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The Bonfire of the Vanities

The Florentine Republic of Friar Girolamo Savonarola


By Laura Stortoni-Hager, from L'Italo Americano, April 2004

When I am in Florence I am reminded of the historical figures connected to the town. I cannot help thinking about Lorenzo the Magnificent and Duke Cosimo I de' Medici, the great patrons of the arts who fostered the Renaissance.

As I cross Piazza della Signoria, I see a plaque commemorating the tragic end of Girolamo (nowadays spelled Gerolamo) Savonarola, the visionary friar who was burnt on that spot on May 23, 1498.

I am reminded of the brief chapter of Florentine history when Savonarola took control of the city. Later, I visit his cell in the Monastery of St. Mark: a small, spartan cell, where even the only chair looks rigid and uncomfortable.

Girolamo Savonarola was born in Ferrara on September 21, 1452. As a youth he fell in love with a woman who rejected him; after that, he turned to religion with an incredible passion. He had an ardent, zealous, and ascetic temperament. In 1474, he renounced the world, and joined the Dominican order at Bologna. From the beginning, he desired to reform the church. In the first years of his monastic existence he wrote "On the Decline of the Church."

Around 1481, he was sent to preach in Florence. At that time, Lorenzo the Magnificent de' Medici held a humanistic court permeated by Neo-Platonic philosophy, and devoted to the promotion of the arts and letters. The Medicis were lavish patrons and Florence, through their patronage, became the cradle of the Renaissance.

Young Savonarola, however, regarded the Medici court immoral for its pomp and luxury. He fiercely attacked Lorenzo de' Medici as the promoter of pagan art, of frivolous living, and as the tyrant of Florence.

Savonarola was not handsome and was not courtly; he was ugly and rough. He had a remarkably aquiline nose, and his eyes were dark and deep set. He set the example of a strict life of self-mortification; his clothing was coarse, his food scanty.

Initially, Savonarola's preaching did not have much success, but around 1486 a change came upon him as he delved into the Book of Revelation: his message became prophetic and apocalyptic, as he called for judgment of God. From the pulpit he acquired a growing influence over the people. In 1489 he started preaching a series of sermons in the monastery of St. Mark, so effective that in 1491 he became the prior of the monastery.

Fired by his zeal, new brethren entered the monastery and the number of friar rose from fifty to two hundred and thirty eight, many from the noblest Florentine families. Savonarola was venerated as a prophet and a saint. The group of most faithful followers were called "I Piagnoni," the weepers, or snivelers, because they forever cried over their sins.

Savonarola vehemently attacked all that he regarded as immoral, vain, and pleasurable in the life of the Florentines, so that they became temporarily contrite. I stress temporarily because the religious republic of Florence that he founded was short-lived.

After the death of Lorenzo the Magnificent in 1492, there was a period of crisis in Florence, during which Savonarola's fire and brimstone sermons had a great impact.

Lorenzo's inept son Piero (called Piero lo Stortunato," the Unlucky, since he could do anything right) had succeeded him. Savonarola's denunciation of the Medicis now produced its results. Piero was driven out of the city with his family.

Savonarola announced that an avenger was coming to reform the church. He believed that Charles VIII, King of France, who had invaded Italy (the first of many foreign invasions to come) and was advancing against Florence, would be that avenger. Savonarola met the French King in Pisa at the head of an embassy, gained his support, and helped negotiate favorable terms. The French King entered the city after Piero fled. After the French departure, a new form of government, a theocracy, was established in Florence.

The moral life of the citizens was regenerated. It is to be noted that Michelangelo (though he had been greatly favored by the Medicis), had republican leanings; it was at this time that he was commissioned to sculpt the famous David to celebrate the republic. From 1493 on, Savonarola spoke with increasing vehemence against the corruption of the papacy. The pope at that time was Alexander VI, the second Borgia pope, infamous for nepotism, corruption, love of luxury, and immorality.

Savonarola was a Puritan, and his rule was quite oppressive. A moral police that worked through informers was established; bands of children were especially indoctrinated to spy even on their parents. During the carnival of 1497, he organized the famous Bonfires of the Vanities, huge pyres erected in Piazza della Signoria, on which he encouraged, or forced, the Florentines to place all articles of luxury.

