1833: Midgegooroo, Noongar rebel 1917: Dr. Arthur Waite, the Playboy Poisoner

1498: Girolamo Savonarola, as he had once burned vanities

May 23rd, 2008 Headsman

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 executed in the Piazza della Signoria.

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:

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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, but perhaps fascinated him as well, 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.

Also on this date

Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Activists,Arts and Literature,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Florence,God,Hanged,Heads of State,Heresy,History,Infamous,Italy,Martyrs,Politicians,Power,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Revolutionaries,The Worm Turns,Torture

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7 Responses to “1498: Girolamo Savonarola, as he had once burned vanities”

  1. 1
    ExecutedToday.com » Nine Executed People Who Make Great Halloween Costumes Says:

    [...] you happen to roll with a crowd that’s totally going to get your Savonarola outfit, more power to you. The rest of us have to play to the [...]

  2. 2
    ExecutedToday.com » 1501: Antonio Rinaldeschi, bad gambler Says:

    [...] where religion could get you killed. This was the city that had elevated severe Dominican friar Savonarola to dictator and morals enforcer in the 1490s (Savonarola especially hated gambling), then overthrew [...]

  3. 3
    Still looking for that woman in black: Your Italy tour guide is ready to go | Nancy Bartlett Says:

    [...] to show avid fun-seekers … one Florentine restroom that must have served as a dungeon around Savonarola‘s time offered itself … they might like [...]

  4. 4
    ExecutedToday.com » 1428: Matteuccia di Francesco, San Bernardino casualty Says:

    [...] who crisscrossed Italy inveighing against Jews, sodomites, and (you guessed it) witches. Think Savonarola: like that later austere and charismatic firebrand, Bernardino even had bonfires of vanities. The [...]

  5. 5
    ExecutedToday.com » 1354: Cola di Rienzi, last of the Roman Tribunes Says:

    [...] a complex man ultimately fired not by political ambition but by religious zealotry. One thinks of Savonarola, the prim monk who mastered Florence and perished in flames, save for the essential detail: [...]

  6. 6
    ExecutedToday.com » 1489: Domenico Gentile and Francesco Maldente, Bull-shitters Says:

    [...] Florentine priest Savonarola first rose to prominence thundering against (and supposedly predicting the death of) this guilty [...]

  7. 7
    Mystery History TV | May 23 : This Day In Mystery History Says:

    […] 23 1498 Religious fundamentalist Girolamo Savonarola is executed in Florence, Italy for his many heresies. The Catholic Church had already excommunicated the […]

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