March 2015 Print

The Sack of Rome

by Michael George

The Beginnings of a Catholic Modernity

The Catholic Church we grew up in has a style (in its system of organization, art, devotion and so forth) which dates in large part from the sixteenth century, a style which is different from that of the early Christians, of late antiquity, and the Middle Ages; it is the modern Catholic Church. Catholicism after the Council of Trent was not a mere reaction to modernity as some have claimed; it was a true rebirth of the Church of all time.

The ideas and attitudes that sprang from the Renaissance and bourgeois revolutions have been hegemonic for some time, and we tend to forget that “modernity” is a period that Catholicism once dominated (giving us, for example, the modern calendar) and that the tussle over the world’s direction continues; “modernity” is an argument between the Church and the post-Renaissance. It could have been very different, but the Church did not give in to defeatism and was full of people with projects and ideas and, above all, saints.

During the Renaissance this was not the case. The Papacy, mainly concerned with Italian wars and politics, was heavily influenced by the spirit of the times. Pseudo-reformists of all kinds—not just Protestants but even some Catholic kings—demanded changes that would suit them politically. This often meant trying to end Papal supremacy over the Church, for which this was one of the most dangerous times. What eventually got it on the road to true renewal (a tragicomic word now but a true one then) was the Sack of Rome.

The 1527 sack of Rome by a mutinous imperial army was not just a disaster for the Papacy and the city of Rome, it was also one of the last acts in a series of Italian wars running from 1494 to 1530. The result of these wars was the end of the Renaissance in Rome, the crushing of an embryonic Italian modernity that gave every sign of being the precursor to today’s liberal modernity and, lastly, the beginning of a century and a half period of hegemony for what can best be described as Baroque modernity. Most importantly of all, these wars decided what kind of reform the Church was going to have.

The Renaissance in Italy was not only something that looked back to the pagan past. It was also a prefiguration of the modern world of today in many ways. The Italian principalities in the late fifteenth century were growing into societies based on an urban bourgeoisie and ruled by prince politicians. The aristocracy and land-based wealth and power lost influence. There was a social levelling in the interests of commerce; it foreshadowed eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Europe.

As in post-Enlightenment Europe, the Renaissance in Italy was accompanied by a sort of Italian nationalism that saw itself as the revival of ancient Rome. This spirit was similar to later romanticist nationalism which would seek justification in ancient or even prehistoric origins. Forty years of Italian wars saw constantly shifting alliances and a total lack of Italian unity. Its embryonic romanticist (because not based upon real historical reality) nationalism was shown to be without foundation. The Italians were the first Europeans to toy with this, and to their credit never again took it seriously, the Risorgimento notwithstanding.

Since the eleventh century the Papacy had been struggling to maintain the freedom of the Church, firstly from the Holy Roman Empire and later on from the French monarchy. The Renaissance was a period of Italianisation of the Papacy, which tended to see freedom of the Church as something much the same as “freedom of Italy.” Unfortunately, what this meant was the perpetuation of a balance of mutually competing small to medium powers in the peninsula. This appeared to provide a measure of security to Rome, but the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453 would put Italy on the frontline of a multisecular struggle with Islam that its jealous statelets were incapable of dealing with.

Control of Italy was also considered to be the key to hegemony in Europe because of its wealth and strategic value and the presence of the Papacy. King Charles VIII of France began the Italian wars with his 1494 invasion to secure the Kingdom of Naples, which nevertheless eventually remained with the Spanish Trastamara dynasty. The wars continued, but by 1525 were now centred over Lombardy and its rich and strategic capital, Milan.

The Background to the Tragedy

The background to the Roman tragedy of 1527 was the conflict between Emperor Charles V (also known as Charles I of the Spanish kingdoms of Castile and Aragon), and Francis I of France. It is the story of two very young and ambitious monarchs who began their careers as Renaissance princes but ended very differently; Charles understanding his role in a more and more Christian way (eventually abdicating to end his days in a Spanish monastery), while Francis, despite being utterly defeated time and again, refused to abandon the Renaissance notion of raison d’état preached by Machiavelli and becoming an embittered figure and spoiler in the Catholic world.

