On Holy Thursday 1527 while Clement VII was blessing the crowds in St. Peter’s, Brandano da Petroio, who was venerated by the crowds as ‘Christ’s Madman,’ shouted: “Sodomite bastard, for your sins Rome will be destroyed. Confess and convert, for in fourteen days the wrath of God will fall upon you and the City.”
On May 6, 1527, the scourge of God descended upon the city of Rome and raped her. A feral pack of mercenaries, mutinous troops under the direction of the Duke of Bourbon, entered the Eternal City and reminded her of her own temporality. The freshly painted frescoes which adorned her marble flesh were recoated in sanguine hues. The Sistine Chapel, that exquisite chamber built to the proportions of the Temple of Solomon- adorned not in silver or gold but with the brush strokes of the Florentine masters- was violated in every sense of the word. Rome was not built in a day, but her supposed Renaissance died in one.
When modern observers read first-hand accounts of the carnage, they assume the reports are tinged with exaggeration. No soul alive has witnessed such horror befall a city, and so the mind rejects it. It spits out the very thought. It is inconceivable. Almost half the entire population of the city lay dead by its end, its treasures looted, as murder and rape reigned supreme. But what is truly horrifying, is the sacrilege that accompanied the violence. The Lutheran mercenaries were given eight days to pillage freely, to commit any vile act upon the city’s inhabitants that they desired. There is a terrible irony to this, a dark poetry, as a period of eight days has long held special significance in the Catholic tradition. God created the heavens and the earth in seven days, and in Christian theology, Christ represents the eighth day of creation. In the Catholic Church, major festivals were historically celebrated over eight days for this very reason. And so here we have the ultimate inversion.
When the mercenaries entered the city they slaughtered everyone in front of them. “We read in a Veneto account of May 10, 1527, reported by Ludwig von Pastor, “Hell is nothing in comparison with the appearance Rome currently presents” The religious were the main victims of the Landsknechts’ fury. Cardinals’ palaces were plundered, churches profaned, priests and monks killed or made slaves, nuns raped and sold at markets. Obscene parodies of religious ceremonies were seen, chalices for Mass were used to get drunk amidst blasphemies. Sacred Hosts were roasted in a pan and fed to animals, the tombs of saints were violated, heads of the Apostles, such as St. Andrew, were used for playing football on the streets. A donkey was dressed up in ecclesiastical robes and led to the altar of a church. The priest who refused to give it Communion was hacked to pieces. The City was outraged in its religious symbols and in its most sacred memories.’ (Hoffman). The infirm bodies lining the beds of the Santo Spirito hospital in Sassia were massacred, and no one was spared. The young children of the city’s orphanages were thrown into the Tiber. Feral dogs gorged upon the bodies of the dead, as their human counterparts filled their maws with wine and desolation.
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