Girolamo Savonarola

Girolamo Savonarola statue
Girolamo Savonarola statue
Girolamo Savonarola was an Italian cleric and reformer whose sermons and writings predated the Reformation. Born in Ferrara in 1452, he was a scholar from boyhood and studied music, medicine, design, and theology.

Inspired by a sermon in 1474, he entered the monastery of St. Domenico in Bologna, where he spent six years in the novitiate. Even so young, his poems expressed disagreement and indignation against the venality of the Renaissance church.

Gradually Savonarola gained fame as a preacher of the Dominican order. By 1490, he was at the Priory of St. Mark and had become so influential with his listeners that in 1491, he was elected to head post. He had become so powerful by then that he felt able to denounce the customs and ethics of the rulers of the day including Lorenzo de’ Medici, the pope, and the king of Naples.

His powerful position in Florence was reinforced when Lorenzo de’ Medici called him to his deathbed and Savonarola refused to give absolution to the dying man because he refused to give up power in Florence.

Between 1492 and 1494, Savonarola’s power expanded through his sermons and writings wherein he proclaimed that he had apocalyptic visions that the wrath of the Lord would be visited upon the guilty and the world was threatened by famine, bloodshed, and pestilence. His fame as an orator spread throughout Italy.

In 1493, his order of Dominicans of St. Mark received a brief so that it was basically independent of most immediate church authority. His final ascent to power came when the Medicis were overthrown in 1494 at the approach of the French king Charles, who threatened Florence. Because of Savonarola’s remonstrance, the king withdrew from Florence without bloodshed.

Girolamo Savonarola preach
Girolamo Savonarola preach

Because of the turn of events, Savonarola was the unofficial dictator of Florence for the next four years. He established a four-part formula for his rule: fear of God and purification of manners, promotion of the public welfare as opposed to private interests, general amnesty to all political offenders, and a council on the Venetian manner but without a doge.

Many of his prescriptions were followed during the next few years. All property was taxed. He organized boys of Florence into a secret militia. He established carnivals wherein the citizens gave away their most expensive possessions as alms to the poor as well as burning luxury items such as masks and other objects used for festivals. He did not oppose the arts, in general; in fact, he helped save the Medici Library through funds from his convent.

During this period, Florence became rather austere. Many people left their homes to join religious orders, and many sought Savonarola’s order, the Dominicans. People dressed ascetically. Hymns and psalms routinely were sung in the streets.

Savonarola’s downfall resulted both from enemies without and within. He made a bitter enemy of the Borgia pope Alexander VI, by denouncing him for his crimes. The Medici worked secretly from inside Florence to return to power. When the pope tried to bribe Savonarola to silence with a cardinal’s hat, he rejected it and continued his denunciations. When he declined invitations to visit Rome, Florence was threatened with an interdict.

In 1498, the repeated threats from the pope to the council of Florence coupled with Savonarola’s repeated denunciations of the “antipope” caused the council of Florence to become more hostile to him. At the same time, executions of Medici partisans, a desire for moderation, and resentment after the infamous Carnival of 1497 in which valuable books and artwork were burned all added to Savonarola’s decline.

May 23, 1498 – Girolamo Savonarola is burned at the stake in Florence, Italy.
May 23, 1498 – Girolamo Savonarola is burned at the stake in Florence, Italy.

The final cause of Savonarola’s downfall was an ordeal of fire called by his enemies, the Franciscans. When his accusers did not appear, the people felt cheated, and Savonarola became a scapegoat. He was arrested, tortured, and crucified with two followers on May 22, 1498. His death came to be seen as martyrdom in later years, and today, his life’s work is viewed as a forerunner of the Reformation.

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