Old Soldier’s Story- The Imperial Assault on Rome, May 6, 1527
A native of Florence, Benvenuto Cellini (1500-1571), was a sculptor and metal worker of notable attainments, not to mention a duelist, rake, poet, and, for a short time in 1527, a volunteer soldier in the service of Pope Clement VII. In the latter capacity, he took part in the brief defense of Rome against an overwhelmingly superior army in the service of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, who also happened to be the King of Spain.
Between 1495 and 1559 the French undertook a series of nearly a dozen wars in an effort to conquer Italy, wars which ultimately resulted in the firm establishment of Spanish control over the peninsula, a control that would endure for some two centuries. In the spring of 1527, during the fourth or fifth of these seemingly interminable wars, Clement VII had aligned the papacy against the imperial might of Charles V. That spring an Imperial army consisting largely of German Lutherans and Spanish Catholics, commanded by the Constable de Bourbon, a renegade Frenchman descended upon the Eternal City. On May 6th the Imperialists assaulted the city, an attack rather vividly described by Cellini in his wonderful Autobiography, albeit that he deliberately avoids discussion of the horrible sack that followed..
. . . when the Constable of Bourbon knew there were no troops in Rome, he pushed his army with the utmost energy up to the city. The whole of Rome upon this flew to arms. I happened to be intimate with Alessandro, the son of Piero del Bene, who, at the time when the Colonnesi entered Rome, had requested me to guard his palace. On this more serious occasion, therefore, he prayed me to enlist fifty comrades for the protection of the said house, appointing me their captain, as I had been when the Colonnesi came. So I collected fifty young men of the highest courage, and we took up our quarters in his palace, with good pay and excellent appointments.
Bourbon’s army had now arrived before the walls of Rome, and Alessandro begged me to go with him to reconnoiter. So we went with one of the stoutest fellows in our Company; and on the way a youth called Cecchino della Casa joined himself to us. On reaching the walls by the Campo Santo, we could see that famous army, which was making every effort to enter the town. Upon the ramparts where we took our station several young men were lying killed by the besiegers; the battle raged there desperately, and there was the densest fog imaginable. I turned to Alessandro and said: “Let us go home as soon as we can, for there is nothing to be done here; you see the enemies are mounting, and our men are in flight.” Alessandro, in a panic, cried: “Would God that we had never come here!” and turned in maddest haste to fly. I took him up somewhat sharply with these words: “Since you have brought me here, I must perform some action worthy of a man;” and directing my arquebus where I saw the thickest and most serried troop of fighting men, I aimed exactly at one whom I remarked to be higher than the rest; the fog prevented me from being certain whether he was on horseback or on foot.
Then I turned to Alessandro and Cecchino, and bade them discharge their arquebuses, showing them how to avoid being hit by the besiegers. When we had fired two rounds apiece, I crept cautiously up to the wall, and observing among the enemy a most extraordinary confusion, I discovered afterwards that one of our shots had killed the Constable of Bourbon; and from what I subsequently learned, he was the man whom I had first noticed above the heads of the rest.
Quitting our position on the ramparts, we crossed the Campo Santo, and entered the city by St. Peter’s; then coming out exactly at the church of Santo Agnolo, we got with the greatest difficulty to the great gate of the [Castle Sant’Angelo]; for the condottiere Renzo di Ceri and Orazio Baglioni were striking and killing anyone who abandoned the defence of the walls. By the time we had reached the great gate, part of the foemen had already entered Rome, and we had them in our rear. The castellan had ordered the portcullis to be lowered, in order to do which they cleared a little space, and this enabled us four to get inside. On the instant that I entered, Captain Pallone de’ Medici claimed me as being of the Papal household, and forced me to abandon Alessandro, which I had to do, much against my will. I ascended to the keep, and at the same instant Pope Clement came in through the corridors into the castle; he had refused to leave the palace of St. Peter earlier, being unable to believe that his enemies would effect their entrance into Rome.
Having got into the castle in this way, I attached myself to certain pieces of artillery, which were under the command of a bombardier called Giuliano Fiorentino. Leaning there against the battlements, the unhappy man could see his poor house being sacked, and his wife and children outraged; fearing to strike his own folk, he dared not discharge the cannon, and flinging the burning fuse upon the ground, he wept as though his heart would break, and tore his cheeks with both his hands. Some of the other bombardiers were behaving in like manner; seeing which, I took one of the matches, and got the assistance of a few men who were not overcome by their emotions. I aimed some swivels and falconets at points where I saw it would be useful, and killed with them a good number of the enemy. Had it not been for this, the troops who poured into Rome that morning, and were marching straight upon the castle, might possibly have entered it with ease, because the artillery was doing them no damage. I went on firing under the eyes of several cardinals and lords, who kept blessing me and giving me the heartiest encouragement. In my enthusiasm I strove to achieve the impossible; let it suffice that it was I who saved the castle that morning, and brought the other bombardiers back to their duty.  I worked hard the hole of that day; and when the evening came, while the army was marching into Rome through the Trastevere, Pope Clement appointed a great Roman nobleman named Antonio Santacroce to be captain of all the gunners. The first thing this man did was to come to me, and having greeted me with the utmost kindness, he stationed me with five fine pieces of artillery on the highest point of the castle, to which the name of the Angel specially belongs. This circular eminence goes round the castle, and surveys both Prati and the town of Rome. The captain put under my orders enough men to help in managing my guns, and having seen me paid in advance, he gave me rations of bread and a little wine, and begged me to go forward as I had begun. I was perhaps more inclined by nature to the profession of arms than to the one I had adopted, and I took such pleasure in its duties that I discharged them better than those of my own art. Night came, the enemy had entered Rome, and we who were in the castle (especially myself, who have always taken pleasure in extraordinary sights) stayed gazing on the indescribable scene of tumult and conflagration in the streets below. People who were anywhere else but where we were, could not have formed the least imagination of what it was. I will not, however, set myself to describe that tragedy, but will content myself with continuing the history of my own life and the circumstances which properly belong to it.