On 6th May 1527, a marauding mercenary army
from the German Empire sacked Rome. Over the course of three days, the 20,000 soldiers
killed up to 12,000 people. They spent the next eight months looting the city and ransoming
prisoners. Monks were murdered and nuns were sold in the street. But money may not have been the main motive
behind the attack. The Pope himself, Clement VII, became a prisoner, and went into exile
when it was over. The attack left the papacy powerless against its political enemies, and
the Catholic Church came close to destruction. The man ultimately behind this atrocity may
have been Niccolo Machiavelli. Niccolo Machiavelli is renowned for being
one of the most cunning and ruthless philosophers in history. An Italian diplomat, he is described
as both a ‘realist’ and a ‘teacher of evil’. In the 16th century, it was widely believed
that the authority of great leaders derived from being virtuous and morally upstanding.
Machiavelli defied this, and argued that raw power is all that is needed, and there is
no illegitimate way to obtain it. Machiavelli was a staunch critic of the Church.
He accused it of gaining power through armed force. He described Pope Alexander as a con
man.He may have been an atheist, or even believed in ancient folk religions over Christianity. Moreover, the army that sacked Rome belonged
to the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nations, which had worked with Rome for centuries.
Who else could persuade them to turn against the Pope, besides the master manipulator,
Machiavelli? Paul Schwartzman, a strategic consultant and
Fellow of The American Academy in Rome, believes that Machiavelli cut a deal with the mercenary
army in 1527. The plan was to sack the near-defenceless Rome as punishment for the extravagance and
corruption of the Church-controlled state. Machiavelli could not have done it alone,
however. The Vatican had strong fortifications, advanced artillery and its own standing army.
In 1526, Clement VII made Francesco Guicciardini Lieutenant-General of the papal army. He was
highly respected in renaissance Italy. Having studied as a lawyer, he quickly made his way
through the ranks of papal society and governed multiple cities for three popes across his
career. But Guicciardini’s experience in the heart
of the papacy made him intensely critical of it. In his book Counsels and Reflections,
he wrote: “I know no man who feels deeper disgust
than I do at the ambition, avarice, and profligacy of the priesthood… I long to see this pack
of scoundrels… purged of their vices or stripped of their authority.” Clearly Guicciardini had an axe to grind with
the church, and he had the power to leave the capital defenceless. It’s unlikely that
anyone would have suspected him, since he was a trusted advisor to several Popes. In
fact, it was Guicciardini who had persuaded Pope Clement VII to turn against the Holy
Roman Empire. This was the root cause of the Sack of Rome.
The mercenary army acted on the orders of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V. A year
earlier, Pope Clement VII tried to break free of Charles’ influence by allying with France.
Charles used the mercenaries to defeat the French army in northern Italy, but failed
to pay them. The mercenaries mutinied and headed for the riches of Italy. But Rome was not their original target. In
April 1527, they were going to sack the city of Florence, but Guicciardini stopped them.
They then turned towards Rome instead. One of Guicciardini’s advisors was Niccolo
Machiavelli, who also lived in Florence. Together, Guicciardini and Machiavelli had the means,
the motive and the opportunity to orchestrate the destruction of the Church in Rome. But while there is a strong case that the
pair could have orchestrated the Sack of Rome, it’s much harder to find any concrete evidence
that they ever did. For one thing, the mercenary army did not
need to be persuaded to attack Rome. The city was rich and represented the ultimate target
for enemies of the Pope. The mercenaries had not been paid, so unless we can prove that
Machiavelli influenced the Holy Roman Emperor to withhold their money, it’s just as plausible
that they saw an opportunity for an easy paycheck. Things get murkier still when you consider
Machiavelli’s past. After being imprisoned 12 years earlier, he tried to rebuild his
career by courting the favour of the Italian state, which was closely interwoven with the
Papacy. Using that favour to destroy the Catholic Church would have damaged Machiavelli’s
own career as much as the Papacy. This would have been a strange move for such a cunning
politician. Machiavelli died just over a month after the
sacking of Rome. On his deathbed, he reconciled with the Church and was administered his last
rites. He made a full confession, but did not mention a plot to destroy the Church.
When he died, Rome was a desolate, ransacked city in the hands of a merciless mercenary
army. Nevertheless, the theory is compelling. Both
Machiavelli and Guicciardini were capable of arranging the Sack of Rome, and each of
them had the motive and opportunity to do so. But when it comes to tangible historical evidence,
Paul Schwartzman’s argument is essentially speculation. Perhaps most importantly, their plan – if
it existed – did not succeed. The Roman Catholic Church was clearly not destroyed in 1527.
It is still going strong today, with 1.2 billion people worldwide following the guidance of
the Vatican. If Machiavelli did try to destroy it, it does not look like the great schemer