Every year, on May 6th, the new recruits of the Papal Swiss Guard take their oath of commitment to the service of the Church and the safety of the Pope and the College of Cardinals during a period in which the Holy See is vacant. The date of May 6th was chosen for this ceremony because it commemorates the sacrifice of the Swiss on guard on May 6, 1527, the date known to history as the Sack of Rome.
In 1527 Europe was divided politically, as it had been many times in past centuries, and Italy was the scene of conflict (again, as it had been many times since the falling apart of the Roman Empire). Not for the first time the political divide pitted the Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain, Charles V (Charles I of Spain), against France and an Italian league, composed of the Papal States and the city-states of Venice, Florence and Milan. Poor decisions by all the combatant powers resulted in the Imperial troops, composed mainly of Spanish and German mercenaries, assaulting a lightly defended Rome on May 6, 1527. The force of 189 Swiss Guard, formed only 20 years before, performed the service they had pledged themselves to, unto the point of death. Of the total force 147 were killed. The remaining 42 assisted the Pope, Clement VII (Medici), to escape to Castel Sant’Angelo. The Imperial troops, who were owed wages by the Emperor, then went on a spree of murder, rape, looting, desecration and destruction that lasted eight days. Since many of them were adherents of Luther, there was a distinct element of iconoclasm mixed with the general mayhem. At one point the Luterans organized a mock religious procession in front of the Pope’s refuge in Castel Sant’Angelo, and shouted pro-Lutheran slogans. Much of the damage to historic and religious artifacts was irreparable and we are all the poorer on account of it.
This event had some of the same effect on all of Renaissance Italy that September 11, 2001 had on the United States. There was shock, grief and anger. And, like September 11th, some of the effects were short-lived. Politically, it was business as usual in Europe, for centuries to come, although the political power of the Papacy does appear to have been permanently reduced. Even religiously, the effects of the Counter-Reformation were still in the future.
In the past there was a belief that the Sack of Rome ended the High Renaissance. In the memorable phrase of Lord Clark, it resulted in a “failure of nerve” (Kenneth Clark, A Failure of Nerve, Italian Painting 1520-1535, Oxford, 1967). More recent thought has disputed this effect. It is true that the decades following the Sack were decades dominated by the Mannerist style, complex, difficult to read, nervous, oddly proportioned. However, many of these tendencies were already evident on work produced in Rome before 1527. It’s now thought that a mannerist-like phase is part of the normal artistic cycle, as the boundaries of an established style are stretched by experimentation, to the limits they can accept, until they are superseded by a new style.