On Roman Rioting, Lutheran Graffiti, and Popish Beards

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.

Some historians have sought to attribute such "sport" on the part of the imperial forces to Protestant convictions. It's doubtful, however, that any such convictions lay at the root of the havoc wreaked upon Rome in May of 1527. For one thing, the majority of the soldiers came from Spain, Italy, and regions of Germany which remained Roman Catholic. For another, Protestants hardly held a monopoly on resentment towards Rome and her religious authority. After all, ridicule (if not something worse) of the institutional church and her clergy was standard fare even in the most devoutly Roman Catholic regions of Europe in the early sixteenth century. It's hardly the case, in other words, that even devout papists would have necessarily balked at the opportunity to tell the pope they intended to eat him for their supper. Beyond this, it's highly questionable that the activities which took place in Rome in May of 1527 need to be attributed to religious sentiments of any sort. It's entirely possible -- even, I would suggest, likely -- that the imperial soldiers got up to what they got up to in the eternal city that month because, at least to their way of thinking, it was fun. Persecution of Roman Catholic clergy no more necessarily points to Protestant sentiments than do acts of iconoclasm throughout Europe during this period. Sometimes people just like to break things.

Nevertheless, religious reform does seem to have been on the mind of at least one of Charles's soldiers in Rome. Several years before the sack of Rome, the renaissance artist Raphael had completed a fresco called La Disputa -- a piece which shows the church militant and church triumphant meeting at the celebration of the Supper -- for the pope's personal library in the Vatican. As one of the imperial soldiers wandered through the pope's vacated apartments and viewed this remarkable piece, he decided it would be improved if he scribbled the name of one of Europe's most famous and controversial personages across it. Thus he added a short and simple "M. Lutherus" ("Lutherus" being the Latinized form of "Luther") to the face of Raphael's painting. This was the early modern equivalent of writing "Luther was here."

In actual fact, Luther hadn't been in Rome since 1510, which -- coincidentally -- was just about the time that Raphael's painting was being completed. It's unclear what this particular soldier intended to accomplish or communicate by scratching Luther's name on the painting. Perhaps he wished to convey the idea that Luther's reforming spirit was in Rome and was manifested in the destruction wreaked upon the city. If so, it's doubtful that Luther would have appreciated the gesture. The Reformer explicitly denounced the sack of Rome, though he couldn't restrain himself from commenting on the remarkable providence of God which led the "Emperor who persecutes Luther for the pope... to destroy the pope for Luther."

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. Herbert Vaughan suggests another motive in his early 20th century history of the Medici popes: "Although handsome, Clement's face was rendered unattractive by reason of its disagreeable expression and the look of suspicion which was constantly passing over it. [...] It was not until after the sack of Rome in 1527, that Clement... allowed his beard and moustache to grow naturally, a change which undoubtedly added dignity to the Pope's general appearance."

Whether the beard improved Clement's appearance or not, it was a violation of church law (which prohibited facial hair for clergy). But Clement got away with it. His papal successors took note of his flagrant disregard for the church's rules and followed his facial-hair lead. Nearly every pope for the next two centuries wore a beard (after which, hardly any did ever again).

Such blatant ignoring of canon law was not entirely inconsequential. Papal beards arguably served to reinforce the point (which popes were keen to make) that popes are above, not under, church law. Clement and his successors' beards were not, admittedly, so significant a move towards papal prestige and authority as Vatican I's claim of infallibility for Peter's supposed successors, but they were a step -- however scratchy -- towards the same.

Aaron Clay Denlinger is professor of church history and historical theology at Reformation Bible College in Sanford, Florida. May 6th, in addition to being the day that Rome was sacked in 1527, is also Aaron's birthday. Cards and gifts (preferably money) can be sent to him care of the Alliance.