Those Who Shaped History: Savonarola and the Bonfire of the Vanities

By Mehra Gharibian on February 11, 2013

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.

By Mehra Gharibian

Uloop Writer
Mehra Gharibian is currently a freshman undergraduate at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. While there he is studying English with a focus on Creative (Fiction) Writing, and with minors in Art History, Philosophy, and Religious Studies. He has written various fiction short stories, creative nonfiction essays, and a novella, many of which are currently out for submission. He is also the founder and editor-in-chief of Looseleaf Tea, an online literature & arts journal promoting cultural expression and hidden voices.

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