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Girolamo Savonarola (b. 1452, duchy of Ferrara; d. 1498, Florence) is best
known for his attempt to reform Renaissance Florence society and the Catholic
church from the vices of modern life as he knew them. As a young man Savonarola
found more enjoyment in his study of Saint Thomas Aquinas than in his medical
practice. He recoiled at the corruption of university life and eventually retreated
to a Dominican monastery (1475). After six years' training he was assigned to
Florence as a priest. Although a gifted orator, his sermons full of medieval
Scholastic theology and arguments drove away parishioners, and he was reassigned
to the basic instruction of novices. It was during this time that he discovered
the apocalyptic writings of Joachim of Flora (1132-1202), who spoke of three
ages of history and the possibility of human perfection through God in the final
stage. Savonarola was one of many to accept this view, and he wove Joachim's
message into his own preaching. He proclaimed that the Antichrist had arrived
and the third stage of history was close at hand. Those who hoped to survive
and achieve salvation had to reform and move closer to God.
The same people who had fled his sermons filled with boring medieval philosophy
flocked to hear him preach his apocalyptic message of repentance and reform.
He gained credibility when his predictions that Pope Innocent VIII (r. 1484-1492)
and Lorenzo de Medici (1449-1492) would both die in 1492 came to pass. His involvement
with politics began when Lorenzo's son, Pietro de Medici (1471-1503), was driven
from Florence after arranging an unfavorable peace with the invading king of
France, Charles VIII (r. 1483-1498).
After Pietro fled Florence, Savonarola and others negotiated a more advantageous
peace with Charles. During the chaos accompanying the change of government,
those in power turned to the popular Savonarola to restore order. He seized
the opportunity and used it to prepare Florence for the next historical age
of moral and religious perfection. To bring this into being, he instituted a
set of political, economic, and moral reforms. The republican constitution he
proposed was a democracy of limited participation, but for the most part the
major features of government remained the same as those under the Medici, with
amnesty for their former supporters. The most radical changes enacted were economic
and moral in nature.
Savonarola reformed the tax base of Florence to eliminate all but a broad-based
land tax. This freed the merchant class from previously high levies and reassigned
the tax burden to the landowners. In order to help the poorer elements of society,
a state loan office was established that offered loans at 5-7 percent, as opposed
to rates of up to 30 percent charged by private lenders. Moral reforms were
designed to eliminate vices that might interfere with the religious revival
necessary for the coming rule of God. Horse racing, gambling, and profanity
were banned, as were profane songs and indecent dress. Offenders, including
blasphemers and sexual deviants, were punished by torture. Savonarola organized
young boys to help enforce his policies. These groups of children roamed the
city collecting love songs, profane books, carnival masks, and other immoral
items, which were piled into a pyramid sixty feet high and sixty feet on each
side and burned as vanities (hence "bonfire of the vanities").
Savonarola's venture enjoyed great initial success as the Florentine people
sought to take the moral high road; however, the opposition quickly closed ranks.
It was Savonarola's alliance with the French, not his biting criticism of the
papacy in general and Alexander VI (r. 1492-1503) in particular, that brought
papal condemnation and isolated Florence from the rest of Italy. The pope and
other Italian cities had allied themselves to maintain their independence from
foreign involvement, and they felt threatened by Savonarola's pleas to a foreign
leader to instigate a general council for church reform. Additionally, the reversal
of French fortunes in Italy allowed Florentine dependents such as Pisa to declare
independence, which eroded faith in Savonarola's leadership. Economic reversals
meant widespread poverty and, in 1497, starvation. Shortly thereafter, Savonarola's
ecclesiastical and political enemies brought him down.
Savonarola, on the one hand, has been periodically considered for canonization;
certain Catholic saints of the Catholic reformation such as Philip Neri (1515-1595)
and Catherine de' Ricci (1522-1590) and reformers such as Luis of Granada (1504-1588)
held him in high regard. On the other hand, his involvement with one of the
more bizarre periods of Florentine history combined with his apocalyptic message
and medieval philosophy have caused some people to question his motivation and
dismiss him as an anomaly in Renaissance history. Nonetheless, Savonarola set
an important precedent for later religious reformers who stressed traditional
moral teachings and Christian simplicity.
Works by the Author
Savonarola, Girolamo. The Triumph of the Cross. Translated by John
Procter. London: Sands and Company, 1901.
Savonarola, Girolamo. The Triumph of the Cross. Translated by O'Dell
Travers Hill. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1848.
The biographical material about the author originally appeared on The
Goodrich Room: Interactive Tour website.