It was something that people across Europe could not quite believe had happened. Brutish intruders with wheel-lock pistols and long spears had been allowed to capture the Eternal City. Rome's Aurelian Walls had failed. The air in the city was filled with the prayers of desperate citizens, beseeching God to prevent a German victory.
But heaven did not intervene when, on the morning of May 6, 1527, an army of mercenaries fighting on behalf of German Emperor Charles V began to storm the capital of Christendom. Thousands of mercenaries, using crudely fashioned ladders made of laths and vine stakes, attempted to climb Rome's ancient defensive walls.
The city's defenders put up a brave fight. Powder smoke billowed from heavy cannons at Castel Sant' Angelo, the papal stronghold. Two waves of attacks were repelled.
But it was no use. At 7:30 a.m., the intruders broke through Rome's defenses and entered the Vatican district. From there, they crossed the bridges across the Tiber River and, with a horrible roar, advanced into the center of Rome.
What happened next triggered an uproar for months in Renaissance Europe. A leaderless army of 24,000 men took control of one of the world's most magnificent cities. According to one chronicler of the attack, the men dragged off sacks of gold and stabbed so many citizens "that one could no longer see the pavement while walking down the street, there were so many corpses."
The "Sacco di Roma," or Sack of Rome, became deeply ingrained in the Italian national consciousness. To this day, Roman villas are still marked by the graffiti the invaders left behind.
The Vatican, which lost more than 70 percent of its protection force, the Swiss Guard, during the attack, is particularly keen to commemorate those events. Traditionally, new recruits to the Swiss Guard are sworn in on the anniversary of the bloody incident as a testament to their bravery all those years ago. This Wednesday, according to protocol, the event began with an early mass and a wreath-laying ceremony. After that, the new soldiers took their oath of office in the Apostolic Palace, and were then granted a private audience with the pope.
But what exactly happened close to 500 years ago? Dozens of scholars have tried to make sense of the horrific event, in which up to 10,000 died. Historian Volker Reinhardt of the University of Fribourg has now presented the most unsparing analysis. He interprets the Sacco as an invasion of evil and a "storm surge" that led to the bursting of all dams of humanity.
A Regime of Terror
For almost 10 months after the invasion, the mercenaries imposed a regime of terror along the Tiber. In full view of paintings by Titian, they committed the large-scale rape of nuns, tortured bishops and urinated in front of baptismal fonts.
Reinhardt likens the period to "tales from a madhouse."
New recruits of the Vatican's elite Swiss Guard stand at the Vatican on Wednesday.Foto: REUTERS
What is particularly absurd about the wave of violence was that it only came about as a result of a series of unlikely events. The attack, blind and aimless, soon escalated to monstrous dimensions. By the time it ended, entire rows of buildings were in flames.
The upheavals of the Renaissance served as a stage for what Reinhardt calls a singular "epochal drama." Challenged by the fiery speeches of Martin Luther, the dominance of the Catholic Church -- and, with it, the moral framework of society -- had begun to falter.
The people demanded freedom. But when they sought to attain it during the Peasant Wars, they were brutally suppressed. Roughly 100,000 people died. In political terms, the continent was divided into two camps: The Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation and the so-called "League of Cognac," led by the French and the papacy. The two sides were competing over control of the wealthy cities of northern Italy, from which the German emperor received tribute.
But his adversaries were eager to gain access to this rich source of income -- by force of arms.
To prevent this from happening, Charles dispatched his best soldier, Georg von Frundsberg, the "Father of Mercenaries," who lived in the Allgäu region of southwestern Bavaria. A warhorse with a Herculean build, he was already more than 50 years old when he was called to service. Though weary of war, he agreed to assemble an army.
A recruitment drive was held in the northern Italian city of Bolzano on Nov. 2, 1526, attracting 12,000 German mercenaries, foot soldiers without standard uniforms, armed with long halberds, crossbows, swords and crude pistols. From the very beginning, Frundsberg had a sense that he had recruited many shady characters, leading him to speculate whether this horde could even be controlled.
But the impending disaster was already underway. Backed by Spanish and Italian mercenaries, the general advanced into the wintry Plain of the Po River. Behind the scenes, emissaries exchanged dispatches and offers to negotiate, a process that continued for months.
