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 the destruction of Rome 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 the history of Italy. This article will discuss the impact that the Sack had on Italy and its development. The article will discuss the commonly held belief that it ended the Renaissance in Italy. The piece will show that the Sack of Rome in 1527 was of critical importance in the history of Italy and it guaranteed Spanish supremacy in Italy, led to increasingly religious orthodoxy and destroyed the economy of Rome and these all contributed to the ending of the Renaissance.


Since the 1490s the great rivals 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 in order to protect the independence of the Papacy.[2]

Pope Clement feared that Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and the Spanish king was 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 a powerful French nobles, of the Bourbon Family, who had rebelled against the French Monarch. He was unable to quell the revolt and was soon forced to do the bidding of the mutinous troops. The soldiers sought food and money and they began to pillage large areas of Northern Italy and they terrorized many towns and villages.[3]

Sack of Rome- The Terror

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, many were also sympathisers of Martin Luther and they believed that the Pope was corrupt and even the ‘Anti-Christ’ who had 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 form the French army and bandits. It was largely unopposed as an Italian army, under Venetian command also mutinied. The army became more disorganized as they advanced on Rome. The sacked several towns on the way and on the 5th of May, they had reached the Walls of Rome. By 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 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 plague and having received a hefty bribe form the Pope.


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 the balance of power in Italy. 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 after the Sack to adopt a policy that was independent of the Emperor. This policy was to have momentous consequences not only for the Church but also for the history of Europe. 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 greatest part of Charles V territories[9].

The Popes increasingly shadowed the policies of the Spanish monarchy especially when it came to the enforcement of religious orthodoxy. Prior to 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 interest in clerical discipline and religious orthodoxy than previously. This was to have serious repercussions for Italian society and its culture.[10]

The Popes insistence on religious orthodoxy meant that freethought and secular values were increasingly challenged in the aftermath of the Sack of Rome. The Inquisition became more active, as the Pope sought to stamp out every sign of free thought or ideas that were contrary to the teachings of the Church. The growing fear of Protestantism was also instrumental in the new climate but 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 largely humanistic, secular and often overtly pagan and this was no longer possible in the aftermath of the capture of Rome in 1527. It became increasingly difficult for the humanist who were once so influential to express their views and 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 they were intimidated by the inquisition. The new emphasis on religious orthodoxy meant that many noble patrons were unwilling to subsidize the works of humanists who expressed ‘pagan’ ideas.

Spanish Domination

The Popes had long opposed the ambitions of the Holy Roman Emperor 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. This after the death, enabled Charles V’s, heir to established 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 Papacy, had been practically bankrupted by the Sack and no longer could 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. The Spanish control lead to a loss of political and individual freedom and this dealt a blow to the Renaissance as increasingly artists and thinkers were unable to create the worked they wanted or to freely express their own ideas and opinions.[13]

The End of Renaissance Rome

St Peter’s Basilica

Prior to 1527, Rome had become arguably the centre of the Renaissance. Milan had been devastated by successive military occupations, while Florence had been destabilised 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 of the time, 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 a steep decline, that 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, which Popes such as Clement VII, continued to spend on commissioning great works of art or on architecture, such as the ‘re-building of St Peter’s Basilica.'[15]

The capture of Rome and the occupation by the Imperial army caused massive economic dislocation and much of the city’s wealth was spent on ransoms or stolen. Rome was devastated by the Sack and its aftermath. The population of the city feel 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 and the Colonna family revolted in the Papal States and established a virtual 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 the one of the last centres 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 mutinous soldiers changed the Papacy and indeed 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 were the Pope’s able 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 no longer were acceptable in the new and increasingly intolerant atmosphere. The Sack destroyed the last centre in Italy that could provide the wealth and patronage needs by artists and writers. 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 end the Renaissance it did help to 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 (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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