 the guards in the Castel Sant’Angelo were withdrawn and in the small hours of the night the imperial commanders, who had kept their soldiers in the dark about the whole business, had the pope, disguised in the clothes of his own chamberlain, smuggled out of the city.

Yet even with Clement gone Rome’s misery was not over. For a further two months what was left of the imperial army continued to mutiny, to raid nearby towns and to use the city’s buildings as a source of firewood. Finally, in February 1528 the prince of Orange and another imperial commander, del Guasto, managed to extract 100,000 ducats from the viceroy of Naples, which was enough to give the soldiers two months’ back pay. They had wanted far more but they were in no mood to argue as for once they needed their commanders. A French force had linked up with the army of the League and was making rapid inroads into imperial Naples. If they were not careful the Spanish and Landsknechte would have no friendly territory to flee to.

Finally, on 15 February, the Italian and Spanish troops marched out of Rome. The Landsknechte left the next morning. The exodus was surprisingly orderly. Within hours of their departure, members of the Colonna’s old enemies, the Orsini family, burst into the city and avenged themselves on any Imperialists who had been unwise enough to linger. A few Romans managed to get something back from their tormentors: among legal documents of the time, one is a contract between a certain Bernardino del Bufalo and several Spanish officers in the Santo Spirito hospital, whom del Bufalo agreed to sneak out of the city unharmed in exchange for the officers’ looted valuables. After eight months of occupation, destruction, plague and innumerable deaths – one Spanish soldier claimed he threw 2,000 bodies into the river and oversaw burial of another 10,000 – Rome was finally free.

Clement VII, cautious as ever, did not come back to his capital till the following October, returning in the midst of a violent thunderstorm. The lowest point of his papacy came three months later, in January 1529, when it seemed he had lost almost everything he held dear. A series of cities had been stolen from the papal state, Rome lay in ruins and the papacy was threatened with a new schism as the French and English urged cardinals to meet in Avignon, presumably to choose a new antipope. The Medici had lost Florence. And on top of everything else, Clement, as everybody knew, was dying. Rumours claimed he had been poisoned, though it is more likely he had either malaria or a malingering cold that had got out of hand. In his desperation he finally did what he had been so determined to avoid, and made both his illegitimate nephews Alessandro and Ippolito cardinals.

But Clement did not die. Instead, over the next five years he achieved a remarkable turnaround in his fortunes. He did this by swallowing his pride and doing what he would have been wiser to do years earlier: he formed an alliance with Charles V. Charles added the Medici to his many relations by marrying his illegitimate daughter, Margaret, to Clement’s illegitimate nephew, Alessandro. The new alliance soon proved highly beneficial to both parties. Charles squeezed some funds from Clement in the form of church taxes from the kingdom of Naples, and he also improved his reputation, which had taken quite a battering as news of Rome’s sack spread across Europe. The new entente reached a high point in Bologna on 24 February 1530, when Clement crowned Charles Holy Roman Emperor. By then peace had been agreed between the Empire and France. Charles had won the struggle and his empire was accepted as the controlling power in Italy.

In return, Charles gave Clement almost everything he had lost. Both through force of arms and diplomatic pressure he rebuilt the papal state, retrieving the cities that had been snatched away by its neighbours. Best of all, in Clement’s eyes, in September 1529 imperial troops under the prince of Orange marched on Florence. Despite ingenious fortifications designed by Michelangelo the city fell after a terrible siege lasting eleven months. The next summer Clement’s nephew Alessandro rode into the city to be installed as its first openly acknowledged hereditary ruler. The Medici had regained their heartland.

Alessandro, like Clement’s other nephew, Ippolito, proved a poor ruler and Florence soon passed to another branch of the family, under Cosimo, but it remained in the hands of the de’ Medici, while Clement scored a big success for another of his close relatives. In September 1533, he journeyed to Marseilles. Along with his barrels of Tiber water, which saved him from the risk of drinking the local supply, he also brought his young niece, Catherine, who we last saw being held hostage by Florentine republican rebels. The next month Clement personally married Catherine to King Francis I’s second son, Henri, and so restored his relations with France. Clement, who knew only too well how monarchs could oil their way out of a properly constituted marriage, is said to have intended to witness the consummation personally. Fourteen years later, after the fortuitous death of her brother-in-law, Catherine became queen of France.

Within a year of his niece’s marriage, Clement was dead. He died still wearing a beard in mourning for Rome. His papacy would be remembered as a disaster, yet it could have been far worse. He had managed to salvage all that he most cared about. The papal state, Florence and the Medici were restored in their fortunes. Rome had been wrecked, it was true, Luther’s doctrines continued to spread unchecked and Henry VIII’s England had broken from the Church of Rome, but faraway England was low on Clement’s list of priorities.

