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.
The biographical material about the author originally appeared on The Goodrich Room: Interactive Tour website.
Last modified April 10, 2014