There are infinitely more historical “might have been” events than actual historical events themselves.
Only seventeen years before the eruption of the Protestant Reformation early in the sixteenth century, events centred on the controversial Dominican friar of Florence, Girolamo Savonarola, fit nicely into that category. Had the Church effectively heeded the serious concerns he was proclaiming, the Reformation “might have been” less destructive and more healing.
Images (above). At left: Painting of Savonarola’s hanging and burning in the Piazza della Signoria, Florence, 24 May 1498. At right: Profile of Girolamo Savonarola O.P.
Four years before his public execution in Florence on 23rd May 1498 at the age of fifty-six years, Girolamo Savonarola O.P., without any election or official appointment, attained the position of despotic ruler of the city/state of Florence, having supplanted the de Medici clan as the pinnacle of Florentine authority. Savonarola established and ruled what has become known as the theocratic republic of Florence (1494-1498).
Amidst the conflicts of European kings, how Savonarola was propelled to such a local dominance has been copiously examined by historians over the centuries, and there is no need to repeat these convoluted geopolitical circumstances here. Fifteen years earlier, in 1483 Savonarola was chosen as the Lenten preacher in the prestigious church of St Lorenzo in Florence, but his plain, earnest exhortations attracted few hearers at that time, when instead people thronged to the Church of Santo Spirito to enjoy the elegant Renaissance rhetoric of Mariano da Genazzano O.S.A..
In the following years, however, Savonarola experienced some success at preaching in nearby smaller Tuscan town of San Gimignano in 1484-85. But it was only at Brescia in the following year that his power as an orator became fully developed. In a sermon on the Apocalypse he shook his congregation by his terrible threats of the wrath to come, and drew tears from their eyes by the tender pathos of his assurances of divine mercy. He returned to Florence in 1490.
In April 1492 the dying ruler of Florence, Lorenzo de Medici, called The Magnifico, sought to undermine Savonarola’s popularity, and Mariano da Genazzano O.S.A. of the Augustinian Church of Santo Spirito, Florence was employed to attack him from the pulpit. But the Augustinian preacher's scandalous accusations missed their mark, and disgusted his hearers without hurting his rival.Savonarola took up the challenge; his eloquence prevailed, and Mariano desisted. But, even while feigning indifference to this outcome, Mariano was henceforth a rancorous and determined foe towards Savonarola. Mariano became the Augustinian Prior General in 1497, and died in office in 1498 - the same year as Savonarola's life ended. Initially, the relations of Savonarola with the Church were not so antagonistic, for example, as in 1493 to deter placing him in charge of the reform of the Dominican Order throughout Tuscany. This role for Savonarola was approved by the pope. Savonarola was not seeking to make war on doctrines of the Church of Rome; rather, he wanted to correct the transgressions of worldly popes and the secularized members of the Papal Curia.
Images (above): A detail of the painting of Savonarola’s hanging and burning in the Piazza della Signoria, Florence, 24 May 1498. Underneath: A copy of Savonarola’s signature.
In his gripping sermons, Savonarola without restraint railed against the moral failings of Pope Alexander VI (the Spaniard, Rodrigo Borgia, elected in 1492), who was one of the most corrupt and immoral pontiffs in all papal history. Savonarola also berated the failings of the hierarchy through immorality and their abuse of wealth and power. His preaching boldly expressed similar concerns about Church and State that many good people were feeling. His words thus fanned an anti-clerical mood in the populace of Florence, who increasingly flocked to hear the truths that Savonarola fearlessly proclaimed.
He included in his severe public criticisms the civil rulers of Florence, including the dissolute Duke Piero de Medici (son and successor to Lorenzo de Medici in 1492), from whom Savonarola scooped up the vacated civil leadership of Florence when Piero fled the city under the threat of an advancing French army.
On 7 February 1497, Savonarola and his followers carried out the Bonfire of the Vanities (in Italian, Falò delle vanità). In their hostility to the Renaissance, they sent youth from door to door and collected thousands of items allegedly associated with moral laxity: mirrors, cosmetics, pagan books, sculptures and paintings that displayed nudity, gaming tables, chess pieces, lutes and other musical instruments, fine dresses, women’s hats, and burnt them all in a large bonfire in the Piazza della Signoria of Florence. Some fine Florentine Renaissance works of art were lost in Savonarola’s bonfires; although it is seriously doubted, it has often been said that Sandro Botticelli himself threw some of his paintings into the flames. (There had already been similar bonfires in Italy much earlier in the fifteenth century).
Image (above): A statue of Girolamo Savanarola in the Dominican monastery of San Marco, Florence.
Elements in both Church and State plotted the silencing of this forceful friar, especially as the general public became increasingly hostile to the apostolic and personal failings of their spiritual and temporal leaders. On 12th May 1497 he was issued with a sentence of excommunication for having since 1495 consistently refused to go to Rome to face charges of heresy. After forty days of imprisonment and days of torture on the rack in Florence in 1498, he was then brought to trial in Florence for falsely claiming to have seen visions, to have uttered prophecies, for religious error, and for sedition; under torture he had made admissions, but afterwards withdrew them. Even so, he was declared guilty and the death sentence was confirmed by Rome.
Still professing their adherence to the Church, on 23rd May 1498 he and two other Dominican friars were hanged from a single cross and an enormous fire was lit beneath them. This occurred in the Piazza della Signoria, the same place where the "Bonfire of the Vanities" had also happened. Their hanging and burning took several hours, and their remains were several times broken apart and mixed with brushwood so that not the slightest piece could be later recovered, as the ecclesiastical authorities did not want Savonarola’s followers to have any relics for a future generation of the rigorist preacher they considered a saint.
The ashes of the three were afterwards thrown in the Arno beside the Ponte Vecchio (the “Old Bridge” that still stands). Niccolò Machiavelli, author of The Prince, witnessed and wrote about the execution of Savonarola. Subsequently, Florence was governed along more traditional republican lines, until the return of the Medici in 1512. Although his faith in the dogmas of the Roman Catholic Church never swerved, his strenuous protests against papal corruption, and his intense moral earnestness undoubtedly associate Giralomo Savonarola with the course of events that led to the Protestant Reformation.
Photo Gallery For the Augnet photo gallery on Santo Spirito church in Florence, click here.