The Sack of Rome and the Loss of Knowledge

In the aftermath of the Sack of Rome, many would write about these events and the great loss sustained by the Roman people. While the stories of human suffering dominated these accounts, many observers also noted the destruction of books and knowledge caused by the looting.

For example, the poet Pietro Mellini would write about his return to the Eternal City. In a letter to Ippolito de’ Medici, he remarks:

When I returned home after the enemy had left my country and Clement was restored to his seat, my first concern, most magnificent Ippolito, was to see again and gather up all my books and those of my friends that were being kept at my house. I wanted to put them back in a safe harbor, after such a foul and lengthy storm. And as I turned them over carefully I learned from the Moorish serving boy who I had left home by himself, that many had been torn apart, not only by the enemy but also by our own men: some were thrown into the fire; some were pulled apart by savage hands and torn to pieces; some, too, were lost. I was grief-stricken, since I considered this irreparable loss as worse by far than all the others.

Meanwhile, the Italian humanist, writing in his work De litteratorum infelicitate, from 1529, tells the story of what happened Augusto Valdo, a professor of Greek, when the city fell:

He was a citizen of Padua who had taught for many years in Rome the literature he had obtained by such great toil, effort, and journeys, a man who saved from destruction all kinds of learning, not only with his voice, but also with his writings. But with what a wretched death he ended his life! For he was caught up in the massacre in Rome, that most cruel violence of the Spanish and German mercenaries. After his house had been sacked before his eyes, he stood in chains and watched his books, which were his most precious furnishings, and his labors, especially the writings on Pliny he used to toil over far into the night, being torn to shreds in front of him and burned for cooking fuel. He was tormented in this grief by every other affliction because of the arrogant cruelty of those supremely wicked men, since, being a man of modest fortune, he was unable to slake with tribute the insatiable thirst of the barbarians who had shaken out of strongboxes everything he had saved for his old age. He is said to have died at last of starvation after various tortures.

These and other examples relate how some Romans (as well as other Italians and Europeans) saw the destruction of Rome as not just that of a city and its people, but as a profound loss of knowledge. We can never know how many writings and art works were lost in the Sack of Rome, or how many scholars and artists were killed, but this was clearly something that troubled many observers.

These accounts were translated by Jessica Goethals in her PhD Dissertation Representing the Sack of Rome and its Aftermath, 1527-1540. You can read this dissertation from ProQuest.

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St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, still being repaired in 1536 - from a sketch by Marten van Heemskerck

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