In 1525 Francis I sent yet another army to Italy to force Milan into submission. At the Battle of Pavia this army was destroyed by Spanish, Italian and German armies fighting for Charles I, and Francis himself captured. Francis signed the Treaty of Madrid with Charles agreeing to relinquish Milan, but as soon as he returned to his country he denounced the treaty as having been obtained under duress. Pope Clement VII (Giulio de’ Medici), who irresponsibly played at politics and war, wavering between the pro-French and pro-Spanish parties, threw in his lot with Francis.

The anti-imperial league established at Cognac on May 22, 1526, was joined by Pope Clement VII, which caused it to become known, as was the custom, as the Holy League. The members of such Holy Leagues often had motives of various kinds but this one was more mundane than usual. Not only did it include the Papacy, Francis I, Venice and, later on, Henry VIII, but also as “silent partner” Suleiman the Magnificent, the Turkish Sultan. In that year, the Turks attacked Hungary, wiping out its army, nobility and king at the Battle of Mohacs on August 29, 1526. Most of Hungary would remain under Turkish control for two centuries. A line was crossed here by calling in the Turks, but it was already a line blurred by the Renaissance and thinkers like Machiavelli who claimed there should be a distinction between “statecraft” and morality and that the good of the state might require monarchs to make choices that were immoral from the standpoint of the faith.

For his part Pope Clement attempted to overthrow the governments of Genoa and Siena, both loyal to the Empire, but failed. Then he invaded the Kingdom of Naples with the idea of expelling the Spanish from Italy. After a few skirmishes, he was glad to sign a truce in March 1527. He believed that this agreement would allow him to now withdraw from the conflict, sending his troops home (apparently to avoid having to pay them) despite the fact that there were now two imperial armies at large in Italy, also unpaid, angry and with very little to stop them from reaching Rome. Emperor Charles had not issued an order recalling them from the peninsula.

The imperial forces now united and descending towards Rome consisted of 10,000 German landsknechts, 5,000 Spaniards, 2-3,000 Italians, who were joined by perhaps 15,000 deserters from the defeated League armies, brigands and adventurers of all types. While it is true that many of the Germans were Lutherans, it is not possible to give this expedition any ideological motive. However, a city full of riches governed by Pope Clement, who had behaved more like an enemy warlord—and a rather hopeless one—was an attractive objective. They reached the outskirts of Rome on May 4th led by Charles, the Duke of Bourbon. The defenders on the walls put up some resistance initially and the Duke was killed in one of the first assaults. This not only had the effect of galvanising the imperial troops who swept away all opposition; it also removed the commander most respected by the soldiers and capable of keeping order. What followed was merciless pillaging and violence against the population, (estimated at 55,000), six thousand of whom died on the first day.

The Pope fled Saint Peter’s Basilica at the last minute and escaped via a covered passageway to Castel Sant’Angelo, an impregnable fortress. The Swiss Guards all died covering his retreat. The profanation of churches and relics of the saints horrified all of Europe. Rome’s population fell by 30,000 and almost all its housing was destroyed by fires. In the end, it was the plague which caused most of the troops to leave, but the city was under their control until February 1528.

Victory out of Disaster

The paradox in all this is that the profound shock and humiliation of the sack of Rome led in fact to its greatest victory. At the dawn of the modern era, it regained its nerve. It retained from among the material aspects of the Renaissance (its architectural and artistic advances were corrected and reinterpreted in the Baroque) what could be retained. However, the Church, and the Baroque modernity now being born, firmly rejected what had to be rejected and with the Council of Trent gave a solemn burial to the mentality of the Renaissance, the Spirit of the Age.

Both Emperor Charles and Pope Clement soon realised that they could not do without each other. Charles was facing the enormous threat posed by Lutheranism and Islam, and what was needed most of all was an influential and strong Papacy. Clement also came to understand that the Papacy was something much more than an Italian principality. There was too much at stake for the leadership of the universal Church to be engaged in intrigues and petty wars.

