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Savonarola – the Dominican friar who suffered an ordeal by fire

Posted in Historical articles, History, Religion, Sinners on Friday, 28 February 2014

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This edited article about Savonarola first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 574 published on 13 January 1973.

Savonarola at the stake,  picture, image, illustration

Savonarola, about to be burned in 1498 by Tancredi Scarpelli

The crowd of several thousands hurrying towards the Piazza della Signoria in Florence were buzzing with excitement. They had been waiting for weeks for this spectacle and they jostled and shoved to be there first, to get the best vantage points.

For in the Piazza della Signoria that day two priests had volunteered to burn themselves alive in an ordeal by fire.

In the piazza workmen had built two banks of inflammable material, 40 yards in length with a narrow space between them, in front of the palace of the ruler of the city state. Five hundred soldiers formed a wide circle to keep back the jostling crowd. Thus was the scene set for one of history’s most curious “trials.”

At the appointed hour the two priests – one a Dominican, the other a Franciscan – flanked by their supporters, came out into the open guarded circle. The crowd hushed expectantly as they took their places before the two great unlit pyres.

The ordeal by fire was to be the climax of the amazing career of Girolamo Savonarola, a Dominican friar whose preaching had shaken the complaisant people of Florence to their roots. That day, the Florentines hoped, God would judge by fire whether Savonarola was a saint, which was how half of them saw him, or a fool, the view of the other half.

Ever since the puritanical priest had arrived in their city, no one had been spared from the lash of his tongue. “Florentines!” thundered Savonarola from his pulpit in St. Mark’s. “You have lapsed into paganism and you will surely perish for it in the fires of hell, unless you repent at once!”

Then he had switched his attack to the city’s feared ruler, the all-powerful Lorenzo de’Medici, until Lorenzo’s smile tightened on his lips and his hand began to shake with anger. Next the Pope himself was denounced, until the Holy Father’s patience broke into vengeful wrath and he ordered the noisy Dominican friar to be excommunicated.

On one thing all the bemused Florentines were agreed: there had been nothing like Father Savonarola since the Old Testament.

The wisest of them had plenty of sympathy for the Dominican friar’s viewpoint. Sixteenth century Florence might be the centre of that brilliant explosion of art and culture that was later defined as the Renaissance, but in spiritual matters it had gone sadly adrift and its morality could rightly be described as depraved.

No better were these faults epitomised than in the city’s ruler, Lorenzo de’Medici, who is known as Lorenzo the Magnificent. He was a strange mixture of intentions – like his patronage of great artists and his donations to the Church – and moral weakness – like his wild parties and the scandalous elevation of his 14-year-old son to the rank of Cardinal.

The pattern of life set by its ruler was followed by the pulsating artistic city. The churches were empty and sin filled the city streets. Then came the thundering Father Savonarola.

He was born at Ferrara in Italy in 1452, the son of a bankrupt courtier, so that he was able to form an early opinion about life in the petty courts of Italy’s city-states. They were, he decided, all vanity and vice.

Would he be a doctor or a courtier, or something equally as grand? Eagerly his parents debated their bright young son’s future. On the day when his fellow townspeople were attending the festa celebrations in Ferrara, young Girolamo Savonarola answered the question for them as, quietly, he stole away over the sun-warmed plain of Bologna to the monastery of St. Dominico.

He was an unpresentable man, small in stature, hesitant in speech, delicately built and not very handsome, but the abbot gladly took him in. There was no ambition in Savonarola – he wanted to do only the menial chores and fade into obscurity. But the sheer power of his intellect could not be ignored, and the abbot wisely insisted on his training for the priesthood.

It was as a priest that he was sent on his mission to Florence.

To any other 15th century traveller the city that was swelling with magnificent art might have been breathtaking in its splendour. But to Savonarola’s puritan, ascetic mind it was repellent. Everywhere he found degradation, vice, corruption and poverty. He went into the pulpit and declared that he had come to a cesspool. But that was of little avail, for there were only half a dozen people in the congregation and Savonarola was a poor orator.

Savonarola was prepared to give up the task as hopeless but then, we are told, he had a vision. It warned him that he had to stay in Florence, for there would be his life’s work.

From that moment his life changed. He went back to the pulpit, mastered his hesitant, subdued mode of speech, and in moving tones reminded the Florentines of their duty to God, whom they had neglected for their new materialism.

To his new, compelling oratory he added prophecy. With no apparent rehearsal and no stage tricks, he foretold that soon Lorenzo de’Medici, the Pope and the King of Naples would all soon be dead. “I shall work among you for eight years,” he declared. “Then I, too, will die.”

