Did Machiavelli Try To Destroy Catholicism?

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 manHe 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 12 billion people worldwide following the guidance of the Vatican If Machiavelli did try to destroy it, it does not look like the great schemer succeeded

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