Did the Sack of Rome in 1527 end the Renaissance in Italy

Portrait of Emperor Charles V, 1527

The Sack of Rome was the capture and Rome's destruction by the mutinous troops of Emperor Charles V. It caused widespread outrage at the time, and it shocked Europe. The Sack destroyed much of Rome, and it is widely seen as ushering in a new era in Italy's history. This article will discuss the impact that the Sack had on Italy and its development.

The commonly held belief is that the Sack of Rome ended the Renaissance in Italy. The Sack of Rome in 1527 was of critical importance in the history of Italy. It guaranteed Spanish supremacy in Italy, led to increasingly religious orthodoxy, and destroyed Rome's economy. It was not the Sack itself, but the effects of the Sack that contributed to the ending of the Renaissance.

Why did the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V's army invade Italy in 1527?

Since the 1490s, France and Spain (and briefly the Swiss) had fought in Italy for control of the peninsula. The various Italian city-states and the Papacy were divided, and they were often allied to the Hapsburgs, Spanish, and the French.[1] The struggle for Italy had entered a new phase during the reigns of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and his great rival Francis II of France. In 1527 Italy was the scene of the War of the League of Cognac, and this involved France and the Papacy on one side and the Holy Roman Emperor, Spain, and her allies on the other. Pope Clement VII supported the French Monarch, Francis I, to protect the independence of the Papacy.[2]

Pope Clement feared that Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, and the Spanish king were becoming too powerful. He was commonly regarded as the most powerful man in Europe since the days of the Caesars. The Imperial troops, who were mainly composed of German mercenaries and Spanish troops, defeated the French and the Papal armies in 1527. However, the Emperor was in no position to pay the army, and they mutinied. This was typical of Charles V.

Despite his vast Empire, he was often short of cash and usually nearly bankrupt. The Imperial army had been led by powerful French nobles, who had rebelled against the French Monarch of the Bourbon Family. He was unable to quell the revolt and was soon forced to do the mutinous troops' bidding. The soldiers sought food and money, and they began to pillage large areas of Northern Italy, and they terrorized many towns and villages.[3]

Why was Rome Sacked by Charles V's army?

After a few weeks, the loot and food available in the area began to run low, and the soldiers looked for other targets. They selected Rome. They believed that they could get all the money and food that they needed in the Eternal City.[4] Many of the mutinous soldiers were German mercenaries, famed for their bravery. But many were also sympathizers of Martin Luther and they believed that the Pope was corrupt. Some even describe the pope as the ‘Anti-Christ’ because they believe he distorted the message of Christ. They wanted to seize Rome for religious reasons and possibly believed that they could deliver a fateful blow to the Catholic Church, even though Martin Luther stated that this would be wrong. Soon 33,000 Imperial troops were on their way to Rome in the spring of 1527. The army was composed of Germans, Spaniards, and Italians.[5]

The army was reinforced by deserters from the French army and bandits. It was largely unopposed as an Italian army, under Venetian command, which also mutinied. The army became more disorganized as they advanced on Rome. They sacked several towns on the way, and on the 5th of May, they had reached the Walls of Rome. y this stage, the army was largely under the control of the common soldiers as their erstwhile leader of the Charles Bourbon was only heeded by his men when it pleased them.[6]

On June the 6th, the army attacked the city walls. The leader of the attack, Charles the Bourbon, was killed during the assault. He had been at least able to influence the soldiers, but now the army was completely out of control. They massacred the defenders and any civilians they came across. Only the bravery of the Swiss Guard saved the Pope from the army.[7] The mutinous soldiers executed any defenders who surrendered. A reign of terror ensued in Rome for three days, if not longer.

The soldiers attacked the cardinals and stole their wealth. The ordinary Romans also suffered greatly. Countless were robbed, murdered, and raped. Many were tortured in macabre ways so that they would divulge the location of their wealth. The mutineers stayed in the city for some months, continuing to terrorize the inhabitants, and they only left after eight months because of the plague and the hefty bribe they were paid by the Pope.

What was the aftermath of the Sack of Romein 1527?

Pope Clement VII in 1528

Emperor Charles V was deeply embarrassed by the actions of his mutinous army. However, Charles knew that the Pope was in a weak position, and he saw it as an opportunity to extend his control over the Papacy.[8] Successive Popes, eager to preserve Italian independence and their own, had allied themselves with the French to prevent Charles from upsetting Italy's balance of power.

Charles V now used the weakened position of Pope Clement to ensure that the Papacy was no longer able to resist Imperial interests in Italy. After the Sack of Rome, Pope Clement was too afraid of Charles V the Sack to adopt an independent policy of the Emperor. This policy was to have momentous consequences not only for the Church but also for Europe's history. In the aftermath of the Sack, the Popes were very reluctant to go against the wishes of the Emperor and, after his abdication, the Spanish monarchs, who inherited the most significant part of Charles V territories.[9]

The Popes increasingly shadowed the Spanish monarchy's policies, especially when it came to the enforcement of religious orthodoxy. Before 1527, the Pope had been arguably just another secular ruler. After the Sack of Rome, the Pope, under pressure from first Charles V and later Spanish monarchs such as Phillip II became more interested in the clerical discipline and religious orthodoxy than previously. This was to have serious repercussions for Italian society and its culture.[10]

The Pope's insistence on religious orthodoxy meant that freethought and secular values were increasingly challenged in the aftermath of Rome's Sack. The Inquisition became more active, as the Pope sought to stamp out every sign of free thought or ideas contrary to the teachings of the Church. The growing fear of Protestantism was also instrumental in the new climate. Still, the fear of the Emperor after the Sack and the Spanish meant that the Inquisition became all-pervasive in Italian society. This was to have a devastating impact on the Renaissance. This cultural flourishing was premised on an attempt to reproduce the classical world. It was mostly humanistic, secular, and often overtly pagan, and this was no longer possible in the aftermath of Rome's capture in 1527.

