many of the visitors to Rome, who pose for a photograph in front of the
Swiss soldiers on guard at the gates of Vatican City, are familiar with
the history of these troops who take an oath of loyalty to the Pope. To
know more we must go back to the period of the Renaissance and discover
the motives that in 1506 caused Pope Julius
II to invite to Rome the Helvetian soldiers, renowned for their courage,
noble sentiments and loyalty. Many centuries earlier the great Latin
historian, Tacitus, had
said: "The Helvetians are a people of warriors, famous for the valour
of their soldiers." This is why the Swiss Cantons, as allies first
with one side and then with another, played such an important role in the
history of European politics. In fact as allies of Pope Julius II
in 1512 they helped to shape Italy's destiny and were granted by the Pope
the title of "Defenders of the Church's freedom". In those times,
when to be a mercenary soldier was a commonplace occupation, there lived a
people of warriors in the very heart of the Alps. The first Swiss Cantons
had about 500,000 inhabitants and formed an overpopulated
where, because of the precarious economic conditions of the times, there
was much poverty. There was no choice but to emigrate and one of the most
profitable jobs was that of a mercenary soldier abroad.
were some 15,000 men available for this type of work which was "organized"
and controlled by the small Confederation of Cantons. The Confederation
authorized the enlistment of the men and in return received corn, salt, or
other commercial goods. The men themselves regarded this warring as a
temporary period of summer emigration. They took part in brief but
glorious wars and then returned home with the "pay" and the
booty, to spend the winter. They were the best troops of those times.
Without cavalry and with little artillery, they had invented a tactic of
movement that was superior to all others. Therefore they were in great
demand both by France and by Spain. They were similar to a semimobile
rampart, standing tall and impenetrable, and it is impossible to
understand the Italian Wars without taking these mercenaries into account.
Already in the 13th and 14th centuries, after the Swiss Cantons had become
independent, many of their men were fighting in Germany and Italy and as
the Cantons were unable to prevent this type of emigration, they sought at
least to organize it.
Swiss Mercenaries and France:
alliance with France was the most important and it began with Charles VII
in 1453, and was later renewed in 1474 by Louis XI, who had seen for
himself near Basle how 1,500 Swiss soldiers had resisted against twenty
times as many men.
XI hired some of the Confederate soldiers as instructors for the French
army and the King of Spain did the same. When, at the end of the 15th
century, with Charles VIII the Italian Wars began, the Swiss were
described by the Italian historian, Guicciardini, as "the nerve and
the hope of an army".
1495 the life of the King of France was saved thanks to the immovable
firmness of his Swiss foot-soldiers.
foreign service of the Confederates was better regulated under the 1521
alliance between France and the Cantons. With it the Swiss agreed to
provide from six to sixteen thousand men for the King and in return the
Cantons would benefit from the protection of the most powerful European
prince. They became permanent allies and auxiliaries, but the Cantons were
still the true sovereigns of the troops and reserved to themselves the
right to withdraw them. These armed corps were completely independent,
with their own regulations, their own judges and their own flags. The
orders were given in their own language, German, by Swiss officers and
under the law of their Cantons: in short, the regiment was their
fatherland and all these customs were confirmed in similar agreements made
in later years.
January 22nd, 1506, is the
of birth of the Pontifical Swiss Guard,
a group of one hundred and fifty Swiss
by Captain Kasparvon Silenen, of Canton Uri, passed
through the Porta del Popolo and entered for the first
blessed by Pope Julius II.
The prelate Johann Burchard of Strasbourg, Master of Pontifical Ceremonies
and author of a famous
chronicle, noted the
event in his diary.
In actual fact Pope
Sixtus IV made
in 1497 with the
which forsaw the possibility of recruiting mercenaries,
and he had barracks built for them near
where there is, still today, the small Church of St. Pellegrino, in Via
Pellegrino in Vatican City. Later, renewing the old pact, Innocent VIII
(1484-1492) also desired to make use of them against the Duke of Milan.
And Alexander VI also engaged Confederate soldiers during the time of the
alliance between the Borgia family and the King of France. While the
Borgias were so powerful the so called Italian Wars began in which the
Swiss soldiers were always present, in the front line, at times for France,
and at others to support the Holy See or the Holy Roman Empire ruled by a
German sovereign. When
the Swiss mercenaries heard that Charles VIII, King of France, was
planning a great expedition against Naples, they flocked to enlist.