In the ordained time, all these prophecies came true, and the Florentines flocked to hear more. As they filled the pews, Savonarola harangued against the city’s wickedness. Church and State, Lorenzo and the Pope, were denounced in uncompromising tones. Lorenzo, at first put out, finally sent a donation of gold pieces to Savonarola’s church. The Dominican priest promptly gave every single piece to the poor.

Lorenzo, affronted, hired a rival priest to attack Savonarola from his pulpit, but the paid enemy was no match for the new, fiery Savonarola. And when Lorenzo fell gravely ill and contemplated his own forthcoming death, it was to Savonarola that he turned for absolution.

The Dominican priest came reluctantly and implored the dying ruler that he must restore the people’s liberties if he were to be absolved. Lorenzo turned his face to the wall, refusing to surrender his successor’s power on the demand of this insistent priest. Death came to him without the last sacrament.

The new ruler, Piero de’Medici, wanted nothing to do with Savonarola, and sent him away to Bologna. During a service there one day the wife of that city’s ruler created a disturbance in church and Savonarola rebuked her fearfully. For that, assassins were hired to murder him, but such was the power of this man that when they confronted him they shrank back, then turned away, leaving their deed undone.

Enemies abounded about Savonarola and he treated them contemptuously. To show his indifference he set off alone across the steep hills to Florence, and no one attacked him. In that city where he had made his name, Piero de’Medici had succumbed to the invading King Charles of France, who was making all sorts of exorbitant demands upon the townspeople.

The Florentines were furious and threatened the French with pitched battle if they did not leave. Charles recognised their temper and, packing his bags, departed. Behind him he left a city ravaged by his occupying troops, leaderless and in disarray.

A strong man was needed to put matters right again – and that man was the Dominican friar Savonarola. He took over the rule of the city, made it a republic and instituted new laws that benefited the poor and the needy. His new rules for living austerely and penitently affected everyone, for he was tireless in warning of the eternal hellfire that awaited anyone who disobeyed him.

At the height of his power Savonarola persuaded the Florentines to make a pile of all their trinkets, jewellery, mirrors and other “vain adornments” and burn them in a city square. A rich Venetian merchant visiting the city, appalled by such waste, offered £22,000 for the complete pile before the tinder was sparked to it. Savonarola not only refused – he added the merchant’s portrait to the pile.

Then Savonarola’s antagonism against the Pope bit deeper. Each day he accused the leaders of the Church of nurturing corruption. Hoping to quieten him, the Pope offered to make him a Cardinal, and again Savonarola contemptuously refused. The Pope then called him to Rome, but Savonarola replied that he would not come.

When he incited the Florentines to rebel against the Holy See, he was excommunicated – a document which Savonarola blandly declared to be void. But all this anti-Papal activity was causing opposition to mount against him in his own city and that opposition grew even more powerful when, fanatically, Savonarola called upon all Christendom to rebel against the papal authority.

Prominent in this opposition were the Franciscans. It was one of their friars who proposed the ordeal by fire in the Piazza della Signoria.

“If your revolutionary teachings have God’s approval,” said the Franciscan, “you should emerge untouched by the fire.”

Savonarola ignored the challenge, but another Dominican friar persuaded him to let him take his place in the “contest” and, under pressure, Savonarola reluctantly agreed. And so the stage was set for that strange “trial.”

The outcome was an amazing farce. Before the pyres were lit, Franciscans and Dominicans fell to bitter argument on the rules to be followed. One insisted that the other should not wear a cross; the other replied that his opponent’s cloak was bewitched.

As the dialogue became impassioned, the restless crowd worked itself up into a state of fury. They surged forward in an ugly mood and, suddenly fearful for their lives, Dominicans and Franciscans took to their heels and fled.

Savonarola was blamed for the whole pathetic incident and, powered by the Pope’s fury against the trenchant priest, an order was made for his arrest. The fickle mob swooped on St. Mark’s and while they clamoured for action Savonarola and two of his faithful Dominican friars were arrested and imprisoned.

There, for 40 days they were physically and mentally tortured, until they confessed all their “sins” against the Church. Even their trial was a farce, for the Pope had issued instructions that “Savonarola must die even if he was found to be a second John the Baptist.”

A huge scaffold holding three piles of faggots was erected. Savonarola and his two followers were tied to stakes and the faggots burst into flames around them. A sudden strong gust of wind blew the flames to one side – was this the miracle that his few faithful followers in the crowd had been praying for? In that brief moment they saw their leader standing unflinchingly; then the fire closed in again. There was to be no miracle.

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