Girolamo Savonarola by Fra Bartolomeo, c. 1498.
Girolamo Savonarola was born in Ferrara and was a fanatical Dominican priest during the Italian Renaissance (b.1452-d.1498). Though he traveled throughout Italy in his life to various monasteries, he would find his strongest voice and audience in Florence. It is here that he would become a central figure in shocking the thoughts, art and practice of humanism and secularism that were central to Renaissance Movement. Naturally Florence was the place to begin his attack, as it was the heart of the Italian Renaissance.
Savanoarola remained a devout Roman Catholic his entire life and through his travels and observations, he reacted in writing and word at the corruption of the people. His ideas came from the theology he had intensely studied for years, combined with his belief that his Italy needed to be saved immediately before reaching the point of no return. War was rampant, the country seemed more divided in culture and politics then ever before, the Church seemed to care more about adornment from foreign riches then the people dying on the streets.
Savonarola's belief that it was God’s bearing judgment of disappointment and abandonment that had driven his will to have disease, poverty, adultery, greed and moral indignation bestowed upon his subjects. Savonarola’s words against the “self-indulgent” lifestyle of the rich few gained rage with the lower castes of society; those who seemed more or less to desperately seek some breath of connection in his deliverance's and promises of eternal salvation. The city was in shambles compared to once before. The people sought a leader and Savonarola sought to ignite a religious revolution (or a religious renaissance). In his own way, similar to il rinasimento, Savonarola believed in re-birth.
He rapidly gained momentum through his powerful sermons, chanting them at every opportunity given in town piazzas, or in front of any crowd that would grant the Dominican priest the opportunity to speak. His voice spread quickly, much like the plague(which had just killed nearly 2/3 of the European population). His teachings edged on mass hysteria in the people. He assured his listeners that they were being diseased and neglected by God’s will because of carnal sin (courtesans were rampant icons, and sex amongst the European monarchs and even clergymen was not a distant reality, there was an art to courtship). He began to preach passionately about the Last Days, accompanied by visions and prophetic announcements of direct communications with God and the saints.
Such fiery preachings were not uncommon at the time, but Savonarola’s apocalyptic message was pivotal in severing the tradition of hundreds of years of Florentine rulership under the Medici family (the supreme ruling oligarchic family of Florence). He condemned the Medici as rulers and assured the people to see that they wished to have their personal name glorified, they did not have the good intention of the people at heart. His sermons helped in weakening the Medici grip of power in the French-Italian wars abroad and the respect of the Florentines within the city gates.
Through Savonoarols’s eyes, Florence was no longer as glorious as it once was. In fact to him the Renaissance was a hindrance to ideals of purity and spirituality. He believed that welcoming Renaissance thought and art and artifacts was an automatic reason to have your name placed upon a Christian indulgence list. Penance from the people was necessary to receive God's forgiveness.
In 1497 Savonarola initiated his vision through sparking the Bonfire of Vanities (1497) in the Piazza della Signoria. The concept behind this madness was to burn anything that was deemed to be an occasion of sin; literature, art, letters, cosmetics, mirrors, anything that made us less obedient to the word of God and increased our vanity fair.
Painting of Savonarola's execution in the Piazza della Signoria
Upon this action Savonarola was ex-communicated by Pope Alexander VI (who was in fact a Medici Pope), alongside his followers and religious supporters. They were heavily tortured at the hands of the Church and in 1498, in the Piazza della Signoria he was stripped of his religious garbs and burned slowly at the stake. Ironically the place where he had begun the Bonfire of Vanities became the place where his vessel would also eternally burn.
Savanarola’s devotion towards a simpler, more refined lifestyle would set firm ground for Martin Luther and Protestant movements that would change the face of Christendom forever.