Dominican reformer; b. Ferrara, Italy, Sept. 21, 1452; d. Florence, May 23, 1498.
Career to 1495. The Savonarolas came from Padua, whence Girolamo's grandfather, a distinguished and pious physician, had migrated to Ferrara in 1440. Girolamo, the third of seven children, was intended for the medical profession and received a good education, studying Aristotle and Aquinas and becoming familiar with the Bible. His growing sense of a religious vocation was accompanied by deep distress at the prevalent moral corruption both in the world and in the Church. In April 1475 he suddenly, without warning his parents, entered the do minican novitiate at Bologna. In 1479 his studies brought him back to Ferrara, a circumstance that led to his friendship with the celebrated humanist pico della mirandola. In 1482 he was assigned, as lector in theology, to the priory of San Marco, florence. During the next four years the characteristic "prophetical" note began to sound in his sermons: the Church, he declared, would soon be terribly chastised and then renewed. An interval of preaching in northern Italy preceded his recall to Florence in 1490 at the instance of the city's ruler, Lorenzo de' medici, and in July 1491 he became prior of San Marco. During the same year he delivered his first sermons to ever-increasing audiences in the Duomo, combining violent onslaughts on vice with criticisms of the Medici government.
For the next three years Savonarola's influence in Florence grew steadily; by mid-1495 he virtually ruled the city from his pulpit. It was, however, a moral ascendancy facilitated by political events, by the fall of the Medici government, and by the Italian expedition of the French King, Charles VIII, in 1494. Lorenzo had died in 1492. The account that Savonarola had refused him absolution at the end is groundless. In fact the friar was at first on good terms with Lorenzo's son and successor, Piero, who, for political reasons, supported Savonarola's plan to set up a reformed Dominican congregation in Tuscany, independent of the Lombard congregation, to which San Marco actually belonged. In May 1493 a papal brief was obtained placing San Marco directly under the jurisdiction of the Dominican master general. This was the first step to the establishment of a new congregation including, with San Marco, priories at Fiesole, Prato, and Pisa, and ruled by Savonarola as vicar-general.
In autumn 1494 the French invaded Italy and were soon at the gates of Florence. Piero de' Medici fled, and the whole city turned for guidance to Savonarola. For his part, the friar saw in this invasion a fulfillment of his prophecies of a divine chastisement that was to come upon Italy: Charles VIII was the gladius Domini, the "new Cyrus." This identification was to have fatal consequences for Savonarola. Since c. 1490 he had formed the conviction (due in part to his predilection for the prophetical books of the Bible) that he was a prophet inspired to announce God's judgments on Italy and the Church. It was not this claim as such, however, but his support of the French invader that brought him into conflict with the reigning pope. Already in 1493 alexander vi had formed an alliance with Milan and Naples against the French, and in 1495 the league included Venice, Spain, and the Emperor Maximilian I. Florence, kept faithful to Charles by Savonarola, was an obstacle to the pope's plans. It was inevitable, even apart from the moral issues involved, that Alexander should come to regard Savonarola as a political nuisance and should attempt either to silence him or to remove him from Florence.
Meanwhile this city's internal affairs also were developing in a way to make it ever more difficult for Savonarola (given his temperament) to avoid an eventual clash with the pope. Through 1495 his influence in Florence was supreme. The new "popular" regime was inspired by his ideals. The city was swept by a campaign of rigorous moral reform, in which children were incited— imprudently—to take a large part. The Duomo could not contain the crowds that came to hear their prophet. San Marco swarmed with young recruits to the Dominican Order. And all this was only part of a wider program: from Florence, "the watchtower of Italy," the light of reform was to shine out on Italy and thence over Christendom. But this grand design became increasingly dangerous, spiritually as well as politically, as Savonarola grew convinced that its success depended on his own presence and preaching in Florence and on the maintenance, in the form he had given it, of the new San Marco congregation; for these were matters he could not legitimately withdraw from papal control.
