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Girolamo Savonarola

Girolamo Savonarola

The Italian religious reformer Girolamo Savonarola (1452-1498) became dictator of Florence in the 1490s and instituted there, in the middle of the Renaissance, a reign of purity and asceticism.

Girolamo Savonarola was born in Ferrara on Sept. 21, 1452. He was the third of seven children of Niccolo Savonarola, a physician, and Elena Bonacossi. His father groomed Girolamo for the medical profession, but even as a youth he took more interest in the writings of the Schoolmen, particularly Thomas Aquinas. Savonarola had time for neither the comfortable, courtly life of his father's household nor youthful sports and exercises, so absorbed was he in the subtleties of the scholastics and their spiritual father, Aristotle.

Repelled by the corruption of the world around him, Savonarola withdrew ever further into solitude, meditation, and prayer. In 1475 he entered a Dominican monastery at Bologna. After living quietly there for 6 years, Savonarola transferred to the convent of S. Marco in Florence and began preaching in the church of S. Lorenzo. His style, laden with scholastic didacticism, was not appealing, and few came to hear him. In 1486, however, while preaching in Lombardy, he shed all syllogisms and circumlocutions and began to speak directly, simply, and passionately of the wrath of God. His popularity as a preacher grew immensely.

Savonarola's fame spread to Florence as he prophesied the doom of all tyrants who then prevailed in the world. In 1490, through the influence of Pico della Mirandola, he was called back to Florence and in July 1491 became prior of S. Marco. All the while he thundered against the vanity of the humanists and the viciousness of the clergy. Because he spared no one, Lorenzo de' Medici, the ruler of Florence, urged him to bridle his tongue. He would not yield, and in April 1492 Savonarola refused to grant Lorenzo absolution because the ruler would not give liberty to the Florentines.

Lorenzo's son and successor, Piero, was weak, and the 2-year period of his rule witnessed Savonarola's rise to the most powerful authority in the city. He acquired with difficulty the consent of the new pope, Alexander VI, to sever his convent from the Lombard Congregation of the Dominican order. Then, as leader of an independent monastic house, Savonarola instituted reforms that inspired respect and swelled the ranks of recruits. Admiration and wonder filled Florentine hearts when the prophecies that accompanied his fiery denunciations proved frighteningly accurate. He had predicted the deaths of Lorenzo and Pope Innocent VIII in 1492. Now Savonarola foretold the terrible fate about to descend upon Italy as punishment for the sins of its tyrants and priests. Early in 1494 he told his congregation that Charles VIII, King of France, would invade Italy and that this would be divine retribution. In September the prophecy was fulfilled.

Savonarola as Dictator

When Charles arrived in Florentine territory, Piero surrendered to the invader. When the Florentine Signory heard of this, they angrily deposed Piero and revived the republic. A delegation including Savonarola met Charles at Pisa and attempted to persuade him to moderate his demands. The King showed that he was not so disposed. After he entered Florence on Nov. 17, 1494, Charles insisted on exorbitant indemnities, yielding only to the eloquence of Savonarola, who persuaded him to reduce his demands and leave the city. Upon Charles's departure Florence's grateful citizens placed themselves in the hands of the monk.

Like the Medici before him, Savonarola held no public office, but under his guidance a new constitution was promulgated, establishing a new republic on June 10, 1495. He initiated the abrogation of arbitrary taxation and its replacement with a 10 percent tax on all real property. He undertook the immediate relief of the poor and the strict administration of justice. He also instituted a regime of austerity that seemed out of place in the Florence of the High Renaissance. Hymns supplanted profane songs, art objects and luxuries were cast aside or burned, and somber unadorned clothing was worn by all.

Fall from Power

At the height of his power, Savonarola made bitter enemies both at home and abroad. The Arrabiati, or Medicean adherents in Florence, and Pope Alexander VI were eager to rid Florence of the troublesome monk. Alexander's motives were mainly political, for he was angered by Savonarola's alliance with France. He was also displeased at the public criticism leveled by Savonarola against his scandalous pontificate. Twice in 1495 the Pope summoned Savonarola to Rome and ordered him to stop preaching, but the monk refused to obey. On May 5, 1497, encouraged by the Arrabiati, Alexander excommunicated him. Savonarola remained rebellious and continued to celebrate Mass. Alexander then warned the Signory that unless Savonarola was silenced he would place an interdict upon the city. On March 17, 1498, the Signory ordered Savonarola to stop preaching, and he obeyed.