It became increasingly difficult for the humanist who was once so influential to express their views. Instead of studying the ancient classics, they were expected to study religious works.[11] No longer could they think and write freely as by the mid-1500s, and they were intimidated by the Inquisition. The new emphasis on religious orthodoxy meant that many noble patrons were unwilling to subsidize the humanists' works who expressed ‘pagan’ ideas.

The Implications of Spanish Domination over Italy

The Popes had long opposed the Holy Roman Emperor's ambitions, and the Spanish, whom they believed correctly, wanted to dominate Italy.[12] The Papacy was pivotal to the Italian resistance to the ambitions of the Spanish. This changed after the Sack of Rome in 1527. The Pope was cowed and, to an extent, meekly followed the policies of Charles V. They also ceased resisting his growing control. After the death, this enabled Charles V’s heir to establish de-facto control over Italy, except for Venice. The Pope had bankrolled the armies that had been pivotal to the Italian resistance to outsiders, and after 1527, this was no longer possible.

The sack practically bankrupted the Papacy and it could no longer offer the financial support needed by the City-States to recruit armies, which were mainly composed of mercenary soldiers. By 1550 the Spanish Monarch, Phillip II, was the dominant influence in Italy and not the Pope. Spanish control led to an erosion of political and individual freedoms. This dealt a blow to the Renaissance as artists and thinkers could not create the work they wanted or freely express their ideas and opinions.[13]

The End of Renaissance Rome?

St Peter’s Basilica

Before 1527, Rome had become arguably the center of the Renaissance. Milan had been devastated by successive military occupations, while Florence had been destabilized and impoverished by twenty years of internal conflict. Apart from Venice, only the Pope had the means to sponsor and commission works of art. The Papal Court was extremely wealthy, and the Pope became the patron of many of the greatest artists, such as Michelangelo and Raphael. This was especially the case after the 1500s because of a dramatic change in the economy.

After Columbus discovered America in 1492, the Italian economy went into a gradual but steep decline, which was noticeable by 1527. New trade routes were established in the Atlantic, and the trade of the Mediterranean dropped off. This led to less money being spent on art in Italy.[14] The Papacy had could continue to support artists and writers, as its main revenue streams were from pilgrims and Church taxes. The popes, such as Clement VII, continued to commission works of art or on architecture, such as the ‘rebuilding of St Peter’s Basilica.'[15]

Rome's capture and the Imperial army's occupation caused massive economic dislocation. Much of the city’s wealth was spent on ransoms or stolen. Rome was devastated by the Sack and its aftermath. The city population fell dramatically; it was approximately 55,000 before 1527 but was only estimated to be 10,000 the following year. The city’s economy was in ruins. The Colonna family revolted in the Papal States and established a virtually independent principality. Following the end of the occupation of Rome, a plague decimated the survivors.

Rome was in a state of collapse, and the Sack had set the city back by a century. The Pope could no longer afford to pay artists and writers, and they gradually drifted away from the city. The capture of Rome in 1527, ended the Renaissance in Rome which had become one of the last centers of the great cultural flourishing in Italy.[16]


The Sack of Rome is often considered the end of the Renaissance. The brutal seizure of the Eternal City and the subsequent eight-month occupation by a band of rebellious soldiers changed the Papacy and Italy. The Papacy was no longer able to resist Spanish domination, and it increasingly followed the policies of first Charles V and later Phillip II. This led to increasing efforts by the Pope, through the Office of the Inquisition to enforce Religious Orthodoxy. The Sack of Rome shattered the city’s economy, and no longer was the Pope’s ability to spend lavishly on buildings, books, and works of art. These factors changed Italian society.

It was no longer as open or free, and artists and writers became afraid to express their opinions. The secular and human values espoused by the Renaissance were no longer acceptable in the new and increasingly intolerant atmosphere. The Sack destroyed the last center in Italy to provide artists and writers' wealth and patronage needs. As Spain increasingly dominated the City-States of Italy and the old liberal atmosphere that contributed so much to the Renaissance was ended. The Sack of Rome in 1527 did not suddenly stop the Renaissance, but it did hasten its demise.


  1. Lopez, Robert Sabatino, The Three Ages of the Italian Renaissance (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1970), p. 89
  2. Lopez, p. 112
  3. Tuchman, Barbara W. The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam (London, Random House Trade Paperbacks, 1985), p. 345
  4. Tuchman, p. 344
  5. Tuchman, p. 345
  6. Chastel, Andre, The Sack of Rome, 1527 (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1983), p. 78
  7. Chastel, p. 115
  8. Chastel. p. 212
  9. Tuchman, p. 347
  10. Burckhardt, Jacob, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (London, Penguin, 1992), p. 112
  11. Burckhardt, p. 120
  12. Duffy, Eoin, History of the Popes (London, Penguin, 2005), p. 267
  13. Burke, Peter. The Italian Renaissance: Culture and Society in Italy Princeton (Princeton University Press, 1999) p. 6
  14. Burke, p. 113
  15. Burke, p 119
  16. Ruggiero, Guido. The Renaissance in Italy: A Social and Cultural History of the Rinascimento (Cambridge University Press, 2015), p. 648

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