On Roman Rioting, Lutheran Graffiti, and Popish Beards

One of the more insignificant, longer term fruits of the sack of Rome was papal beards

“In protest to the indignities suffered by both pope and city, Clement, breaking tradition with earlier popes, let his facial hair grow. Or, at least, protest over said indignities was the rationale he gave for his sudden reluctance to shave.”


On May 6th, 1527 — 488 years ago today — military troops of Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, sacked the ecclesiastical capital of Western Christendom, la città eterna, Rome. Sacking Rome was the “thing to do” (as they say) for much of Western history. Everybody who was anybody did it at some point: the Visigoths in 410, the Vandals in 455, the Ostrogoths in 546, the Normans in 1084. By the time that Charles’s imperial forces got around to it, sacking the eternal city had almost become passé.

Though religious tensions ran high in 1527 — Reformation being in the air, and all that — this particular sacking of Rome had more to do with politics and family ambitions than faith. The Emperor Charles and the French King Francis I had been at war for several years when Clement VII (from the family Medici) assumed the papacy in 1523. After donning the triple tiara, Clement made a habit of regularly repositioning his loyalties in that conflict, always with an eye towards maximizing his own political influence (and control of the papal states of Central Italy) and curbing the excessive influence of others. In 1527 Clement had recently realigned himself with Francis, worried about the ever-increasing clout which Charles, a Habsburg, could claim in Western Europe.

Even so, the notion to sack the pope’s city of residence was by all accounts conceived not by Charles V, but by Charles III, the Duke of Bourbon who commanded the Emperor’s forces in Northern Italy. In April of 1527 the imperial forces had succeeded in overthrowing Medici rule in Florence. Travelling south to try their luck against the Medici pope in Rome seemed reasonable enough to Duke Charles. While the troops he commanded made short work of the Swiss Guard defending Rome’s city walls on the morning of May 6th, the Duke himself died on the battlefield. In his last living moments he realized (maybe) that wearing a distinct white coat so his own troops could identify him and heed his commands on the battlefield did little to camouflage him from the enemy.

Thus the imperial forces found themselves within the city walls, lacking a leader, and — by all accounts — full of resentment for long stretches of hard labor and little pay. And so they did what armies do in such circumstances: they ran amok. Considerable harm was inflicted on the Roman people. Roman architecture suffered some serious setbacks as well, though both St. Peter’s and the Sistine Chapel ultimately survived the shame of having horses stabled in them.

Roman Catholic clergy underwent particular persecution. Cardinal Giovanni del Monte — later Pope Julius III — was apparently suspended for some period of time by his hair. As he hung there, he (presumably) had few kind thoughts for Pope Clement VII, who had traded him to the imperial forces in order to save his own skin. Clement had himself taken refuge in the Castel Sant’Angelo, where apparently a group of soldiers gathered at one point with the pronounced intention of eating him alive. (Clement, incidentally, ultimately survived the sack of Rome, and remained pope — and duly submissive to Emperor Charles — until his death in 1534). When they weren’t inflicting torture on cardinals or threatening to cook the pope, the imperial soldiers played dress-up with the (spare) robes of the high pontiff and his senior clergy. Once (im)properly adorned they played the part, blessing and excommunicating each other, processing through town in all their clerical splendor, and so on.

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