1902 Encyclopedia > Girolamo Savanarola

Girolamo Savanarola
Florentine preacher

GIROLAMO SAVONAROLA (1452-1498). The roll of Italian great men contains few grander names than that of Savonarola, and the career of this patriot-priest, re-former, and statesman is one of the strangest pages of Italy's history. Amid the splendid corruptions of the Italian Renaissance he was the representative of pure Christianity, the founder and ruler of an ideal Christian republic, and, when vanquished by the power of Rome, suffered martyrdom for the cause to which his life had been dedicated. His doctrines have been the theme of interminable controversies and contradictory judgments. He has been alternately declared a fanatic bent on the revival of mediaeval barbarism and an enlightened pre-cursor of the reformation, a true Catholic prophet and martyr and a shameless impostor and heretic. It is enough to say here that his best biographers and critics give satisfactory proofs that he was chiefly a reformer of morals, who, while boldly denouncing Papal corruptions, preserved an entire belief in all the dogmas of the Roman Catholic Church.

Girolamo Savonarola was born at Ferrara 21st September 1452, the third child of Michele Savonarola and his wife Elena Bonaccossi of Mantua. His grandfather, Michele Savonarola, a Paduan physician of much repute and learning, had settled in Ferrara at the invitation of the reigning marquis, Nicholas III. of Este, and gained a large fortune there. The younger Michele was a mere courtier and spendthrift, but Elena Savonarola seems to have been a woman of superior stamp. She was tenderly loved by her famous son, and his letters prove that she retained his fullest confidence through all the vicissitudes of his career.

Girolamo was a grave precocious child, with an early passion for learning. He was guided in his first studies by his wise old grandfather the physician ; and, in the hope of restoring their fallen fortunes, his parents intended him for the same profession. Even as a boy he had in-tense pleasure in reading St Thomas Aquinas and the Arab commentators of Aristotle, was skilled in the subtle-ties of the schools, wrote verses, studied music and design, and, avoiding society, loved solitary rambles on the banks of the Po. Grass-grown Ferrara was then a gay and bustling town of 100,000 inhabitants, its prince Borso d'Este a most magnificent potentate. To the mystic young student all festivities were repulsive, and although reared in a courtier-household he early asserted his individuality by his contempt for the pomp and glitter of court life. At the age of nineteen, however, he had as yet no thought of renouncing the world, for he was then passionately in love with the child of a friendly neighbour, a Strozzi exiled from Florence. His suit was repulsed with disdain ; no Strozzi, he was told, might stoop to wed a Savonarola. This blow probably decided his career, but he endured two years of misery and mental conflict before resolving to abandon his medical studies and devote himself to God's service. He was full of doubt and self-distrust; disgust for the world did not seem to him a sufficient qualification for the religious life, and his daily prayer was, " Lord! teach me the way my soul should walk." But in 1474 his doubts were dispelled by a sermon heard at Faenza, and his way was clear. Breading the pain of bidding farewell to his dear ones, he secretly stole away to Bologna, entered the monastery of St Domenico and then acquainted his father with his reasons for the step. The world's wickedness was intolerable, he wrote; through-out Italy he beheld vice triumphant, virtue despised. Among the papers he had left behind at Ferrara was a treatise on "Contempt of the World," inveighing against the prevalent corruption and predicting the speedy vengeance of Heaven. His novitiate was marked by a fervour of humility. He sought the most menial offices, and did penance for his sins by the severest austerities. According to contemporary writers he was worn to a shadow.

All portraits of this extraordinary man are at first sight almost repulsively ugly, but written descriptions tell us that his gaunt features were beautified by an expression of singular force and benevolence. Luminous dark eyes sparkled and flamed beneath his thick, black brows, and his large mouth and prominent nether lip were as capable of gentle sweetness as of power and set resolve. He was of middling stature, dark complexion, had a nervous system of exceeding delicacy and the sanguineo-bilious temperament so often associated with genius. His manners were simple, his speech unadorned and almost homely. His splendid oratorical power was as yet unrevealed; but his intellectual gifts being at once recognized his superiors charged him with the instruction of the novices, instead of the humbler tasks he had wished to fulfil. He passed six quiet years in the convent, but his poems written during that period are expressive of burning indignation against the increasing corruptions of the church and profoundest sorrow for the calamities of his country.

In 1482 he reluctantly accepted a mission to Ferrara, and, regarding earthly affections as snares of the evil one, tried to keep aloof from his family. His preachings attracted slight attention there, no one—as he later remarked— being a prophet in his own land. An outbreak of hostilities between Ferrara and Venice, fomented by Pope Sixtas IV., soon caused his recall to Bologna. Thence he was despatched to St Mark's in Florence, the scene of his future triumph and downfall.

