08 March 2016

Savonarola! The Taliban were not the only ones who created religious dictatorships

Girolamo Savonarola (1452-1498) was born into a noble family in Ferrara, his father being a doctor. Girolamo was educated by another relative who was also a doctor and a man of rigid religious principles. So it was inevitable that the young lad would be directed towards medicine at university and devout Christianity at home.

Already repelled by the corruption that he saw around him, Savonarola left his medical studies and withdrew into solitude, meditation and prayer. He told his father that he could not suffer the blind wickedness of the peoples of Italy. He found unbearable the humanistic paganism that corrupted art, poetry and religion itself. But even if that was so, how did young Savonarola know that the cause of this spreading corruption was a vicious clergy, even in the highest levels of the church hierarchy?

In 1475 as an adult he chose to enter a Dominican monastery at Bologna. After living quietly there for 6 years, Savonarola moved to the convent of S Marco in Florence and began preaching in the church of S Lorenzo. His style, too medieval and scholastic, failed to attract the crowds. But in 1486, while preaching in Lombardy, he began to speak directly 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 moved back to Florence and in July 1491 became prior of S Marco. His target evils in beautiful Florence were the vanity of the humanists and the viciousness of the clergy. Needless to say Lorenzo de' Medici, the ruler of Florence, was not happy with the fanatical preacher. But Savonarola would not desist, and in April 1492 Savonarola made his move - he refused to grant Lorenzo absolution because the ruler would not give liberty to the Florentines.

statue of  the monk preaching
Savonarola Piazza in Ferrara, 
his birth town

The monk somehow gained the consent of the Borgia Pope Alexander VI to sever his convent from the Lombard Congregation of the Dominican order. And as leader of an independent monastery, Savonarola introduced reforms that seemed to be going very well.

Some of Savonarola’s prophecies were nasty. He had predicted the deaths of Lorenzo and Pope Innocent VIII in 1492. After the death of the Medici ruler Lorenzo the Magnificent in April 1492, Lorenzo's son and successor Piero The Unfortunate was a hopeless leader. For a time, Pope Alexander VI (1492–1503) tolerated friar Girolamo’s rantings against the Church. Then in 1494 Savonarola described the terrible fate that would occur across Italy because of the sins of their tyrants and priests; King Charles VIII of France would invade! That too occurred. Pope Alexander was enraged when Florence declined to join his new Holy League against the French invader, and blamed it on Savonarola’s insidious authority.

When King Charles arrived in Florentine territory, Piero de’ Medici quickly surrendered to the invader. When Florence’s signoria/local government heard of this, they angrily exiled the Medicis and planned a new republic. A Florentine delegation met King Charles at Pisa to negotiate their future. After he entered Florence in Nov 1494, King Charles initially insisted on impossible demands, yielding only to Savonarola who persuaded the French king to leave the city. Thus Florence's grateful citizens placed themselves in the hands of the monk. Savonarola became the guiding moral authority of the new Florentine republic which was formally established in June 1495.

He planned the republic to be a Christian commonwealth where God would be the sole sovereign, and his Gospel would be the law. Some reforms were very welcome. Under the monk's guidance, arbitrary taxation was ended and was replaced by a 10% property tax. And he looked after the city’s justice system and its method of poor relief.

But he banned sex outside marriage, guards were put on the streets to ensure female modesty and the pubs were closed. And he introduced an austerity programme that offended the educated High Renaissance citizens of Florence. Secular art objects were destroyed, books were burned in public bonfires, carnivals and pleasure activities were banned and sombre clothing was mandated for all families. (Did Oliver Cromwell know of Savonarola?)

The city was definitely suffering from war, more taxes and political conflict, and was probably suffering from famine, unemployment and epidemics as well. So Florentine citizens who opposed Savonarola quickly organised a political party called the Arrabbiati/The Angry, a party that formed an alliance with the powerful Duke of Milan.

Needless to say Pope Alexander VI was also eager to rid Florence of the troublesome monk (Did Pope Alexander know of King Henry II?). Pope Alexander hated Savonarola's alliance with France and he was even angrier about Savonarola calling the popes and priests evil and corrupt. Twice in 1495 the Pope summoned Savonarola to Rome and ordered him to stop preaching and in 1497, Pope Alexander excommunicated him. Savonarola said he was not a heretic – he was simply opposed to corrupt papal authority; that the church needed to be scourged, purified and then reformed. Thus the papal orders were ignored.

By this time, the Florentines disliked their puritanical life and totally distrusted Savonarola. So the local government of Florence demanded the monk's arrest! A mob attacked the monastery of S Marco, put 45-year-old Savonarola to torture until he confessed many crimes, tried him and burned him at the stake in Piazza della Signoria in May 1498. A plaque marks the spot today.

