Plunder, booty, and ransom

I sometimes get the impression that the authors of accounts of massacres and sacks could take the dehumanisation of the victims to an extreme level and ignore them altogether in favour of bloodless descriptions of precious booty.[1] For example, in his description of the sack of a corrupt Rome in 1527 Francesco Vettori briefly listed the array of actions undertaken by the imperial troops and commented: ‘There was not a great deal of killing because those who do not wish to defend themselves are rarely killed, but the plundering was impossible to estimate, and included currency, jewels, worked gold and silver, clothes, tapestries, household hangings, and mercery of all sorts; and beyond all this, the weighty ransoms of money [demanded] …’.[2] The Cardinal of Como’s account of the sack of Rome methodically listed the noble palaces and churches sacked and noted the amounts extracted from their terrified inhabitants, but he mentioned the dead only once and in passing.[3]

What exactly did soldiers seize in these sacks? I have come across a few sources which provide lists of plundered goods and these can give a good idea of the wealth of a city, the priorities of the soldiers, and even the strategies for survival adopted by men and women in times of extremity. In 1512 an assessment of damages and ransoms which arose as a result of the sack of Prato (which I wrote about last time) was undertaken by the commissioner Bartolomeo de Mancinis at the instance of the Florentine Office of Eight, under the auspices of new Medici regime. It is likely that this took place in order to calculate the compensation and tax rebates which the Pratese might claim.[4]

The inventory of plunder (‘inventarium rerum et spoliarum Pratensium’) compiled between the end of September and the end of October reveals that the Spanish took a fairly representative sample of household goods ranging in condition from the commonly old, used and worn (‘vecchio’ or ‘uso’ and ‘tristo’) to the rarer new (‘nuovo’). The goods taken were easily portable, could be readily consumed or used, or easily resold by soldiers. Claims were made for many pieces of cloth and a variety of clothing including women’s dresses (‘gammurra’), hooded garments (‘cioppetta monachina’), and cloaks (such as the ‘saltambarcha romagnuiolo’), sleeves and linings. Claims were also made for plundered grain and flour, basins and other vessels (some tin), hats, hoods, some hangings, mattresses, candlesticks, tools, soap, chains, bells, knives, silver forks, some leather work, including scabbards, a bronze mortar, a pair of spicer’s balances, and part of a crossbow. Carts and asses (and one horse) were also taken, presumably to transport the loot to market or to camp.[5]

The Florentine orators in Prato advised the new regime that the Spanish should be given safe conducts to come to Florence to sell their booty otherwise, being constrained to leave it behind, they would burn it along with the town itself.[6] Some Spaniards found in Florence selling goods stolen in the sack of Prato were killed, and ‘deservedly’ (‘e meritamente’) according to one chronicler.[7] But it was also claimed that the Florentines themselves went to Prato to buy grain and oil at low prices, and even sacked the goods of the Pratese. Indeed, there exists a list made in January 1513 of plundered Pratese goods bought by the inhabitants of Firenzuola from the Spanish.[8]

The value placed on the goods sacked in Prato was fairly modest in each case, little more than a few florins in total. More substantial was the claim made in the aftermath of the sack of Ravenna in the same year. There survives in the archives a note of the damages received by the ancient abbey of Classe during the sack. The abbey claimed that chalices, vestments (including those of silk and velvet brought from Venice by the abbot who subsequently died in the sack), missals, tapestries, carpets, and other furnishings and goods to the value of more than three thousand ducats had been taken or damaged by the troops. However, a note appended to the document alleges that most of the claims were false. It seems that the abbey was rather too keen to obtain an exemption from a tribute from the monasteries to help restore damaged parochial churches.[9]

