In the primitive church the chalices were of wood and the prelates were of gold; in these days the church has chalices of gold and prelates of wood.
—Girolamo Savonarola, Sermon XXIII
THE LITTLE FRIAR. Girolamo Savonarola was a "small, spare, ugly man . . . with thick red lips and an immense hooked nose." His hair chestnut, his eyes grayish-blue, he bore an intensity and affected a much larger weight of presence than suggested by his unremarkable stature. He was an extreme little man with a powerful voice and a penetrating charm. Most often remembered for the fierceness of his sermons, he possessed a gentle nature, and was capable of genuine warmth, particularly with the young and the poor.
The preacher-prophet, as he thought of himself, is not usually considered among the major players of the Protestant Reformation, and yet he anticipates them, particularly in his fury against the abuses of the clergy, his lack of ambiguity, his clarity toward the Gospel, his no-nonsense (though extreme) fundamentalism, and his seething antipathy for the general indifference of culture to the life of the gospel—how it touched, if not scarred his soul. The study of the reformation doesn't seem complete without him. Echoing Wycliffe, more than one hundred years earlier, Savonarola's first published piece of scorn was called On the Ruination of the Church. In modern vernacular he might be called a "boy scout." The Catholic Church today has another opinion.
In the beginning Savonarola was filled with zeal, piety, and self-sacrifice for the regeneration of religious life. He was led to offend against these virtues by his fanaticism, obstinacy, and disobedience. He was not a heretic in matters of faith. The erection of his statue at the foot of Luther's monument at Worms as a reputed "forerunner of the Reformation" is entirely unwarranted.
But that fanaticism, that obstinacy, and that disobedience was aimed at a corrupt Rome and its Borgia master. Intensity was necessary, as it was with Luther when his time came. Savonarola burned with the kind of intensity that could have only one end. Fire. Not to mention that because of a fairly new invention, the printing press, Savoranola's opinion had a wide reach. After Tyndale, and possibly Anne Askew, Savonarola slowly became one of my favorite voices in GODSPEED. He has a way of burning in you. There is perhaps as much not to like about him as there is to like. Like the Leonardo of his time, Savonarola is a rare spirit.
The place: Florence, Italy. In the bloom of the Italian Renaissance. It was the time of the Medicis, a powerful (and magnificently corrupt) banking family; Cosimo, the patriarch, his grandson, the charming Lorenzo The Magnificent, and Lorenzo's handsome, profligate, but unfortunate brother, Giuliano, who was murdered with multiple stab wounds in church as Mass was being celebrated (by a conspiracy that wanted both brothers dead, initiated by the pope himself, the Holy Father, Sixtus IV). It was the time of Leonardo da Vinci, of Niccolo Machiavelli and Botticelli, a young Michelangelo, and toward the end, the Borgias—Rodrigo, the pope, Cesare, the cardinal, and Lucretia, the dark legend. Ah, Florence.
THE SMOLDERING ELIJAH
Savonarola's first attempt at preaching was, at best, dull. Having charmed the novices at St. Mark's Monastery (Florence) with his impassioned teaching, his dependence on scripture alone, and his general flame, he was asked to preach the Lenten sermons at St. Lorenzo. The typical church-goer at the time was used to a different kind of preaching, preferring eloquence and polish over passion and scripture. There was also a strong influence in Italy of classical Greek thought infecting Christian belief, particularly Plato (which scalded Savonarola). Congregations preferred pagan quotations, and, as one writer said, they were "almost deaf to the precepts of Christianity." Savoranola's preaching, therefore, received very poor response. The congregations died off rapidly, until only about twenty-five or less attended. It was suggested to him that he study rhetoric, which he did, and it was distasteful to him.
He seethed beneath, rather than endure the decadence, the worldliness, the Greek and pagan influences, the lack of Christian decency, or sound teaching, the corruption of the clergy, and the general distance that the Florentines had removed themselves from the Gospels.