Lorenzo the Magnificent was then (1482) at the height of his power and popularity, and the Florentines, dazzled by his splendour and devoted to pleasure and luxury, were docile subjects to his rule. At first Savonarola was enchanted with Florence. Fresh from the gloom of Bologna, sickened by the evils wrought on Italy by the scandalous nepotism of the pope, and oppressed by some natural human anxiety as to his reception in a strange city, the gaiety and charm of his novel surroundings lifted a weight from his soul. His cloister, sanctified by memories of St Antonine and adorned with the inspired paintings of Fra Angelico, seemed to him a fore-court of heaven. But his content speedily changed to horror. The Florence streets rang with Lorenzo's ribald songs (the "canti carnascialeschi"); the smooth, cultured citizens were dead to all sense of religion or morality; and the spirit of the fashionable heathen philosophy had even infected the brotherhood of St Mark. In 1483 Savonarola was Lenten preacher in the church of St Lorenzo, but his plain, earnest exhortations attracted few hearers, while all the world thronged to Santo Spirito to enjoy the elegant rhetoric of Fra Mariano da Genazzano. Discouraged by this failure in the pulpit, Savonarola now devoted himself to teaching in the convent, but his zeal for the salvation of the apathetic townsfolk was soon to stir him to fresh efforts. Convinced of being divinely inspired, he had begun to see visions, and discovered in the Apocalypse symbols of the heavenly vengeance about to overtake this sin-laden people. In a hymn to the Saviour composed at this time he gave vent to his prophetic dismay. The papal chair was now filled by Innocent VIII., whose rule was even more infamous than that of his predecessor Sixtus IV.
Savonarola's first success as a preacher was gained at St Gemignano (1484-85), but it was only at Brescia in the following year that his power as an orator was fully revealed. In a sermon on the Apocalypse he shook men's souls 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. A Brescian friar relates that a halo of light was seen to flash round his head, and the citizens remembered his awful prophecies when in 1512 their town was put to the sack by Gaston de Foix.
Soon, at a Dominican council at Reggio, Savonarola had occasion to display his theological learning and subtlety. The famous Pico della Mirandola was particularly impressed by the friar's attainments, and is said to have urged Lorenzo de' Medici to recall him from Lombardy. When Savonarola returned to Florence in 1490, his fame as an orator had gone there before him. The cloister garden was too small for the crowds attending his lectures, and on the 1st August 1490 he gave his first sermon in the church of St Mark. To quote his own words, it was " a terrible sermon," and legend adds that he foretold he should preach for eight years.

And now, for the better setting forth of his doctrines, to silence pedants, and confute malignant misinterpretation, he published a collection of his writings. These proved his knowledge of the ancient philosophy he so fiercely condemned, and showed that no ignorance of the fathers caused him to seek inspiration from the Bible alone. The Triumph of the Cross is his principal work, but everything he wrote was animated by the ardent spirit of piety evidenced in his life. Savonarola's sole aim was to bring mankind nearer to God.

In 1491 he was invited to preach in the cathedral, Sta Maria del Fiore, and his rule over Florence may be said to begin from that date. The anger and uneasiness of Lorenzo de' Medici gave testimony to his power. Five of the leading men of Florence were sent to urge him to moderate his tone, and in his own interest and that of his convent to show more respect to the head of the state. But Savonarola rejected their advice. " Tell your master," he said in conclusion, " that, albeit I am a humble stranger, he the lord of Florence, yet I shall remain and he depart" Afterwards, in the presence of many witnesses, he foretold that stupendous changes impended over Italy,—that Lorenzo, the pope, and the king of Naples were all near unto death.

In the July of the same year he was elected prior of St Mark's. As the convent had been rebuilt by Cosimo, and enriched by the bounty of the Medici, it was considered the duty of the new superior to present his homage to Lorenzo. Savonarola, however, refused to conform to the usage. His election was due to God, not Lorenzo ; to God alone would he promise submission. Upon this the sovereign angrily exclaimed : " This stranger comes to dwell in my house, yet will not stoop to pay me a visit." Nevertheless, disdaining to recognize the enmity of a mere monk, he tried various conciliatory measures. All were rejected by the unbending prior, who even refused to let his convent profit by Lorenzo's donations. The Magnifico then sought to undermine his popularity, and Fra Mariano was employed to attack him from the pulpit. But the preacher's scandalous accusations missed their mark, and disgusted his hearers without hurting his rival. Savon-arola took up the challenge; his eloquence prevailed, and Frá Mariano was silenced. But the latter, while feigning indifference, was thenceforth his rancorous and determined foe.

