Coins in a Hurry: When Pope Clemens VII had his Treasures minted to satisfy an angry Mob of Mercenaries, looting Rome in 1527
The heyday of Rome ended in 1527. 24,000 lansquenets looted the Eternal City to get their pending pay. The Pope disbursed 400,000 ducats ransom money. More about this story you will find here.
Come along with us on our journey through the world of money. Today we are stopping in Rome. We are in the year 1527 AD.
The inscription of this coin says Alma Roma – benedictory Rome. It depicts the city’s great patrons. On the left, Saint Paul with receding brow and hooked nose. Saint Peter, on the right, looks much more benevolent. Both saints are surrounded by halos. Above, you can read their abbreviated names: S PA for Saint Paul. S PE for Saint Peter.
The reverse is engraved with the Papal coat of arms. It is crowned with the Papal tiara, the Pope’s ceremonial headwear. Below, the crossed keys. They are also called “keys of heaven” and symbolise that Christ trusted Peter with the keys in his stead. And the coat of arms? Everyone who has been to Florence will surely recognise it. It depicts the palle, the five balls on the House of Medici’s coat of arms.
So we know that when this coin was minted, the Pope was a Medici. Pope Clement VII, illegitimate son to Giuliano de’ Medici, nephew of Lorenzo Il Magnifico to be precise.
But why does this coin look so strange? By no means can you call that round. The inscription is hard to decipher, too. This is truly no adequate coin for a Pope so obsessed with art that he still commissioned Michelangelo with the famous wall painting of the Last Judgment only a few days before his death. The explanation is simple. The Pope was seriously pressed for time when he had the coins minted. Why he was in such a hurry? Well, I am going to tell you the story now.
It all begins on the 16th of March 1527 in a camp near Bologna, where a condottiero in service of the Holy Roman Empire, Georg von Frundsberg, had set up camp with his army.
The condottieri were professional warlords. They hired armies at their own expense and rented them out to those in need of an army for a heavy additional charge. Now, Georg von Frundsberg’s army was huge. A good 20,000 lansquenets most of them German or Swiss, camped outside the city walls of Bologna.
Frundsberg was paid by Charles V, ruler of the “empire on which the sun never sets”. You should think that the King of Spain and Germany would have been an affluent customer. But the opposite was the case. Charles constantly over-estimated his financial means. Again and again he found himself in financial straits. He had sent 60,000 ducats to Frundsberg in Italy. That was a pretty neat sum, but only a drop in the ocean if you had to pay 20,000 mercenaries.
When, on top of that, rumours about a peace treaty between the Pope and Charles began to spread, the soldiers were anxious to receive their remaining pay. They ganged up, screaming and shouting, and while he was trying to calm the angry mob, Georg von Frundsberg had a stroke.
The mercenaries wanted only one thing: the pay for their services. Rome seemed an attractive target. The Pope’s capital was one of the richest cities during the Renaissance, showing off its sumptuous palaces and magnificent churches decorated with gold. They hardly met with any resistance. The Pope had laid off much of his army to save money.
The mercenaries attacked the city on the 5th of May. On the 6th of May, the Emperor’s troops had climbed the city walls. What followed was the most famous sack of the Early Modern Period. An eyewitness report reads: “In the year 1527, on the 6th of May, we took Rome by assault, clubbed 6,000 men to death, pillaged the whole city, raided church tombs and took everything we could find, burned down a good part of the city and kept the house in a very special way. We destroyed all manuscripts, records, charters and fancies.”
In fact, the number of people who died during the assault wasn’t 6,000, but 20,000. And another 30,000 died from the plague, brought into the city by the mercenaries.
While the bloodthirsty mob was raiding the streets, the Pope had fled to the safety of the Castel Sant’Angelo. He paid dearly for the peace. The mercenaries demanded 400,000 ducats for their retreat. The Pope had all precious metals in the Castel Sant’Angelo melt to make the sum. It is said that even his tiara fell victim to the mercenaries this way.
And that is the story of this coin. Minted sloppily, in a rush, stuck from bad dies but from quality silver. However, after the Sack of Rome, the city was so badly damaged that Charles V had to move his coronation ceremony to Bologna.
Thank you for listening. And you can find more podcasts about coins and money on the Sunflower Foundation Web page.