Savonarola and Alexander VI. The inevitable duel between Savonarola and Alexander VI began on July 21, 1495, when the pope, in courteous terms, summoned the friar to Rome to explain the revelations he claimed to have received from God. Savonarola replied (July 31) that he could not, for the present, obey: he was too ill to travel; he might be murdered on the road; in any case he was badly needed at Florence: "So it is not God's will that I leave just now." As for the revelations, he would send Alexander a book he had recently composed (Compendium revelationum ), which would give the pope all necessary information. To this letter Alexander did not reply directly. But on September 8, perhaps feeling his hand strengthened by the French army's retreat to northern Italy in the summer, he issued a brief vehemently condemning Savonarola's claim to divine inspiration and suspending him from preaching, pending the examination of his case by (Bl.) Sebastian Maggi (d. 1496), vicar-general of the Lombard congregation, to which San Marco was to be reunited. Savonarola's answer was a long letter (September 29) reducible to five main points:(1) he submits to the Holy See; (2) he has never claimed to be an inspired prophet; (3) but if he had done so, this would not imply unorthodoxy; (4) he vehemently protests against the reunion of San Marco with the Lombard congregation; and (5) he objects to the appointment of the Lombard vicar-general as his judge. In the meantime an inquiry into the whole case had been held at Bologna, and it seems to have reported favorably to the pope, to judge from the mildness of his next brief, Licet uberius (October 16). Savonarola was again ordered not to preach, but the reunion of San Marco with the Lombard congregation was temporarily suspended.
Through the winter 1495–96 Savonarola did not in fact preach; but he began to do so again on Feb. 16, 1496, and continued throughout Lent, using increasingly violent language against the Roman Curia. Incidentally, he made it clear that it was not out of obedience to the pope that he had desisted from preaching, but only to examine his conscience as to his motives and manner of preaching. He hinted, however, that he did in fact have Alexander's permission. The truth seems to be that in March or April Alexander had let it be known that he would tolerate Savonarola's preaching so long as he moderated his language and kept off the subject of politics. It is not likely that the pope thought these conditions would be realized, but he was loath to offend the Florentine Signory (which through the winter had continually begged him to lift the suspension), and he probably reckoned that—owing to the political isolation of Florence—the friar's fortunes would soon decline in any case—in short, that the pope could afford to bide his time. A period of calm ensued.
Florentine affairs were not going well, either politically or economically, but the opposition to Savonarola was not yet strong enough to challenge his power openly. It was Alexander who took the next step, this time attacking Savonarola indirectly through his position in the Dominican Order. A papal brief (Nov. 7, 1496) set up a new Tuscan-Roman congregation, in which San Marco and its dependent houses were included. The San Marco community, undoubtedly with the approval of their prior, protested at once to the pope. Later they published a manifesto against the brief, with a preface by Savonarola, declaring themselves not bound to obey the pope in this matter since his order was against the interests of religion. And in fact the brief remained, rather strangely, a dead letter for the time being. Savonarola continued, irregularly, as vicar-general, just as he went on preaching though officially suspended. Alexander for his part pursued his aim of getting Florence into his league with the other Italian states; but it would be rash to conclude that this political motive alone was decisive in bringing him to the point of at last excommunicating Savonarola with the brief Cum saepenumero (May 13, 1497). Sinner though he was, Alexander had a sense of the respect due his office, and there is no reason to doubt that a proper desire to uphold the authority of the Holy See played its part in convincing him to excommunicate one whose words and actions must have seemed plainly subversive of that authority.