In April 1492 Lorenzo de' Medici was on his death-bed at Careggi. Oppressed by the weight of his crimes, he needed some assurance of divine forgiveness from trustier lips than those of obsequious courtiers, and summoned the unyielding prior to shrive his soul. Savonarola reluctantly came, and, after hearing the agitated confession of the dying prince, offered absolution upon three conditions. Lorenzo asked in what they consisted. First, "You must repent and feel true faith in God's mercy." Lorenzo assented. Secondly, "You must give up your ill-gotten wealth." This too Lorenzo promised, after some hesitation ; but upon hearing the third clause, "You must restore the liberties of Florence," Lorenzo turned his face to the wall and made no reply. Savonarola waited a few moments and then went away. And shortly after his penitent died unabsolved.

Savonarola's influence now rapidly increased. Many adherents of the late prince came over to his side, disgusted by the violence and incompetency of Piero de' Medici's rule. All state affairs were mismanaged, and Florence was fast losing the power and prestige acquired under Lorenzo. The same year witnessed the fulfilment of Savonarola's second prediction in the death of Inno-cent VIII. (July 1492); men's minds were full of anxiety, and the scandalous election of Cardinal Borgia to the papal chair heralded the climax of Italy's woes. The friar's utterances became more and more fervent and impassioned. Patriotic solicitude combined with close study of Biblical prophecies had stirred him to a pious frenzy, in which he saw visions and believed himself the recipient of divine revelations. It was during the delivery of one of his forcible Advent sermons that he beheld the celebrated vision, recorded in contemporary medals and engravings, that is almost a symbol of his doctrines. A hand appeared to him bearing a flaming sword inscribed with the words: " Gladius Domini supra terram cito et velociter." He heard supernatural voices proclaiming mercy to the faithful, vengeance on the guilty, and mighty cries that the wrath of God was at hand. Then the sword bent towards the earth, the sky darkened, thunder pealed, lightning flashed, and the whole world was wasted by famine, bloodshed, and pestilence. It was probably the noise of these sermons that caused the friar's temporary removal from Florence at the instance of Piero de' Medici. He was presently addressing enthusiastic congregations at Prato and Bologna. In the latter city his courage in rebuking the wife of Bentivoglio, the reigning lord, for interrupting divine service by her noisy entrance nearly cost him his life. Assassins were sent to kill him in his cell; but awed, it is said, by Savonarola's words and demeanour they fled dismayed from his presence. At the close of his last sermon the undaunted friar publicly announced the day and hour of his departure from Bologna ; and his lonely journey on foot over the Apennines was safely accomplished. He was rapturously welcomed by the community of St Mark's, and at once proceeded to re-establish the discipline of the order and to sweep away all abuses. For this purpose he obtained, after much difficulty, a papal brief emancipating the Dominicans of St Mark from the rule of the Lombard vicars of that order. He thus became an independent author-ity, no longer at the command of distant superiors. Thoroughly reorganizing the convent, he relegated many of the brethren to a quieter retreat outside the city, only retaining in Florence those best fitted to aid in intellectual labour. To render the convent self-supporting, he opened schools for various branches of art, and promoted the study of Oriental languages. His efforts were completely successful; the brethren's enthusiasm was fired by their superior's example ; religion and learning made equal pro-gress ; St Mark's became the most popular monastery in Florence, and many citizens of noble birth flocked thither to take the vows.

Meanwhile Savonarola continued to denounce the abuses of the church and the guilt and corruption of man. kind, and thundered forth predictions of heavenly wrath. The scourge of war was already at hand, for in 1494 the duke of Milan demanded the aid of France, and King Charles VIII. brought an army across the Alps. Piero de' Medici, maddened with fear, and forgetting that hitherto Florence had been the firm friend of France, made alliance with the Neapolitan sovereign whose kingdom was claimed by Charles. Then, repenting this ill-judged step, he hurried in person to the French camp at Pietra Santa, and humbled himself before the king. And, not content with agreeing to all the latter's demands, he further promised large sums of money and the surrender of the strongholds of Pisa and Leghorn.

This news drove Florence to revolt, and the worst excesses were feared from the popular fury. But even at this crisis Savonarola's influence was all-powerful, and a bloodless revolution was effected. Piero Capponi's declara-tion that "it was time to put an end to this baby govern-ment " was the sole weapon needed to depose Piero de' Medici. The resuscitated republic instantly sent a fresh embassy to the French king, to arrange the terms of his reception in Florence. Savonarola was one of the envoys, Charles being known to entertain the greatest veneration for the friar who had so long predicted his coming and declared it to be divinely ordained. He was most respectfully received at the camp, but could obtain no definite pledges from the king, who was bent on first coming to Florence. During Savonarola's absence Piero de' Medici had re-entered the city, found his power irretrievably lost, and been contemptuously but peaceably expelled. It is a proof of the high esteem in which Savonarola's convent was held that, although the headquarters of the victorious popular party, Piero's brother, Cardinal Medici, entrusted to its care a large share of the family treasures.