And Rome? Francesco Gonzaga, who visited the city soon after the sack, described it as a city of abandoned houses without doors, windows, attics or roofs. Of the many people he had known there before the sack, he recognized hardly one and when he asked about old friends he heard that most of them were dead, a great many from the plague. For two years the city suffered famine and the starving inhabitants in the surrounding countryside resorted to banditry. It was hard to imagine that things might get any worse but then, in October 1530, they did. The city was struck by the worst flood ever recorded: it inundated most of the city centre to above head height, destroying hundreds of houses, drowning several thousand Romans and bringing a new famine. Commentators wondered whether Rome had finally reached the end of its days.

But of course the city went on. Houses and churches were repaired. The city had a scare in the spring of 1536. Emperor Charles V had finally reached the third part of his to-do list – making war on Islam – and, in an effort to crush North African pirates, he had seized Tunis. He was now with his army in Naples and his next destination was Rome. Romans prepared to flee the city but, fortunately, Charles’ visit was to be a friendly one. Clement VII’s successor, Paul III, decided to make a grand show of the city to impress the emperor. He demolished a number of churches and hundreds of houses to create new vistas and make Rome’s antiquities more visible.

Paul’s efforts succeeded. Though some Romans were horrified to recognize the faces of soldiers who had tortured them nine years earlier, no destruction was done and Charles, as he rode along a new Via Sacra, passing beneath triumphal arches both ancient and newly built for the occasion, was greatly impressed. He would not have realized it but he had helped preserve some of the antiquities he saw, as his sacking of the city had halted their being quarried for stone. That his troops had wrecked Rome and raped and tortured its inhabitants was discreetly passed over by Pope Paul, and Charles was hosted in grand style. The vast Renaissance banquet in Trastevere that included 200 dishes cooked by the great Bartolomeo Scappi was held in his honour. Charles had such a good time that he decided to extend his stay. Enjoying fine food and a grand tour of the city’s antiquities, he was one of Rome’s first true tourists.

Slowly the city recovered. Money seeped back through the rickety system of papal finances, and Rome was rebuilt. The destruction of wooden houses in the sack, and Pope Paul III’s clearances, accelerated its transformation from a medieval to a Renaissance city. Though most artists, and humanists too, had fled or died in 1527, some returned. One of Clement VII’s last acts as pope was to commission Michelangelo to decorate a wall of the Sistine Chapel. The result, his Last Judgement, showed how times had changed. By comparison with the confidence and optimism in his ceiling paintings, the Last Judgement was a disturbing, gloomy masterpiece that reflected some of the horrors of Rome’s sack. In 1542 work was finally resumed in earnest on the new St Peter’s. Paul III hoped to have it completed in time for the 1550 Holy Year. He was over-optimistic and St Peter’s would not be finished for more than a century.

If Rome was growing again, it was growing in a direction that took it ever further away from the easy-going, tolerant city it had been under the Medici popes. As the schism between the Church of Rome and Protestants in northern Europe grew more bitter and permanent, the Catholic Church came under the spell of a new purism that was far more invidious than that of the eleventh-century reformists. Its greatest enthusiast was Cardinal Gian Pietro Carafa, a Renaissance Senator McCarthy who became determined to cleanse the papal court of, as he saw them, subversives. In 1542 he supported the creation of a new Inquisition in Rome, and he was so impatient for it to begin work that he bought chains and locks for its new jail with his own money. Thirteen years later, in 1555, Carafa was elected pope as Paul IV and used his position to embark on a witch-hunting campaign against suspected heretics, gays and sellers of Church offices. Romans, many of whom would have been included in at least one of these categories, learned to live in fear of being informed upon, arrested, secretly interrogated and tortured. It was Paul who brought to the Church a new Index of prohibited books, which included those of the Renaissance’s greatest humanist scholar, Erasmus.

If these terrors were not enough, under Paul IV Rome seemed destined to relive the disaster it had endured a generation before. Paul, who was a passionate Italian patriot and who had never forgiven the sack of 1527, formed an alliance with France against the Empire, which went wrong almost as rapidly as Clement’s had done. In 1557 a Spanish army under the duke of Alba advanced on the helpless city. Fortunately, Alba was reluctant to repeat the public relations disaster of three decades earlier and Paul IV realized his error just in time. On 14 September, in a rare display of good judgement, he signed a treaty of complete surrender and the duke of Alba let the city be. But Rome had no luck that month. The very next day, on the night of the 15th, the Tiber burst its banks in the worst flood since 1530.

As Romans looked about them that September, their city ruined once again, with disease breaking out, an enemy threatening outside the walls and a witch-hunter pope inspiring fear on every street, one would forgive them for thinking that Rome was cursed. They would never have imagined that they were just two years away from a new pope, a new and lasting peace and the start of one of Rome’s greatest eras, when their city would grow and thrive as it had not done since classical times.


Rome, 1849

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