April 8, 2011

Rise and fall

Savonarola, painted by Fra Bartolemeo

Girolamo Savonarola of Ferrara was a very pious Dominican friar who, becoming increasingly devout as he studied and participated in the life of the church, began to take issue with what he saw as its corruption.

Though not much of an orator, he got so carried away by his passion for reform that by 1494 he was attracting huge crowds to his sermons.  That was the year that Charles VIII of France captured Florence on his way to subdue Naples and Savonarola stepped into the power vacuum and took charge of the city. At last, he would be able to guide the Renaissance in the right direction. And the people were with him, sick of the extravagance of the few wealthy families who were oblivious to the misery of the poor..

He started by declaring Florence a ‘Christian and religious Republic,’ and began to  prohibit every kind of lewd behavior.

A brotherhood founded by Savonarola for young people encouraged a pious Christian life among its members. Some of this brotherhood went about from house to house and along the streets to take away dice and cards from the citizens, to exhort luxuriously dressed married and single women to lay aside frivolous ornament. Thus there arose an actual police for regulating morality, which also carried on its work by the objectionable methods of spying and denunciation.

In February of 1497, the campaign against vice peaked when he sent boys door to door to collect cosmetics, paintings, gambling materials, chess games, all statuary that wasn’t religious, musical instruments, pagan books and fine clothing.  He had all the offending items piled in the Piazza della Signoria and burned.  It was the ‘Bonfire of the Vanities’ and it consumed much great Renaissance art, including several Botticellis.  (Sandro Botticelli was a follower of Savonarola’s, but there is no evidence that he burned his own paintings.)

The Bonfire of the Vanities lives on as a part of a video game called Assassin's Creed.

Savonarola was becoming increasingly extreme in his preaching, describing Apocalyptic visions and referring to a Last Days scenario when Florence would be reborn as a moral center. Christ would be the head of the city and Charles VIII was cast as the Avenger, ousting the Medici and making the Last Days possible.

All of this was making Rodrigo Borgia very unhappy. Borgia was Pope Alexander VI and he had excommunicated Savonarola in November of 1496 and proscribed his preaching.  Savonarola ignored him.

But Savonarola’s worst decision was to come out against trading and banking, an attitude that made the merchants of Florence furious. Public attitudes toward the friar began to change and finally a Franciscan monk challenged Savonarola to a trial by fire in the public square.  A crowd showed up to witness the event, but Savonarola didn’t.

Deprived of their entertainment, the proverbial crowd of angry villagers stormed his monastery the next day and took the priest and some of his followers prisoner.

Papal delegates and a bishop were sent to Florence to oversee a trial and to get Savonarola’s confession, though he resisted their efforts under torture for quite a long time.  Finally, he was convicted in May and burned at the stake on May 23, at the exact location where the Bonfire of the Vanities had been held.



  1. WOW heavy story , thank you Jean. And I thought bonfires of vanities, was a Reese Witherspoon movie.


    Comment by avery — April 8, 2011 @ 10:24 am | Reply



    Comment by GALYA TARMU — April 8, 2011 @ 7:35 pm | Reply

  3. thank you jean. amazing series of events. love the bizarre quality of that time. gotta love righteous exremists, zealots working in the name of religion.


    Comment by ursel — April 10, 2011 @ 3:52 pm | Reply

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