It’s possible that the level of damages claimed at Prato was also exaggerated, but they still pale in comparison with the amounts of ransom which the Pratese claimed they had paid to the Spanish. In contrast to the Venetian supplications I wrote about in my post last August the 144 declarations of the ransom paid to Spaniards during the sack of Prato in August 1512 are generally very terse.[10] These declarations, which were submitted to the commune in the months that followed the sack, were presumably intended to form the basis for the calculation of fiscal relief or the distribution of compensation given to Prato by the new Medici regime. The supplicants, or the notary who drafted the document, often simply noted the location of capture and the name of the Spaniard who extracted the ransom. For example, Biagio di Piero d’Antonio Tinacci di Prato was captured in the Canto Alle Tre Gore, northwest of the duomo, by a Spanish squadron captain called Luigi who was an ensign for the Spanish viceroy and who demanded fifteen florins, of which Biagio paid thirteen.[11]

The first-person narratives do sometimes offer a little more detail about the desperate course of events which led to the supplicant’s capture and ransoming. For example, the tailor Sano de Matteo de Meo described how he was taken in his house and a ransom was demanded, but he managed to flee along the southern city wall at Santa Chiara before he was captured, taken home, and forced to pay eight florins by the Spaniard Alessandro de Iacopo.[12] The canon Messer Andrea di Chimenti Luschini was taken prisoner and tortured (‘martoriato’) by Giovani d’Urbina e di Villarta in the house of Gherardo di Charllo. He paid thirty ducats ‘larghi’ of his ransom and was taken to the camp at Bologna where he paid the remaining twenty.[13] Lodovicho di Nichollo Guiliconii describes how he was taken prisoner by the Spanish in his home, bound and ransomed for fifty gold ducats. He writes: ‘One evening I escaped and threw myself to the ground from a window, and I broke both feet so that I could not run, and so I was recaptured by other Spaniards, and [a ransom] again demanded of me they made me pay three gold ducats.’[14] The barber Filippo di Piero d’Antonio described how on 19 September he was held in the house of Tomaso di Buonaguida and ransomed for ninety-six gold ducats to the Spaniards Michele and Giovanni della Chocha, and to Giovanni da Vadagno. He went on: ‘I furthermore swear to you that my son Giovanni Antonio was imprisoned by the Spaniard Pietro Valesero with the colonel of lord Giovanni of Urbino, and paid a ransom of fifty ducats. And they burned my country house, and threw me to the ground from the roof of the stables of the house in Prato. Recommend me to your charity and alms, staying content and silent at your decision.’[15]

The range of occupations held by those ransomed is fairly modest, as well as a canon, there is the priest Neri di Ludovico di Marchavaldo who paid nine gold ducats to a certain Rosso, a gunner (‘scoppietiero’) in the company of Don Francesco di Giovan Salvetti; an arch-priest called Bertoldo Guazaloti; a rector of San Giorgio taken to Verona; Michele de Mariano Nomi, butcher (‘bicheraio’), who was taken prisoner by Giovanni d’Aragona and ransomed for a surprisingly substantial fifty gold florins; the barber Filippo di Piero d’Antonio; the spicer Battista di Nicolo di Papi taken in the Cintola Chapel in the duomo (where the girdle of the Virgin given to St Thomas was held) and paid forty ducats ransom; the baker Francesco di Leonardo di Mariotto di della Chandela held prisoner from 29 August until 18 September, and a dyer.[16] It is clear that Spanish soldiers of every rank took part in the ransoming – from infantrymen to men-at-arms and captains and their companies – and it is clear that this was a lucrative business even if it sometimes meant that the ransomed men and women had to be transported to camp with the army until satisfaction was obtained.[17]