By this time the Florentines had grown weary of puritanic life. Maddened by disappointment when an ordeal by fire to which Savonarola had been challenged did not take place because of rain, they joined the Arrabiati. With unexampled fickleness, the Florentines demanded Savonarola's arrest. A mob attacked the monastery of S. Marco, and peace was restored only when Savonarola himself begged all men to lay down their arms. Savonarola was tortured until he confessed many crimes, and on May 23, 1498, convicted falsely of heresy, he was burned at the stake in the Piazza della Signoria.

Further Reading

The definitive work on Savonarola is Pasquale Villari, The Life and Times of Girolamo Savonarola, translated by Linda Villari (1889). Donald Weinstein, Savonarola and Florence: Prophesy and Patriotism in the Renaissance (1971), emphasizes the impact of Florence on the reformer. Also useful is Ralph Roeder, The Man of the Renaissance (1933). Still excellent is Ludwig Pastor, History of the Popes, vol. 3 (1898).

Additional Sources

Erlanger, Rachel, The unarmed prophet: Savonarola in Florence, New York: McGraw-Hill, 1988. □

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Savonarola, Girolamo (1452–1498)

Savonarola, Girolamo (14521498)

Dominican monk whose fiery preaching ignited a movement of cultural reform and puritanism in Florence, and who became a martyr for his cause on the day of his public execution in the city's main square, the Piazza della Signoria. Born in Ferrara, the son of a doctor, Savonarola was trained for a career in medicine but took a stronger interest in the Bible, the writings of Aristotle, and the work of the medieval Scholastics, including Saint Thomas Aquinas. He studied at the University of Ferrara but spurned a career as a scholar by turning to the Dominican order, which he joined in 1475. In this year he began his harsh public criticism of the Papacy, naming it a proud whore in his poem De Ruina Ecclesiae.

Favoring the solitary and ascetic life, he withdrew to the monastery of San Domenico in Bologna and, in 1481, joined San Marco, a convent in Florence. At the Church of San Lorenzo, he preached against the vice, corruption, and vanity of the church and its leaders as well as the pursuit of riches among the Florentines. At first, his use of the didactic and obscure language of religious scholars turned listeners away. He left the city in 1487 but returned under the patronage of Count Pico della Mirandola in 1490. He continued his sermons and gained a following by speaking in a more direct and popular manner. His accurate predictions of certain worldly events also earned him a reputation as a prophet.

In 1491 Savonarola became the prior of San Marco. His biting criticism of the Florentine aristocrats and tyrants inspired the anger of Lorenzo de' Medici, the ruler of Florence who advised the monk to control his tongue or suffer the consequences. In 1492, the monk boldly denied Lorenzo absolution of his sins, as punishment for his tyranny over the city. In the same year, Savonarola's accurate prediction of the deaths of Lorenzo as well as Pope Innocent VIII brought him a fearful respect among ordinary citizens. After Lorenzo's son Piero succeeded his father as ruler of the city, Savonarola's influence increased; his prediction of a coming catastrophe as punishment for the city's sins and tyranny found a receptive audience.

In 1494, Piero de' Medici was deposed and Savonarola became the city's ruler, intending to make Florence a pure, republican example for the rest of Italy. Savonarola saved his severest criticism for the Papacy, which he saw mired in luxury and corruption, an institution in dire need of reform. For this reason, he supported the invasion of Italy by the French under King Charles VIII, seeing in this event an opportunity for Florence and the other cities of northern Italy to establish democratic governments and for the Papacy to change its ways. Savonarola personally negotiated with Charles after the king deposed Piero de' Medici, and convinced Charles to moderate his demands. After this event Savonarola became the absolute master of Florence.

In 1495, Savonarola had passed a new constitution establishing republic in Florence. He reformed the tax code, replacing arbitrary levies with a tax of 10 percent on property, assessed against all citizens equally. He made sodomy a capital offense, banned popular entertainments, forced the Florentines to don plain clothing, and organized the famous Bonfire of the Vanities, the destruction of books, artworks, and vain luxuries (mirrors, musical instruments, games, cosmetics, jewelry, fine clothing) in the Piazza della Signoria. The Renaissance of new learning, art, and culture inspired by the antiquities of Greece and Rome represented to Savonarola a return to the paganism of the ancients, and a defiance of the religious piety and purity of medieval times.

Savonarola's sermons on the corruption of the church, as well as his alliance with the French invaders, earned him the enmity of the Duke of Milan and of Pope Alexander VI, who ordered him to cease preaching, an instruction that Savonarola defied. The pope excommunicated the monk in 1497, upon which Savonarola accused Alexander of gaining his title through bribery. Savonarola's power among the commoners and middle class in Florence represented a threat to the established church, to the merchant class of the city, to the Arrabiati (supporters of the Medici family), and most dangerously to the pope. He was also opposed by members of the Franciscan order, rivals of the Dominicans.

