Those Who Shaped History: Savonarola and the Bonfire of the Vanities
February 7, 1497. The city of Florence, Italy, was at its peak, sitting proudly in front of the world as a beacon of decadence and prosperity. The city was in its Golden Age. Travelers returning after visits to the city wove tales of the city. There was no forgetting the fountains, the palaces, the statues– the Piazza della Signoria, the open square that was the political and cultural hub of the city, was said to be layered in gold. It was simply breathtaking– sparkling like nothing they had ever seen.
Tonight, the city had a different glow. Banners of orange and red filled the city’s most famous square, casting its occupants in a devilish glow. They watched in silent obedience as a great and raging fire towered toward the sky atop a pile of blackened firewood. At the perimeter of the fire somber figures could be seen, feeding it with their most precious belongings. Here a pile of sparkling jewelry, there an ornately framed painting. Everything went in. Then the reluctant forms, silhouettes in the shadow of the flames, slowly walked back to join the crowd. Only one figure stayed consistently near to the fire. He was standing in front of it, in fact, propped up on a simple box. His hoarse voice rang out into the night, mixing into the audible crackles of the flame with ferocious intensity. The infamous man stood tall and spoke with an animated gait, his simple black frock shaking beneath his movements. Some members of the crowd shifted uncomfortably. Who was this man, this foreigner, who seemed to cast such a spell on the Florentine crowd here tonight?
Their answer came in a simple word: Savonarola.
The events that occurred on that night came to be known as the most infamous of the Bonfires of the Vanities, a series of public mass-burnings lasting nearly a decade. It was during this time that a fugitive preacher named Girolamo Savonarola gained influence with Florentine society, captivating them with prophetic tales and visions of reform. Savonarola had at this point undergone many transitions in his career and his life. He spent his younger years in Ferrara, where his mother was of noble lineage and his father worked as a struggling businessman. His early life was spent diligently studying in hopes of becoming a physician. His grandfather Michele Savonarola, had enjoyed a very successful medical career, and everyone expected the smart Girolamo to do the same. He was always interested in religion and the state of the church, however, and so after being particularly inspired by a sermon in Faenza, the young man decided to change the course of his life and become, as he put it, a “knight of Christ.”
Savonarola’s life as a friar was short-lived. He continually upset his superiors through talk of reform and of opposition, and so soon after he had completed his education he was relocated to teach at the Convent of San Marco in Florence. This did not last long as well. The Florentines quickly grew displeased with Savonarola for quite different reasons: they were put off by his grating, loud voice and his inelegant and awkward speech. Soon after he had begun to teach, he was decided unfit for the job and he left in pursuit of a new project.
Over the following years, Savonarola lived as a traveling preacher in Northern Italy. He quickly gained a reputation for his pious and fervent message of reform within the Church, and during this time he began to gain a following and more confidence in his message along with it. Meanwhile, Lorenzo de Medici, the de facto ruler of Florence, had grown in trouble with the church for his contradictory philosophy. He searched desperately for a quick fix to his problem, and ultimately decided upon pleasing the Church by taking on the burgeoning Northern preacher as a spiritual guide. Within months, Savonarola was on his way back to Florence.
This time, he was not received so poorly. Savonarola preached frequently on the Book of Revelation, spouting prophesies of a new force coming to renew the Church in Italy. His speeches captured the imagination of the Florentine crowds, and soon he was drawing such large crowds that he was forced to move to a Cathedral for his sermons. Critics, of which there were many, labeled Savonarola and his followers whiners and awaited the day when the prophesies would prove false.
A coincidence proved the opposite. In 1494, King Charles VII of France stormed over the alps and into Italy. He drove a path straight toward Florence, sacking city after city in his wake. Savonarola seized the opportunity to act. He appealed to the French ruler, revering him as the prophesied savior of the Church. After a brief occupation of the city, his efforts, along with a very large sum of money delivered under the table, had Charles freeing the city and moving further South.
