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Savonarola’s fanaticism lights the Bonfire of the Vanities

Posted in Historical articles, History, Politics, Religion on Wednesday, 28 September 2011

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This edited article about the Renaissance originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 826 published on 12 November 1977.

Savonarola, picture, image, illustration

‘The Bonfire of the Vanities’ instigated by Savonarola, by Angus McBride

The worldly culture of the Renaissance was anathema to Friar Savonarola, who preached fiery sermons of repentance and a return to more Christian values

The crowd was in an ugly mood. They had gone to the church of San Marco to hear Friar Savonarola preach. Instead they could only hear drums and shouting as Savonarola’s enemies tried to drown this fire-breathing friar’s words. Now Savonarola and the crowd were jostling down a narrow street towards another church.

Suddenly a barrage of hoots, whistles and insults was flung at the fanatical throng by a crowd of children. These were the sons of those Florentines who opposed Friar Savonarola’s puritanical ideas. At once, the boys who were marching with the friar returned the insults with a vengeance – adding a few sticks and stones for good measure.

Soon a full-scale children’s battle was raging.

Friar Savonarola had an astonishing effect on the folk of Florence, and such riots were becoming commonplace. This time a well-known doctor named Corsini became carried away with excitement: he tucked up his long coat and waded in at Savonarola’s side while the rest of the adults stared in amazement.

Meanwhile Lorenzo de’ Medici, who ruled Florence in all but name, observed these goings on from his palace and smiled. Yet Friar Savonarola was a force to be reckoned with, as the Medici should have realised. His blood-curdling calls for repentance and reform found many a sympathetic ear. He was also completely fearless and invited death.

“Tyrants are incorrigible because they are proud,” he once boomed. “They love flattery and will not give back their ill-gotten gains. They won’t listen to the poor and do not condemn the rich. They expect the poor and the peasants to work without reward, they corrupt voters and the tax-systems.”

The victim of this particular blast was Lorenzo de’ Medici, II Magnifico himself. The Medici were, however, far too cunning to give Savonarola the martyrdom he wanted.

Pope Alexander VI, one of the notorious Borgia family, also came in for his share of criticism, but he was prepared to ignore the fanatical friar.

Savonarola also attacked Italy’s unfortunate Jews and stirred up many a bloody riot. His ideas about art were also disruptive. Not only did he urge Florentines to destroy their colourful clothes, their jewellery and some of their ruder books – but Savonarola also encouraged the destruction of “worldly” works of art. Nor did all artists object.

The Friar particularly hated a wonderful painting called the Birth of Venus by Botticelli, who was considered to be the finest artist in Florence. Botticelli became increasingly impressed by Savonarola, especially after the Friar’s torture and execution.

Botticelli did not abandon painting, but his style altered dramatically and he now began to portray religious subjects. Later, demand for his work declined and his last years are veiled in mystery as he slid out of public view.

While Florence was engulfed in puritanical trenzy, other people outside Italy were planning to change the little world of the 15th century Renaissance. An ominous storm was brewing in 1494 as King Charles of France decided to take over the Kingdom of Naples. Naples is in the South of Italy: between it and the mighty French army lay the little city-states of Lombardy, Tuscany and the Apennine mountains.

If they had been united, the Italians might have resisted effectively. Certainly their weapons and armour were among the best in Europe. They were rich and their Condottiere warriors were skilled professionals. But the country was also divided into many rival states. Some of them welcomed the French as allies while others tried to fight.

Florence did not seem to know what to do. Savonarola’s doom-laden prophesies of Divine Wrath had already convinced many of its citizens that they could not win. Lorenzo de’ Medici’s son, Pietro, now led the city, but after telling both the French and the Florentines that he would fight, he suddenly threw himself on the invading king’s mercy! The French were kindly enough – but the Florentines were not. They threw their Medici leader out and set up a new republic in which Friar Savonarola played a leading role. In fact he even went out to the enemy camp and hailed the French king as an instrument of God’s wrath, “sent to relieve the woes of Italy, as for many years I have foretold.”

Ironically the backbone of Italian resistance was found in Rome, in the person of that unattractive and unpleasant Borgia pope, Alexander VI. The Borgia clan had long wanted to crush the Meddling Friar yet they were too clever to attack him openly. Instead they patiently allowed Savonarola to destroy himself.

Soon the life-loving and artistic Florentines began to tire of the Friar’s puritanical republic, and this gave Alexander VI his chance. The Borgias have a very bad reputation: Alexander was scandalously immoral; his son Cesare was noted for his monstrous cruelty; and the name of his illegitimate daughter Lucrezia is synonymous with poison.

While most of these stories are, of course, very exaggerated, Pope Alexander’s grim determination to destroy Savonarola was not. By the time that the unfortunate friar was burned at the stake in 1498, few in Florence, save Savonarola himself, saw him as a genuine martyr.

Florence was now no longer an important state, and although the Medici returned some years later, the city never regained its place as the centre of European art and culture. That honour moved to Rome where the dubious Borgia clan became the leading patrons of Italy’s “High Renaissance”.

Meanwhile the Renaissance itself was changing. Rome might be its capital, but the High Renaissance, unlike the Renaissance of the 15th century, was no longer just an Italian affair. It was becoming a European Renaissance.

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