Counting the Dead

Agostino Busti, Battle of Brescia, 1515-21/22, cast of relief for tomb monument of Gaston de Foix, Victoria and Albert Museum © Victoria and Albert Mueum, London

The Italian Wars were marked by regular and bloody episodes of mass murder lasting from a day to several weeks and given a variety of names by Italian contemporaries including ‘strage’, ‘sacco’, ‘stracio’, or ‘destrutione’.[1] The sack of Fivizzano (1494) was followed by the sacks of Forlì (in 1500), Capua (1501), Arezzo (1502), Padua, Monselice, Fiume, Feltre (all in 1509), Vicenza (1510), Udine (1509 and 1511), Ravenna, Brescia, Lonigo, and Prato (1512), Genoa (1522), Pavia, Rome (1527), and Molfetta (1529), to name just some of the best recorded incidents.

Contemporary evidence for the numbers killed in these sacks is probably as unreliable as it is for fatalities in battle, discussed recently by John Gagné in an article on ‘Counting the Dead’, or other massacres and offers a range of figures from the suspiciously precise 2125 deaths at Capua to the almost certainly inflated number of 20,000 deaths at Brescia and ‘more than 40,000’ at Rome.[2] In the case of the sack of Rome, for which the evidence is most abundant, estimates of deaths were also made for specific incidents and separate figures were sometimes given for civilians and for Italian troops as opposed to ‘our enemies’. Early reports of the sack reaching Venice put the number of those ‘torn to pieces’ at 4000, subsequently rising to 14,000 or 15,000 Romans in addition to 3000 or 4000 ‘enemies’ in other accounts.[3]

To complicate matters further, these figures might also include the number of those killed in events preceding and succeeding the sack. For example, the sack of Capua was preceded by four days of bombardment, while the sack of Rome was followed by a plague which may have killed around 5000 imperial troops alone within two months.[4] Furthermore, reaching a solid conclusion about the proportion of the population killed in sacks is also hampered by the difficulty of estimating urban populations during such unsettled times. For example, Rome’s population of about 55,000 was swollen by refugees, while Brescia’s population of around 50,000 was probably depleted as many citizens fled to the surrounding countryside, or were expelled by the French during the first years of occupation after 1509.[5]

By comparison ‘approximately 2000 Huguenots’ were killed in Paris (population c. 275,000) during the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre (1572).[6] The ‘holocaust of Antwerp’ (1576) resulted in the deaths of 8,000 out of a population of 80,000, in one modern estimate.[7] The sack of Magdeburg (1631) involved the ‘annihilation of a city of 20,000’ in the view of one recent historian.[8]

In the course of this project I will be faced with an array of numbers, probably exaggerated, and will have to think of ways of obtaining more accurate figures for the dead. One possibility may be offered by studies of local burial records, for example those held by mendicant orders which I looked at for an earlier study, or the evidence of mass graves (like that of Towton in 1461, which has been excavated) and so I would welcome comments from archaeologists. I do wonder how the victims of these massacres were buried: were they put into mass graves or claimed by their families and properly buried?

[1] For example, anon., Opera nova del stato di Milano e sacco di Genoa, el stracio de Pavia e de Rimino e destrutione de Roma con molte altre gentilezze cose nove (n.p., 1528).

[2] Silvestro Guarino, ‘Diario’, in Alessio Aurelio Pelliccia (ed.), Raccolta di varie croniche, diarj ed altri opuscoli, così Italiani, come Latini, appartenenti alla storia del Regno di Napoli (Naples, 1780-82), 1. 209-47 (at 239); Marin Sanudo, I diarii di Marino Sanuto, ed. Rinaldo Fulin, Federico Stefani, Nicolò Barozzi, Guglielmo Berchet, and Marco Allegri. 58 vols (Venice: Fratelli Visentini, 1879-1903. Facsimile repr., Bologna: Forni, 1969-1970), 13: col. 517 (Brescia), 45: col. 122 (Rome). The figure of 15,000 dead at Brescia is given by Andrea Mocenigo, La Guerra di Cambrai fatta a’ tempi nostri in Italia, trans. Andrea Arrivabene (First published in 1525. Venice, 1562), fol. 77r. See also John Gagné, ‘Counting the Dead: Traditions of Enumeration and the Italian Wars’, Renaissance Quarterly, 67.3 (2014): 791-840.

[3] Sanudo, Diarii, 45: cols 86, 166. Other early estimates varied between 3,000 and 4,000: ibid., cols 90, 92.

[4] An imperial commander, Georg Kirchmair, quoted in André Chastel, Sack of Rome, 1527, trans. Beth Archer (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983), 91. One of the interlocutors in Alfonso Valdés’ 1527 pro-imperial dialogue on the sack of Rome suggests that this is an exaggeration and that no more than 4000 died: Alfonso de Valdés and the Sack of Rome: Dialogue of Lactancio and an Archdeacon, trans. John E. Longhurst, with Raymond R. MacCurdy (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1952), 59 (and see ibid., nn. 6, 7 for other estimates).

[5] For the populations of Rome and Brescia see Egmont Lee (ed.), Descriptio Urbis: The Roman Census of 1527 (Rome: Bulzoni, 1985), and Stephen D. Bowd,Venice’s Most Loyal City: Civic Identity in Renaissance Brescia (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010), 18. On refugees in Rome see Marcello Alberini, Il sacco di Roma del MDXXVII: studi e documenti. 1. I ricordi, ed. Domenico Orano (Rome: Forzani, 1901), 279.

[6] Mack P. Holt, The French Wars of Religion, 1562-1629 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 94.

[7] Geoffrey Parker, The Dutch Revolt (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1977), 23, 178 (quotation).

[8] Idem (ed.), The Thirty Years’ War (2nd edn. London: Routledge, 1997), 112-13.

Author: Stephen Bowd

I am a Professor of Early Modern History at the University of Edinburgh, and a Leverhulme Research Fellow (2016/17).