Saint of the Week: Girolamo Savonarola

Savonarola, by Fra Bartolomeo

Girolamo Savonarola (1452-1498) is one of the many colourful characters of Florentine history. My favourite Florentine will always, of course, be Dante Alighieri (saint of the week here), but Savonarola and his younger contemporary Michelangelo Buonarotti are also well worth knowing.

Savonarola was born in Ferrara and educated in ‘Renaissance’ ‘humanism’, headed originally towards a career in medicine. Yet, inspired by a sermon, he decided to leave the world and become a knight for Christ, joining the Order of Preachers, or Dominicans (whose founder was saint of the week here), at Bologna in 1475. After a few years of study, Savonarola became an itinerant preacher, one of the original roles of the Dominicans (hence the official name ‘Order of Preachers’).

In 1490, under the influence of Giovanni Pico della Mirandola and Lorenzo de Medici ‘il Magnifico’, Savonarola was reassigned to the friary of San Marco in Florence. This friary still stands, although it is one of the conventi soppressi closed by Napoleon in 1808, and I shall visit it tomorrow morning. San Marco was the monastic house of Fra Angelico (d. 1455) and still contains many of his original paintings in situ in the friars’ chambers as well as hosting a museum today.

The last eight years are when it gets exciting.

In Florence, Savonarola proved not only to be a man of keen mind, but also a prophetic, apocalyptic preacher. He drew crowds upon crowds to hear him preach. Indeed, so many people came to hear him preach that the only pulpit large enough was the Duomo (already equipped with Brunelleschi’s [d. 1446] dome).

People liked Savonarola’s very medieval style of apocalyptic. He preached the gospel of repentance to a decadent city in a wealthy peninsula. He preached against tyrants who suppressed the people entrusted to their care. He preached against wealthy clergy who abused their spiritual power for worldly gain. A cult following formed around Savonarola, called the Piagnoni, the weepers/wailers.

I have seen in the Galleria dell’Accademia the two side panels of a triptych painted by one of Savonarola’s disciples (whether a Dominican or a lay artist, the museum label did not tell). They are of John the Baptist on the left and Mary Magdalene on the right. The figures are grey-skinned and ragged, their flesh hanging off their bones. This is the late-medieval spirituality of Savonarola, in stark contrast of the well-fed and well-dressed saints of the contemporary Renaissance. This is the spirituality of poverty — worldly and spiritual, the intersection of the two.

And it was the lack thereof that Savonarola so railed against in Florence.

Not that he was apolitical, mind you.

In 1493, Savonarola preached a series of sermons proclaiming that a new Cyrus was to cross the Alps and invade Italy, then set the Babylonian captives free by reforming the Church. To prove that Savonarola had the gift of prophecy, Charles VIII of France invaded Italy the next year.

Charles VIII marched South and invaded Tuscany, taking the towns along the way. Piero de Medici fled, and soon Charles’ army was encamped outside Florence asking why the Florentines hadn’t supported him. Savonarola went forth and interceded for the Florentines, encouraging Charles to take up his mantle as reformer of the church.

And so Florence was a republic again. And Savonarola was in the thick of it all. 10 December, 1494, he declared:

I announce this good news to the city, that Florence will be more glorious, richer, more powerful than she has ever been; First, glorious in the sight of God as well as of men: and you, O Florence will be the reformation of all Italy, and from here the renewal will begin and spread everywhere, because this is the navel of Italy. Your counsels will reform all by the light and grace that God will give you. Second, O Florence, you will have innumerable riches, and God will multiply all things for you. Third, you will spread your empire, and thus you will have power temporal and spiritual.

This was not to be the case.

Things looked to be looking up. In 1497, Savonarola held the most famous Bonfire of the Vanities in history. The transitory things of this world — art, money, books of astrology, make up and so forth — were burned in a huge bonfire in front of Piazza della Signoria. My Time Out guide to Florence greatly laments this bonfire, wondering what wonders were lost; however, it also fallaciously claims Michelangelo was there, fallen under Savonarola’s spell, and threw some of his own artworks in. Given that Michelangelo was in Rome at the time, I don’t think so.

No doubt, however, some beautiful objects were lost alongside the make up and money and astrology books. And this is too bad. The world is full of too much ugliness to lose the beauty. But for a Renaissance Florentine banker, is this art he has burned? Or is it another attachment to a world of vanities, to a world where the rich oppress the poor, to a world more concerned with gilt haloes around the saints than with emulating the virtues of the saints?

I don’t recommend having a Bonfire of the Vanities yourself, but note that Savonarola was not the only one. Note also that, despite his best efforts, Florence still has the highest concentration of art anywhere in the world. There are masterpieces everywhere here, from the famous (like Michelangelo’s David) to the not-so-famous (like the aforementioned Savonarolan triptych).

The execution of Savonarola

In 1498, the pope was finally fed up with Savonarola. And so were the people of Florence. The new golden age hadn’t really come for them, and Charles VIII was threatening papal lands. And so Savonarola was tried for heresy and burned in the selfsame spot as the Bonfire of the Vanities.

I first heard of Savonarola in connection with this quote:

Read this book.  It contains everything.  You ask for love?  Read this book of the Crucified.  You wish to be good?  Read the book of the Crucified, which contains everything good.

I don’t recall where I found it, sorry. I next heard of Savonarola in connection with the Bonfire of the Vanities (little knowing that there were many) and then as yet another voice calling for reform in the wilderness who was silenced by a tyrannical church hierarchy out to preserve its own wealth and decadence.

The real Savonarola is both more colourful and less heroic. At least, he is less heroic for the Protestants who hold him up as yet another Dominican proto-Reformer/martyr. He helped establish political reform in Florence and believed the King of France to be God’s agent for church reform everywhere. This is not quite the same as Jan Hus (d. 1415), is it?

I look forward to visitng Fra Girolamo’s monastery tomorrow and seeing what trace he has left on Florence as I now enter tourist mode.

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