Fra Girolamo Savonarola: execution of an unorthodox friar in Florence

On the 23th of May 1498, Fra Girolamo Savonarola and his two most fervent supporters – Fra Girolamo and Fra Domenico – were escorted out of their prison into the main Florentine square (Piazza della Signoria).  They faced a high ecclesiastic tribunal, who condemned them as heretics and schismatics, having sentenced them to die forthwith.  A year ago, Pope Alexander VI had excommunicated Savonarola and threatened the city’s population with an interdict if they persisted in defending him, for the friar spoke extremely negative speeches against the Vatican.

      Painting (1650) of Savonarola’s execution in the Piazza della Signoria

Stripped of their Dominican garments, Savonarola and the two friars climbed the scaffold under the malicious gazes of the huge crowd, wearing only thin white shirts.  Each of them was on separate gallows, and then they were all hanged while at the same time, fires were kindled below them to consume their mortal forms.  Savonarola and his two main followers died in agonizing torments in the flames that licked their bodies for minutes.  The new Florentine government ordered that their ashes were carted away and scattered in the Arno River, on which the city stood.   They strove to prevent fanatics from searching for the ashes as relics.

Why is Savonarola so infamous?  He was an Italian Dominican friar from Ferrara and preacher active in Florence even before the death of the illustrious Lorenzo de’ Medici Il Magnifico in 1492.  Savonarola despised the Golden Florentine Renaissance – books, luxuries, many gorgeous sculptures and paintings created under the Medici patronage and under the patronages of other local connoisseurs, and all objects of art which he considered wicked and against God.  While it is a myth that Savonarola had cursed Lorenzo on his deathbed, the monk had annihilated many of the progressive achievements in culture, which the Medici had introduced and sponsored.

Every day, Savonarola preached on the First Epistle of John and on the Book of Revelation, about the new Christian World, drawing large crowds of people to listen to him.  In his public speeches, Savonarola declared his prophecies of civic glory, associated with the destruction of secular art and culture because it was supposedly God’s will.  In his eyes, it was the new Christian renewal without books and art!  What was good was that he denounced clerical corruption and the exploitation of the poor.   He insisted that the Vatican was a nest of the devil and his servants.  Savonarola also prophesied the coming of a biblical flood and a new Cyrus from the north who would reform the Church.

        Illustration from Compendio di revelatione, 1496, by Savonarola

In one of his most famous sermons, Savonarola preached:

“I announce this good news to the city, that Florence will be more glorious, richer, more powerful than she has ever been; First, glorious in the sight of God as well as of men: and you, O Florence will be the reformation of all Italy, and from here the renewal will begin and spread everywhere, because this is the navel of Italy. Your counsels will reform all by the light and grace that God will give you. Second, O Florence, you will have innumerable riches, and God will multiply all things for you. Third, you will spread your empire, and thus you will have power temporal and spiritual.”

The invasion of King Charles VIII of France in Italy in September 1494 seemed to show that Savonarola’s prophecies about the coming of a new Cyrus from the north were fulfilled.  Due to his incompetent actions, Piero de’ Medici, Lorenzo’s eldest son, was exiled from Florence together with the Medici family.  The city again became republican, and many Florentines were infected with Savonarola’s teachings.   Savonarola did one very good thing: his extreme puritanical campaign included the help of Florentine youth, but many others lost a lot of wealth thanks to him.

         Fra Girolamo Savonarola on his portrait and in the Italian series ‘The Medici’

In 1495, already after the Medici’s exile, the Republican Florence did not join the Pope’s Holy League against Charles VIII, and the friar was ordered to come to Rome.  Nevertheless, Savonarola ignored the call and continued preaching, going even further than before.  He and his acolytes, known as ‘Weepers’ for their overwrought manner, organized ‘the bonfires of the vanities’ in 1497 when he assembled and burned thousands of cosmetics, artworks, and books on the Shrove Tuesday festival.  By doing so, Savonarola proved and stressed his unorthodox views, and, astonishingly, even the most enlightened people of the time came under his spell.  Sandro Botticelli destroyed in these fires some of his secular paintings.  The humanist poet Girolamo Benivieni composed devotional songs to Savonarola and his reforms in the city in 1496, 1497 and 1498, replacing the merry and “shameful”  songs popular during the era of Lorenzo de’ Medici.

The new Florentine Republic, led by Savonarola and his supporters in Signoria, had to be cleansed from vice.  The Florentines were under such hypnotic influence from the friar that they eagerly embraced his teachings and attempted to live in a “pure” way.  Savonarola and his faction ensured that new laws were passed against sodomy, including male and female same-sex relations, adultery, public inebriety, and other moral transgressions.  Florence was under the control of religious zealots, which eventually resulted in the collapse of trade and the empty state treasury because Savonarola was against trade and, according to him, money was from the devil.

Machiavelli wrote of Savonarola in his book ‘Prince’:

‘If Moses, Cyrus, Theseus, and Romulus had been unarmed they could not have enforced their constitutions for long—as happened in our time to Fra Girolamo Savonarola, who was ruined with his new order of things immediately the multitude believed in him no longer, and he had no means of keeping steadfast those who believed or of making the unbelievers to believe.’

A plaque commemorates the site of Savonarola’s execution in the Piazza della Signoria, in Florence.

This catastrophe continued for several years.  After Savonarola’s excommunication, the religious services were still allowed to continue because Florence was not out under interdict, and even in these times Savonarola preached a great deal against the Vatican and the normal way of life, which the middle class of the Renaissance era was accustomed to.  On the 7th of April, a rival preacher challenged him to a ‘trial by fire’, the first one in Florence for over four 400 years.  A large throng assembled on the central piazza, but suddenly it started raining heavily, and the government officials cancelled everything.  The people dispersed, many of them furious that Savonarola did not even appear, and it seemed that God abandoned the friar.

Soon Savonarola and his most ardent adherents were arrested and executed.  Nevertheless, the friars of San Marco, where Savonarola often preached, created a cult of “the three martyrs”.  I cannot understand how it is possible to venerate Savonarola as a saint after his bonfires, for I love the arts with every fibre of my being.  In addition, Savonarolan ideas were widely known in Germany and in Switzerland, and the early Protestant reformers commended the dead friar for his actions and his criticism of the Papacy.  Martin Luther read some of the monk’s writings and called him a martyr.  In a way, Savonarola became a forerunner of Protestant Reformation.

All images are in the public domain.

Text © 2020 Olivia Longueville