And Florence had confirmed their prophet. Now comfortably in power of the city that had once shunned his presence, Girolamo Savonarola began to spread his reformist ideas– as well as tales of his prophetic experiences. In one particularly disturbing instance, he described a personal trip to heaven in which he spoke to the Virgin Mary. He relayed to the hungry Florentine crowd the details of his conversation with Mary. Florence would grow great and rich, she said. The journey would be hard, but doable under Savonarola’s rule. Their salvation at stake, the city underwent major reform. They succumbed to secret police that monitored modesty in clothing, possessions, and behavior. Then the prophesies intensified. Now drunkenness was banned and condemned. Now adultery. Now types of sexual acts. It seemed as if nothing could Savonarola’s quest for control.
Ironically, it was Savonarola’s own brazen falsehood that was his downfall. The Pope, who at the time was Alexander VI, had tolerated his antics until now, from a distance. But when Savonarola sent him a book recounting his prophetic visions, the line was drawn. The Pope immediately called a meeting in Rome, for which Savonarola was to come immediately. He declined. In response, Alexander banned him from preaching.
For a time, it was successful. Savonarola retreated to the shadows, and it seemed as if the city was beginning to get over their transfixion with the fiery preacher. But Savonarola could not sit while his power was slipping. Within months he began to preach again, against the will of the Church. His words became fierce and violent, condemning those who did not follow him and spinning dramatic revelations of chaos and destruction. It was during this time that he began to hold the Bonfires of the Vanities. The time had come for the Florentines to renounce their worldly possessions as impious. The culture and vibrance they had once enjoyed would no longer be allowed. Great fires were held in the main square, and individual after individual would come to burn anything they held dear. Great writers threw their manuscripts into the fire, and great artists their paintings. It is said that Sandro Botticelli threw dozens of his own paintings into the fire, so taken by the words of Savonarola. We will never know how much was truly lost in the fires, but the remaining accounts point to staggering amounts of cultural and social icons that may have shaped the society of the time.
Soon after the most famous of the fires, the Pope decided that enough was enough. He ordered Savonarola to step down under risk of excommunication. Savonarola stood defiant, claiming that he could work miracles to prove his divinity. The city responded. In a landmark ruling, the city ordered the preacher to prove his claims in the most appropriate way possible: a trial by fire. On May 23, 1498, Savonarola was executed and burned in the same place that he had burned away the lives of so many.
Like the art, the possessions, and the cultural advance that he burned away, Savonarola did not survive the fire.
Apply to Write for Uloop NewsJoin the Uloop News Team
Discuss This Article
More Uloop Entertainment Articles
Recent Cal Poly News Articles
CAL POLY Housing Listings
WRITE FOR ULOOPApply to Write for Uloop News
GET TOP STORIES DELIVERED WEEKLY
TOP 5 NEWS ARTICLES
BROWSE OTHER COLLEGES
- By CollegeUC Santa BarbaraCal PolyUC DavisUC IrvineUC San DiegoUC Santa CruzStanford UniversityUCLACal Poly PomonaCSU ChicoCSU FullertonCSU Long BeachCSU NorthridgeCSU SacramentoUC BerkeleyPepperdine UniversitySan Diego StateSan Francisco State UniversitySan Jose State UniversityUSCCalifornia State University-San BernardinoCalifornia State University-FresnoCalifornia State University-Los AngelesUC RiversideCalifornia Institute of TechnologyCalifornia State University-Dominguez HillsCalifornia State University-East BayOccidental CollegeLoyola Marymount UniversityCabrillo CollegeAlliant International UniversityAzusa Pacific UniversityAntelope Valley CollegeBakersfield CollegeBiola UniversityBrooks