Meanwhile, the mercenaries were starving. Frundsberg's war chests were empty, and the men were reduced to eating the bark from trees.
On March 16, the troops, camped in a swamp near Bologna, were on the verge of rebellion. Mustering all of his authority, the general confronted his furious soldiers, but suffered a stroke in the middle of his speech, which paralyzed him and deprived him of his ability to speak.
Frundsberg's second-in-command, Charles de Bourbon, managed to channel the mercenaries' fury and proposed an attack on Rome. Marching at high speed, the hungry mercenaries advanced southward past Florence, while special envoys attempted to extort a ransom from the pope.
Clement VII, the miserly Medici pope, hesitated far too long before finally dispatching a carriage with 60,000 ducats (210 kilograms of gold). But the ransom money almost fell into the hands of thieves, and the transfer was aborted.
Time was running out.
On the evening of May 5, 1527, the mercenary army was already within firing range of the fortress on the Tiber. The next morning, the Roman nobility decided, in a hastily called meeting, to comply with all demands. But by then the first violent-tempered mercenaries were already scaling the walls.
In addition to poor diplomatic timing, coincidence played a role in Rome's downfall. First, a heavy fog descended on the city on the day of the attack, preventing the defenders from aiming their canons effectively. Second, Bourbon was killed by a shot in the abdomen in the first few minutes of the attack, rendering the emperor's army completely leaderless.
The mob that climbed the battlements of the holy city at 7:30 a.m. bore a stronger resemblance to a headless monster than an army. "The dehumanized hordes went on a grim rampage," writes historian Hans Schulz.
First, the gangs defiled Rome's splendidly filled churches, dragging away tabernacles, liturgical vessels and crosses. Then they turned their attention to the rich. Roughly 25 cardinals were living in Rome at the time. The mercenaries broke into their palazzi, dragged out the clergyman by their hair and forced them to pay tribute. The nobility and merchants received the same treatment.
After three days, a newly installed "soldiers' council" ordered the mercenaries to end the pillaging, but no one listened. The men continued to play dice on the church altars and drink with prostitutes from shiny chalices.
A Massacre on the Steps of St. Peter's
It was anarchy. Once they had emptied out the villas and churches, the greedy invaders searched the city's gardens and canals for hiding places. In the end, they even broke open the graves of saints, including the tomb of St. Peter the Apostle.
The looters made off with precious stones, tapestries by Raphael and even the pope's tiara. The total loss is estimated at about 10 million ducats -- the equivalent of 35 tons of gold.
According to letters and eyewitness accounts, the invaders also expressed their hatred of the Holy See by staging mock processions. Mercenaries rode the city dressed as cardinals, while prostitutes were given golden chasubles to wear. A priest was told to give Holy Communion to a donkey. When he refused, the mercenaries beat him to death. The Cardinal of Aracoeli was forced to lie on a bier and then give his own eulogy in a church. Martin Luther was elected pope in a solemn parody.
Luther himself, who had launched the Reformation only 10 years previously, remained silent on the insanity in Rome. Author Reinhardt calls his reaction the "most astonishing gap in the press landscape of the day."
Almost the entire Swiss Guard, 147 men, were massacred on the steps of St. Peter's Basilica as they fought to protect the pontiff. However, their bravery had allowed the pope and his loyal supporters to escape via a secret corridor to the Castel Sant' Angelo, where they then barricaded themselves in, surviving on donkey's meat. After a month, the Holy Father gave up, paid the ransom and, later, quietly slipped away dressed as a steward.
But the bloody carnival continued for another nine months before the invaders finally left the city. Meanwhile, epidemics had broken out and bread prices had risen to astronomic levels. The streets and alleys were filled with the stench of corpses.
The Sacco di Roma left the entire Western world distraught. Many scholars tried to reinterpret the desecration as a cleansing storm. The mercenaries, they insisted, were tools of God meant to set the flagging papacy straight.
But a few scholars, even those of the day, advanced a new, relentless view of history. Instead of interpreting the mercenaries' actions as a healing force guided by God, they argued that whatever deity controls the fate of the world was rewarding evil.
Historian Reinhardt takes a similar view. The Sack of Rome was a "political catastrophe" that would be followed by many more. "Anyone who looks into history is peering into an abyss."