It wasn't until he was on a boat on the Po with a dozen or so drunken sailors that the "preacher-prophet" ignited out of Savonarola, the smoldering Elijah. The sailors (or soldiers), were harassing some young maidens who were also on the boat. When the preacher-prophet had enough, he began to address the inebriates, and with such fervor it shocked the drunken sailors into submission, or something like submission. Either way, within a few minutes, most of them were on their knees, crying out for forgiveness of their sins. And it wasn't just what Savoranola said. It was how he said it, the fire he invested in it. He spoke his heart (the inferno) at the time. It changed him. His popularity grew, as did his intensity.
This selection from GODSPEED, below, gives a brief description of THE BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES, so associated with the name Savonarola.
Savonarola was asked to preach in Florence again, having bombed so completely years before. Once he returned, he filled the Duomo in Florence (the Duomo could hold 30,000 people), speaking transparently with flame and precision, and without the aid of any rhetorical ornamentation. For a season, he glowed white hot. Everyone wanted to hear him—including the obscenely rich, streetwise, and genuinely charming Lorenzo Medici.
Becoming essentially the rule in Florence at the death of Lorenzo de Medici, with the aid of his apocalyptic sermons and his insistence on piety and repentance, Savonarola bent a fearful Florence to his will. His Lenten sermons were witnessed by 15,000 Florentines a day. Being now the theocratic Elijah, he exercised little restraint. He sought to reform, to clean up the town, to make Florence a City of God (after Augustine). He charged a gaggle of highly charged young boys to be his "sacred militia," an inner republic, "with its own magistrates and officials charged with the enforcement of his rules for the holy life." This militia was charged, in part, to inspect/ransack houses for jewelry, mirrors, finery, and other "vain"or godless contraband to be collected and burned in the great heat which we know as THE BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES (at the Carnival of 1496 in Florence, Piazza de la Signoria, the year before his martyrdom). This approach to government worked, or seemed to work for a season. But Savonarola had enemies. Powerful ones. A Borgia pope was one of them.
By 1496, Roderigo Borgia was Pope Alexander VI. Known for his great devotion to the Virgin, it was also said that Alexander was dedicated to pretty much any virgin. Savonarola added the lasciviousness pope to his sermons. The Borgia pope, in turn, wanted nothing more than to quiet the troublesome little monk. He first tried bribery. He even offered Savonarola a cardinalship. Savonarola's response? "No hat will I have but that of a martyr, reddened with my own blood." Alexander summoned him to Rome multiple times and multiple times Savonarola refused. Sadly, in time the Florentines grew tired of the raging monk.
If Moses, Cyrus, Theseus, and Romulus had been unarmed they could not have enforced their constitutions for long—as happened in our time to Fra Girolamo Savonarola, who was ruined with his new order of things. Immediately, the multitude believed in him no longer, and he had no means of keeping steadfast those who believed or of making the unbelievers to believe.
After a failed "Trial by Fire," Savonarola and two other Dominican monks were brought in for "interrogation," which in the middle ages meant torture and forced confession that most often led to death, drawing huge crowds for an afternoons entertainment in the town square. Spectacle was a part of the presentation. The "interrogators" used the strappado on Savoranola. His hands were tied behind his back and chains wrapped around him for added weight. He was then lifted up in the air by his hands and dropped. Imposed more than once on the poor friar, the treatment wrenched his left arm from its socket.
On the same plaza, Piazza de la Signoria, where the BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES had blazed, Savonarola was hung, though not unto death, stoned, then burned alive. Care was taken that his bones or any fragments were taken as holy relics. His ashes, like Tyndale's, like Hus and Wycliffe's, were thrown into the nearby river. The Arno received what was left of him.
At the death of Savonarola, Sandro Botticelli went to the Signoria (leadership) in Florence and asked why they had executed a prophet of God. Under Savonarola's influence, Botticelli painted only religious themes thereafter. Michelangelo kept writings of Savonarola with him at all times, until the day he died. Luther translated the sermons of Savonarola and claimed him one of the first reformers.
Individuals like Savonarola are rare events in the history of the world. This treatment of Girolamo Savonarola is regrettably brief. For more on this fascinating character: