The Italian religious reformer Girolamo Savonarola (1452-1498) became dictator of Florence in the 1490s and instituted there, in the middle of the Renaissance, a reign of purity and asceticism.
Girolamo Savonarola was born in Ferrara on Sept. 21, 1452. He was the third of seven children of Niccolo Savonarola, a physician, and Elena Bonacossi. His father groomed Girolamo for the medical profession, but even as a youth he took more interest in the writings of the Schoolmen, particularly Thomas Aquinas. Savonarola had time for neither the comfortable, courtly life of his father's household nor youthful sports and exercises, so absorbed was he in the subtleties of the scholastics and their spiritual father, Aristotle.
Repelled by the corruption of the world around him, Savonarola withdrew ever further into solitude, meditation, and prayer. In 1475 he entered a Dominican monastery at Bologna. After living quietly there for 6 years, Savonarola transferred to the convent of S. Marco in Florence and began preaching in the church of S. Lorenzo. His style, laden with scholastic didacticism, was not appealing, and few came to hear him. In 1486, however, while preaching in Lombardy, he shed all syllogisms and circumlocutions and began to speak directly, simply, and passionately of the wrath of God. His popularity as a preacher grew immensely.
Savonarola's fame spread to Florence as he prophesied the doom of all tyrants who then prevailed in the world. In 1490, through the influence of Pico della Mirandola, he was called back to Florence and in July 1491 became prior of S. Marco. All the while he thundered against the vanity of the humanists and the viciousness of the clergy. Because he spared no one, Lorenzo de' Medici, the ruler of Florence, urged him to bridle his tongue. He would not yield, and in April 1492 Savonarola refused to grant Lorenzo absolution because the ruler would not give liberty to the Florentines.
Lorenzo's son and successor, Piero, was weak, and the 2-year period of his rule witnessed Savonarola's rise to the most powerful authority in the city. He acquired with difficulty the consent of the new pope, Alexander VI, to sever his convent from the Lombard Congregation of the Dominican order. Then, as leader of an independent monastic house, Savonarola instituted reforms that inspired respect and swelled the ranks of recruits. Admiration and wonder filled Florentine hearts when the prophecies that accompanied his fiery denunciations proved frighteningly accurate. He had predicted the deaths of Lorenzo and Pope Innocent VIII in 1492. Now Savonarola foretold the terrible fate about to descend upon Italy as punishment for the sins of its tyrants and priests. Early in 1494 he told his congregation that Charles VIII, King of France, would invade Italy and that this would be divine retribution. In September the prophecy was fulfilled.
Savonarola as Dictator
When Charles arrived in Florentine territory, Piero surrendered to the invader. When the Florentine Signory heard of this, they angrily deposed Piero and revived the republic. A delegation including Savonarola met Charles at Pisa and attempted to persuade him to moderate his demands. The King showed that he was not so disposed. After he entered Florence on Nov. 17, 1494, Charles insisted on exorbitant indemnities, yielding only to the eloquence of Savonarola, who persuaded him to reduce his demands and leave the city. Upon Charles's departure Florence's grateful citizens placed themselves in the hands of the monk.
Like the Medici before him, Savonarola held no public office, but under his guidance a new constitution was promulgated, establishing a new republic on June 10, 1495. He initiated the abrogation of arbitrary taxation and its replacement with a 10 percent tax on all real property. He undertook the immediate relief of the poor and the strict administration of justice. He also instituted a regime of austerity that seemed out of place in the Florence of the High Renaissance. Hymns supplanted profane songs, art objects and luxuries were cast aside or burned, and somber unadorned clothing was worn by all.
Fall from Power
At the height of his power, Savonarola made bitter enemies both at home and abroad. The Arrabiati, or Medicean adherents in Florence, and Pope Alexander VI were eager to rid Florence of the troublesome monk. Alexander's motives were mainly political, for he was angered by Savonarola's alliance with France. He was also displeased at the public criticism leveled by Savonarola against his scandalous pontificate. Twice in 1495 the Pope summoned Savonarola to Rome and ordered him to stop preaching, but the monk refused to obey. On May 5, 1497, encouraged by the Arrabiati, Alexander excommunicated him. Savonarola remained rebellious and continued to celebrate Mass. Alexander then warned the Signory that unless Savonarola was silenced he would place an interdict upon the city. On March 17, 1498, the Signory ordered Savonarola to stop preaching, and he obeyed.
By this time the Florentines had grown weary of puritanic life. Maddened by disappointment when an ordeal by fire to which Savonarola had been challenged did not take place because of rain, they joined the Arrabiati. With unexampled fickleness, the Florentines demanded Savonarola's arrest. A mob attacked the monastery of S. Marco, and peace was restored only when Savonarola himself begged all men to lay down their arms. Savonarola was tortured until he confessed many crimes, and on May 23, 1498, convicted falsely of heresy, he was burned at the stake in the Piazza della Signoria.
Further Reading on Girolamo Savonarola
The definitive work on Savonarola is Pasquale Villari, The Life and Times of Girolamo Savonarola, translated by Linda Villari (1889). Donald Weinstein, Savonarola and Florence: Prophesy and Patriotism in the Renaissance (1971), emphasizes the impact of Florence on the reformer. Also useful is Ralph Roeder, The Man of the Renaissance (1933). Still excellent is Ludwig Pastor, History of the Popes, vol. 3 (1898).
Additional Biography Sources
Erlanger, Rachel, The unarmed prophet: Savonarola in Florence, New York: McGraw-Hill, 1988.