Savonarola, A Man for Our Time
The same Dominican monastery of San Marco in Florence that produced Fra Angelico and his luminous paintings (where the tone is always contemplative and hopeful) also produced Savonarola. The monastery is now a museum primarily devoted to the art of Fra Angelico, but Savonarola's quarters are there to see along with his carefully preserved habit and other personal effects.
The name Savonarola is synonymous with fire-breathing moralistic preaching and fanaticism. But it was no less a humanist than Pico della Mirandola who brought him to Florence from Bologna. He was a learned man earning the respect of scholars such as Erasmus.
What to do with Savonarola? He was born into a noble family in Ferrara, yet gave voice to the disenfranchised multitudes whose labor produced Florence's wealth through textile manufacturing. When Piero de Medici fled after a revolution in 1494, Savonarola played a decisive role in the creation of the Great Council of the Florentine Republic, the closest thing anywhere in the world at that time to a democratic representative assembly. Savonarola was a very harsh critic of corruption in the court of Pope Alexander VI, the infamous Borgia Pope, and questioned papal authority boldly -- and ultimately fatally.
Then there is this from a sermon preached December 14, 1494 to the assembled Florentine government:
The Signoria must make a law against that cursed vice of sodomy, for which Florence is defamed throughout all of Italy, as you know. Perhaps you have this disgraceful reputation because you talk and chatter so much about this vice; maybe it's not so widespead in fact as it's said. I say, make a law that is without mercy, that such persons be stoned and burned.
Savonarola was hardly the first such preacher in Florence. There were earlier preachers such as Bernardin of Siena and Antoninus (later Archbishop of Florence) who railed and preached doom against the city for its vices, most especially for its famous toleration of "sodomy," meaning primarily sexual relations between men. Some of that preaching, especially from Bernardin, could be downright bloodthirsty in its violence. The laws on the books condemning this "vice" were always very harsh, but enforcement was usually lax and reluctant. The offender usually was let off with a fine. The accuser, usually anonymous, got a share of the fine as a reward. It was well known that a sodomy accusation was a great way to get rid of political rivals and settle scores. The Medici, among others, made extensive use of such anonymous accusations. Because of such cynical uses, authorities were usually skeptical of such charges. The full measure of the law as a capital offense was very rarely carried out, and usually only in cases of rape and violence, especially against minors.
Savonarola's execution in 1498 by an anonymous artist. This picture is misleading showing a sparsely populated piazza with most people ignoring the execution. In fact, the piazza was packed with people watching the spectacle, some cheering, others weeping. The executioners burned brushwood with the pieces of the remains to make sure nothing remained that could be venerated by followers as relics. Savonarola's ashes were thrown into the Arno from the Ponte Vecchio.
After his death, it was frequently remarked that governing a monastery is one thing and governing a city is quite another. It was the experience of Savonarola that caused the Chancelor of the Florentine Republic, Niccolo Macchiavelli, to call for a seperation between religion and politics; the first to do so. Savonarola was a divisive figure at a time when the republic faced mortal peril from the Pope and from exiled Medici conspiring with foreign princes; a time when the city needed to be united. Macchiavelli, that dark pragamatist and Florentine patriot, concluded that the interference of the unworldly into the very worldly business of politics could only lead to disaster.
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