Returning full of hope from Pietra Santa, Savonarola might well have been dismayed by the distracted state of public affairs. There was no Government, and revolted Pisa was secretly favoured by the monarch who was knocking at the gates of Florence. Nevertheless, with the aid of Capponi, he guided the bewildered city safely through these critical days. Charles entered Florence on the 17th November 1494, and the citizens' fears evaporated in jests on the puny exterior of the "threatened scourge." But the exorbitance of his demands soon showed that he came as a foe. All was agitation; disturbances arose, and serious collision with the French troops seemed inevitable. The signory resolved to be rid of their dangerous guests; and, when Charles threatened to sound his trumpets unless the sums exacted were paid, Capponi tore up the treaty in his face and made the memorable reply: "Then we will ring our bells." The monarch was cowed, accepted moderate terms, and, yielding to Savonarola's remonstrances, left Florence on the 24th November.

The city was now free but in the utmost disorder, its commerce ruined, its treasury drained. After seventy years' subjection to the Medici it had forgotten the art of self-government, and felt the need of a strong guiding hand. So the citizens turned to the patriot monk whose words had freed them of King Charles, and Savonarola became the lawgiver of Florence. The first thing done at his instance was to relieve the starving populace within and without the walls; shops were opened to give work to the unemployed; all taxes, especially those weighing on the lower classes, were reduced; the strictest administration of justice was enforced, and all men were exhorted to place their trust in the Lord. And, after much debate as to the constitution of the new republic, Savonarola's influence carried the day in favour of Soderini's proposal of a universal or general government, with a great council on the Venetian plan, but modified to suit the needs of the city. The Florentines' love for their great preacher was enhanced by gratitude on this triumphant defence of their rights. The great council consisted of 3200 citizens of blameless reputation and over twenty-five years of age, a third of the number sitting for six months in turn in the hall of the Cinquecento expressly built for the pur-pose. There was also an upper council of eighty, which in conjunction with the signory decided all questions of too important and delicate a nature for discussion in the larger assembly. These institutions were approved by the people, and gave a fair promise of justice. Savonarola's programme of the new government was comprised in the following formula :—(1) fear of God and purification of manners; (2) promotion of the public welfare in pre-ference to private interests; (3) a general amnesty to political offenders; (4) a council on the Venetian model, but with no doge. At first the new machinery acted well; the public mind was tranquil, and the war with Pisa—not as yet of threatening proportions—was enough to occupy the Florentines and prevent internecine feuds.

Without holding any official post in the commonwealth he had created the prior of St Mark's was the real head of the state, the dictator of Florence, and guarded the public weal with extraordinary political wisdom. At his instance the tyrannical system of arbitrary imposts and so-called voluntary loans was abolished, and replaced by a tax of ten per cent, (la decima) on all real property. The laws and edicts of this period read like paraphrases of Savonarola's sermons, and indeed his counsels were always given as addenda to the religious exhortations in which he denounced the sins of his country and the pollution of the church, and urged Florence to cast off iniquity and become a truly Christian city, a pattern not only to Rome but to the world at large. His eloquence was now at the flood. Day by day his impassioned words, filled with the spirit of the Old Testament, wrought upon the minds of the Florentines and strung them to a pitch of pious emotion never before—and never since—attained by them. Their fervour was too hot to be lasting, and Savonarola's un-compromising spirit roused the hatred of political adver-saries as well as of the degraded court of Rome. Even now, when his authority was at its highest, when his fame filled the land, and the vast cathedral and its precincts lacked space for the crowds flocking to hear him, his enemies were secretly preparing his downfall.

Pleasure-loving Florence was completely changed. Ab-juring pomps and vanities, its citizens observed the ascetic regime of the cloister; half the year was devoted to abstinence and few dared to eat meat on the fasts ordained by Savonarola. Hymns and lauds rang in the streets that had so recently echoed with Lorenzo's dissolute songs. Both sexes dressed with Puritan plainness ; husbands and wives quitted their homes for convents ; marriage became an awful and scarcely permitted rite; mothers suckled their own babes ; and persons of all ranks—nobles, scholars, and artists—renounced the world to assume the Dominican robe. Still more wonderful was Savonarola's influence over children, and their response to his appeals is a proof of the magnetic power of his goodness and purity. He organized the boys of Florence in a species of sacred militia, an inner republic, with its own magistrates and officials charged with the enforcement of his rules for the holy life. It was with the aid of these youthful enthu-siasts that Savonarola arranged the religious carnival of 1496, when the citizens gave their costliest possessions in alms to the poor, and tonsured monks, crowned with flowers, sang lauds and performed wild dances for the glory of God. In the same spirit, and to point the doctrine of renunciation of carnal gauds, he celebrated the carnival of 1497 by the famous "burning of the vanities" in the Piazza della Signoria. A Venetian merchant is known to have bid 22,000 gold florins for the doomed vanities, but the scandalized authorities not only rejected his offer but added his portrait to the pile. Nevertheless the artistic value of the objects consumed has been greatly exaggerated by some writers. There is no proof that any book or painting of real merit was sacrificed, and Savonarola was neither a foe to art nor to learning. On the contrary, so great was his respect for both that, when there was a question of selling the Medici library to pay that family's debts, he saved the collection at the expense of the convent purse.