Towards the end of the year 1494, thousands of them were in Rome, passing
through with the French army, which in February of the following year,
occupied Naples. Among the participants in that expedition against Naples,
there was also Cardinal Giuliano della
Pope Julius II,
who under Pope Alexander VI had left Italy and gone to France.
was well aquainted with the Swiss, because some twenty years earlier he
had been granted as one of many benefices, the Bishopric of Lausanne. A
few months later however, Charles VIII was forced to abandon Naples in all
haste and he barely succeeded in forcing a blockade and escaping to France.
In fact Pope Alexander VI had connected Milan, Venice, the Germanic Empire
and Ferdinand the
Catholic to form a barrier against the French.
Sack of Rome:
the morning of May 6th, 1527, from his headquarters set up in St. Onofrio's
Convent on the Gianicolo hill, Captain General Bourbon launched a series
of attacks on Rome. During one of them, at the Torrione Gate, while
leading the assault of the walls, he
himself was mortally wounded. After just a moment's hesitation, the
Spanish mercenaries broke through the Torrione Gate, while the lansquenets
invaded the road of Borgo Santo Spirito and St. Peter's. The Swiss Guard,
standing firm at the foot of the obelisk (now in St. Peter's Square, but
then near the German cemetery within the Vatican close to the Basilica),
together with the few remnants of the Roman troops, resisted desperately.
Their Captain, Kaspar Röist
was wounded, and later killed by the Spaniards in his quarters in front of
his wife, Elizabeth Klingler. Of the 189 Swiss Guards, only 42 survived,
the ones who, when all was lost, under the command of Hercules Göldli
guarded Clement VII’s retreat to safety in Castel Sant’Angelo. The
rest fell gloriously,
together with two hundred fugitives, on the steps of the High Altar in St.
Clement VII and his men were able to escape to safety, thanks to the
"Passetto", a secret corridor which Pope Alexander VI had built
along the top of the wall connecting the Vatican with Castel Sant’Angelo. The
savage horde was in a hurry, for fear that the League troups would cut off
their retreat. Across the Sisto bridge the lansquenets and Spaniards fell
on the city and for eight days committed every sort of violence, theft,
sacrilege and massacre, even the tombs of the Popes, including that of Julius II,
were violated in search of spoils. There were as many as 12 thousand dead
and the booty amounted to ten million ducats.
that happened cannot really be regarded with surprise because the imperial
army and in particular Frundsberg's lansquenets, were animated by a
violent spirit of crusade against the Pope. In front of Castel Sant’Angelo where
the Pope had retreated, a parody of a religious procession was set up, in
which Clement was asked to cede the sails and oars of the
"Navicella" (boat of Peter) to Luther, and the angry soldiery
shouted "Vivat Lutherus pontifex!" (Long
live Luther, Pontiff!) The name of Luther was incised with the tip of a
sword across the painting of the "Dispute of the Most Holy Sacrament"
in the Rooms of Raffaello, out of disdain, while on another wall a
graffito hailed Charles V, emperor.
and exact was the description given by the Prior of the Canons of St.
Augustine at that time: "Mali fuere Germani, pejores Itali, Hispani vero pessimi."
(The Germans were bad, the Italians were worse, the Spaniards were the
Besides the irreplaceable damage of the destruction of the relics, during
the Sack of Rome, inestimable art treasures, namely the greater part of
the Church's finest artisan-made gold and silver ware, were lost forever.
June 5th, Clement had to surrender and to accept heavy conditions: he had
to cede the fortresses of Ostia, Civitavecchia, and Civita Castellana, to
hand over the cities of Modena, Parma and Piacenza, and to pay the sum of
four thousand ducats. Moreover, a ransom for the freedom of prisoners was
demanded. The papal garrison was replaced by four companies of Germans and
Spaniards, and two hundred lansquenets took the place of the Swiss Guard
which had been suppressed. The Pope obtained permission for the surviving
Swiss Guards to join the new Guard, but only 12 of them accepted, among
Gutenberg of Chur and
Albert Rosin of Zurich. The others wished to have nothing to do with the