A new republican government was put in place after Savonarola’s execution and did well. The state was now presided over by Piero Soderini who ruled until September 1512, when Cardinal Giovanni de Medici captured Florence with Papal troops. Only then was Medici rule of Florence was finally restored.

Savonarola's execution site,  
Piazza della Signoria, Florence
in May 1498

Readers might like to locate an old book, The Life and Times of Girolamo Savonarola by Pasquale Villari, published in 1889. Was Savonarola truly directed by God to found His city in Florence, the heart of Italy, or was he merely an obsessive moral dictator? Might Florence have been a paradisal Christian republic that could model reform of Italian cities and of the Church, or did the city become a wretched misery for its citizens? After Savonarola’s death a cult was dedicated to him, but what happened to the followers’ plans for his canonisation.



Dr. F said...

I read Villari's book carefully many years ago and still consult it. He argued that Savonarola was not an obsessive dictator but a much maligned and mis-understood reformer. Botticelli and Michelangelo remained devoted admirers of Savonarola till the end of their lives. He was murdered by a florentine gang with the support of the corrupt Borgia pope. Why history regards Luther as a hero and Savonarola as a villain is beyond me.


Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, Interesting to learn some facts of Savonarola's career. After people get a certain degree of pushy I am always a bit suspicious of their underlying motives. His name and character is featured in Ogden Nash's poem "Savonarola of Mazda Lane," in which the manipulative Walter Winchell is compared to the historical figure because the threat of appearing in Winchell's gossip column supposedly kept some people on the straight and narrow. (My description doesn't sound it, but the poem is actually humorous doggerel. )

Andrew said...

He forgot to give his subjects the metaphorical bread and circuses.

Deb said...

Why didn't the citizens simply throw him out?

mem said...

Its never straight forward is it ? Generally the dictator has some good ideas and then stuffs it up by becoming dogmatic , unbending and convinced they are right .I find that sort of behavior and state of being very hard to tolerate I actually think I wouldn't have liked Luther much either . I guess it depends on temperament . It is criminal how ever to destroy culture and beauty and that is true of ISIS, Savonarola and Luther and Cromwell not to mention Henry the 8th s destruction of the monasteries. I am extremely intolerant of extremism (:

Hels said...

Dr F

Many thanks for replying. I am always surprised when historians examine (largely) the same body of written evidence and come to at least two, totally diverging conclusions. You mentioned Savonarola and Luther; I would add from my own experience Oliver Cromwell and Napoleon.

Hels said...


you are right to be suspicious of peoples' underlying motives. Even if a particular person writes all his goals down in contemporary chronicles, does it mean those chronicles reflect some sort of objective truth? And can a modern reader believe what the enemies of a historical figure believed his motives were? Of course not, in both cases.

So what do we do? Some sort of tap dance in the centre of both extremes.

Hels said...


what a fool Savonarola turned out to be. Of all cities and states on the planet, Florence loved its bread and circuses more than anywhere else.

If it was me, I would have sorted out the city's taxes and poor laws. But I would NOT have destroyed art objects, burned books or banned carnivals! Florence's citizens believed their city was the most beautiful and cultured place BECAUSE of their carnivals and learning.

Hels said...


good question, but throw him out from what position? Savonarola became the guiding moral authority of Florence but not a proper politician or mayor. The citizens could have deposed a politician, but how could they have stopped a vigorous preacher? Execute him, I suppose, but that wouldn't have stopped his ideas.

Hels said...


you have nailed it! Lots of reformers start off with a vision of a just or godly society. And they usually have the full support of the people who allowed the reformer to grab power in the first place. But then something always goes very wrong.

Fidel Castro started off as a decent leader who just wanted to get rid of the hated President Batista and establish an equalitarian society. Napoleon fought for liberty, fraternity and equality across most of Europe, until he declared himself Emperor for all time. And so on. Extremism always fails, at great cost to the citizens.

Anonymous said...

Might also mention John Calvin an the context of Savanarola and his ilk! I don't think Geneva was a happy town under his rule!
James Morgan

Hels said...


true! I often think of Savonarola's Florence, Calvin's Geneva and Cromwell's Britain as having much in common. Different countries, different era and different religions, but the impact on the residents was the same. In Geneva, Calvin seemed to have two goals: a] to cut out luxury, decoration and fun from religion (and therefore from life) and b] to harshly punish any person not obeying Calvin's moral code.

Geneva might have been a stronghold of rigorous morality, but the good citizens did eventually exile Calvin to another city. I suppose Calvin was fortunate that he was not executed.