Girolamo Savonarola

1452-1498. Italian reformer. Born in Ferrara and destined at first for a career in medicine, he joined the Dominicans (1474) and served in several N Italian cities. Although at first unsuccessful as a preacher, he achieved oratorical confidence and fame through a series of sermons on the Apocalypse preached at Brescia (1486). In 1490 he settled in Florence, where he preached at the Medici foundation of San Marco, calling for repentance on the part of the city's leaders and pleading the cause of the poor and oppressed. Elected prior of San Marco and invited to preach in the cathedral, he grew in influence. By 1494 he predicted a flood of divine judgment would be unleashed on Florence.

When the French king, Charles VIII, invaded Italy, it seemed that God's wrath had struck. Twice Savonarola persuaded the king not to sack the city, and finally Charles left without having done any deliberate damage. At the approach of the French the Medici “boss” of the city, Piero, had left, and then with the removal of Charles it seemed to Savonarola that divine grace had intervened in behalf of Florence. He announced that a “golden age” had come and the city would soon have temporal and spiritual power over all Italy. He encouraged the establishment of a republican government similar to that of Venice. Under this administration he held the city in moral tension and initiated tax reform, aided the poor, reformed the courts, changing Florence from a lax, corrupt, pleasure-loving city into an ascetic, monastic-type community. This was done through the use of censorship and violent methods-for example, during the carnival of 1496 he inspired the “burning of the vanities” when the people made a great bonfire of their gambling equipment, cosmetics, false hair, and lewd books.

Savonarola also denounced Alexander VI* and the corrupt papal court. The pope, unhappy because of Florence's alliance with the French and the preaching of the “meddlesome friar,” excommunicated Savonarola and threatened to place the city under an interdict if he was permitted to preach again. Although Savonarola denied the validity of the ban since, as he put it, Alexander was the representative of Satan not Christ, the people of Florence were frightened. Moreover, some of the wealthy citizens were impatient with the friar's ideas. The Franciscans arranged an ordeal in which one of their number and a follower of Savonarola would march through a fire. When the flames were kindled for the test, an argument broke out between the two groups and a sudden rainstorm quenched the fire. This incident helped to discredit Savonarola, who was tried for heresy, found guilty, and executed.

M. de la Bedoyère, The Meddlesome Friar and the Wayward Pope (1958); R. Ridolfi, The Life of Girolamo Savonarola (1959); D. Weinstein, Savonarola and Florence, Prophecy and Patriotism in the Renaissance (1970).