Institute of PhotographyCalifornia Baptist UniversityClaremont McKenna CollegeCalifornia Pacific UniversityCalifornia State University Monterey BayCuesta CollegeConcordia University IrvineCalifornia State University Channel IslandsDiablo Valley CollegeBethany UniversitySanta Barbara City CollegeFive Branches UniversityWest Valley CollegeWestmont CollegeUC MercedUC Hastings College of the LawPalomar CollegeSaint Mary's CollegeSonoma State UniversitySierra CollegeChapman UniversitySaddleback CollegePacific Union CollegePierce CollegePasadena City CollegeFeather River CollegeCalifornia Culinary AcademyMira Costa CollegeLos Rios Community College DistrictLas Positas CollegeGrossmont CollegeIrvine Valley CollegeMenlo CollegeAllan Hancock CollegeHumboldt State UniversityUniversity of San DiegoUniversity of San FranciscoLoma Linda UniversityFullerton CollegeSanta Clara UniversityChabot CollegeFoothill CollegeNational UniversityButte CollegeAcademy of Art UniversityWhittier CollegeLincoln UniversityMerced CollegeCalifornia State University-BakersfieldSanta Monica CollegeMt. San Jacinto CollegeCoast Community College DistrictRiverside Community CollegeUniversity of the PacificPomona CollegeLa Sierra UniversityScripps Research InstituteDe Anza CollegeGrossmount-Cuyamaca Community CollegeAmerican Intercontinental UniversityArt Center College of DesignCalifornia College of the ArtsCalifornia Institute of Integral StudiesCalifornia Institute of the ArtsCalifornia Lutheran UniversityCSU San MarcosCalifornia State University-StanislausClaremont Graduate UniversityClaremont McKenna CollegeDominican University of CaliforniaEx-Pression College for Digital ArtsFielding Graduate UniversityFresno Pacific UniversityFuller Theological SeminaryGolden Gate UniversityHoly Names UniversityJohn F Kennedy UniversityMills CollegeMount St Mary's CollegeMusicians InstituteNaval Postgraduate SchoolNotre Dame de Namur UniversityOtis College of Art and DesignPacific Oaks CollegePoint Loma Nazarene UniversitySamuel Merritt CollegeSimpson UniversityThe Art Institute of California-Los AngelesThe Art Institute of California-Orange CountyThe Art Institute of California-San DiegoThe Art Institute of California-San FranciscoThe Fashion Institute of Design & MerchandisingThe Master's College and SeminaryUC San FranciscoUniversity of La VerneUniversity of RedlandsVanguard University of Southern CaliforniaPeralta CollegeWestern University of Health SciencesWoodbury UniversityCity College of San FranciscoCalifornia Institute of the Healing Arts and SciencesCypress CollegeEast Los Angeles CollegeLos Angeles City CollegeCollege of MarinOhlone CollegePitzer CollegeSouthern California Institute of ArchitectureScripps CollegeWorld Mission UniversityThe Wright InstituteCerro Coso Community CollegeCollege of the DesertSan Diego City CollegeArgosy UniversityImperial Valley CollegeModesto Junior CollegeShasta CollegeCollege of San MateoCollege of SiskiyousLassen Community CollegeVentura CollegeNewSchool of Architecture + DesignAmerican River College Barstow Community College DistrictBerkeley City College Citrus CollegeCoastline Community College College of Alameda College of the Siskiyous Contra Costa College Contra Costa Community College DistrictCosumnes River College Cuyamaca College El Camino College-Compton Community Ed CenterEvergreen Valley College Fresno City College Glendale Community College (CA)Laney College Long Beach City College Los Angeles Harbor College Los Angeles Mission College Los Angeles Southwest College Los Angeles Trade-Technical CollegeMoorpark College Mt San Antonio College North Orange County Community College DistrictOrange Coast College Palo Verde College Porterville College Reedley College Rio Hondo College Sacramento City College San Diego Community College DistrictSan Diego Mesa College San Diego Miramar College San Joaquin Delta College San Jose City College San Jose-Evergreen Community College DistrictSkyline College Solano Community College South Orange County Community College DistrictState Center