History for the Rest of Us

Girolamo Savonarola

Girolamo Savonarola

May 23, 2012

Girolamo Savonarola was born September 21, 1452 in Ferrara, Italy

In 1492 Savonarola began to preach to Florence of “the Sword of the Lord over the earth”. During the following year he prophesied that a new Cyrus was coming over the mountains that would scourge sinful Italy, beginning the renewal of the Church. When a French army invaded in 1494 with 10,000 troups, the people began to give more credence to his words. Girolamo was able to persuade Charles VIII, King of France, to leave Florence, and in so doing gained an even greater following in the city.

Glory of Florence
Savonarola promised power and wealth to the city in a sermon twelve days after the French departed, saying among other things that “…Florence will be more glorious, richer, more powerful than she has ever been;” He proclaimed that because the citizens had given heed to his call to repentance, they had been saved from the Sword of the Lord.

Expanded Cleansing
An increasing number of Florentines embraced his renewed efforts to cleanse the city. New laws were passed prohibiting public drunkenness, adultery, and other transgressions. Youth patrolled the streets monitoring dress standards and behavior. Pope Alexander VI tolerated his behavior initially but when Florence failed to join his Holy League against France, the pope summoned Savonarola to Rome. Girolamo refused, citing health and dangers of such a journey. Alexander subsequently banned him from preaching. Savonarola not only refused to do so, but he became more vehement. Zealous youth went into the city and encouraged the citizens to part with their vanities. On 7 February 1497, the most famous of such ‘bonfires of the vanities’ occurred when the art, books, fineries of women’s apparel, mirrors, musical instruments, cosmetics, etc. were burned to satisfaction of a multitude of Savonarola supporters.

The preaching of Savonarola would impact even the famous. Giorgio Vasari, art historian said of Sandro Botticelli’s support, “he was so ardent a partisan that he was thereby induced to desert his painting, and, having no income to live on, fell into very great distress.”

In May of 1497 Savonarola was excommunicated by Pope Alexander VI, who also threatened the city with censure if they continued to harbor him. It was during this time that Savonarola wrote his most significant work, the Triumph of the Cross.

Girolamo Savonarola

Trial by Fire

Girolamo had certainly made enemies along the way, and in an effort to convince the city that he was a false prophet, the local Franciscans challenged his Dominicans to a trial by fire. Two stacks of wood soaked in oil would be laid out with a narrow passage two feet wide in the center. The stacks would be set on fire and a representative from the Franciscans and a representative from the Dominicans would walk between the two infernos. All of Florence would be able to witness who God chose to protect. On 7 April a large enthusiastic crowd gathered for the event. As the two rival groups of friars prepared for the trial, protests broke out about various preparations. For example, whether or not the clothing being worn by the Dominican representative was enchanted. To the dismay of the crowd, the contest was delayed for hours. A sudden rain drenched the spectators and the government officials decided to cancel the proceedings. The crowd disbanded, angry that the great test of fire never took place. Some considered this confirmation that Savonarola was a false prophet. An angry mob beseiged the convent of San Marco, captured Savonarola, and turned him over to hostile elements in the city government. Girolamo was brought to trial for falsely claiming to have seen visions. He was declared guilty and his sentence confirmed by Rome.

Final Fire
On May 23, 1498, Savonarola, and two other friars were lead to Piazza della Signoria where they were hanged, and a fire was ignited below them to consume their bodies.

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