Meanwhile events were taking a, turn hostile to the prior. Alexander VI. had long regretted the enfranchise-ment of St Mark's from the rule of the Lombard Dominicans, and now, having seen a transcript of one of Savonarola's denunciations of his crimes, resolved to silence this daring preacher at any cost. Bribery was the first weapon employed, and a cardinal's hat was held out as a bait. But Savonarola indignantly spurned the offer, replying to it from the pulpit with the prophetic words : "No hat will I have but that of a martyr, reddened with my own blood."

So long as King Charles remained in Italy Alexander's concern for his own safety prevented all vigorous measures against the friar. But no Borgia ever forgot an enemy. He bided his time, and the transformation of sceptical Florence into an austerely Christian republic claiming the Saviour as its head only increased his resolve to crush the man who had wrought this marvel. The potent duke of Milan, Ludovico Sforza, and other foes were labouring for the same end, and already in July 1495 a papal brief had courteously summoned Savonarola to Rome. In terms of equal courtesy the prior declined the invitation, nor did he obey a second, less softly worded, in September. Then came a third, threatening Florence with an interdict in case of renewed refusal. Savonarola disregarded the command, but suspending his sermons went to preach for a while in other Tuscan cities. But in Lent his celebrated sermons upon Amos were delivered in the duomo, and again he urged the necessity of reforming the church, striving by ingenious arguments to reconcile re-bellion against Alexander with unalterable fidelity to the Holy See. All Italy recognized that a mortal combat was going on between a humble friar and the head of the church. What would be the result? Savonarola's voice was arousing a storm that might shake even the power of Rome ! Alive to the danger, the pope knew that his foe must be crushed, and the religious carnival of 1496 afforded a good pretext for stronger proceedings against him. The threatened anathema was, for some reason, deferred, but a brief uniting St Mark's to a new Tuscan branch of the Dominicans now deprived Savonarola of his independent power. However, in the beginning of 1497 the Piagnoni were again in office, with the prior's staunch friend, Francesco Valori, at their head. In March the aspect of affairs changed. The Arrabbiati and the Medicean faction merged political differences in their common" hatred to "Savonarola. Piero de' Medici's fresh attempt to re-enter Florence failed; nevertheless his followers continued their intrigues, and party spirit in-creased in virulence. The citizens were growing weary of the monastic austerities imposed on them, and Alexander foresaw that his revenge was at hand.

A signory openly hostile to Savonarola took office in May, and on Ascension Day his enemies ventured on active insult. His pulpit in the duomo was defiled, an ass's skin spread over the cushion, and sharp nails fixed in the board on which he would strike his hand. The outrage was discovered and remedied before the service began; and, although the Arrabbiati half filled the church and even sought to attempt his life, Savonarola kept his com-posure and delivered a most impressive sermon. But the incident proved the bitterness and energy of his foes, and the signory, in feigned anxiety for the public peace, be-sought him to suspend his discourses. Shortly afterwards the threatened bull of excommunication was launched against him, and Fra Mariano was in Rome stimulating the pope's wrath. Savonarola remained undaunted. The sentence was null and void, he said. His mission was divinely inspired; and Alexander, elected simoniacally and laden with crimes, was no true pope. Nevertheless the reading of the bull in the duomo with the appropriate, terrifying ceremonial made a deep impression on the Florentines. And now, the Arrabbiati signory putting no check on the Compagnacci, the city returned to the wanton licence of Lorenzo's reign. But in July Savonarola's friends were again in power and did their best to have his excommunication removed. Meanwhile party strife was stilled by an outbreak of the plague. The prior of St Mark's used the wisest precautions for the safety of his two hundred and fifty monks, sustained their courage by his own, and sent the younger men to a country retreat out of reach of contagion. During this time Rome was horror-struck by the mysterious murder of the young duke of Gandia, and the bereaved pope mourned his son with the wildest grief. Savonarola addressed to the pontiff a letter of condolence, boldly urging him to bow in the will of Heaven and repent while there was yet time.

The plague ended, Florence was plunged in fresh troubles from Medicean intrigues, and a conspiracy for the restoration of Piero was discovered. Among the five leading citizens concerned in the plot was Bernardo del Nero, a very aged man of lofty talents and position. The gonfalonier, Francesco Valori, used his strongest influence to obtain their condemnation, and all five were put to death. It is said that at least Bernardo del Nero would have been spared had Savonarola raised his voice, but, although refraining from any active part against the prisoners, the prior would not ask mercy for them. This silence proved fatal to his popularity with moderate men, gave new adherents to the Arrabbiati, and whetted the fury of the pope, Sforza, and all potentates well disposed to the Medici faction. He was now interdicted from preaching even in his own convent and again summoned to Rome. As before, the mandate was disobeyed. He refrained from public preaching, but held conferences in St Mark's with large gatherings of his disciples, and defied the interdict on Christmas Day by publicly celebrating mass and heading a procession through the cloisters.

