“I am like the hail. Cover thyself lest it come down upon thee, and strike thee… that is clothe thyself with virtue and no hail stone will touch thee.”

The Renaissance era saw a paradoxical
combination of technological
and cultural development with
religious zeal and persecution. As
universities and workshops produced
ever more innovative people, the
Catholic Church cracked her scourge
deeper and deeper into any teachings
or groups that could undermine her
authority. While the age is ripe with
instances of this contradicting state
of affairs, one stands out from all
the rest – one episode, short and yet
incredibly marvelous, characterized
by a clergyman who defied both his
earthly and spiritual superiors. This
is the story of Girolamo Savonarola
and his dream of a holy Florence.
Friar, fanatic, despot, martyr,
heretic – many are the titles that
throughout history have accompanied
the name of Girolamo
Savonarola, a figure that still baffles
many historians both secular and
religious to this very day. A Dominican
monk sent to Florence in
1481, Savonarola gradually became
the most influential preacher in the
city, enthralling his listeners with
vociferous disapproval of Florence’s
immorality and political corruption.
As his influence grew, so did the
boldness of his claims: he attributed
a prophetic element to them, seeing
himself as divinely appointed to
reshape Florence into a “New Jerusalem,”
and deemed enemies of
Florence and of the Church any who
would oppose him. At a time when
the Medici family ruled supreme in
Florence, Savonarola attacked the
reigning oligarchy constantly, playing
a key role in the banishment of di
Medici from the city two years after
the death of their patriarch, Lorenzo
the Magnificent, in 1494.
Now with a clear path, Savonarola
was instrumental in establishing
a theocratic republic in Florence,
attributing the ultimate seat of power
to God. In his vision of a Florence
that would replace Rome as the heart
of Christendom, the friar had sided
with Charles VIII against the rest of
Italy when the King of France invaded
the Papal States. This inevitably
put Savonarola at odds with Pope
Alexander VI, who demanded that
the friar should travel to Rome and
answer for his actions. Savonarola,
considering himself untouchable by
his divine appointment and by his hold over the people of Florence,
not only disregarded the Pope’s demands,
but became more and more
aggressive in his criticism of Rome,
the Holy See and the Pope himself.
It was not until a misconducted
ordeal by fire
in 1498 that his enemies – the Franciscans and the
supporters of Piero di
Medici, who Savonarola
had helped banish from
Florence – were able
to turn public opinion
against the friar, bringing
about a swift execution
to Savonarola and his
two closest associates.
With Savonarola’s death,
Florence returned to the hands of
the Medici family and to the hub of
unrestrained lavishness it used to be.
The dream had vanished with its
It is not surprising that many who
read about Savonarola are quick to
dismiss him as a ravenous madman.
He believed himself above scrutiny
of anything but God’s Word, heeding
to no one regardless of rank
or station. Even though he claimed
more than once that he would
subject himself and his writings “to
the correction of the Holy Roman
Church,” his ardent vision of himself
as the ordained prophet of God
meant that he ultimately
saw his message as divine
revelation. Any opposition
to his message, then,
could not be an act of
God, but an attempt from
the Devil to undermine
the prophet – even if said
opposition came from
the Pope. Add to this
deep-seated belief in his
own divine commission
an uncanny ruthlessness
when standing before
the pulpit – going as far as to call
for the heads of any “traitor” who
would restore the Medici to power – and one is left with the dilemma so
commonly attributed to controversial
figures of history: that this man was
either incredibly ingenious or incredibly
Nevertheless – and before this
would be deemed some form of
“character assassination,” which
is not – Savonarola showed several times that there was merit to his
dream of a theocratic Florence. By
vowing to liberate Florence
from tyranny, the
zealous ascetic brought
back the democratic
ideals of the Florentine
Republic, which had
been circumvented by
the Medici, while ascribing
the highest position
of political power
to God. Furthermore,
Savonarola himself
did not hold a political
office, despite having
provided the divinely
-inspired blueprint for
the new government of
Florence. According to
Philip Schaaf, the friar
shaped Florence’s political
system after that
of Venice, composed of
two councils, with the
greater council being
composed of every
male citizen in good
standing who qualified
as member of the beneficiati. The
lifelong office of doge, i.e. “ruler,”
he gave it to God, dedicating Florence’s
eternal allegiance to God
and effectively making
it a theocratic state.
Besides this, Savonarola
appears to have
prevented “retaliatory
measures” against
sympathizers of the
Medici family upon
the establishment of
the theocratic republic.
In spite of his austere
outlook towards arts
and literature (the
Bonfire of the Vanities
being a clear example
of this), the friar was
friends with several
Florentine artists and
thinkers, including Pico
della Mirandola and
Girolamo Benivieni.
The rise and fall of
Fra Savonarola shows
us just how erratic and
misunderstood the
heart of Renaissance
was. While under the
sway of the Medici, Florence stood
as a nepotist oligarchy, whose political, social and spiritual corruption
were cloaked, if barely, by the layered
veil of cultural progress, scientific
advancement and aesthetics. The
Dominican friar turned this system
into a more open and transparent republic,
though at the cost of making
the Florentine city-state an extremely
strict, moralist theocracy in nature –
an impractical system that dissolved
into its previous condition as soon
as Savonarola died and the Medici
returned. All this happened in just
four years, yet these were sudden and
monumental changes in Florence,
still regarded today with much
curiosity. How could the people of
Florence transition from one system
to another and then back to the first
in such short time, given how disparate
and incompatible those two
systems were? Perhaps we will never
know. Perhaps we know it all too
well. Perhaps the dream lives on – the
dream of revolution and change, a
dream beating in the hearts of many
who yearn for it, yet know not or
care not how such a dream becomes
real, as long as it does.

“It should be borne in mind that the temper of the multitude is fickle, and that while it is easy to persuade them of a thing, it is hard to fix them in that persuasion.
[…] Moses, Cyrus, Theseus, and Romulus could never have made their ordinances be observed for any length of time had they been unarmed, as was the case, in our own days, with the Friar Girolamo Savonarola,
whose new institutions came to nothing so soon as the multitude began to waver in their faith…”