The excommunication was published in Florence on June 18, and Savonarola immediately published a letter, addressed "to all Christians," denying its validity. However, he did not preach again in 1497. A plague prevented all preaching in Florence during the summer, and later that year his restraint was probably due to a wish not to impede the efforts that the Florentine government—still friendly to Savonarola—was making at Rome to have the censure removed. On October 13 he wrote to Alexander asking for pardon but without declaring his submission on any specific point. The pope did not reply. Savonarola then pushed his defiance to the point of saying Mass publicly on Christmas Day and of recommencing his preaching in the Duomo (February 11), declaring in his first sermon that whoever accepted his excommunication as valid was a heretic. On March 17, however, the Signory, fearing that Alexander was about to lay an interdict on the city, begged Savonarola to stop preaching; and he did. But he took the further and fatal step of drafting letters to the sovereigns of Europe, calling on them to summon a council to reform the Church and to depose Alexander. Meanwhile his disciple Domenico da Pescia had foolishly accepted a challenge from a Franciscan of S. Croce to an ordeal by fire that would, by a miracle, decide the issue between Savonarola and his enemies. The ordeal (April7) proved a fiasco and touched off a popular reaction against Savonarola, who surrendered to the Signory after the mob had stormed San Marco.
Evaluation. Savonarola's trial, which, with the pope's permission, involved torture, was begun before lay judges but concluded before two papal commissioners sent from Rome. The official records of his confessions made under torture were falsified, but one thing stands out clearly enough: from the canonical point of view the most serious charge against Savonarola, and the one that justified (if anything could) his condemnation for heresy, schism, and contempt of the Holy See, was that he had invoked the civil power to call a council and depose the pope. Sentenced to death with two companions, Savonarola was hanged and then burned in the Piazza della Signoria at Florence. Savonarola was a great Christian and, in some sense, certainly a martyr. His subjective position regarding Alexander VI is beyond question; and only the matter of his objective guilt, depending on the legal judgment of his day, awaits further investigation. Indeed, as early as 1499, Savonarola was locally venerated as a saint.
Bibliography: r. ridolfi, Cronologiae bibliografia delle prediche (Florence 1939); Studi Savonaroliani, 2 v. (Florence 1935); Life of Girolamo Savonarola, tr. c. grayson (New York 1959). m. ferrara, Bibliografia savonaroliana (Florence 1958). Edizione nazionale delle opere di Girolamo Savonarola (Rome 1955-), to be completed in 20 v. l. pastor, The History of the Popes From the Close of the Middle Ages 4, 5, 6. j. schnitzer, Savonarola: Ein Kulturbild aus der Zeit der Renaissance, 2 v. (Munich 1924). g. soranzo, Il tempo di Alessandro VI papae di Fra G. Savonarola (Milan 1960). g. gieraths, ed. and tr., S. Ketzer oder Heiliger? (Freiburg 1961); Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche 29:353–355.
May 23, 1498
The Italian preacher and reformer Girolamo Savonarola was one of the most distinctive figures of the Renaissance. The Renaissance was a cultural movement which began in Italy in the mid-1300s. It was initiated by scholars called humanists who promoted the human-centered values of ancient Greece and Rome. Humanist ideals were soon influencing the arts, literature, philosophy, science, religion, and politics in Italy. Claiming the gift of prophecy, the mendicant monk (member of a religious order dedicated to a life of poverty) rose to power in Florence, Italy, through his harsh criticism of the Roman Catholic Church. He was angered by the corrupt behavior of popes, cardinals, and bishops. He demanded stricter adherence to the spiritual values of Christianity and greater social awareness of the poor. Earning the title, "Preacher of the Despairing," Savonarola gave immensely popular sermons (religious speeches on proper moral conduct) and became famous for his visions. His first vision was about the "Scourge [whip] of the Church," which would come to banish the evil materialism of the Catholic clergy. He also correctly predicted the deaths of Lorenzo de' Medici (1449–1492; see entry), the powerful duke of Florence, and Pope Innocent VIII (1432–1492; reigned 1484–92), who both died in 1492.
Becomes popular preacher
Savonarola was born in Ferrara, Italy, the son of a banker. His grandfather, Michele Savonarola, was a noted physician and medical writer. After receiving a humanistic education (a curriculum based on study of ancient Greek and Latin literary texts), Girolamo earned a master's degree and studied medicine. In 1475 he entered the monastery of San Domenico in Bologna, Italy. He vowed to become a champion of Christ and battle human misery and sin. He studied theology (theory of religion) until 1482, when he was assigned to San Marco, a monastery in Florence. He began to preach on such themes as sin, God's punishment, and Christ's redeeming love. Savonarola was unsuccessful at first because his voice and accent annoyed the cultured citizens of Florence, who found his sermons boring. Away from Florence, however, his preaching was more dramatic. Savonarola served for three years at a monastery in Bologna before returning to San Marco in 1490.