On February 24, 1530, Pope Clement crowned Charles Emperor in Bologna. It was the last such Papal coronation. Prior to this ceremony both Charles and the Pope resided in the same palace in the city, discussing the future of the Italian peninsula. After his coronation, Charles personally led the force that captured the city of Tunis from the Muslims. This enterprise, like that of restoring order to the Western Mediterranean and preserving it from the Turkish menace, could never have been undertaken by the Italy of the Renaissance, plagued as it was by petty wars and philosophical questioning of the Christian basis of its civilisation.

Pope Clement underwent a change in person­ality after these traumatic events of 1527. As an exterior sign, he grew a beard as penance, starting a Papal fashion that lasted until the beginning of the eighteenth century. On the other hand, plagued by doubts, he could not bring himself to call a council to reform the Church. The Council of Trent was still some years off.

The Counter-Reformation

The Council of Trent and the Counter-Reformation produced a style of Catholicism that is still with us today. Devotional life, art (neo-Gothic is very much a minority phenomenon in the Catholic world), governance and priestly formation, our understanding of our role in the modern world: all give the modern Church a Baroque flavour. Which is only right; the Baroque is the Church’s answer to the challenge of “modernity.” Indeed, the Baroque—in art, society, philosophy and mentality—was the first successful and worldwide modernity.

Historical correctness tells us that the modern world began with the Renaissance, continued on through the Enlightenment, nineteenth-century Capitalism, the Godless secular wars of the twentieth century arriving at, according to Fukuyama’s famous thesis, the “End of History”—the never-ending triumph of secularist consumer society, against which nobody can hope to fight and win. Those who don’t like the “progress” of modern history usually accept this sketch of change as true, which is unfortunate because it amounts to a defeatist admission of the inevitability of bourgeois liberal modernity.

The Renaissance: An Abortive Modernity

Contrary to what most believe, the progress of the kind of modernity dominant today was not inexorable. The Counter-Reformation was not a rear-guard action; the Renaissance and its offspring, Protestantism and bourgeois society, were defeated, bottled up in countries located around the North Sea for over a century. In the meantime, the Church began a period of worldwide expansion within and beyond the Baroque world which was also global and which it inspired. It was just as great a period as the Middle Ages (when Christianity was united but completely surrounded by violent threats to its existence) and a truly universal triumph for Christianity. The religion and society inspired by the Counter-Reformation and Trent is fully viable and relevant for the modern world today; it flourished and was hegemonic and did not collapse from within (until the 1960s, but that is another story), but was overwhelmed by military attacks and the fortunes of dynastic politics.

The World Today

Today we live in a world where the triumph of the individualist, secularist, bourgeois values we reject is clear. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the “First World” was the Catholic Baroque world; other worlds existed (one of which is now dominant and into which we have been co-opted), but the Baroque was hegemonic. So much so that its influence went beyond lands that fully belonged to it, and it was imitated by Bach, at Versailles, etc.

The modern world in which our values were once hegemonic can be changed again, just as it was when the Renaissance was defeated. Looking back at that defeat it is clear that it became possible, not just because of catastrophes like the sack of Rome or military actions, but due to the appearance of pillars of strength like saints, religious orders and great figures in civil society to back them up. During the Counter-Reformation, saintliness was upheld once more. The Church once again began to feel the saints in its midst and canonise them. Thanks to this minority, Europeans not only did not despair, but set about creating a new civilisation which was the first to become truly global. Today is not the time for the influential minority to retire. The values and enemies fought against four hundred years ago are not going away, and neither must we.

Hopefully these thoughts are stimulating for orthodox Catholics, who often think of the last few hundred years as a slow defeat for what they value; while the post-Vatican II crisis is obvious and has its own reasons, modernity as a whole has been a period of unprecedented expansion, consolidation and unity for the Church. On the other hand, its enemies are now suffering from a crisis that is far deeper. Heterodox sects, while attracting numbers because of good organisation and financing (and lack of response on our part) are ideologically too silly these days to be taken seriously. As for materialism and hedonism, like the old pagan world, it is no match for the truth. Extreme Islam will cause pain of course before being silenced by its own methods, but it cannot convert masses of Christians or even ex-Christians and a real jihad would only force them to stand tall again. The good news is that if the Church and the Christian world can change in the light of reality, like Emperor Charles and Pope Clement after the sack of Rome in 1527, it can reasonably win the battle for the hearts and minds of the modern world.