statue of savonarola in Ferrara

On this day in history: Savonarola dies

History of Italy News

On the morning of 23rd May 1498, the Dominican friar Savonarola was executed in Piazza della Signoria, Florence. He had been found guilty of heresy.

Fra. Savonarola is best known for the so-called Bonfire of the Vanities which took place in the late 15th century in Florence. Born Girolamo Savonarola on 21st September 1452, in Ferrara, he was the son of Niccolò Savonarola and Elena Bonaccorsi.

His paternal grandfather, Michele, took responsibility for his education. Michele was a man of very strong moral and religious principles. The impact of his grandfather appears to have been to instil a sense of medievalism in the young Girolamo’s outlook.

Savonarola’s Early Years

Piazza Savonarola in Ferrara

In Savonarola’s early poetry and other adolescent writings, his future self as a reformer could be glimpsed. He wrote in a letter to his father he could not suffer “the blind wickedness of the peoples of Italy.” He found unbearable the humanistic paganism that corrupted manners, art, poetry, and religion itself. The root of this, for Savonarola, was corruption in the highest levels of the church hierarchy.

The young Savonarola followed in his grandafather’s footsteps initially, studying medicine following a degree in the liberal arts. On April 24, 1475, he left all that behind to enter the Dominican order at Bologna. Returning to Ferrara four years later, he taught Scripture in the Convento degli Angeli.

Florence calls

In 1482, Savonarola was sent to Florence to take up the post of lecturer in the convent of San Marco.  Not the most successful preacher, he had a sudden revelation which inspired him to begin his prophetic sermons.

It was at San Gimignano during Lent in 1485 and 1486, he put forward his famous propositions: the church needed reforming; it would be scourged and then renewed.

In 1487, he left Florence to become master of studies for a year in the school of general studies at Bologna. He was then sent to preach in various cities until Lorenzo de’ Medici used his influence to have Savonarola returned to Florence. Unbeknownst to Medici, he had just let the fox into the hen house.

1490 saw Savonarola preaching against the tyrannical abuses of the government. As Lorenzo de Medici edged closer to the end of his life, so enthusiasm for Savonarola’s preaching increased. Despite legend saying Savonarola refused Lorenzo absolution on his deathbed, he did in fact give the dying man his blessing.

It was not long after Lorenzo’s death that the Medici’s were overthrown by the invasion of Charles VIII (1494). The Dominican friar played a major part in negotiations with the king and in moderating the hatred of the factions after the change of government.

The reforms of Savonarola and the Frateschi

As a non-citizen and cleric, the friar was ineligible to hold office, so a Savonarolan political “party”, dubbed “the Frateschi”, took shape. The party steered the friar’s program through the councils. It was the most democratic Florentine government to date.

A new constitution enfranchised the artisan class, opened minor civic offices to selection by lot, and granted every citizen in good standing the right to a vote in a new parliament, the Consiglio Maggiore, or Great Council.

The Frateschi government also passed a “Law of Appeal” to limit the long-time practice of using exile and capital punishment as factional weapons.

On 13 January 1495, he preached his great Renovation Sermon in the cathedral, recalling that he had begun prophesying in Florence four years earlier. He now claimed that he had predicted the deaths of Lorenzo de’ Medici and of Pope Innocent VIII in 1492 and the coming of the sword to Italy—the invasion of King Charles of France. As he had foreseen, God had chosen Florence, “the navel of Italy”, as his favourite and he repeated: if the city continued to do penance and began the work of renewal it would have riches, glory and power.

Ludwig von Langenmantel — Savonarola Preaching Against Prodigality
Ludwig von Langenmantel — Savonarola Preaching Against Prodigality

The Florentines embraced Savonarola’s campaign to rid the city of “vice”. New laws were passed against “sodomy” (which included male and female same-sex relations), adultery, public drunkenness, and other moral transgressions.

