Character Analysis Savonarola


The republic that succeeded the Medici in 1492 was a peculiar political institution, having apocalyptic religious fervor as its driving force. Its leader was Girolamo Savonarola (1452-1498), a friar of the Dominican order who had come to Florence as a preacher in 1481. His personality was so charismatic and his sermons so vivid and emotionally stirring that he soon had his audiences spellbound. He drew a varied group of disciples, including artists and members of noble families. Savonarola was a reformer who railed against the luxurious extravagances of the Florentines and the sins of Italy in general. He also claimed to be a prophet, having predicted the deaths of several rulers and a coming time of retribution when Italy would be conquered. When Charles VIII invaded, Savonarola declared it the punishment of God for the sins of the Italian people.

When Piero de Medici was deposed, Savonarola and his followers set up a kind of theocracy in place of the Medici government. To his credit, he reformed the institutions that the Medici had turned into props for their own power. But policy was directed by the will of God as Savonarola interpreted it, and disagreement with such policies was a sin. In an excess of reforming zeal, he commanded the Florentines to give up all vices and luxuries that tempted them to sin, and many of them happily did so. In 1497, an immense pile of artwork, literature, gambling equipment, fashionable clothing, carnival masks, jewelry, and other sinful frivolities was burned in a public square, an event known as "the Bonfire of the Vanities." Savonarola, preaching almost daily, vowed to make Florence the New Jerusalem, the city of God on earth, and foretold that when this was accomplished, the new age of universal peace would begin.

Chief among the sinners that Savonarola denounced was the infamous Pope Alexander VI, whose riches and lascivious lifestyle perfectly represented the corruption that Savonarola sought to purge. Savonarola's opponents in Florence, urged on by Alexander, were becoming more vocal, and bad economic times in Florence meant that Savanarola's influence was waning. Gangs of young aristocrats harassed Savonarola's followers and heckled him during his sermons. The Franciscan order, traditional rivals of Savonarola's Dominicans, demanded that he show some evidence of his holiness and proposed a trial by fire. Representatives from both orders met in the piazza on April 7, 1498, but the contest was delayed by squabbles over what items the contestants could carry into the fire with them, and a rainstorm finally led to the cancellation of the event. It was perceived that the entire event had been a sham from the start, and Savonarola's charismatic hold over the populace was broken. The next day, a mob attacked his church, and he was put in prison. He and two fellow friars were hanged in May 1498, their bodies burned, and their ashes thrown in the Arno river. In June, Machiavelli would take up his post in the new republican government.