The year 1498, in which Savonarola was to die a martyr's death, opened amid seemingly favourable auspices. The Piagnoni were again at tin head of the state, and by their request the prior resumed his sermons in the duomo, while his dearest disciple, Fra Domenico Buonvicini, filled the pulpit of St Lorenzo. Scaffoldings had to be erected to accommodate Savonarola's congregation, and the Arrabbiati could only vent their spite by noisy riots on the piazza outside the cathedral. For the last time the carnival was again kept with strange religious festivities, and many valuable books and works of art were sacrificed in a second bonfire of " vanities." But menacing briefs poured in from Rome; the pope had read one of Savonarola's recent sermons on Exodus; the city itself was threatened with interdict, and the Florentine ambas-sador could barely obtain a short delay. Now too the Piagnoni quitted office; the new signory was less friendly, and the prior was persuaded by his adherents to retire to St Mark's. There he continued to preach with unabated zeal; and, since the women of Florence deplored the loss of his teachings, one day in the week was set apart for them. The signory tried to conciliate the pope by relating the wonderful spiritual effects of their preacher's words, but Alexander was obdurate. The Florentines must either silence the man themselves, or send him to be judged by a Roman tribunal.

Undismayed by personal danger, Savonarola resolved to appeal to all Christendom against the unrighteous pontiff, and despatched letters to the rulers of Europe adjuring them to assemble a council to condemn this antipope. The council of Constance, and the deposition of John XXIII., were satisfactory precedents still remembered by the world. One of these letters being intercepted and sent to Rome by the duke of Milan (it is said) proved fatal to the friar. The papal threats were now too urgent to be disregarded, and the cowed signory entreated Savonarola to put an end to his sermons. He reluctantly obeyed, and concluded his last discourse with the tenderest and most touching farewell. Perhaps he foresaw that he should never again address his flock from the pulpit.
The Government now hoped that Alexander would be appeased and Florence allowed to breathe freely. But although silenced the prophet was doomed, and the folly of his disciples precipitated his fate. A creature of the Arrabbiati, a Franciscan friar named Francesco di Puglia, challenged Savonarola to prove the truth of his doctrines by the ordeal of fire. At first the prior treated the provocation with merited contempt, but unfortunately his too zealous disciple Fra Domenico accepted the challenge. And, when the Franciscan declared that he would enter the fire with Savonarola alone, Fra Domenico protested his willingness to enter it with any one in defence of his master's cause. So, as Savonarola resolutely declined the trial, the Franciscan deputed a convert, one Giuliano dei Rondinelli, to go through the ordeal with Fra Domenico. There were long preliminary disputes. Savonarola, per-ceiving that a trap was being laid for him, discountenanced the " experiment" until over-persuaded by his disciple's prayers. Perhaps because it was a mere reductio ad absurdum of his clearest beliefs, he was strangely perplexed and vacillating with regard to it. With his firm convic-tion of the divinity of his mission he sometimes felt assured of the triumphant issue of the terrible ordeal. Alternately swayed by impassioned zeal and the prompt-ings of reason, his calmer judgment was at last overborne by the fanaticism of his followers. Aided by the signory, which was playing into the hands of Rome, the Arrabbiati and Compagnacci pressed the matter on, and the way was now clear for Savonarola's destruction.
On the 7th April 1498 an immense throng gathered in the Piazza della Signoria to enjoy the barbarous sight. Two thick banks of combustibles forty yards long, with a narrow space between, had been erected in front of the palace, and five hundred soldiers kept a wide circle clear of the crowd. Some writers aver that the piles were charged with gunpowder. Not only the square but every window, balcony, or housetop commanding a glimpse of it was filled with eager spectators. The Dominicans from one side, the Franciscans from the other, marched in solemn procession to the Loggia dei Lanzi, which had been divided by a hoarding into two separate compartments. The Dominicans were led by Savonarola carrying the host, which he reverently deposited on an altar prepared in his portion of the loggia, and when Fra Domenico was seen to kneel before it the Piagnoni burst into a song of praise. The magistrates signalled to the two champions to advance. Fra Domenico stepped forward, but neither Rondinelli nor Fra Francesco appeared. The Franciscans began to urge fantastic objections. The Dominican's vestments might be bewitched, they said. Then, when he promptly changed them for a friar's robe, they pretended that his proximity to Savonarola had probably renewed the charm. He must remove the cross that he wore. He again complied,—was ready to fulfil every condition in order to enter the fire. But fresh obstacles were suggested by the Franciscans, and, when Savonarola insisted that his champion should bear the host, they cried out against the sacrilege of exposing the Redeemer's body to the flames. All was turmoil and confusion, the crowd frantic. And, although Rondinelli had not come, the signory sent angry messages to ask why the Dominicans delayed the trial. Meanwhile the Arrabbiati stirred the public dis-content and threw all the blame on Savonarola. Some Compagnacci assaulted the loggia in order to kill him, but were driven back by Salviati's band. The foreign soldiery, fearing an attack on the palace, charged the excited mob, and the tumult was temporarily checked. It was now late in the day, and a storm shower gave the authorities a pretext for declaring that heaven was against the ordeal. The crafty Franciscans slipped away un-observed, but Savonarola raising the host attempted to lead his monks across the piazza in the same solemn order as before. On this the popular fury burst forth. De-frauded of their bloody diversion, the people were wild with rage. Fra Girolamo's power was suddenly at an end. These Florentines who had worshipped him as a saint turned on him with rabid hate. Neither he nor his brethren would have lived to reach St Mark's but for the devoted help of Salviati and his men. They were pelted, stoned, and followed with the vilest execrations. Against the real culprits, the dastardly Franciscans, no anger was felt; the zealous prior, the prophet and lawgiver of Florence, was made the popular scapegoat. Notwith-standing the anguish that must have filled his heart, the fallen man preserved his dignity and calm. Mounting his own pulpit in St Mark's he quietly related the events of the day to the faithful assembled in the church, and then withdrew to his cell, while the mob on the square outside was clamouring for his blood.

