Girolamo Savonarola was a 15th century Dominican friar. For most people today, he is known either for his striking portrait by Baccio della Porta (Fra Bartolomeo) or for his association with the Bonfires of the Vanities in Florence where Savonarola’s supporters publicly burnt thousands of objects considered to be distractions from religious duties and possible occasions of sin such as gowns, jewellery, musical instruments, tapestries and valuable art works as well as irreplaceable books and manuscripts.
Disturbed by the corruption and luxury of the world around him, particularly that of high ranking churchmen, Savonarola preached renewal and reform of the church and prophesied a glorious future for a Florence that adhered to God’s laws that was extremely popular with the common populace. By the mid-1590s he had control of Florence where his particular type of ascetic morality was enforced – laws against vice were introduced, execution proposed as punishment for acts of sodomy and adultery, and gangs of young men and boys patrolled the streets policing immodest dress and behaviour. This was not long-lived as the common people became weary of his joyless regime and he drew the ire of some influential sections of Florentine society as well as the pope. Although his beliefs were not in essence heretical, he was excommunicated in 1497 and arrested the following year for sedition and heresy. He confessed under torture and was hanged and his body burnt at the site of his Bonfire of the Vanities. Savonarola is important as a forerunner to the Protestant reformers of the 16th century who saw him as a martyr and drew inspiration from those of his writings that survived. Martin Luther considered Savonarola’s ideas on faith and grace to anticipate his doctrine of justification by faith alone.
In Girolamo Savonarola: The Renaissance Preacher, Samantha Morris succinctly outlines Savonarola’s life from his birth in 1452 in Ferrara, where he was educated initially by his grandfather, a religiously devout physician. She traces his early years following his entry into a Dominican Friary, aged 23 through his period as a novice master and his initial uninspiring and unsuccessful attempts at public preaching. The bulk of the book concentrates on the period of Savonarola’s ascendancy in Florence set against the complex political background and upheavals as well as the major personalities of this period and their machinations.
Morris skillfully summarizes the political complexities of the period in a readable, almost conversational, style. This biography is based on both secondary and printed primary sources and has a select bibliography at the end of the book. There is no index which, I felt, would have been helpful even thought this is a concise book.
This a useful and informative introduction both to Girolamo Savonarola’s life and to the political situation in Italy in the 1490s.
Another review, in an idiosyncratic style, can be found here.