Renaissance and Reformation The Sack of Rome (1527)
Jessica Goethals
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 February 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 February 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0417


On 6 May 1527 the Spanish, German, and Italian troops of Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain, sacked Renaissance Rome. The Sack was a climactic event in the War of the League of Cognac, begun in 1526, and in the broader Italian Wars waged between Spain, France, the Papal States and various Italian city-states between 1494 and 1559. Rome was poorly defended by Pope Clement VII, who shortly beforehand had agreed to a truce with the imperialists against the wishes of his allies and had subsequently dismissed his mercenaries. With official blessing, however, the imperial commander Charles de Bourbon did not honor this truce, instead moving south down the Italian Peninsula, threatening Florence and then advancing on Rome. Although Bourbon was fatally wounded during the sack, his troops quickly took the city. The pope fled to safety in Castel Sant’Angelo, where he remained trapped until he escaped to Orvieto in December; he would return to Rome only the following fall. The invading army moved largely unimpeded through the city, assaulting and slaughtering its citizens, pillaging, and violating sacred spaces and objects. The levels of violence reported in eyewitness accounts shocked the rest of Italy and Europe, even after decades of regular warfare. The Roman population waited in vain for salvation by the French army or the troops of the League under the command of Francesco Maria della Rovere, Duke of Urbino. The imperial army remained in Rome for nine months, all the while kidnapping and torturing the local population so as to unearth hidden money and valuables. While it is difficult to measure with precision the impact of the sack, Hook 2004 estimates that by the end of 1527 nearly half of the city’s population had been killed, died of famine or disease, or had fled the city. Other notable consequences included the torment and, in some cases, the death of artists and intellectuals, the destruction of humanist libraries, and the diaspora of artists, writers, and others previously connected to the city’s cultural activity. A lasting truce was struck only in June 1529, when Clement and Charles signed the Treaty of Barcelona. A symbolic enactment of peace occurred at the Congress (or Peace) of Bologna in late 1529 and early 1530, when the pope officially crowned Charles emperor and the cultural elite of Europe converged on the city; Rome, meanwhile, remained in shambles and was left to slowly beginn the process of rebuilding.

General Overviews

Several histories of the Sack of Rome are available to both general and specialized readers in assorted languages. The definitive account in English to date is Hook 2004. Curious general readers may want to turn instead to the more narrative account of Chamberlin 1985; Gregorovius 2010 also offers an extended narrative history. A reliable account in Italian is Maurano 1967, while the journalistic style of Di Pierro 2003 will engage general readers. A classic German source translated into English is Pastor 1923, which first sourced many of the now widely cited archival documents and firsthand accounts. A good Spanish history is Cadenas y Vicent 1974. Righi 2000 instead supplies a helpful collection documents related to the Peace of Bologna. Gattoni 2002 offers a study of papal politics under Clement VII. Also available for French readers is Redondo 1999 (cited under General Cultural Studies). While focused on cultural production, Chastel 1983 (cited under General Cultural Studies) provides a useful and broadly sourced historical overview. Lenzi 1978 (cited under Eyewitness Accounts) also gives a sampling of historical analyses.

  • Cadenas y Vicent, Vicente de. El saco de Roma de 1527 por el ejército de Carlos V. Madrid: Hidalguía, 1974.

    A substantial Spanish-language history of the Sack of Rome by a scholar of Charles V that spans from the political-military antecedents to the aftermath. The work argues that ultimately the sack cemented Spanish dominance in Italy and its position within Europe while also unifying the European Mediterranean against external threats, such as the Barbary pirates.

  • Chamberlin, E. R. The Sack of Rome. New York: Dorset, 1985.

    An engaging albeit frequently inaccurate historical account geared toward a general audience.

  • Di Pierro, Antonio. Il sacco di Roma: 6 maggio 1527; L’assalto dei lanzichenecchi. Milan: Mondadori, 2003.

    A historical account geared toward a general audience, told with a journalistic “hour-by-hour” approach. Includes two helpful city maps detailing named sites.

  • Gattoni, Maurizio. Clemente VII e la geo-politica dello Stato Pontificio (1523–1534). Vatican City: Archivio Segreto Vaticano, 2002.

    A hefty study of statecraft and warfare during the pontificate of Clement VII that combines a granular study of archival documents with a comparative look at the papacy’s relationship with other power centers. Gattoni transcribes many of these archival materials, providing an appendix to each chapter and a concluding general appendix of nearly 200 pages. Chapters on “War as an Absolute Category” and “Liberty as an Absolute Category” (pp. 169–250) center on the events of 1527.

  • Gregorovius, Ferdinand. History of the City of Rome in the Middle Ages. Vol. 8, Part 2. 2d ed. Translated by Annie Hamilton. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

    Gregorovius concludes his multivolume narrative history of medieval Rome with the sack and its aftermath. The clarity and readability of this engaging account compensates for its frequently subjective tone and analysis (on, for instance, Rome’s decline into “effeminacy”; p. 578). This edition is a facsimile of Hamilton’s original 1902 translation.

  • Hook, Judith. The Sack of Rome 1527. 2d ed. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.

    DOI: 10.1057/9780230628779

    A thorough political-military history of the Sack of Rome, its causes, and its consequences. At its initial publication in 1972, it was the first thorough modern treatment of the event.

  • Maurano, Silvio. Il sacco di Roma. Milan: Casa Editrice Ceschina, 1967.

    An Italian-language history. Part 1 covers the war leading up to the sack, 1526–27. Part 2 covers the sack and its aftermath. Four appendixes offer historical documents pertinent to both sections.

  • Pastor, Ludwig von. The History of the Popes, from the Close of the Middle Ages: Drawn from the Secret Archives of the Vatican and Other Original Sources. Vol. 9. 3d ed. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner, 1923.

    This volume of Pastor’s classic immense papal history covers the pontificates of Adrian VI and Clement VII; the latter section outlines the pope’s involvement in the War of the League of Cognac until the 1527 Sack of Rome, which is covered in detail on pp. 388–423. The notes offer extensive citations of primary materials. Readers may also find Vol. 10 helpful, as it follows the political aftermath up to 1534. Also see the Italian edition, which includes a more extensive scholarly apparatus (Storia dei papi dalla fine del Medio Evo: Compilata col sussidio dell’Archivio segreto pontificio e di molti altri archivi, edited by Angelo Mercati [Rome: Desclée, 1908–1934]).

  • Righi, Roberto, ed. Carlo V a Bologna: Cronache e documenti dell’incoronazione, 1530. Bologna, Italy: Costa, 2000.

    An analysis of the peacemaking meeting between Charles V and Clement VII, the 1529–1530 Peace of Bologna. The volume provides an array of official documents, excerpts from chronicles and letters, and other notices, as well as an essay on artistic representations, a set of illustrations, and a glossary.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.