Around 1491 Savonarola was named prior (second in rank to the abbot, or head, of a monastery) of San Marco. By now his preaching had become immensely popular, not only with the common people but also with the leading intellectuals and artists in Lorenzo de' Medici's circle. They flocked around him, many describing themselves as spellbound by his eloquence. They were convinced that his sermons were divinely inspired, that is, he was speaking the word of God. Well-born ladies and gentlemen also attended his sermons and pressed him for private attention. Savonarola's sermons reached a peak during Advent (a period beginning four Sundays before Christmas) in 1492, when he prophesied the coming of the "Scourge of Italy." This vision may have been prompted by the election of the new pope (supreme head of the Roman Catholic Church), Alexander VI (1431–1503; see entry), after the death of Innocent VIII. Alexander's behavior—taking mistresses, advancing members of his own family to prominent church positions, and squandering money on clothes and horses—was outrageous even in a time known for its corruption and decadence (decline). Savonarola set out to reform the church in Florence. His first step was to withdraw the monastery of San Marco from the Congregation of Lombardy, the ruling organization of monasteries in the region. He then formed a new, stricter congregation, Congregation of Tuscany (later renamed the Congregation of San Marco) which was approved by the pope in 1493. Savonarola saw the separation as the beginning of reform in the church. Expanding his movement, he convinced other monasteries to join his congregation. In his own monastery, he demanded that monks give up all possessions, which were then sold to raise money for the poor.
Initiates new government in Florence
Savonarola had also been criticizing the city government and was a bitter enemy of Lorenzo de' Medici before the duke's death. In 1494 Savonarola's prophecy of the "Scourge of Italy" was fulfilled when King Charles VIII (1470–1498; ruled 1483–98) of France invaded Italy in the first phase of the Italian Wars (a conflict between France and Spain over control of territory in Italy; 1494–1559). Lorenzo's son and the new duke of Florence, Piero de' Medici (1471–1503), fled from Italy and threw himself upon the mercy of the French king. The leading political body of Florence, the Signoria, elected Savonarola to ask Charles to insure Florence's security and safety but withdrawing his army from Florence. At first the king resisted Savonarola's request, but after extensive discussion the French army left Florence. Savonarola then turned to the problem of a new government without the Medicis. He proposed replacing the city's numerous councils with a single body modeled on the Maggior Consiglio (great council) in Venice. The new government, called the Consiglio Maggiore, was adopted in December 1494. It was the largest government Florence had ever had, with about three thousand members, all of them male. Savonarola hailed the new measure as the foundation of the governo popolare, or popular government, and claimed credit for it.
In his sermons Savonarola suggested new policies. For instance, he demanded an increase in jobs for the lower classes and relief for the poor. He also urged the churches to melt down their gold and silver ornaments to buy bread for the hungry. In 1495 he met resistance when a group called the Tiepidi(the lukewarm) was formed by priests, nuns, and monks who were opposed to strict observance of the vows of poverty and obedience. The Tiepidi received support from Pope Alexander, Duke Ludovico Sforza (1452–1508) of Milan, and Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I (1459–1519; reigned 1493–1519), who had formed an alliance, called the Holy League, to oppose Charles VIII. The League needed backing from Florence, but first they had to remove Savonarola from power.
The "New Jerusalem"
Beginning in December 1494, when Florence adopted a new form of government, Girolamo Savonarola preached almost daily. He envisioned a city in which politics and religion were interrelated. He took credit for the fact that Florence was now safe and free, claiming this was evidence of his godly ministry and the city's divine election. Now Florentines must "reform their consciences," make good laws, and fulfill the city's destiny as the New Jerusalem (Jerusalem is the city in Palestine where Jesus Christ, lived and spread the teachings that are the basis of Christianity.) The fourth age of the world, the state of uninspired Christians, was ending, Savonarola said. The fifth age, of the Antichrist (enemy of Christ), was about to begin. In partnership with the crusader king, Charles VIII of France, Florence would lead the world out of the fifth age into the sixth and final age of universal Christianity and peace. "Spread your empire," he urged the Florentines, "and thus you will have power temporal [earthly] and spiritual."
