Who was Girolamo Savonarola?
Girolamo Savonarola (1452–1498) was an Italian Dominican friar and preacher active in Renaissance Florence, and known for his prophecies of civic glory and calls for Christian renewal. He denounced clerical corruption, despotic rule and the exploitation of the poor. He prophesied the coming of a biblical flood and a new Cyrus from the north who would reform the Church. This seemed confirmed when Charles VIII of France invaded Italy and threatened Florence. While Savonarola intervened with the king, the Florentines expelled the ruling Medici and, at the friar’s urging, established a popular republic.
Declaring that Florence would be the New Jerusalem, the world center of Christianity and "richer, more powerful, more glorious than ever", he instituted a puritanical campaign, enlisting the active help of Florentine youth. In 1495 when Florence refused to join Pope Alexander VI’s Holy League against the French, Savonarola was summoned to Rome. He disobeyed and further defied the pope by preaching under a ban, highlighting his campaign for reform with processions, bonfires of the vanities, and pious theatricals. In retaliation, the Pope excommunicated him and threatened to place the city under an interdict.
A trial by fire proposed by a rival Florentine preacher to test Savonarola’s divine mandate was a fiasco and popular opinion turned against him. Savonarola and two lieutenants were imprisoned. Under torture, Savonarola confessed that he had invented his visions and prophecies. On May 23, 1498, the three friars were condemned, hanged and burned in the main square of Florence. Savonarola’s devotees, the Piagnoni, kept his cause of republican freedom and religious reform alive well into the next century, although the Medici – restored to power with the help of the papacy – eventually broke the movement.
Savanarola preached on the First Epistle of John and on the Book of Revelation, drawing such large crowds he eventually moved to the Cathedral. Without mentioning names, he made pointed allusions to tyrants who usurped the freedom of the people, and he excoriated their allies, the rich and powerful who neglected and exploited the poor. Complaining of the evil lives of a corrupt clergy, he now called for repentance and renewal before the arrival of a divine scourge. Scoffers dismissed him as an over-excited zealot and "preacher of the desperate," and sneered at his growing band of followers as "Piagnoni," Weepers or Wailers, an epithet they adopted.
In 1492 Savonarola warned of "the Sword of the Lord over the earth quickly and soon" and envisioned terrible tribulations to Rome. Around 1493 (these sermons have not survived) he began to prophesy that a New Cyrus was coming over the mountains to begin the renewal of the Church. In late autumn of 1494 King Charles VIII crossed the Alps with a formidable army throwing Italy into political chaos. His arrival was widely understood as proof of Savonarola’s gift of prophecy. In the fall Charles advanced on Florence, sacking Tuscan strongholds and threatening to punish the city for refusing to support his expedition.
As the populace took to the streets to expel Piero, the late Lorenzo de’ Medici’s son and successor, Savonarola led a delegation to the camp of the French king. He pressed Charles to spare Florence and enjoined him to take up his divinely appointed role as the reformer of the Church. After a short, tense occupation of the city and another intervention by fra Girolamo (as well as the promise of a huge subsidy), the French resumed their journey southward on November 28, 1494. Savonarola now declared that by answering his call to penitence the Florentines had begun to build a new Ark of Noah which had saved them from the waters of the divine flood.
Even more sensational was the message in his sermon of December 10: "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 astounding guarantee may have been an allusion to the traditional patriotic myth of Florence as the new Rome which Savonarola would have encountered in his readings in Florentine history. In any case, it encompassed both temporal power and spiritual leadership.
With Savonarola’s advice and support (as a non-citizen and cleric he was ineligible to hold office), a Savonarolan political "party," dubbed ‘the Frateschi,’ took shape and steered the friar’s program through the councils. The oligarchs most compromised by their service to the Medici were barred from office. A new constitution enfranchised the artisan class, opened minor civic offices to selection by lot and granted every citizen in good standing the right to a vote in a new parliament, the Consiglio Maggiore, or Great Council. At Savonarola’s urging the Frateschi government, after months of debate, passed a "Law of Appeal" to limit the longtime practice of using exile and capital punishment as factional weapons.
Savonarola declared a new era of "universal peace." On January 13, 1495 he preached his great Renovation Sermon to a huge audience in the Cathedral, recalling that he had begun prophesying in Florence four years earlier, although the divine light had come to him "more than fifteen, maybe twenty years ago." He now claimed that he had predicted the deaths of Lorenzo de' Medici and of Pope Innocent VIII in 1492 and the coming of the sword to Italy—the invasion of King Charles of France. As he had foreseen, God had chosen Florence, "the navel of Italy", as his favorite and he repeated: if the city continued to do penance and began the work of renewal it would have riches, glory and power.
