Savonarola, Girolamo 1452–1498 Preacher, Reformer, and Prophet

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Savonarola, Girolamo
1452–1498 Preacher, reformer, and prophet

The Dominican* friar Girolamo Savonarola was a leading political and religious figure in Florence in the 1490s. Savonarola, who claimed to possess the gift of prophecy, attacked the wealthy and powerful in his sermons. He urged the people of Florence to reform their government and to transform the city into a New Jerusalem that would become the center of a worldwide Christian empire.

Early Life and Career. Born in Ferrara, Savonarola received a humanist* education before entering the monastery of San Domenico in Bologna in 1475. During his seven years there, he became a priest. In 1482 he was transferred to the monastery of San Marco in Florence, where he began to preach. His sermons at this time focused on the ideas of sin, punishment, and the redeeming power of Christ's love. They gained little notice from the people of Florence. A few years later, however, he attracted attention as a visiting preacher in San Gimignano, where he announced that God planned to punish the sinful world, especially the church, and bring about a great reform. He preached this message in various cities over the next few years.

In 1490 Savonarola returned to San Marco at the request of Lorenzo de' Medici, the leader of Florence. Lorenzo felt that the friar's presence would add prestige to the monastery and its patrons*, including himself. Savonarola's new, sensational style of preaching appealed greatly to the common people. It also won the admiration of several noted artists and scholars, including Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, Marsilio Ficino, Sandro Botticelli, and Michelangelo Buonarotti. Savonarola soon became the prior, or head, of San Marco and restored the order's original strict rules. His powerful sermons increased the monastery's fame. It attracted many new recruits, including some from prominent families.

The French Invasion. Savonarola's preaching soon became more outspoken. He attacked tyrants* and condemned the church's alliance with the wealthy and powerful at the expense of the poor. Between 1492 and 1494 he began to claim that God was sending him visions of a kingly warrior who would cross the Alps and conquer Italy. In late summer of 1494, Charles VIII of France invaded Italy, seeking to conquer the kingdom of Naples. His arrival appeared to confirm the friar's prophecies.

It also placed Florence in peril. Piero de' Medici, the city's new leader, had refused to let Charles pass through Florence's territory. The king responded by threatening to sack* the city. To preserve peace, Piero had to surrender important fortresses and towns within Florence and agree to pay Charles a large sum of money. The news of this bargain led to an uprising in Florence and forced the Medici family to flee the city. Charles entered Florence on November 17 and demanded that the Florentines restore the Medici to power. However, after an anti-French riot and a series of talks with Savonarola, Charles agreed to leave the city in exchange for a smaller payment than that promised him by Piero.

The New Jerusalem. After driving out the Medici, the people of Florence pressed for serious changes in the structure of city government. Savonarola proposed that the city model itself after Venice, which had a single council made up of some 2,000 nobles. In December, Florence set up a new assembly called the Grand Council, made up of 3,000 male citizens. Savonarola hailed the new council as a "government of the people" and claimed credit for it.

The friar now began to preach almost daily about the coming age of the Antichrist. He predicted that Florence would join forces with the king of France to lead the world into an age of universal Christianity and peace. Florence would be the center of a Christian empire, a New Jerusalem for the new age. In addition to his rousing sermons, Savonarola and his supporters staged processions and "bonfires of the vanities," in which citizens publicly burned books, paintings, clothing, playing cards, and other items the friar viewed as immoral.

Various groups challenged the policies of Savonarola and his followers, whom opponents called the Piagnoni (wailers). Conservative clergy members criticized his involvement in politics and disputed his claim to prophecy. Secular* political opponents blocked several of his measures, such as regulating women's dress. Gangs of young nobles disrupted his sermons and processions. In 1497 Pope Alexander VI excommunicated* Savonarola and threatened to take economic measures against Florence for supporting him. Later that year Savonarola learned of a plot to restore Piero de' Medici to power. He had the conspirators* executed without granting their right to appeal their sentence. This action severely weakened the friar's moral standing with the people of Florence.

Savonarola's End. In early 1498 one of Savonarola's chief followers accepted a challenge to test the truth of the friar's claims to divine favor. The test would be a trial by fire. If the flames did not kill Savonarola, it would prove that he was truly favored by God. On the day scheduled for the event, however, both sides argued so long about the details of the trial that rain eventually put out the flames. People took this as a sign of God's disapproval, and the city guard dispersed the angry crowd. The next day a mob attacked San Marco. The guard stepped in once again, arresting Savonarola and his two closest deputies. Questioned under torture, Savonarola admitted to faking his prophecies. On May 23, 1498, the three were hanged and their bodies burned.

After Savonarola's death, Florence's nobles took control of the city, and in 1512 the Medici returned to power. However, the Piagnoni remained a force in the city. In 1527 they played a role in driving out the Medici and establishing a short-lived republican* government. Within a few years, however, the Medici returned and became hereditary dukes of Florence. Nonetheless, Savonarola's ideas continued to circulate widely outside of Italy. They exerted a great influence on Catholic reformers of the 1500s, and Protestant leaders such as Martin Luther hailed him as their forerunner.

(See alsoMedici, House of. )

* Dominican

religious order of brothers and priests founded by St. Dominic

* humanist

referring to a Renaissance cultural movement promoting the study of the humanities (the languages, literature, and history of ancient Greece and Rome) as a guide to living

* patron

supporter or financial sponsor of an artist or writer

* tyrant

absolute ruler who uses power unjustly or cruelly

* sack

to loot a captured city

* secular

nonreligious; connected with everyday life

* excommunicate

to exclude from the church and its rituals

* conspirator

one who plots with others to commit a crime

* republican

refers to a form of Renaissance government dominated by leading merchants with limited participation by others