translated by James H. McGregor
The Sack of Rome
The Sack of Rome of 1527 is one of the best known events of Renaissance Italy. Every Italian chronicle written at that time gives room to what must have seemed like a new barbarian invasion, probably because many of those who sacked the city were Lutheran. The Florentine Luigi Guicciardini, who was forty-nine of age when Rome was taken by storm, held the office of Gonfaloniere di Giustizia in 1527 and had his brother, the famous writer and historian Francesco, as lieutenant of the papal forces. Thus, he was in a good position to judge the events leading to the sack.
Guicciardini's work, which is dedicated to the duke of Florence Cosimo I, wants not only to reconstruct what happened but also the reasons for it. He believes that the starting point of all Italian ruins is the invasion of King Charles VIII of France in 1494. Before this date the Italian states were strong and secure, but from then on there have been a number of wars, plunders and plagues. By reading this, it is clear that Guicciardini's view of the past is rather idealized, for even before Charles VIII Italy was not without accidents. Yet the author, a man of long political experience, knows very well which problems statesmen have to face and how bad governments can provoke ruin and disasters. In fact, in his opinion the sack of Rome is almost a natural outcome of the countless errors of the League of Cognac. This treaty, signed by England, France, Florence, Venice, Milan and the Papacy against Emperor Charles V in 1526, begins "without money and leadership," writes Guicciardini. Its military commander within Italy, Francesco Maria della Rovere, lacks of energy and courage, being adverse to dangers and difficulties and unable to seize good opportunities. He insists that the most prudent way to win the enemy is with the sword in its scabbard. Guicciardini shows no sympathy for him and from time to time attacks him for his inability to be an outstanding general. Although Francesco Maria puts the blame on his soldiers, they do not deserve it. In Guicciardini's mind if Italian soldiers are overwhelmed and beaten, it is not because of poor military skill, but because they do not have good commanders to mould them and bring out their natural aggressiveness. While Francesco Maria is unsuitable for his position, Giovanni de' Medici, Duke Cosimo I's father, towers above his comrades. He is the only one among the Italian leaders who can fight the German Landsknechts effectively, and he would defeat the enemies by harassing them. Unfortunately, he is mortally wounded near Borgoforte, and Guicciardini finds his death the turning point of the war, for without him the German can go on southwards.
Before describing the sack of Rome, Guicciardini devotes much room to the events leading to such a disaster. Being a politician, he recognizes that money plays a cardinal role in wars. Soldiers cannot fight without being paid, for if so they are prone to mutiny, as happens to the Spanish of the Imperial army, who almost kill their commander, Duke Charles of Bourbon. So, if an army can be a bulwark against the enemy, it can turn out to be a menace to its employers. In order to avoid such dangers a citizen militia becomes the key if a state wants to be secure, a thought similar to that of Machiavelli.
After a long and detailed narration of the war in northern Italy and perhaps too long a description of an uprising within Florence against the government, Guicciardini focuses his attention on the fall of Rome. Here his narration comes to its climax and provides many memorable episodes, for instance a cardinal who takes shelter in Castel Sant'Angelo by having himself hauled up in a basket on cables dropped from above, or like others, taken prisoner by the Imperial soldiers, who prefer to commit suicide rather than endure other tortures. It would be easy, Guicciardini says, to defend Rome by cutting its bridges, but once again Pope Clement VII and his men show their inability to face adversities. The story ends with the powerful image of the pope looking towards the sky with tears in his eyes and mourning: "Wherefore, then, hast thou brought me forth out of the womb? Oh, that I had died, and no eye had seen me." [Job. 10:18]
James H. McGregor, now a professor of comparative literature at the University of Georgia, made a praiseworthy contribution to knowledge of Renaissance Italy, making a little-known text available to English-speaking readers. It is a shame, but not McGregor's fault, that the original book was converted into 19th-century Italian, as was the common fate of other works such as Marin Sanudo's Commentarii della guerra di Ferrara tra li Viniziani ed il duca Ercole di Este nel MCCCCLXXXII (Venice, 1829). In order to allow the reader to understand Guicciardini's work more clearly, McGregor provides an useful and instructive introduction, in which he explains who the author was, his role as a historian and the events leading up to the sack. At the end there is an afterword, a concise bibliography and a glossary, which are extremely useful in managing some obscure names and ranks. A few nice illustrations, taken from old engravings and woodcuts, show some of the monuments quoted in the text such as the Castel Sant'Angelo and the Castello Sforzesco in Milan. Perhaps it would have been interesting to see a map of the route of the Imperial army, but we do have one of the most important places of the war theatre. There are a few mistakes of secondary importance, for instance Castiglione d. [delle] Strivieri (instead of Castiglione delle Stiviere), or San Giovanni in Persicelo (instead of San Giovanni in Persiceto), and Duke Alfonso d'Este of Ferrara was not born in 1486 but in 1476. Despite these, McGregor's admirable work has been of great use both to scholars and students alike. Guicciardini's almost obscure work deserves much more attention both from Italian and foreign readers as a valuable source concerning Renaissance Italy.