1498: Girolamo Savonarola, as he had once burned vanities

On this date in 1498, the Dominican friar who had once bent Florence to his austere will was hung in chains and burned.

Girolamo Savonarola preached standing-room-only, millenial sermons against worldly immorality, in the early 1490’s. By 1494, when peninsular politics chased a weak Medici scion from Florence, he had become its master.

He makes a complex character, with a streak of flawed greatness even his contemporary enemies recognized; his anti-Renaissance theology was severe but not dour, fired as it was by a genuine spiritual passion that spoke to real needs of his audience and a real crisis growing in the Church. And he did not disdain the revolutionary real-world implications of his faith.

Savonarola instituted Republican government with a touch of the Taliban — a vice squad of young hooligans to rough up rouged ladies and card-players;* a famous Bonfire of the Vanities in which Botticelli incinerated some of his own work — but also a populist economic touch.

For reasons both internal (the killjoy factor of busting up dice games wore out its welcome) and external (his French ally Charles VIII was driven from Italy, and Savonarola made a dire enemy of the corrupt Borgia pontiff Alexander VI), the priest’s grip on Florence weakened. In April 1498, he was arrested with two other clerics; all three were tortured into signing confessions, then hanged in the Piazza della Signoria by an insolent executioner.

The doomed Savonarola anguished that he had not been strong enough to resist the tortures of the rack, and penned in contrition the Latin meditation Infelix ego:

Alas wretch that I am, destitute of all help, who have offended heaven and earth — where shall I go? Whither shall I turn myself? To whom shall I fly? Who will take pity on me? To heaven I dare not lift up my eyes, for I have deeply sinned against it; on earth I find no refuge, for I have been an offence to it…

Like Savonarola’s memory and teachings, it spread — often illicitly — in a Europe ready for religious reform. Infelix ego has been frequently set to devotional music, like this version by Orlande de Lassus:


Savonarola might have been in himself a dead end, an unsuccessful prophet quickly rolled back, but he nonetheless possesses a recognizable essence that distills both the Zeitgeist of his time and the immemorial hunger for simplicity and virtue that coexists with the equally human celebration of pleasure and beauty. He left complex legacies to both the Church and the city his reforms sought (and ultimately failed) to scourge.

In religion, his castigation of the vice and sin of the Church (a position of which he was an outstanding but hardly a lonely advocate) prefigured the coming Reformation. But Savonarola also never left off the most devout affiliation to Catholicism, nor sought institutional schism even when he had been excommunicated.** What to make of such a man? He is both depicted (at the base of a Martin Luther statue) at the Worms Reformation Monument, and proposed for present-day Catholic canonization.

So too his secular legacy — the theocrat who burned books and expelled the Medici and was reduced to ashes for his reactionary principles — merits a respectful recollection in Florence, even if few would actually want to live in his republic. He repelled Machiavelli, a libertine counselor of the post-Savonarola Florentine Republic, but perhaps fascinated him as well, as a prince with a precisely backward grasp of his own power.

This stone marking the site of the execution stands at a crossroads of tourist traffic in a thicket of statuary, mostly nude and/or classically inspired, outside the entrance to one of Europe’s principle collections of Renaissance art.

One wonders what the old Dominican would have made of it.

Books about Savonarola’s Florence

* Savonarola also made sodomy punishable by death.

** Alexander VI tried first to get him (in Lyndon Johnson’s fragrant phrase) inside the tent pissing out by making him a cardinal, which Savonarola spurned.

On this day..