This is the 4th episode in a series we’re calling “The Long Road to Reform.”
A few weeks back I mentioned the Podcast awards coming up in April. I’ll have another announcement about that at the end of this episode.
It was late Spring of 1490 when a Dominican friar stood at the gates of Florence. This was not the first time the 33 year old Girolamo had made the 160 KM / 100 miles trip from his native Ferrara to the city of the Medici’s. He’d lived for a spell in the city. The Florentines admired his scholarship but were put off by the vehemence of his preaching. They also had a hard time adapting to his accent. But now he returned at the invitation of Lorenzo de Medici; Lorenzo the Magnificent, who virtually owned Florence, and to whom he’d been recommended by the famous philosopher Mirandola.
Girolamo joined the monastery of St. Mark & began a series of lectures for his fellow friars. Soon others joined the sessions & they had to relocate from into the main hall. The lectures turned into sermons . By the Lenten Season of 1491, Savonarola’s fame had grown so that he was invited to preach at the main church in Florence. Not known for tact, Savonarola lambasted the decadence of the city’s rich, of which there were not a few. Lorenzo de Medici was especially displeased. Who did this upstart think he was? He’d only come to Florence at Lorenzo’s invitation. This was no way for a guest in HIS city to act. Medici hired another preacher to attack Savonarola. But this tactic failed since the people sided with Savonarola. He’d become their champion in decry the exorbitant luxuries of the wealthy.
The other preacher may have been a mercenary, but he was not going to let his defeat go unanswered. He went to Rome to plot his revenge.
Savonarola was then elected prior of St. Mark’s & within a short time, he reformed the life of the community so thoroughly, the people of Florence all remarked on how holy the order had grown. Savonarola sold off some of the monastery’s estates and gave the proceeds to the poor.
Savonarola’s reputation was so steadfastly pure, when Lorenzo was on his deathbed, he asked for the prior to come bless him. Lorenzo’s successor was Pietro de Medici, who promptly lost all respect from the Florentines. The French King Charles VIII was on his way to claim the rule of Naples. Instead of organize the defense of Florence as he ought, Pietro tried to buy him off. The Florentines were furious & sent their own embassy under Savonarola. They expelled the now hated Pietro & settled with the French by becoming allies. Though Savonarola was technically just a monastery prior, he’d become in fact, the city’s leader. The Florentines asked him to design them a new government. He recommended a republic & installed reforms to heal the ailing economy. He gathered a god part of the gold and silver of the many city churches & sold it to feed the poor. This was the high-water mark of his term.
History tends to regard Savonarola as a religious fanatic; an ignorant monk. He wasn’t. He simply someone who understood the Church, and so the culture of Italy, had gone far from the Biblical ideal. What Savonarola was – was an anti-politician. That is, he had little to no capacity for compromise – and that spells death to anyone engaged in civil politics. Savonarola could not distinguish between rules & principles; between non-negotiables and his own opinions. As a result, he was on a collision course with the very people who’d put him in power.
Savonarola believed study ought to be at the center of reformation. So the friars at St. Mark’s studied Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Arabic, & Aramaic. He railed against the luxuries of the wealthy, placing them all under the rubric “vanity.” These vanities were a distraction that weakened the soul and made it prone to sin. So, at his urging the people of Florence regularly gathered to pile such vanities up and set them ablaze. First, a large pyramid of wood was erected in the main square. Under it was placed straw & kindling sprinkled with gunpowder. On the steps of the pyramid people put their things like frilly dresses, jewelry, wigs, & ostentatious furniture. Amidst singing & ceremony, the thing was set on fire – a Bonfire of the Vanities. These bonfires replaced the traditional celebration of carnival just before Lent Savonarola had banned.
His reformation was echoed in surrounding cities. When Florence’s rival republic of Siena requested Savonarola’s assistance, he went; with 20 fellow monks form St. Mark’s in Florence. They arrived in Siena and went to work with their reforms. First order of business was to clear house in the monastery there. Some of these expelled monks resisted Savonarola, and he deiced that if the people weren’t going to go along with his plans, he’d leave. He had more luck at Pisa, and the monasteries scattered around Tuscany.
As we might expect, Savonarola’s downfall came about because of his inability to play the political game.
Alexander VI, one of the worst of the popes, made an alliance against France that included a good part of Italy, Germany, & Spain. The smart move was to join the pope’s party. But Savonarola insisted on keeping his promise to the French. The pope responded with severe measures against Savonarola personally, then against all Florence. These measures were mostly economic in nature. When the Florentines realized they’d lost a great deal of trade because their preacher was just being stubborn, opposition grew. The City became increasingly fractured between his supporters & opponents. And on the opponent’s side were most of the wealthy. His supporters declared Savonarola a prophet & began demanding he perform miracles. When something he’d foretold happened, they grew even more enthusiastic. But when he failed to perform the required miracles, they also turned on him.
A mob marched on St. Mark’s to lay hold of him. Savonarola refused to defend himself, or allow his friends to either, lest an innocent be harmed. He was hauled by the mob to the City Square where he was beaten & turned over to the authorities, some of whom had long for this day for years.
This was it; the civil showdown. The authorities had to find something damning to accuse him of. To elicit a confession, he was tortured for days. But the most they could make him confess to what that he wasn’t a prophet; something he’d never claimed to begin with .
The pope sent legates to assist in the trial. These also tortured Savonarola. All they could obtain was his admission he’d planned to appeal to a church council. Savonarola admitted he’d been too proud in his call for reform, saying, “Lord, if even Peter, on whom you had bestowed so many gifts and graces, failed so thoroughly, what else could I do?”
Despairing of being able to find charges strong enough to execute him, the judges condemned Savonarola and 2 of his friends as “heretics and schismatics,” without identifying what heresy they espoused. They were turned over to the civil authorities to be executed, for again, the church must not kill. The only mercy Savonarola received was that he and his friends were hanged before being burned. Their ashes were then thrown into the Arno River that flows through Florence. This was considered the height of infamy. By scattering one’s ashes, there was nothing left of them to remember; no place people could go to mark a memorial and keep their name alive. In spite of this, there were many of Savonarola’s supporters who kept his relics.
I’ve been to Florence and stood over his little memorial on the paving stones of the Main City Square.
Years after his death, when Rome was sacked by the Germans, some saw it as the fulfillment of Savonarola’s prophecy. To this day, there are those in the Roman Church who’ve argued Savonarola was a saint, and that his name should be added to the official list.