The difficulties faced by those ransomed and transported in this way are vividly captured in one memoir. The eighteen-year old Andrea Bocchineri and his father Gherardo, who were captured in the church of San Domenico in Prato, were ransomed by Signor Alvedo, master of the camp, and by the Viceroy Ramón Cardona himself, for one thousand ducats, while his brother-in-law was ransomed for only two hundred ducats. Andrea’s father then spent two days travelling to Florence to collect the money while Andrea was left behind as a ‘pledge’ (pegno) with Piero. However, when the Spanish saw that Gherardo was not returning with the money they placed the two remaining men in a privy in San Domenico, bound to a stake by the neck, hands, and feet. They were transported in this fashion from Prato to Bologna, where they were bought by a Florentine called Francesco Frescobaldi, the papal commissioner in the city, who threw them into prison and had irons clapped onto their legs when he found that their ransom was not forthcoming. The two men were then taken to Modena, sold back to the Spanish, while Gherardo was captured and 190 florins ‘in oro larghi’ was taken from him. Piero, who was close to death, was released for 39 florins, but Andrea and his father were taken in chains to the castle of count Sigismondo Rangoni where they were placed under Spanish guard at the base of a tower. Eventually, they managed to kill their guard and return to Prato, where Andrea left a votive image at the church of Madonna delle Carceri and at the church of Sant’Anna fuori di Prato in thanks for his deliverance.[18]


Primary Sources


Prato, Archivio di Stato, Archivio Comunale di Prato, 2549

Ravenna, Archivio di Stato, Corporazioni religiose, Abbazia di Sant’Apollinare in Classe, 239


Bocchineri, Andrea. ‘Ricordi’. In Il sacco di Prato e il ritorno de’ Medici in Firenze nel MDXII. Pt. 1. Narrazioni in verso e in prosa. Bologna: Gaetano Romagnoli, 1880. Facsimile edition published in Scelta di curiosità letterarie inedite o rare dal secolo XIII al XIX. In appendice alla Collezione di Opere Inedite o rare. Dispense CLXXVII-CLXXVIII, 129-45. Bologna: Commissione per I testi di lingua, 1968

‘Documenti per la massima parte inediti che concernono il sacco di Prato e il ritorno de’ Medici in Firenze.’ In Il sacco di Prato e il ritorno de’ Medici in Firenze nel MDXII. Pt. 2. Documenti per la massima parte inediti. Bologna: Gaetano Romagnoli, 1880. Facsimile edition published in Scelta di curiosità letterarie inedite o rare dal secolo XIII al XIX. In appendice alla Collezione di Opere Inedite o rare. Dispense CLXXVII-CLXXVIII. Bologna: Commissione per I testi di lingua, 1968

Landucci, Luca. Diario fiorentino dal 1450 al 1516 di Luca Landucci, continuato da un anonimo fino al 1542, ed. Jodoco del Badia. Florence: G. C. Sansoni, 1883

Lapini, Agostino. Diario Fiorentino di Agostino Lapini dal 252 al 1596. Ed. Giuseppe Odoardo Corazzini. Florence: G. C. Sansoni, 1900

Carlo Milanesi (ed.), Il sacco di Roma del MDXXVII. Florence: G. Barbèra, 1867

Modesti, Iacopo. ‘Il miserando sacco dato alla terra di Prato dagli Spagnoli l’anno 1512’, Archivio Storico Italiano, 1 (1842): 233-51. Reprinted in Il sacco di Prato e il ritorno de’ Medici in Firenze nel MDXII. Pt. 1. Narrazioni in verso e in prosa. Bologna: Gaetano Romagnoli, 1880. Facsimile edition published in Scelta di curiosità letterarie inedite o rare dal secolo XIII al XIX. In appendice alla Collezione di Opere Inedite o rare. Dispense CLXXVII-CLXXVIII, 97-110. Bologna: Commissione per I testi di lingua, 1968

Vettori, Francesco. ‘Sommario della istoria d’Italia (1511-1527)’. In Scritti storici e politici, ed. Enrico Niccolini. Bari: G. Laterza, 1972

Secondary Sources

Giuliani, Claudia. I Libri delle Battaglie. La Rotta di Ravenna del 1512 e l’arte militare nel Cinquecento nelle collezioni antiche della Biblioteca Classense. Special Issue of Classense, 5 (2012)

Kuijpers, Erika, Judith Pollmann, Johannes Müller, and Jasper van der Steen (eds.), Memory before Modernity: Practices of Memory in Early Modern Europe. Leiden: Brill, 2013

[1] Kuijpers, Pollmann, Müller, and van der Steen, Memory.

