1452 - 1498
The Italian religious and
political reformer, Girolamo Savonarola, was
born of a noble family at Ferrara and in 1474,
entered the Dominican order at Bologna. He
seems to have preached in 1482 at Florence,
but his first trial was a failure. In a convent
at Brescia his zeal won attention, and in
1489 he was recalled to Florence. His second
appearance in the pulpit of San Marco -- on
the sinfulness and apostasy of the time --
was a great popular triumph, and by some he
was hailed as an inspired prophet.
Under Lorenzo the Magnificent
art and literature had felt the humanist revival
of the 15th century, whose spirit was utterly
at variance with Savonarola's conception of
spirituality and Christian morality. To the
adherents of the Medici therefore, Savonarola
early became an object of suspicion but till
the death of Lorenzo in 1492, his relations
with the Church were at least not antagonistic
and when, in 1493, a reform of the Dominican
order in Tuscany was proposed under his auspices,
it was approved by the pope, and Savonarola
was named the first vicar-general.
But now his preaching began
to point plainly to a political revolution
as the divinely-ordained means for the regeneration
of religion and morality, and he predicted
the advent of the French under Charles VIII,
whom soon after he welcomed to Florence. Soon,
however, the French were compelled to leave
Florence, and a republic was established,
of which Savonarola became the guiding spirit,
his party ("the Weepers") being
completely in the ascendant.
The republic of Florence
was to be a Christian commonwealth, of which
God was the sole sovereign, and His Gospel
the law: the most stringent enactments were
made for the repression of vice and frivolity.
Gambling was prohibited an the vanities of
dress were restrained by sumptuary laws. Even
the women flocked to the public square to
fling down their costliest ornaments and Savonarola's
followers made huge "bonfires of the
Meanwhile, his rigor and
claim to the gift of prophecy led to his being
cited in 1495 to answer a charge of heresy
at Rome and on his failing to appear he was
forbidden to preach. Savonarola disregarded
the order, but his difficulties at home increased.
The new system proved impracticable and although
the conspiracy for the recall of the Medici
failed, and five of the conspirators were
executed, yet this very rigor hastened the
In 1497 came a sentence of
excommunication from Rome; and thus precluded
from administering the sacred offices, Savonarola
zealously tended the sick monks during the
plague. A second "bonfire of the vanities"
in 1498 led to riots; and at the new elections
the Medici party came into power. Savonarola
was again ordered to desist from preaching,
and was fiercely denounced by a Franciscan
preacher, Francesco da Puglia. Dominicans
and Franciscans appealed to the interposition
of divine providence by the ordeal of fire.
But when the trial was to have come off (April
1498) difficulties and debates arose, destroying
Savonarola's prestige and producing a complete
revulsion of public feeling.
He was brought to trial for
falsely claiming to have seen visions, and
uttered prophecies, for religious error, and
for sedition. Under torture he made avowals
which he afterwards withdrew. He was declared
guilty and the sentence was confirmed by Rome.
On May 23, 1498, this extraordinary man and
two Dominican disciples were hanged and burned,
still professing their adherence to the Church.