This panel, together with the subsequent lot, record two of the most significant military campaigns in the early-sixteenth century, the Sack of Rome in 1527 and the Conquest of Tunis in 1535. Rich in narrative detail, they celebrate events that served to consolidate the remarkable power and reach of the Habsburg Empire under Charles V.
The siege on Rome took place on 6 May 1527, when mutinous troops under Charles V stormed the walls by the Vatican, plundering the city in a manner that contemporary accounts compared to the attacks by the Gauls, Visigoths and Vandals in centuries past. In 1526, Clement VII had formed an alliance with Francis I, King of France, the so-called League of Cognac, in an effort to counter the growing threat to the dominance of the Catholic church posed by Charles V. The Imperial Army scored victories in battles with the League of Cognac, but went unpaid for months in the run up to May 1527, and forced their commander, Charles III, Duke of Bourbon, to march on Rome. The attack proved a devastating defeat, with thousands killed and widespread looting bringing Rome to its knees. The event brought seismic changes; religiously, politically, and artistically: Pope Clement VII took refuge in Castel Sant’Angelo, and an exodus followed, with many artists in particular fleeing the city in the wake of the attack. The sack has been perceived subsequently as the end point of the so-called High Renaissance.
The panel itself shows the chaotic moment when the troops breach the city walls, with a mass of soldiers gathered outside, primed to spill through into the heart of Rome. Some can be seen already on the steps of the old St. Peter’s church, at the heart of the Vatican. In the foreground, dying, is the Duke of Bourbon himself; he was killed beneath the walls, reputedly by Benvenuto Cellini, a moment that ignited merciless looting. The panoramic view of the city clearly employs a broad degree of topographical freedom, but nonetheless accurately shows Rome at a time of great change: the basilica of St. Peter’s can be seen under construction, with the arches in place, ready to support the dome whose construction had yet to start. The old façade is still visible here, together with the medieval bell tower, and the obelisk to the side, which would later be moved to the centre of the piazza, today’s great focal point during the approach to St. Peter’s. To the right, crossing the Tiber, one can see the great monuments of antiquity, including the Pantheon, the Torre delle Milizie, the Colosseum and the Basilica of Maxentius.
The second picture, the following lot, equally ambitious in scope and design, shows the conquering of Tunis in June 1535, when the great fleet of Charles V set siege to the city. This move was a response to Tunis, a strategically important city, having been captured the previous year by Kair-ed-Din Barbarossa, a Berber prince in the Ottoman navy, who had deposed Mulay Hassan, a vassal of Charles V. In June 1535, Charles V set sail for Africa with a fleet of four hundred ships and over thirty thousand soldiers, intent on recapturing Tunis, and in the process curtailing the expansion of the Ottoman Empire. Here a flotilla can be seen approaching La Goulette, the city port, which would become the site for a three week long siege; in the distance two sections of the Zaghouan Aqueduct (or Aqueduct of Carthage) can be seen, one of the longest aqueducts of the Roman Empire. In its design the panel has a distinct cartographic structure, with the lands in and around Tunis laid out in a manner familiar to map makers. The artist zooms out from incidental detail to give a broad narrative sweep to the events.
It is possible these two panels may form part of a longer series of depictions of military campaigns under Charles V. Representations, indeed, of other significant military events in his reign have survived, including, for example, a panel in the Birmingham Museum of Art showing the Battle of Pavia, an engagement on 24 February 1525 between the troops of Charles V and Francis I, King of France. And most significantly, a series of twelve tapestries were woven in Brussels between 1548 and 1554 by Willem de Pannemaker, celebrating the campaign in Tunisia and glorifying the status of Charles V as the great protector of the Christian world. An ambitious project, the preparatory cartoons were designed by Jan Cornelisz Vermeyen, who had been appointed court artist to Margaret of Austria from 1527, and then to Charles V from 1534. He accompanied the latter in fact on the expedition to Tunis in 1535, making sketches and drawings that would later form the basis of the cartoons for the tapestries themselves. It may be that an artist in his circle, or influenced by him, was responsible for these two panels.