Surrounded by zealous priests and lay followers—called Piagnoni, or wailers, by their enemies—Savonarola took his campaign directly to the people. He and his lieutenants gave frequent, intense sermons, rallying the city's riotous youth. They staged religious processions and organized the notorious "bonfires of the vanities," burning suggestive books and pictures, immodest clothing and female ornaments, and playing cards and dice—all considered dangerous to good morals.
Challenged by pope
In 1495 Savonarola became ill with dysentery (an intestinal disease caused by an infection). Although his doctors told him to rest, he returned to the pulpit and delivered stinging sermons against his opponents, especially the Tiepidi. In response, Pope Alexander sent an official letter stating that certain people had accused Savonarola of committing heresy, or violation of the laws of the church, and false prophecy and troubling the peace of the church. Though he praised Savonarola's work, Alexander insisted that he come to Rome to defend himself. Since Savonarola was still weak from his illness, he asked permission to stay in Florence. The pope agreed, but told him to stop preaching until the accusations could be proven false. Over the next few months Savonarola's supporters continued to cause social and political unrest in Florence. The pope finally became angry about the situation and ordered Savonarola to stand trial. When an investigation found no evidence against Savonarola, Alexander canceled plans for a trial but would not lift the ban on preaching.
In 1496 the people of Florence persuaded the pope to allow Savonarola to preach sermons during Lent. (Lent is a forty-day period of fasting and prayer before Easter, the holy day commemorating Jesus's resurrection from the dead.) Once again Savonarola lashed out at the church, charging that abuses had gone beyond all bounds and that the clergy no longer observed their own rules. He met with opposition, however, when he demanded that the government pass stricter laws regulating the dress and ornamentation of Florentine women. By refusing to pass such a statute, city leaders took their first step away from Savonarola's reform platform. In 1497 new members of the Signoria who supported the Holy League began passing laws that limited Savonarola's preaching. On May 4, a gang of young aristocrats known as the Compagnacci (bad companions) started a riot while he was giving a sermon, apparently hoping to kill him. Though loyal monks saved his life, Florentine leaders identified him as the source of discontent in the city, and many demanded his exile. Alexander then excommunicated (expelled from the church) Savonarola and his followers for committing heresy. This event brought a deeper split among the Florentine factions, or opposing groups. In July the pope and his cardinals decided Savonarola must either come to Rome or abandon his reforms.
The final showdown between Savonarola and the pope began on February 11, 1498, when Alexander ordered the Signoria to silence the disobedient monk In April, Florentine officials conducted two three-day trials. During both trials they tortured and questioned Savonarola for evidence against him and two companions, Fra (Brother) Domenico da Pescia and Fra Silvestro Maruffi. Though Savonarola signed a confession, lack of sufficient evidence led to the second trial. With the verdict already decided, a two-day church trial then took place in May. The church court passed a death sentence for all three clergymen. On May 23, 1498, Savonarola and his two companions were hanged and their bodies were cremated, or burned. Government officials scattered the ashes in the Arno River to prevent the veneration (declaration of holiness) of the remains.
Outside Florence the interest in Savonarola's prophecy had been widespread. Venice was the major center for the publication of his sermons and writings. Savonarola's reputation as a spiritual leader and reformer grew steadily. His meditations, devotional literature, and religious ideas were translated into many European languages. His fervid commitment to Christian teachings was an important influence on the Spirituali, a group of sixteenth-century Catholic reformers. Martin Luther (1483–1546; see entry) and other Protestant reformers regarded him as a forerunner to their movement. In the eighteenth century Savonarola again became a symbol of liberation and spiritual rebirth in Europe. He was the subject of numerous historical dramas. In modern-day Italy a group of San Marco scholars, called the New Piagnoni, began collecting documents for the study of Savonarola's life and work. Other devotees are pressing for the withdrawal of his excommunication, the first step toward officially proclaiming him a saint.
