If there had been television back in 1497, Girolamo Savanarola would have followed “Praise the Lord,” on the Christian channel. A Dominican monk, he was a powerful speaker and a popular reformer. He stood on street corners and before the altars of the churches of Florence and demanded the Church reform itself. He harangued the “libertine Sodomites” of Renaissance Florence and annually gathered together the evil classics, hoarded by these sinners, and burned them in what he called the “bonfire of the vanities.” Ovid, Propertius and even Boccaccio, fed the flames. All this before the invention of the hot dog, or even the marshmallow.
If Girolamo had confined himself to “libertine Sodomites” and the classics, he probably would have gotten along fine, at least until a Medici became pope. Unfortunately, he called the pope a “libertine Sodomite,” which didn’t sit well at all. The pope sent the Inquisition to Florence on a “fact-finding mission.” The Inquisition worked “fact finding” pretty much like the American Congress works such things. In other words, after deciding what the “facts” were, they set out to find them. And, in this case, they “found” that Girolamo was a heretic.
A Dominican friar and prophet, living between 1452-1498, Girolamo Savonarola was before his time, a cock’s crow of the Reformation. Acknowledged as one history’s greatest orators, Savanorola’s messages were the austere stuff of the later Puritans and Calvinists. Savonarola preached in Florence and led a moral crusade that was later reflected in the most extreme puritans. He believed that God had given him the mission of calling people to repentance before the impending day of judgment. He preached powerful sermons and gained great popular support among the Florentines. He foretold the death of Innocent VIII, the coming of a foreign power with a large army as a scourge of God, and the collapse of the Medici rule in Florence. His eloquent sermons and gift of predicting future events soon made him the most popular preacher in Florence. He criticized clerics and especially Pope Alexander VI, whom he cursed for a devil and a monster presiding over a harlot church. Something the libertine Borgia pope was not used to hearing.
Savonarola received an expensive education and seemed destined to the profession of medicine. His youth was marked by an unfortunate affair with a Florentine girl. To deal with his rejection, he became dejected and assumed an aesthetic type of piety, being not so much interested in dogma as he was in morality. Which, at the time, was considered outside the realm of the clergy, except on the extreme edges.
Lombardy and northern Italy were already full of Savonarola’s fame as a preacher and orator, when Lorenzo de’ Medici, the Magnificent, at the instance of Pico della Mirandola, urged him to return home to Florence around the year 1490.
They accepted not only his program of religious reform, but also his political views concerning a democratic theocracy — which proved to be his undoing. Alexander VI was incensed at his political and religious activities; however, the Borgia pope acted like the master politician history credits him as being and attempted, in succession, to destroy his popularity, bribe him with a cardinal’s hat, and demand that he appear for a hearing in Rome, and forbade him to preach.
Savanorola quickly defied the pope, preaching it was man’s duty to resist the pope when in error, and appealed to a general church council against him. The forcefulness of his message made him the man of the hour among the Florentines and he virtually controlled Florence by 1492. He reached a climax of power in the carnival of 1497 where he had organized troops of boys and girls to tour the city, house to house, and begged the people to give up their gauds and vanities, from cosmetics to pagan books and paintings, the worldly things that turned their hearts away from true Christian living. And soon in the great square rose a great pyramid, fifteen stories high, carnival masks, rich dresses women’s ornaments, wigs, mirrors, powder puffs, rouge-pots, lip-sticks, cards and dice, perfume and cosmetics, books of poems and on magic, musical instruments, trinkets of all kinds and worldly paintings in which Greek nymphs displayed their unclothed shapes. A Venetian merchant wrung his hands and offered twenty thousand crowns to the city government for the pile. Instead he had to fling a valuable picture he owned on top of the heap. Excesses such as this led many people to desert Savanarola. Compulsory goodness was distasteful to many.
Pope Alexander VI believed in living and letting live — unless one were rich and a guest at a supper-party. Alexander excommunicated Savonarola and threatened to place an interdict upon Florence. An interdict meant the ruin of their commerce, for it would expose their goods to every robber on the highway and every pirate on the sea. Savanorola’s popularity began to decline. Finally, to prove that their cause had divine support, Savonarola and some of his fellow Dominican friars agreed with the Franciscans to submit to the ordeal of fire, but they could not agree on specific details and the ordeal was indefinitely postponed. The disappointed populace now turned against Savanorola and arrested him. Subjected to torture, he was forced to confess that his prophecies were not from God. He confessed at his trial that he had cherished great plans. Unable to find sufficient grounds for the charge of heresy, these were forged. Declared a heretic, accused of treason, Savonarola was condemned with two fellow friars and the three were hanged and burned.
Girolamo Savanorola was a man in the wrong place at the wrong time. His ideas would be reflected soon after his death in the works of John Hus, John Calvin and John Knox. They would force people across the Ocean to open a new continent. But he did it in the sunny Po Valley, where life was good, and libertines controlled the morality. He did it before the skies of Northern Europe turned cloudy and the hard life lived under them produced a more rigorous, aesthetic moral code in opposition to a libertine Papacy. Good? Bad? We don’t really know. Does the cock’s crow of the Reformation balance the wonderful and irreplacable art lost in the Bonfire of the Vanities? It seems Hegel was right, every thesis creates its own antithesis. In 1432, Johann Guttenberg invented the printing press. Twenty years later Girolamo Savanorola was born to burn what issued from it. Of course what it all proves is an observation of Heinrich Heine’s, some five centuries later: “Where they have burned books, they will end in burning human beings.”
I have always hoped that Heine might be wrong, for I live in the United States, which, under the auspices of the Comstock Law alone, is the World’s greatest book burner. Unfortunately, barring a major shift in the trend toward authoritarianism and imperialism growing stronger with each election, each new war, I greatly fear, with each new inroad against personal freedom, that he will be proven right, once again.