The next morning, the signory having decreed the prior's banishment, Francesco Valori and other leading Piagnoni hurried to him to concert measures for his safety. Meanwhile the Government decided on his arrest, and no sooner was this made public than the populace rushed to the attack of the convent. The doors of St Mark's were hastily secured, and Savonarola discovered that his adherents had secretly prepared arms and munitions and were ready to stand a siege. The signory sent to order all laymen to quit the cloister, and a special summons to Valori. After some hesitation the latter obeyed, hoping by his influence to rally all the Piagnoni to the rescue. But he was murdered in the street, and his palace sacked by the mob. The monks and their few remaining friends made a most desperate defence. In vain Savonarola besought them to lay down their arms. Fra Benedetto the painter and others fought like lions, while some hurled tiles on the assailants below. When the church was finally stormed Savonarola was seen praying at the altar, and Fra. Domenico, armed with an enormous candlestick, guarding him from the blows of the mob. Profiting by the smoke and confusion a few disciples dragged their beloved master to the inner library and urged him to escape by the window. He hesitated, seemed about to consent, when a cowardly monk, one Malatesta Sacramoro, cried out that the shepherd should lay down his life for his flock. Thereupon Savonarola turned, bade farewell to the brethren, and, accompanied by the faithful Domenico, quietly surrendered to his enemies. Later, betrayed by the same Malatesta, Fra Silvestro was also seized. Hustled, insulted, and injured by the ferocious crowd, the prisoners were conveyed to the Palazzo Vecchio, and Savonarola was lodged in the tower cell which had once harboured Cosimo de' Medici.

Now came an exultant brief from the pope. His well-beloved Florentines were true sons of the church, but must crown their good deeds by despatching the criminals to Rome. Sforza was equally rejoiced by the news, and the only potentate who could have perhaps saved Savonarola's life, Charles of France, had died on the day of the ordeal by fire. Thus another of the friar's prophecies was verified, and its fulfilment cost him his sole protector.

The result of the trial was a foregone conclusion. The signory refused to send their prisoners to Rome, but they did Rome's behests. Savonarola's judges were chosen from his bitterest foes. Day after day he was cruelly tortured, and in his agony, with a frame weakened by constant austerity and the mental strain of the past months, he made every admission demanded by his tormentors. But directly he was released from the rack he always withdrew the confessions uttered in the delirium of pain. And, these being too incoherent to serve for a legal report, a false account of the friar's avowals was drawn up and published instead of his real words.

Though physically unable to resist torture, Savonarola's clearness of mind returned whenever he was at peace in his cell. So long as writing materials were allowed him he employed himself in making a commentary on the Psalms, in which he restated all his doctrines. His doom was fixed, but some delay was caused by the pope's unwillingness to permit the execution in Florence. Alex-ander was frantically eager to see his enemy die in Rome. But the signory remained firm, insisting that the false prophet should suffer death before the Florentines whom he had so long led astray. The matter was finally com-promised. A second mock trial was held by two apostolic commissioners specially appointed by the pope. One of the new judges was a Venetian general of the Dominicans, the other a Spaniard. Meanwhile the trial of Brothers Domenico and Silvestro was still in progress. The former remained nobly faithful to his master and himself. No extremity of torture could make him recant or extract a syllable to Savonarola's hurt; he steadfastly repeated his belief in the divinity of the prior's mission. Fra Silvestro on the contrary gave way at mere sight of the rack, and this seer of heavenly visions owned himself and master guilty of every crime laid to their charge.