For More Information
De La Bedoyere, Michael. The Meddlesome Friar and the Wayward Pope; The Story of the Conflict between Savonarola and Alexander VI. Garden City, N.Y.: Hanover House, 1958.
Erlanger, Rachel. The Unarmed Prophet: Savonarola in Florence. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1988.
Knight, Kevin. "Girolamo Savonarola." Catholic Encyclopedia. [Online] Available http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/13490a.htm, April 5, 2002.
Kren, Emil, and Daniel Marx. Portrait of Girolamo Savonarola by Bartolomeo, Fra. [Online] Available http://www.kfki.hu/~arthp/html/b/bartolom/fra/savonaro.html, April 5, 2002.
"Savonarola, Girolamo." MSN Encarta. [Online] Available http://encarta.msn.com/index/conciseindex/4B/04BA3000.htm?z=1&pg=2&br=1, April 5, 2002.
SAVONAROLA, GIROLAMO (1452–1498), was a Dominican preacher, reformer, and prophet. Savonarola was born in Ferrara, Italy, and under the eye of his grandfather, the distinguished court physician Michele Savonarola, was educated in religious and liberal studies before going on to medicine. A story that he was disappointed in love, and his early poem De ruina mundi give some insight into his decision to enter the Order of Friars Preachers in 1475. In Bologna he completed his novitiate and attended the Dominican Studium Generale. In 1482 he went to Florence as reader in the Observant Dominican convent of San Marco. The recently rediscovered Borromeo Codex, containing Savonarola's sermon notes, poetry, and other writings from this period, shows a young reformer in process of development rather than the born prophet portrayed by his hagiographers. The moralizing, ascetic sermon drafts contain none of the spectacular visionary themes, still less the millenarian themes, of Savonarola's later preaching. Still under the influence of Scholastic homiletics with its labored, allegorical exegesis, he was just beginning to find a more personal and direct, if as yet unflamboyant, style.
In 1484, ruminating on the wickedness of the world, he conceived "on the basis of scripture" that the church had imminently to be scourged and reformed, and he announced his new apocalyptic reading of scripture in his Lenten sermons in San Gimignano in 1485 and again in 1486. He was appointed magister studiorum in Bologna in 1487, and in the next few years he gained attention as a preacher in various north Italian cities. In 1490 he was reassigned to San Marco at the request of Lorenzo de' Medici, unofficial ruler of Florence, who may have been prompted by Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, one of the friar's admirers. Elected prior, he briefly considered taking his friars into the woods of a nearby mountain valley, but instead he concentrated upon reforming San Marco and preaching in the city. He began to criticize tyrants as corrupters of the people, and he warned of coming tribulations. He was aware that he might share the fate of other preachers, most recently Bernardino da Feltre, who had been expelled from Florence for stirring up unrest; but the city's rulers made no effort to pluck this latest thorn from the flesh of the body politic, perhaps because they were pleased by Savonarola's fruitful efforts to create a new Tuscan congregation of Dominican houses with San Marco at its center, perhaps because they knew it would be difficult to dislodge him without scandal among his widespread following. With Piero de' Medici, who succeeded Lorenzo in 1492, he seems to have been on good terms.
By the 1490s rumbles of the earthquake that was to destroy Italy's facade of collective security were beginning to be heard. Charles VIII (1483–1498) was heralded as the new Charlemagne, who would restore French imperial glory, cross the sea to conquer "the Infidel," and convert the world into a single sheepfold under one shepherd. To Savonarola he was the flagellum Dei who would scourge the church and carry the children of Israel into captivity. Florence, that den of iniquity, would suffer with the rest. In the fall of 1494 Charles invaded Italy, and his opposition melted away as he marched to the frontiers of Tuscany. A frightened Piero de' Medici hurried to the king's camp and surrendered the key Florentine strongholds. Returning to Florence, Piero encountered a city in revolt, and he fled. After sixty years of Medici domination Florence had recovered its liberty.