Community College DistrictTaft College Ventura County Community College DistrictVictor Valley CollegeWest Hills Community College- CoalingaWest Hills Community College DistrictWest Hills Community College-LemooreWest Los Angeles College Woodland Community College Yosemite Community College DistrictYuba CollegeFashion Institute of Design & Merchandising-San DiegoFashion Institute of Design & Merchandising-San FranciscoAcademy for Jewish Religion-CaliforniaAcademy for Salon ProfessionalsAcademy of Esthetics and CosmetologyAdvance Beauty CollegeAdvance Beauty Techs AcademyAdvanced Career InstituteAdvanced CollegeAdvanced Computing InstituteAlhambra Beauty CollegeAlliant International University-FresnoAlliant International University-IrvineAlliant International University-Los AngelesAlliant International University-SacramentoAlliant International University-San DiegoAlliant International University-San FranciscoAllied American UniversityAmerican Baptist Seminary of the WestAmerican Beauty CollegeAmerican Career College at St FrancisAmerican Career College-AnaheimAmerican Career College-Long BeachAmerican Career College-Los AngelesAmerican Career College-OntarioAmerican College of HealthcareAmerican College of Traditional Chinese MedicineAmerican Conservatory TheaterAmerican Institute of Massage TherapyAmerican Jewish UniversityAmerican Medical Sciences CenterAngeles InstituteAnnenberg School of NursingAntioch University-Los AngelesArgosy University-San DiegoAshdown College of Health SciencesAsher CollegeAsian American International Beauty CollegeAssociated Technical College-Los AngelesATEP at IVCATI College-NorwalkAvance Beauty CollegeAveda Institute-Los AngelesBaldwin Park Adult & Community EducationBay Area Medical AcademyBay Area Medical Academy - San Jose Satellite LocationBeaumont Adult SchoolBellus Academy-El CajonBellus Academy-National CityBellus Academy-PowayBethel Seminary-San DiegoBethesda UniversityBeyond 21st Century Beauty AcademyBlake Austin CollegeBlake Austin College Beauty AcademyBrand CollegeCalifornia Beauty SchoolCalifornia Career CollegeCalifornia Career InstituteCalifornia Christian CollegeCalifornia College San DiegoCalifornia Hair Design AcademyCalifornia Healing Arts CollegeCalifornia Miramar UniversityCalifornia Nurses Educational InstituteCalifornia Western School of LawCambridge Junior College-WoodlandCambridge Junior College-Yuba CityCanada CollegeCareer Academy of BeautyCareer Care InstituteCareer College of CaliforniaCareer Development Institute IncCareer Networks InstituteCarrington College-Citrus HeightsCarrington College-PomonaCarrington College-SacramentoCarrington College-San JoseCarrington College-San LeandroCasa Loma College-Anaheim CampusCasa Loma College-Van NuysCentral California SchoolCentral Coast CollegeCerritos CollegeCES CollegeCET-CoachellaCET-El CentroCET-OxnardCET-SacramentoCET-San BernardinoCET-San DiegoCET-Santa MariaCET-SobratoCET-SoledadCET-WatsonvilleCharles A Jones Career and Education CenterCharles R Drew University of Medicine and ScienceCharter College-Canyon CountryChurch Divinity School of the PacificCinta Aveda InstituteClaremont School of TheologyClovis Adult EducationCoachella Valley Beauty CollegeCoachella Valley Beauty College-BeaumontCoast Career InstituteCoastline Beauty CollegeCogswell CollegeColeman UniversityCollege of the CanyonsCollege of the RedwoodsCollege of the SequoiasColton-Redlands-Yucaipa Regional Occupational ProgramColumbia College-HollywoodComputer Training AcademyComputer Tutor Business and Technical InstituteConcorde Career College-Garden GroveConcorde Career College-North HollywoodConcorde Career College-San BernardinoConcorde Career College-San DiegoCopper Mountain Community CollegeCosmo Beauty AcademyCosmo Factory Cosmetology AcademyCrafton Hills CollegeCRU InstituteDesign Institute of San DiegoDiamond Beauty CollegeDominican School of Philosophy & TheologyDongguk University-Los AngelesDowney Adult SchoolElite Cosmetology SchoolEverest College-AlhambraEverest College-AnaheimEverest College-City of IndustryEverest