EXCOMMUNICATING A FRIAR
On this day in 1497, the Borgia Pope, Alexander VI, excommunicated the Dominican friar, Girolamo Savonarola. But who was Savonarola? What did he do that deserved excommunication in a time so rife with sin? And, more importantly, why is it important?
The Ungrateful Guest
In the spring of 1490, il magnifico, Lorenzo de’ Medici, made a mistake. He allowed himself to be convinced to extend an invitation to the Ferrarese born Fra Girolamo Savonarola.
As a young friar, Savonarola had already visited Florence, though the Florentines were less than impressed by him. He’d grown more confident in his years away; less the boy troubled by the desires of the flesh and spurned by Laudomia Strozzi to whom he had proposed marriage and was rejected, and more the writer of apocalyptic poetry and treatises on the contempt of the world. It was refreshing, his open critique of the world, its rulers, and the religious orders.
But Lorenzo’s guest was now preaching against tyrants he suggested were usurping the freedom of the people. Those he claimed neglected and exploited the poor. The clergy, filled with corruption and in desperate need of repentance. And quickly, Savonarola included Lorenzo in that company.
At first, he was considered nothing more than an over-excited zealot. His followers became known as the Piagnoni – the wailers. But then the visions began.
The Ferrarese Prophet
“Behold the sword of the Lord will descend suddenly and quickly upon the earth.”
In 1492, the year of Lorenzo’s death, Savonarola began to have visions. It began with the renewal of the church ignited by the Sword of God. This ‘Sword of God’ was quickly believed to be King Charles VIII of France, who crossed the Alps and threw Italy into chaos. With his arrival came the belief that Savonarola did, truly, have the gift of prophecy.
With Lorenzo’s death, the defacto rulership of Florence moved to his eldest son, Piero. When Charles moved towards the city, sacking Tuscany as he went, Piero went to meet him, giving in to his every demand. It earned expulsion for the Medici family, and Savonarola took control. He led a delegation to the French camp, encouraging Charles to spare Florence and become the reformer of the church as his vision had shown. The King listened.
Before long, Savonarola was claiming he’d predicted the deaths of both Lorenzo and Pope Innocent VIII. He then described a journey he had taken to the Virgin Mary in Heaven, presenting her with a crown made by the Florentine people. In return, the Holy Mother told him that while the way would be hard, God would fulfil his promise, and Florence would become more glorious, powerful, and richer, than ever before. The tips of their wings stretching further than anyone else can imagine.
A new Jerusalem.
New Rule in Florence and Rome
With his visions now confirmed to be true, Savonarola had the power to promote his own worldview. A new government – the Frateschi – was installed, and anyone who had served the Medici were barred from office. Savonarola turned his attention to getting rid of vice – passing new laws against sodomy, adultery, and public drunkenness. He even had boys and young men patrol the streets for sin.
In Rome, Rodrigo Borgia had been elected as Pope Alexander VI. For a time, he tolerated Savonarola, and left him to it. But when Savonarola sent him a compendium of his visions, revelations and most popular writings, Alexander VI was not amused. He summoned the friar to Rome, only to have the preacher refuse, claiming both illness and a fear of being attacked on the journey. As a result, Alexander banned him from preaching. Savonarola? He ignored the order, turning the focus of his attacks to the papal curia.
The last straw was when Florence, under Savonarola’s thumb, refused to join the Holy League which, by 25th February, included the French, ridding Savonarola of his Scourge of God.
Once again, he was summoned to Rome. Once again, Savonarola ignored it.
The Bonfire of the Vanities
Savonarola’s disobedience was quickly followed by the Bonfire of the Vanities. Young boys dressed in white were paraded through the streets singing hymns and knocking on doors insisting the residents give them items for charity. These items came in the form of vanities – books considered pagan heresies, perfumes considered lascivious odours, and mirrors that encouraged narcissism. These boys became known as Savonarola’s Boys.
And then came the bonfire itself. 240ft in circumference, 60ft high, and topped with a wooden effigy of the devil. The Bonfire stood in the Piazza della Signoria and was comprised of any object Savonarola believed was linked to sin: cosmetics, paintings, sculptures, books, fine dresses, playing cards, wigs, musical instruments. Even Alessandro Botticelli is said to have offered some of his own paintings to the fire under the friar’s influence.
A passing merchant is said to have offered 22,000 ducats for the items rather than watching them burn. He was refused. And this is where Savonarola made his mistake. For as winter came, so did famine, and that money would have gone a long way in feeding the families of Florence. Instead, the famine continued to grow, and children were found dead from hunger.
The Florentines were beginning to split into two camps.
On This Day…
Describing the church as a whore was the last straw for the Borgias. Pope Alexander VI excommunicated Savonarola and threatened Florence with an interdict should they continue to harbour him. Within a week, Savonarola had withdrawn from public preaching, composing, instead, his work ‘Triumph of the Cross’ in which he explored what it meant to be a Christian.
But for the Florentines, the final straw came when Savonarola was forced to prove he could perform miracles and that he was on a divine mission. A rival Franciscan challenged the friar to a trial by fire, the first in Florence in over 400 years. A crowd filled the square as the fire was lit, but a sudden rainfall put an end to the proceedings. Though his followers claimed God had protected the friar, Savonarola lost control of the public. A mob assaulted the Convent of San Marco.
The Bonfire of Friars
Fra Girolamo Savonarola, along with two other friars, was arrested and imprisoned. Under torture, he confessed to having invented his prophecies and visions. He was condemned as a heretic and sentenced to death.
On 23rd May 1498, Savonarola was hanged and burnt in the same location as his Bonfire of the Vanities the year before. His ashes were scattered into the Arno to prevent his devotees from searching for relics.
The return of the Medici in 1512 ended Florence’s Savonarola-inspired republic.
To this day, opinion on the friar is split. Some see him as a fanatic, a tyrant pretending to rid the world of tyranny. Others view him as a precursor of the Reformation, especially as Martin Luther read the friar’s writings and praised him as a martyr, with a statue of him being erected in Luther’s hometown of Wittenberg.
Which side are you on?