He has been described as a religious reformer, a zealot, a forerunner of the great Protestant Reformation, a visionary, a prophet, a heretic and a complete lunatic. This man was Girolamo Savonarola. His contemporary, the magnificent Renaissance painter Sandro Botticelli, was one of his ardent disciples. The Florentine political writer Niccolo Machiavelli thought he was an incompetent idiot. And just this week a young lady in graduate school asked this author to write about him.
Gregory Elder, a Redlands resident, is a professor of history and humanities at Moreno Valley College and a Roman Catholic priest. This photo is from about 2017. (Courtesy Photo)
Savonarola was born in the city of Ferrara in northern central Italy in the year 1452. His parents were affluent and related to nobility and so the young man was given a classical education and was exposed to some of the new ideas being posed in the Renaissance. After graduating form the University of Ferrara, he had planned to enter medical school, but had a change of mind and decided to enter the priesthood. This must have seemed an odd choice of vocation, given that he viewed the Catholic Church as profoundly corrupt, run by immoral clergy and rife with sexual misconduct. On the other hand, the church was still very much the bastion of higher education, and for an intellectual young man that would open many doors for study. It was rumored that a young lady spurned his love and he went into the clergy so he would have nothing to do with women ever again.
After extensive theological study and ordination in the Dominican Order, Savonarola became an itinerant preacher and wandered from village to village preaching the Christian message. Apparently, he was an extremely good preacher, and his main theme was the dire need for repentance. The philosopher Giovanni Pico de Mirandola, who was living under the patronage of Lorenzo Medici of Florence, was astounded by the young Dominican’s preaching and persuaded his master to arrange for Savonarola to be sent to Florence. This priest, Pico argued, would add luster to the Florentines and an air of respectability to Lorenzo. The Medici got a little more than they bargained for.
Savonarola became the most popular preacher the people of Florence had ever known and the mobs hung on his words, demands for repentance and renunciation of evil. He went on to declare that divine wrath would soon descend on Italy, would purify the papacy, and the noble people of Florence would be given both spiritual and earthly wealth. Florence, he declared, would be like the ark of Noah, sailing over the ruin of everyone else. That is, of course, if the people showed real repentance for their sins. This information, he said, was given to him in dreams and visions of God and the Virgin Mary.
The invasion of Italy from the north by a massive army on behalf of King Charles VIII of France came as something of a shock to the Italian city-states. But to the people of Florence, it was proof that Savonarola was indeed a prophet. After conquering the north of Italy, the French army laid siege to Florence. But their favorite preacher went out to meet the king and persuaded him to spare the city from attack, burning and looting. This only confirmed Savonarola’s standing. This religious reputation was even greater when Savonarola persuaded the French to leave the city quietly. An extremely generous cash gift to the king opened the eyes of the French ruler to see the wisdom of the priest, and he moved south in the direction of Rome and Naples.
It was at this point that Savonarola’s public power was at its zenith. Even Lorenzo the Magnificent, on his deathbed, called for Savonarola, made a confession and died with the last rites. Savonarola called on the Florentines to repent their sins and make the city a “republic of virtue.” This meant the closing of brothels, limiting the amount of wine consumed, an absolute intolerance of all gay and lesbian activity, the closing of the theater, and a prohibition against fancy clothing. Cosmetics came under his disapproval as well, along with any artwork other than Christian themes. Young people were to rat out their parents and neighbors for immoral behavior. But the supreme event was the famous “bonfire of the vanities,” where sumptuous furniture and clothing, priceless oil paintings, jewelry, musical instruments, and dice were burned and ancient “pagan” statues from the Roman Empire were smashed.
Pope Alexander VI, of the House of Borgia, tired to ignore Savonarola’s frequent tirades against the church’s faults. The crimes of the clergy was a sensitive one for the pope, perhaps because he holds the record as the pope with the largest number of mistresses and children, one of whom he made a cardinal. The pope summoned Savonarola to Rome but he simply refused. When Savonarola persuaded the Florentine not to join the Pope in a war, however, the pontiff had endured quite enough and excommunicated the priest.
But it was not the pope nor the French that undid the strict preacher. The affluent Florentine merchants began to chafe at all the new restrictions. Cloth merchants, tailors, jewelers, confectioners, and actors all saw their income drop. And the Florentine love of wine is remarkable even today. It was a friar from the rival order, the Franciscans, who began to call Savonarola out. The thundering preacher challenged the friars who challenged him to a trial by fire, a bit of jurisprudence not seen in four centuries. On the appointed day, the city gathered to see one Dominican and one Franciscan walk over red-hot burning coals to determine who was right. Both sides loudly called on Almighty God to make His choice known. As if to say “be careful what you pray for,” at this point an unexpected rainstorm appeared, out of nowhere, suddenly dousing the mob, the coals and the friars.
The mob, furious at missing the spectacle of toasting friars, decided that this was a divine vote against Savonarola, and chased him back to his friary calling for his head. Not long after this, civic authorities arrested Savonarola and sentenced him to death. Given that he was an excommunicate he got a quick trial, and so Savonarola and two of his closest advisers were pinned to crosses and burned to death on May 28, 1498. Florence, meanwhile, went back to having a good time.
We modern people, over the safe distance of time, may shake our heads at the medieval puritanism that Savonarola unleashed. Yet with our modern obsession with money and sexuality, corrupt senior clergy, wealth and luxury, are we that different from the Florentines who Savonarola blasted?