The pope excommunicated Savonarola in 1497 and then threatened to put the entire city of Florence under an interdict for Savonarola's continued preaching. The town fathers took the threat seriously and ordered the monk to cease his preaching. In 1498, when one of Savonarola's followers agreed to a public ordeal by fire, a storm prevented the ordeal from taking place. This greatly angered the Florentines, who were growing weary with Savonarola and his puritanical regime. The entire city suddenly turned against him, rioting at San Marco, killing several of his followers, and demanding his arrest. Savonarola was taken into custody with two of his followers and charged with heresy, sedition, and false prophecies. He was tortured on the rack and reportedly confessed to his crimes. The three men were convicted, sentenced to death, hanged by chains from a cross, and then burned to death in the Piazza della Signoria. Savonarola's remains were crushed into the cinders and thrown into the Arno River, to prevent any relics of his body from being preserved and venerated by those still loyal to him.

See Also: Alexander VI; Charles VIII; Florence; Medici, Lorenzo de'; Medici, Piero de'

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Savonarola, Girolamo

Girolamo Savonarola (jērō´lämō sävōnärō´lä), 1452–98, Italian religious reformer, b. Ferrara. He joined (1475) the Dominicans. In 1481 he went to San Marco, the Dominican house at Florence, where he became popular for his eloquent sermons, in which he attacked the vice and worldliness of the city, as well as for his predictions (several of which, including the death date of Innocent VIII, turned out to be true). In 1491 he became prior of San Marco, and after the death of Lorenzo de' Medici, who was his enemy, and the subsequent exile of the Medici (1494) he became the real spiritual ruler of the city. He was uncompromisingly severe in his condemnation of what he considered the paganism of the times and called for a regeneration of spiritual and moral values and a devotion to asceticism. When Charles VIII of France invaded Italy in 1494 (as Savonarola had predicted), Savonarola supported him, hoping that Charles would lead the way to the establishment of a democratic government in Florence and to the reform of the scandalously corrupt court of Pope Alexander VI. Alexander, understandably infuriated, ordered Savonarola to refrain from preaching; however, he continued to preach, and the pope excommunicated him for disobedience in 1497. Savonarola now declared Alexander no true pope, being elected by simony. The people of Florence, who had for a time staunchly supported Savonarola, tired of his rigid demands. Hostility toward him grew, led especially by local Franciscans, and in Mar., 1498, the government, threatened by a papal interdict, asked him to stop preaching. His ruin came suddenly when one of his disciples accepted an ordeal by fire to prove Savonarola's holiness. Rain prevented the event. Nevertheless, there were riots, and Savonarola and two disciples were arrested by the city. Under torture he confessed to being a false prophet, or so it was announced. The three were hanged for schism and heresy; papal commissioners had passed on the sentence, which was assured by Alexander's vindictiveness.

See biographies by P. Villari (2 vol., tr. 1888; repr. 1972), R. Ridolfi (1959), and R. R. Renner (1965); study by D. Weinstein (1970).

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Savonarola, Girolamo

Savonarola, Girolamo (1452–98). Christian reformer and preacher. He was born at Ferrara in Italy, and entered the Dominican Order in 1475. In 1482, he went to Florence, where he began to develop his programme of ascetic morality. This he based on apocalyptic preaching, emphasizing the final judgement and the possibility of eternal damnation. After three years in Bologna, he returned to Florence, where he preached against corruption in high places, and gave prophetic warnings, some of which appeared to come true. When Charles VIII invaded Italy, Savonarola averted the threat to the city, and the people made him their ruler. He attempted to establish a theocratic state with severe standards of behaviour: in the ‘bonfire of vanities’, the people burnt frivolous or lewd items. He denounced Pope Alexander VI and his corrupt court, and was summoned to Rome to account for his actions as ‘a meddlesome friar’: he refused to go and was excommunicated. A Franciscan challenged him to ordeal by fire, which he refused. He was seized, tortured, and executed.

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Savonarola, Girolamo

Savonarola, Girolamo (1452–98) Italian religious reformer. His sermons attacked the corruption of the papacy and the state of Florence. After the death of Lorenzo de' Medici (1494), Savonarola became spiritual and political leader of the city. His support for the invasion of Charles VIII of France infuriated Pope Alexander VI, and he was excommunicated in 1497. Public hostility to Savonarola's austere regime intensified. He was arrested and hanged for heresy.

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