Savonarola's standing as a popular champion and prophet gave him unrivaled authority. Holding no civic office, he exercised his influence through preaching (now supported by visions), through meetings with civic leaders, and through political allies in the city's councils. He charted a course between direct democracy and narrow oligarchic reaction, the chief feature of which was a new Great Council with hereditary qualifications for admission and sovereign powers on the model of Venice. In the city's religious institutions he changed little, but he sought to introduce a spiritual revolution through moral reform. Ascetic conduct was urged from pulpits and enjoined by new laws and by youthful vigilantes organized from San Marco. Religious processions replaced secular festivals; bonfires of "vanities" consumed the tokens of "worldliness"; specially written lauds celebrated the millennial glories of a spiritually revitalized Florence. The Jews, tolerated by the Medici regime, were expelled, and a public loan fund (Monte di Pietà), advocated by Franciscan preachers, was set up. Ignoring his earlier warnings of tribulation and doom, Savonarola now envisioned Florence as the New Jerusalem, center of liberty and virtue, from which would radiate the new era, when Florence would be "richer, greater, more powerful than ever."
Inevitably, however, Savonarola's insistence that the French king was Florence's divinely elected champion led to the city's political isolation in Italy, and the longer Charles put off his return, the lower Savonarola's credit dropped. His avoidance of the pope's summons to Rome and his disobedience to a command of silence led to his excommunication, and a papal interdict for harboring him threatened the city. All this created a situation that Savonarola's enemies could exploit. He was unable to block a Franciscan's challenge to a trial by fire, and he bore the brunt of the blame when this eagerly awaited test failed to take place. A mob attacked San Marco, and Savonarola and two other friars were imprisoned, interrogated, and tortured. Altered versions of Savonarola's confession to false prophecy and political conspiracy were published. On May 23, 1498 the three friars were hanged and burned on a specially constructed scaffold in Florence's main civic square.
The Savonarolan republic survived until 1512, when the Medici were restored by Spanish troops. It was revived by a revolt in 1527, in which piagnone, or Savonarolan, ideology played a fundamental role. Once again revolutionary millenarianism and puritanical republicanism flowed from San Marco. Once again the Jews were expelled. Prostitutes were banned. Pro-Medicean utterances were made a capital offense. Enemies of the regime were exiled. Blasphemers and sodomites were put to death. Such uncompromising fanaticism alienated republican moderates and strengthened the hand of the Medici, who came back to the city in 1530. As a political movement "piagnonism" was finished, although the cult of Savonarola thrived and has been revived periodically up to the present day. Its traces can be discerned in the Risorgimento biography by Pasquale Villari, the Catholic modernist life by Joseph Schnitzer, and the cinquecentennial biography by Roberto Ridolfi. Hagiography apart, Savonarola's sermons and devotional works continued to be printed and read in Italy, Spain, France, and Germany. Savonarolan piety, with its emphasis upon individual religious experience, charity, and the way of the cross of Christ, was admired by Martin Luther. A statue of the Dominican was erected in Wittenberg, although Savonarola surely belongs more to the Catholic than to the Protestant reformation.
Cattin, Giulio. Il primo Savonarola: Poesie e prediche autografe dal Codice Borromeo. Florence, 1973.
Polizotto, Lorenzo. "The Piagnoni and Religious Reform, 1494–1530." Ph. D. diss., University of London, 1975.
Schnitzer, Joseph. Savonarola: Ein Kulturbild aus der Zeit der Renaissance. 2 vols. Munich, 1924.
Weinstein, Donald. Savonarola and Florence: Prophecy and Patriotism in the Renaissance. Princeton, N. J., 1970.
Donald Weinstein (1987)
Savonarola, Girolamo (1452–1498)
Savonarola, Girolamo (1452–1498)
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.
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.
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).
Erlanger, Rachel, The unarmed prophet: Savonarola in Florence, New York: McGraw-Hill, 1988. □