Savonarola had organized troops of his followers to go from house to house, requesting people to give up their "vanities," from cosmetics to "pagan" books, and paintings that did not represent sacred subjects. On the tall pyramid, fifteen stories-high, that was set on fire, the followers of Savonarola threw carnival masks, rich feminine ornaments, mirrors, cosmetics, cards and dice, perfume, books of poetry and on magic, musical instruments, and worldly paintings where female bodies were displayed unclothed. Botticelli, a very sensitive soul, was so impressed (or so scared) by Savonarola that he threw many of his paintings on the bonfires.

In the Botticelli Room at the Uffizi Museum, I weep at the thought of the Botticelli masterpieces (and other paintings by other painters) that ended up in flames. Only Botticelli's religious paintings were saved: among the "pagan" ones, the only surviving ones were those safely stored in the Medici villa in Castello. These are the ones we see now at the Uffizi, including the "Primavera" and "The Birth of Venus."

I wonder how the Puritanical Savonarola managed to control the fun-loving, luxury-loving, freedom-loving, artistic Florentines. The answer comes to me as I read some of his extant sermons: FEAR. The fear he excited in his doomsday sermons, fear of Armageddon, fear of the flames of hell, fear of the apocalyptic end that he prophesied.

Soon Savonarola was in open conflict with Pope Alexander VI, The pope opposed the French presence in Italy, and became leery of Savonarola's rule of Florence under the influence of the French king. He was afraid that Charles VIII would call a reform council to oppose him. Such was the virulence of Savonarola's criticism of the papal court that, on July 25, 1495, the pope ordered him to come to Rome. Savonarola did not go, claiming ill health. Soon after, the pope forbade him to preach. Savonarola replied to the pope on September 29, declaring that he was not a heretic and that he had always been orthodox in his beliefs.

In a new brief of October 16, the pope maintained the prohibition to preach. But in the meantime the rebellious friar had climbed the pulpit again and had resumed his sermons on February 17. In his Lenten sermons Savonarola again violently condemned the corruption of Rome.

A schism was threatened, and the pope finally excommunicated Savonarola on May 12, 1497. On June 19, Savonarola published a letter against the excommunication, claiming that it had been fraudulently obtained and therefore null and void. Now the pope also threatened to place an interdict upon Florence, which would have meant the ruin of Florentine commerce, since it would prohibit Christians to trade with them. The Florentine ambassadors in Rome hoped to prevent further papal disciplinary measures, but their hopes were dashed when Savonarola became more and more defiant.

In spite of his excommunication, he celebrated Mass on Christmas Day and distributed Holy Communion. It is believed that even at this juncture the pope would have dealt with him with gentleness, if the obstinate monk would submit. The pope even offered him a "red hat" (the cardinals hat), but Savonarola refused the honor, answering that he only wanted "the red hat of blood, of martyrdom."

He remained defiant, and with his adherents set about calling a council in opposition to the pope. He drew up letters to all the rules of Christendom, urging them to carry out this scheme - something that, on account of his alliance with Charles VIII, could have very well been possible.

After the excommunication Savonarola lost ground. In a curious and fateful challenge, adversaries from the Franciscan Order offered to undergo an ordeal of fire, and challenged Savonarola to do the same. To prove that their case had divine support, Savonarola and some of his Dominican friars agreed with the Franciscans to submit to the ordeal by fire.

The ordeal by fire for both sides was to take place on April 7, 1498, before a large public gathering: everything was ready for the test, but nobody wanted to jump into the flames! The disappointed populace, who believed to the last minute that the holy friar could beat the flames, now turned against him.

There were riots and the monastery of St. Mark was attacked. Finally, Savonarola and a fellow-member of the order, Domenico da Pescia, were taken prisoners. Savonarola's following in the city disappeared. The papal delegates, the general of the Dominicans and the Bishop of Ilerda were sent to Florence for the trial. We still have the official proceedings, which were falsified by the notary. The captured monks were repeatedly tortured.

Savonarola did not recant; therefore his confession was finally forged. Savonarola and two other members of his order were condemned to death "on account of the enormous crimes of which they had been convicted." They were hanged on May 23, 1498, and, in a cruel irony of fate, their bodies were burned, exactly on the same spot where the bonfires of the vanities had taken place. There is an Italian proverb that says "Chi di spada ferisce, di spada perisce." (He who wounds with a sword, dies of swords wound).

L'Italo Americano is a weekly newspaper serving the Italian-American community of Los Angeles area since 1908.


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