THE STORY OF GIROLAMO SAVONAROLA AND HIS VISION OF A HOLY FLORENCE
BY DANIEL T. GOMES
“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.”
– GIROLAMO SAVONAROLA
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 dreamer.
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 insane.
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…”
– NICCOLÒ MACHIAVELLI, THE PRINCE