College-GardenaEverest College-ResedaEverest College-West Los AngelesFashion Institute of Design & Merchandising-Orange CountyFederico Beauty InstituteFlair Beauty CollegeFolsom Lake CollegeFour-D CollegeFranciscan School of TheologyFredrick and Charles Beauty CollegeFremont CollegeGalaxy Medical CollegeGavilan CollegeGemological Institute of America-CarlsbadGolden Gate University-Los AngelesGolden Gate University-Silicon ValleyGolden State College of Court ReportingGrace Mission UniversityGraduate Theological UnionGurnick Academy of Medical ArtsHacienda La Puente Adult EducationHair California Beauty AcademyHeald College-ConcordHeald College-ModestoHeald College-RosevilleHeald College-SalinasHeald College-San JoseHeald College-StocktonHigh Desert Medical CollegeHilltop Beauty SchoolHinton Barber CollegeHomestead SchoolsHorizon UniversityHumphreys College-ModestoHumphreys College-Stockton and Modesto CampusesHypnosis Motivation InstituteInfoTech Career CollegeInstitute for Business and TechnologyInstitute of Technology IncIntegrity College of HealthInterCoast Colleges-BurbankInterCoast Colleges-CarsonInterCoast Colleges-Elk GroveInterCoast Colleges-FairfieldInterCoast Colleges-OrangeInterCoast Colleges-RosevilleInterior Designers InstituteInternational College of CosmetologyInternational Culinary Center-CaliforniaInternational Polytechnic InstituteInternational School of Beauty IncInternational Technological UniversityITT Technical Institute-ConcordITT Technical Institute-CoronaITT Technical Institute-Culver CityITT Technical Institute-LathropITT Technical Institute-OaklandITT Technical Institute-OxnardITT Technical Institute-Rancho CordovaITT Technical Institute-San DimasITT Technical Institute-SylmarITT Technical Institute-TorranceJohn Wesley International Barber and Beauty CollegeKaplan College-BakersfieldKaplan College-ModestoKaplan College-North HollywoodKaplan College-Palm SpringsKaplan College-RiversideKaplan College-SacramentoKaplan College-VistaLaguna College of Art and DesignLawrence & Company College of CosmetologyLe Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts-PasadenaLeMelange Academy of HairLife Chiropractic College WestLife Pacific CollegeLos Angeles CenterLos Angeles College of MusicLos Angeles County College of Nursing and Allied HealthLos Angeles ORT College-Los Angeles CampusLos Angeles ORT College-Van Nuys CampusLu Ross AcademyLyles Bakersfield College of BeautyLyles Fresno College of BeautyMadera Beauty CollegeMake-up DesignoryManchester Beauty CollegeMarinello School of Beauty-BakersfieldMarinello School of Beauty-Castro ValleyMarinello School of Beauty-ChicoMarinello School of Beauty-FresnoMarinello School of Beauty-HaywardMarinello School of Beauty-MurrietaMarinello School of Beauty-NapaMarinello School of Beauty-PalmdaleMarinello School of Beauty-ReddingMarinello School of Beauty-ResedaMarinello School of Beauty-San BernardinoMarinello School of Beauty-San MateoMarinello School of Beauty-San RafaelMarinello School of Beauty-StocktonMarinello School of Beauty-WhittierMarinello Schools of Beauty-BellMarinello Schools of Beauty-City of IndustryMarinello Schools of Beauty-HemetMarinello Schools of Beauty-Huntington BeachMarinello Schools of Beauty-Lake ForestMarinello Schools of Beauty-LomitaMarinello Schools of Beauty-Los AngelesMarinello Schools of Beauty-Moreno ValleyMarinello Schools of Beauty-ParamountMarinello Schools of Beauty-Santa ClaraMarinello Schools of Beauty-Simi ValleyMarinello Schools of Beauty-VictorvilleMarinello Schools of Beauty-VisaliaMarshall B Ketchum UniversityMarymount California UniversityMarymount University - Waterfront CampusMayfield CollegeMediaTech Institute-OceansideMedical Allied Career CenterMendocino CollegeMerritt CollegeMiami Ad School-San FranciscoMilan Institute of Cosmetology-FairfieldMilan Institute of Cosmetology-VisaliaMilan Institute-MercedMilan Institute-Palm DesertMission CollegeModern Technology SchoolMoler Barber CollegeMonterey Institute of International StudiesMonterey Peninsula College
- By State
- By City