Pope Alexander VI tolerated the friar, but he was angered when Florence declined to join his new Holy League against the French invader. Summoned to Rome, the Dominican refused on grounds of ill-health and the potential of attack en-route.

Bonfire of the Vanities

On September 8th 1495, under pressure from his political friends and Savonarola’s enemies, the Pope sent a second brief. He ordered the friar to go to Bologna under pain of excommunication. Savonarola replied with respectful firmness, pointing out no fewer than 18 mistakes in it.

In another brief, dated October 16th, the Pope forbade Savonarola to preach. After a few months, as Lent 1496 drew near, Alexander VI conceded this verbally. Savonarola gave his sermons on the Book of Amos, attacking the Roman court with renewed vigour. He also appeared to refer to the pope’s scandalous private life. It would seem that was the last straw for the Pope.

In a brief of November 7, 1496, the Pope incorporated the Congregation of San Marco, of which Savonarola was vicar, with another in which he would have lost all his authority. If he obeyed, his reforms would be lost. If he disobeyed, he would be excommunicated. Needless to say, Savonarola protested vigorously, but as the brief was not put into force, he carried on as usual.

On 7th February 1497 as Carnival came to an end, Savonarola’s followers collected thousands of objects such as personal ornaments, lewd pictures, cards, and gaming tables, and cosmetics. They were burned in the Piazza della Signoria of Florence. Known as the bonfire of the vanities, anything secular or likely to lead one astray was collected and thrown into the flames. If there was to be any foreshadowing, surely this was it. It was in the very same square that the following year, Savonarola would meet his fate.

The turning point

The screw continued to turn against Savonarola, and his power was lessened by unfavourable political and economic developments. A party called the Arrabbiati was formed in opposition to him. The Arrabbiati forced him to stop preaching and incited sacrilegious riots against him on Ascension Day.  They also obtained a bull of excommunication against their enemy.

Absorbed in study and prayer, Savonarola was silent. During this time he composed his spiritual masterpiece, the Triumph of the Cross, a celebration of the victory of the cross over sin and death and an exploration of what it means to be a Christian.

The Florentine government sought in vain to obtain a formal withdrawal of the bull. However, Rome proposed an unworthy arrangement, which made withdrawal of the censure dependent on Florence’s entry into the League. It was this which drew Savonarola into the pulpit again (Lent 1498) to give sermons on the Book of Exodus.

Trial by fire

It was Fra Domenico da Pescia, one of Savonarola’s most passionate of followers who inadvertently brought matters to a head.

Fra Domenico took at his word a Franciscan who had challenged to ordeal by fire anyone who maintained the invalidity of Savonarola’s excommunication. The decree, which assigned to the ordeal Fra Domenico himself and a Franciscan, declared the loser whoever might withdraw or vacillate.

The first trial by fire in Florence in over four hundred years was set for 7th April. A crowd filled the central square, eager to see if God would intervene. The delegations delayed the start of the contest for hours. A sudden downpour drenched the spectators, leading government officials to cancel the proceedings. Instead of a victory, Savonarola was blamed for not having achieved a miracle. The following day the rabble led by the Arrabbiati rioted, marched to San Marco, and overcame the defenders. The reformer was taken away, together with Fra Domenico and another follower.

Savonarola’s fate was settled. The papal commissioners came from Rome “with the verdict in their bosom,” as one of them said. After the ecclesiastical trial, he was handed over with his two companions to be hanged and burned.

Trial and Execution

Savonarola's execution in the Piazza della Signoria, painting by Filippo Dolciati (1498)

Under torture, Savonarola confessed to having invented his prophecies and visions. He later recanted, then confessed again.

On the morning of 23 May 1498, the three friars were led out into Piazza della Signoria and condemned as heretics and schismatics. Their executions were to be immediate.

Stripped of their Dominican garments, they mounted the scaffold in thin white shirts. They were hanged, while fires were ignited below them to consume their bodies. So there would be no relics, their ashes were scattered in the river Arno.

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