The two commissioners soon ended their task. They had the pope's orders that Savonarola was to die "even were he a second John the Baptist." On three successive days they "examined" the prior with worse tortures than before. But he now resisted pain better, and, although more than once a promise to recant was extorted from him, he reasserted his innocence when unbound, crying out, " My God, I denied Thee for fear of pain." On the evening of May 22 sentence of death was pronounced on him and his two disciples. Savonarola listened unmoved to the awful words, and then quietly resumed his interrupted devotions. Fra Domenico exulted in the thought of dying by bis master's side ; Fra Silvestro, on the contrary, raved with despair.

The only favour Savonarola craved before death was a short interview with his fellow victims. This, after long debate, the signory unwillingly granted, and meanwhile a monk was sent to shrive all the three. The memorable meeting took place in the hall of the Cinquecento. During their forty days of confinement and torture each one had been told that the others had recanted, and the false report of Savonarola's confession had been shown to the two monks. The three were now face to face for the first time. Fra Domenico's loyalty had never wavered, and the weak Silvestro's enthusiasm rekindled at sight of his chief. Savonarola prayed with the two men, gave them his blessing, and exhorted them by the memory of their Saviour's crucifixion to submit meekly to their fate. Midnight was long past when Savonarola was led back to his cell. Jacopo Niccolini, one of a religious fraternity dedicated to consoling the last hours of condemned men, remained with him. Spent with weakness and fatigue he asked leave to rest his head on his companion's lap, and quickly fell into a quiet sleep. As Niccolini tells us, the martyr's face became serene and smiling as a child's. On awaking he addressed kind words to the compassionate brother, and then prophesied that dire calamities would befall Florence during the reign of a pope named Clement. The carefully recorded prediction was verified by the siege of 1529.

The execution took place the next morning. A scaffold, connected by a wooden bridge with the magistrates' rostrum, had been erected on the spot where the piles of the ordeal had stood. At one end of the platform was a huge cross with faggots heaped at its base. As the prisoners, clad in penitential haircloth, were led across the bridge, wanton boys thrust sharp sticks between the planks to wound their feet. First came the ceremonial of degradation. Sacerdotal robes were thrown over the victims, and then roughly stripped off by two Dominicans, the bishop of Vasona and the prior of Sta Maria Novella. To the bishop's formula, "I separate thee from the church militant and the church triumphant," Savonarola replied in firm tones, "Not from the church triumphant ; that is beyond thy power." By a refinement of cruelty Savonarola was the last to suffer. His disciples' bodies already dangled from the arms of the cross before he was hung on the centre beam. Then the pile was fired. For a moment the wind blew the flames aside, leaving the corpses untouched. "A miracle," cried the weeping Piagnoni ; but then the fire leapt up and ferocious yells of triumph rang from the mob. At dusk the martyrs' remains were collected in a cart and thrown into the Arno.

Savonarola's party was apparently annihilated by his death, but, when in 1529-30 Florence was exposed to the horrors predicted by him, the most heroic defenders of his beloved if ungrateful city were Piagnoni who ruled their lives by his precepts and revered his memory as that of a saint.

Savonarola's writings may be classed in three categories :—(1) numerous sermons, collected mainly by Lorenzo Violi, one of his most enthusiastic hearers ; (2) an immense number of devotional and moral essays and some theological works, of which U Trionfo della Croce is the chief ; (3) a few short poems and a political treatise on the government of Florence. Although his faith in the dogmas of the Roman Catholic Church never swerved, his strenuous protests against papal corruptions, his reliance on the Bible as his surest guide, and his intense moral earnestness un-doubtedly connect Savonarola with the movement that heralded the Reformation.

See Rudelbach, Jlieronymus Savonarola und seine Zeit, aus den Quellen dargestellt (1835); Karl Meier, Girolamo Savonarola, aus grossentheils handschriftlichen Quellen dargestellt (1836) ; Padre Vincenzo Marchese, Storia di S. Marco di Firenze (1855) ; F. T. Perrens, Jérôme Savonarola, sa vie, ses prédications, ses écrits (1853) ; R. R. Madden, The Life and Martyrdom of Girolamo Savonarola, etc. (1854); Eartolommeo Aquarone, Vita di Fra Geronimo Savonarola (1857); Pasquale Villari, La Storia di Girolamo Savonarola e de' suoi tempi (1882). (L. V.)

Search the Encyclopedia:

About this EncyclopediaTop ContributorsAll ContributorsToday in History
Terms of UsePrivacyContact Us

© 2005-17 1902 Encyclopedia. All Rights Reserved.

This website is the free online Encyclopedia Britannica (9th Edition and 10th Edition) with added expert translations and commentaries