If the Florentines had any doubt that the promise of worldly power and glory had heavenly sanction Savonarola emphasized this in a sermon of April 1, 1495, in which he described his mystical journey to the Virgin Mary in heaven. At the celestial throne Savonarola presents the Holy Mother a crown made by the Florentine people and presses her to reveal their future. Mary warns that the way will be hard both for the city and for him, but she assures him that God will fulfill his promises: Florence will be "more glorious, more powerful and richer than ever, extending its wings farther than anyone can imagine." She and her heavenly minions will protect the city against its enemies and support its alliance with the French. In the New Jerusalem that is Florence peace and unity will reign.
Buoyed by liberation and prophetic promise, the Florentines embraced Savonarola’s campaign to rid the city of "vice". At his repeated insistence, new laws were passed against ‘sodomy’ (which included male and female same sex relations), adultery, public drunkenness, and other moral transgressions, while his lieutenant fra Silvestro Maruffi organized boys and young men to patrol the streets to curb immodest dress and behavior. For a time, Pope Alexander VI (1492–1503) tolerated fra Girolamo’s strictures against the Church, but he was moved to anger when Florence declined to join his new Holy League against the French invader and blamed it on Savonarola’s pernicious influence.
An exchange of letters between the pope and the friar ended in an impasse which Savonarola tried to break by sending His Holiness " a little book" recounting his prophetic career and describing some of his more dramatic visions. This was the Compendium of Revelations, a brilliant self-dramatization which was one of the farthest-reaching and most popular of his writings.
The pope was not mollified. He summoned the friar to appear before him in Rome, and when Savonarola refused, pleading ill health and confessing that he was afraid of being attacked on the journey, Alexander banned him from further preaching. For some months Savonarola obeyed, but when he saw his influence slipping he defied the pope and resumed his sermons which became more violent in tone. He not only attacked secret enemies at home whom he rightly suspected of being in league with the papal Curia, he condemned the conventional, or "tepid" Christians who were slow to respond to his calls. He dramatized his moral campaign with special masses for the youth, processions, bonfires of the vanities and religious theater in San Marco.
He and his close friend, the humanist poet Girolamo Benivieni, composed lauds and other devotional songs for the Carnival processions of 1496, 1497 and 1498, replacing the bawdy Carnival songs of the era of Lorenzo de’ Medici. These continued to be copied and performed after his death, along with songs composed by Piagnoni in his memory. A number of them have survived.
Excommunication and death
On May 12, 1497 Pope Alexander VI excommunicated Savonarola and threatened the Florentines with an interdict if they persisted in harboring him. On March 18, 1498, after much debate and steady pressure from a worried government, he withdrew from public preaching.
Under the stress of excommunication, Savonarola composed his spiritual masterpiece, the Triumph of the Cross, a celebration of the victory of the Cross over sin and death and an exploration of what it means to be a Christian. This he summed up in the theological virtue of caritas, or love. In loving their neighbor, Christians return the love which they have received from their Creator and Savior. Savonarola hinted at performing miracles to prove his divine mission, but when a rival Franciscan preacher proposed to test that mission by walking through fire, he lost control of the public discourse. Without consulting him, his confidant fra Domenico da Pescia offered himself as his surrogate and Savonarola felt he could not afford to refuse.
The first trial by fire in Florence for over four hundred years was set for April 7. A crowd filled the central square, eager to see if God would intervene and if so, on which side. The nervous contestants and their delegations delayed the start of the contest for hours. A sudden rain drenched the spectators and government officials cancelled the proceedings. The crowd disbanded angrily; the burden of proof had been on Savonarola and he was blamed for the fiasco. A mob assaulted the convent of San Marco. Fra Girolamo, Fra Domenico and Fra Silvestro Maruffi were arrested and imprisoned. Under torture Savonarola confessed to having invented his prophecies and visions, then retracted, then confessed again. In his prison cell in the tower of the government palace he composed meditations on Psalms 51 and 31.
On the morning of May 23, 1498, the three friars were led out into the main square where, before a tribunal of high clerics and government officials, they were condemned as heretics and schismatics, and sentenced to die forthwith. Stripped of their Dominican garments in ritual degradation, they mounted the scaffold in their thin white shirts. Each on a separate gallows, they were hanged, while a fire was ignited below them to consume their bodies. To prevent devotees from searching for relics, their ashes were carted away and scattered in the Arno.
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