Girolamo Savonarola Historical Profile

SEE ALSO Borgias Home | Borgias Historical Profiles | 15th Century Italy

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Name: Girolamo Savonarola
Born: 21 September 1452
Home town: Ferrara, Emilia-Romagna
Died: 23 May 1498
Position: Dominican monk and leader of Florence (1494-98)
Personality type: Fervent, heretic hater, pious, martyr,
Famous for: Book burning monk.
Strength(s): Piety, strong-willed, ambitious.
Weakness(es): Hated Renaissance decadence, immorality.
Hobbies: Burning books, preaching, destruction of immoral art.
Quirks/Famous For: Forever known for "Bonfire of the Vanities" where he and his followers burned books, smashed and destroyed mirrors, cosmetics, gaming tables, immoral sculptures, works of art depicting pagan allegories and portraits.

"Behold! It is the Lord God who is leading these armies"
- Savonarola to the Florentine people of Charles VIII's 1494 invasion

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Girolamo Savonarola was an Italian Dominican priest from Ferrara and leader of Florence from 1494 until his execution in 1498. He was known for his book burning, destruction of what he considered immoral art, and hostility to the Renaissance, this became known as "The Bonfire of the Vanities". He vehemently preached against the moral corruption of much of the clergy at the time, and his main opponent was Rodrigo Borgia, who was Pope Alexander VI from 1492, through Savonarola's death, to 1503.

Excommunication and Execution

On May 13, 1497, the rigorous Father Savonarola was excommunicated by Pope Alexander VI, and in 1498, Alexander demanded his arrest and execution. On 8 April, a crowd attacked the Convent of San Marco. A bloody struggle ensued, during which several of Savonarola’s guards and religious supporters were killed. Savonarola surrendered along with Fra Domenico da Pescia and Fra Silvestro, his two closest associates. Savonarola was faced with charges such as heresy, uttering prophecies, sedition, and other crimes, called religious errors by the Borgia pope.

During the next few weeks all three tortured on the rack, the torturers sparing only Savonarola's right arm in order that hat he might be able to sign his confession. All three signed confessions, Savonarola doing so sometime prior to 8 May. On that day he completed a written meditation on the Miserere mei, Psalm 50, entitled Infelix eg, in which he pleaded with God for mercy for his physical weakness in confessing to crime he believed he did not commit. On the day of his execution 23 May 1498, he was still working on another meditation, this one Psalm 31, entitled Tristitia obsedit me.

On the day of his execution he was taken out to the Piazza della Signoria along with Silvestro and Pescia. The three were ritually stripped of their clerical vestments, degraded as "heretic and schismatics", and given over to the secular authorities to be burned. The three were hanged in chains from a single cross and an enormous fire was lit beneath them. They were thereby executed in the same place where the "Bonfire of the Vanities" had been lit, and in the same manner that Savonarola had condemned other criminals himself during his own reign in Florence. Jacopo Nardi who recorded the incident in his Istorie della citta di Firenze, wrote that his executioner lit the flame exclaiming, "The ones who wanted to burn me is now himself put to flames". Luca Landucci, who was present, wrote in his diary that the burning took several hours, and the remains were several times broken apart and mixed with brushwood so that not the slightest piece could be later recovered, as the ecclesiastical authorities did not want Savonarola's followers to have any relics for a future veneration of the rigorous preacher they considered a saint. The ashes of the three were afterwards thrown in the Arno beside the Ponte Vecchio. Niccolo Machiavelli, author of "The Prince" also witnessed and wrote about the execution. Subsequently Florence was governed along more traditional republican lines, until the return of the Medici
in 1512.

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  • "The whole world knows that His glory has not been spread by force and weapons, but by poor fishermen".
  • "If there be no enemy, no fight; if do fight, no victory; if no victory, no crown".
  • "Lord! teach me the way my soul should walk".
  • "The only good thing that we owe to Plato and Aristotle is that they brought forward many arguments which we can use against the heretics. Yet they and other philosophers are now in hell."
  • "The sword of the Lord will descend on the Earth swiftly and soon!"
  • "It would be good for religion if many books that seem useful were destroyed. When there were not so many books and not so many arguments and disputes, religion grew more quickly than it has since".
  • "Elegance of language must give way before simplicity in preaching sound doctrine".
  • "Do you wish to be free? Then above all things, love God, love your neighbor, love one another, love the common weal; then you will have true liberty".
  • "It came from God, and so is Christ true, and Christ is thy God, who is in Heaven and awaits thee".

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  • The novel "The Bourne Identity" by Robert Ludlum, D'Anjou compares Delta to Savonarola.
  • Savonarola is mentioned in the video game Assassin's Creed II.
  • Florentine life in the time of Savonarola is described in Sarah Dunant's novel 'The Birth of Venus'
  • Bonfire of the Vanities took place in the Piazza della Signoria, Florence

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  • Life and Times of Girolamo Savonarola in IV volumes (1888) by Pasuale Villari.
  • Fire in the City: Savonarola and the Struggle for the Soul of Renaissance Florence (2006) by Lauro Martines.
  • Savonarola and Florence (1970) by Donald Weinstein.
  • The Life of Girolamo Savonarola (1959) by Roberto Ridolfi
  • The Meddlesome Friar (1957) by Michael de la Bedoyere.
  • Savonarola (1930) by Piero Misciattelli
  • Savonarola: A Biography in Dramatic Episodes (1927) by William Van Wyck.
  • The Renaissance (1953) by Will Durant.
  • The Florentine Monk (1869) by Charles Spurgeon.
  • Savonarola: His Contest with Paganism (1851) by Orestes Brownson.

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