[2] ‘La occisione non fu molta, perché rari uccidono quelli che non si vogliono difendere, ma la preda fu inestimabile, di danari contanti, di gioie, d’oro et argento lavorato, di vestiti, d’arazzi, paramenti di case, mercantile d’ogni sorte; et oltre a tutte queste cose, le taglie, che montorono tanti danari …’. Vettori, ‘Sommario’, 244. In his dialogue on the sack of Rome the figure of ‘Antonio’ recounts his experience of being ransomed by troops who menace and beat him until he agrees to find 300 of the 500 ducats demanded despite his age and poverty: ibid., 286-87.

[3] Milanesi, Sacco, 469-90.

[4] Prato, Archivio di Stato, Archivio Comunale di Prato, 2549, fols. 1r-197v. See also ‘Documenti’, 171-8.

[5] Prato, Archivio di Stato, Archivio Comunale di Prato, 2549, fols. 1r-53v. The balances and crossbow ‘tonieri’ are listed in ibid., fol. 42r, the bronze mortar in ibid., fol. 15v.

[6] Documenti’, 158. See also ibid., 165.

[7] Lapini, Diario, 83. See also Landucci, Diario, 326.

[8] Modesti, ‘Miserando Sacco’, 108; Prato, Archivio di Stato, Archivio Comunale di Prato, 2549, fols. 198r-205v.

[9] Ravenna, Archivio di Stato, Corporazioni religiose, Abbazia di Sant’Apollinare in Classe, 239, fols. 42r-43v. See also Giuliani, I Libri, 18-19.

[10] Prato, Archivio di Stato, Archivio Comunale di Prato, 2549, fols. 55r-197v. See also ‘Documenti’, 172-8.

[11] Prato, Archivio di Stato, Archivio Comunale di Prato, 2549, fol. 68r.

[12] Ibid., fol. 73r.

[13] Ibid., fol. 81r.

[14] ‘Una sera io miscollsi e gittami attera dalle fenestre: e ischolami ttutta dua e piedi in modo che io no pottevi chorere, e pero fui represo dalltre i spagnuolli e rachomandadomi mi farano pagare duchatti tre doro.’ Ibid., fol. 121r.

[15] ‘E piu vi fo fede chome Giovanni Antonio mio figliolo ene prigione de Pietro Valesero isspagnolo nello cholonello del signore giovanni durbina e ane di taglia ducati cinquanta cioe ducati 50. E anomi arso la casa divilla e gittatomi intera e tecto della stalla della casa di prato. Rachomandomi alle vostre lemosine e charita istando tacito e content[o] a ogni vostra determination.’ Ibid., fol. 134r.

[16] Ibid., fols. 107r, 117r, 130r, 105r, 134r, 144r, 154r, 155r, ‘Documenti’, 177.

[17] Prato, Archivio di Stato, Archivio Comunale di Prato, 2549, fols. 108r (an unnamed Spanish infantryman paid fifteen gold ducats), 116r (a Captain Gratiano and his company), 117r (‘un omo d’arme del duca di Traichato’ who demanded 150 gold florins, half of which was paid by Cardinal Giovanni de’Medici and the other half by Monsignor de Vitelli), 154r (an unnamed captain identified at fol. 155r with ‘la bandera del Capitano naveretto’), 167r (a captain named ‘Ser Giovanni di Chamarcho’ who was paid a hundred gold ducats), 169r (ten and a half gold ducats paid to the Spaniard Pierluigi and to Messer Pieralfolso Napoletano ‘erano chompagni sotto la bandiera di don Ferrante’).

[18] Bocchineri, ‘Ricordi’. This account only survives in an eighteenth-century transcription and certainly shows some signs of being reworked, and perhaps embellished. Nevertheless it contains general details, such as prisoners taken at the church of San Domenico and to Bologna, which are confirmed by the documents in Prato, Archivio di Stato, Archivio Comunale di Prato, 2549, fols. 55r-197v.

Author: Stephen Bowd

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