Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Has history been unfair to Savonarola?

Execution of Girolamo Savonarola on the Piazza della Signoria, Florence 1498

Speaking of books, here is a new one that looks like it is worth reading:

Fire in the City : Savonarola and the Struggle for the Soul of Renaissance Florence by Lauro Martines

Anne and I went to Italy on our honeymoon, and one of the cities where we spent the longest amount of time was Florence. Visiting the old Dominican Friary there to look at the works of Fra Angelico, we were struck by how important a figure Savonarola was in Florence on the eve of the Reformation, both to the Dominican Order, and to the city. His name has always been a catchword for fanaticism and puritanism, best known and exemplified by “The Bonfire of the Vanities”. There has been a small counter-current, however, that has always seen Savonarola as a reformer. Lauro Martines seems to be one who thinks so too.

The Book Description from Amazon:

A gripping and beautifully written narrative that reads like a novel, Fire in the City presents a compelling account of a key moment in the history of the Renaissance, illuminating the remarkable man who dominated the period, the charismatic Savonarola. Lauro Martines, whose decades of scholarship have made him one of the most admired historians of Renaissance Italy, here provides a remarkably fresh perspective on Girolamo Savonarola, the preacher and agitator who flamed like a comet through late fifteenth-century Florence. The Dominican friar has long been portrayed as a dour, puritanical demagogue who urged his followers to burn their worldly goods in "the bonfire of the vanities." But as Martines shows, this is a caricature of the truth--the version propagated by the wealthy and powerful who feared the political reforms he represented.

In fact, Savonarola emerges as a complex and subtle man: compassionate, wise, a poet and scholar, and even, at critical moments, a force for moderation. The friar, a mesmerizing preacher, set the city afire with his message of Christian charity wedded to republican ideals.

It is this reality--of Savonarola as both religious and civic leader--that Martines captures in all its complexity, showing how he inspired an outpouring of political debate in a city newly freed from the tyranny of the Medici. In the end, the volatile passions he unleashed--and the powerful families he threatened--sent the friar to his own fiery death. But the fusion of morality and politics that he represented would leave a lasting mark on Renaissance Florence.

So many books, and so little time… and money.

In contrast to that, Here is what the Catholic Encyclopedia says about Savonarola.

In the beginning Savonarola was filled with zeal, piety, and self-sacrifice for the regeneration of religious life. He was led to offend against these virtues by his fanaticism, obstinacy, and disobedience. He was not a heretic in matters of faith. The erection of his statue at the foot of Luther's monument at Worms as a reputed "forerunner of the Reformation" is entirely unwarranted.


Liam said...

Very interesting. Once you get into the 15th century, I'm a complete amateur, but I can say that it's often hard to separate puritainism from the reforming impulse. I think often we fall into the error of deciding a historical figure must be either a good guy (reformer) or a bad guy (fanatical puritain), when actually reality is much more complex.

Although Savonarola went up against the tyrannical and corrupt Medicis, be also established the same kind of puritain theocracy in the culurally flourishing city of Florence that would later been seen in Calvin's Geneva. Was this good? Bad?

Personally, having grown up in Utah, I'm not a big fan of puritain theocracies.

Jeff said...


Good points. Utah, eh? You were right in the heart of Mormon country?

A couple of years ago, PBS did a series on the Medici family. In that series, Savonarola was portrayed as a wild-eyed, self-flagellating monster who spitefully refused to grant absolution to Lorenzo de Medici after Lorenzo made a sincere confession on his deathbed. I'm sure the whole relationship was a lot more complicated. I'm interested in hearing this author give another side of the story. After all, Savonarola could write, and apparently wrote prodigously and persuasively. You'd never know that from the way he is sometimes portrayed. I want to see the nuances.

Paula said...

Savonarola had good intentions but he placed to much oil on fire, I would say after reading your post.:-).

Jeff said...


Yeah, it didn't turn out to suit him too well in the long run, did it?

It makes you wonder about St. John the Baptist and the way he was perceived too. Eating locusts, wearing camel's hair, and all that hollering about a viper's brood and God being able to make better children for Abraham out of rocks. Makes you wonder if he was seen as a raving fundie too.

BTW, nice blog. :-)

crystal said...

An interesting post, Jeff. I must come down on the side against Savonarola, if for no other reason than he sp ruthlessly executed peoiple. But I have another reason ... Ignatius of Loyola thought he was a creep also :-). Have you read about the Jesuit vs Dominican fight over whether he's to be canonized? Here's a link

Paula said...

Jeff, st John the Baptist was like that...well his role was to shake the conscience of people, to even shock them, make them ask questions about themselves...people like that do not last long...they are not comfortable for others, so they end up eliminated...he was also of great humility when it came to his role...he said about Christ: He has to grow and I have to become little"( something like this).

My blog is nice you say...Thanks.It is my best anti-stressor.:-).

Jeff said...


Great article! Thanks for the link. I'm a huge admirer of Inigo Loyola and the early Jesuits. In those endless 16th controversies over grace between the Dominicans and the Jesuits, I come down emphatically on the Jesuit side. I'm a Molinist through and through.

It says in the article that Ignatius wanted Savonarola's works burned because he considered him an enemy of the papacy. I wonder how he would see his own Company of Jesus today. Would he approve of their current stance as one that sometimes needs to offer loyal dissent to the papacy in order to serve it best(that in effect, says to the Pope, "Yes, but..."), or would he consider them as enemies of the papacy?

As over-the-top Savonarola may have been, I wonder if history may have turned out differently if the Church had taken his charges of simony and corruption seriously and to heart and made steps to clean itself up and reform. Perhaps the break that occurred 20 years later with Luther and his followers would not have occurred(?)