Savonarola and the Republic



THE advantage of hereditary rule is continuity; its nemesis is mediocrity. Piero di Lorenzo succeeded without trouble to his father’s power, but his character and his misjudgments forfeited the popularity upon which the rule of the Medici had been based. He was endowed with a violent temper, a middling mind, a vacillating will, and admirable intentions. He continued Lorenzo’s generosity to artists and men of letters, but with less discrimination and tact. He was physically strong, excelled in sports, and took part more frequently and prominently in athletic competitions than Florence thought becoming in the head of an endangered state. It was among his many misfortunes that Lorenzo’s enterprises and extravagance had depleted the city’s treasury; that the competition of British textiles was causing economic depression in Florence; that Piero’s Orsini wife turned up her Roman nose at the Florentines as a nation of shopkeepers; that the collateral branch of the Medici family, derived from Cosimo’s brother Lorenzo “the Elder,” began now to challenge the descendants of Cosimo, and led a party of opposition in the name of liberty. It was Piero’s crowning misery that he was contemporary with Charles VIII of France, who invaded Italy, and of Savonarola, who proposed to replace the Medici with Christ. Piero had not been built to withstand such strains.

The Savonarola family came from Padua to Ferrara about 1440, when Michele Savonarola was invited by Niccolò III d’Este to be his court physician. Michael was a man of piety rare in medicos; he was wont to rebuke the Ferrarese for preferring romances to religion.1 His son Niccolò was a mediocre physician, but Niccolò’s wife Elena Bonacossi was a woman of strong character and high ideals. Girolamo was the third of their seven children. They set him in his turn to study medicine, but he thought Thomas Aquinas more absorbing than anatomy, and solitude with his books more pleasant than the sports of youth. At the University of Bologna he was horrified to find no student so poor as to do virtue reverence. “To be considered a man here,” he wrote, “you must defile your mouth with the most filthy, brutal, and tremendous blasphemies…. If you study philosophy and the good arts you are considered a dreamer; if you live chastely and modestly, a fool; if you are pious, a hypocrite; if you believe in God, an imbecile.”2He left the University, and returned to his mother and solitude. He became self-conscious, fretted over the thought of hell and the sinfulness of men; his earliest known composition was a poem denouncing the vices of Italy, including the popes, and pledging himself to reform his country and his Church. He passed long hours in prayer, and fasted so earnestly that his parents mourned his emaciation. In 1474 he was stirred to even severer piety by the Lenten sermons of Fra Michele, and he rejoiced to see many Ferrarese bringing masks, false hair, playing cards, unseemly pictures, and other worldly apparatus to fling them upon a burning pyre in the market place. A year later, aged twenty-three, he fled secretly from home, and entered a Dominican monastery in Bologna.

He wrote a tender letter to his parents begging their forgiveness for disappointing the expectations they had had of his advancement in the world. When they importuned him to return he answered angrily: “Ye blind! Why do you still weep and lament? You hamper me, though you should rejoice…. What can I say if you grieve yet, save that you are my sworn enemies and foes to Virtue? If so, then I say to you, ‘Get ye behind me, all ye who work evil!’“3 Six years he stayed in the Bologna convent. He proudly asked that the most humble tasks should be given him, but his talent as an orator was discovered, and he was set to preaching. In 1481 he was transferred to San Marco in Florence, and was assigned to preach in the church of San Lorenzo. His sermons there proved unpopular; they were too theological and didactic for a city that knew the eloquence and polish of the humanists; his congregation dwindled week by week. The prior set him to instructing novices.

It was probably in the next five years that his final character was formed. As the intensity of his feelings and purposes increased they wrote themselves upon his features in the furrowed and frowning forehead, the thick lips tight with determination, the immense nose curving out as if to encompass the world, a countenance somber and severe, expressing an infinite capacity for love and hate; a small frame racked and haunted with visions, frustrated aspirations, and introverted storms. “I am still flesh like you,” he wrote to his parents, “and the senses are unruly to reason, so that I must struggle cruelly to keep the Demon from leaping upon my back.”4 He fasted and flogged himself to tame what seemed to him the inherent corruption of human nature. If he personified the promptings of flesh and pride as Satanic voices, he could with equal readiness personify the admonitions of his better self. Alone in his cell, he glorified his solitude by conceiving himself as a battleground of spirits hovering over him for evil or for good. Finally it seemed to him that angels, archangels, were speaking to him; he accepted their words as divine revelations; and suddenly he spoke to the world as a prophet chosen to be a messenger of God. He avidly absorbed the apocalyptic visions attributed to the Apostle John, and inherited the eschatalogy of the mystic Joachim of Flora. Like Joachim he announced that the reign of Antichrist had come, that Satan had captured the world, that soon Christ would appear to begin His earthly rule, and that divine vengeance would engulf the tyrants, adulterers, and atheists who seemed to dominate Italy.

When his prior sent him to preach in Lombardy (1486), Savonarola abandoned his youthful pedagogic style, and cast his sermons into the form of denunciations of immorality, prophecies of doom, and calls to repentance. Thousands of people who could not have followed his earlier arguments listened with awe to the newly impassioned eloquence of a man who seemed to be speaking with authority. Pico della Mirandola heard of the friar’s success; he asked Lorenzo to suggest to the prior that Savonarola should be brought back to Florence. Savonarola returned (1489); two years later he was chosen prior of San Marco; and Lorenzo found in him an enemy more forthright and powerful than any that had ever crossed his path.

Florence was surprised to discover that the swarthy preacher who a decade before had chilled them with argument, could now awe them with apocalyptic fantasies, thrill them with vivid descriptions of the paganism, corruption, and immorality of their neighbors, lift up their souls to repentance and hope, and renew in them the full intensity of the faith that had inspired and terrified their youth.

Ye women, who glory in your ornaments, your hair, your hands, I tell you you are all ugly. Would you see true beauty? Look at the pious man or woman in whom spirit dominates matter; watch him when he prays, when a ray of the divine beauty glows upon him when his prayer is ended; you will see the beauty of God shining in his face, you will behold it as it were the face of an angel.5

Men marveled at his courage, for he flayed the clergy and the papacy more than the laity, the princes more than the people; and a note of political radicalism warmed the hearts of the poor:

In these days there is no grace, no gift of the Holy Spirit, that may not be bought or sold. On the other hand, the poor are oppressed by grievous burdens; and when they are called to pay sums beyond their means the rich cry unto them, “Give me the rest.” There be some who, having an income of fifty [florins per year], pay a tax on one hundred, while the rich pay little, since the taxes are regulated at their pleasure. Bethink ye well, O ye rich, for affliction shall smite ye. This city shall no more be called Florence but a den of thieves, of baseness and bloodshed. Then shall ye all be povertystricken… and your name, O priests, shall be changed into a terror.6

After the priests the bankers:

You have found many ways of making money, and many exchanges which you call lawful but which are most unjust; and you have corrupted the offices and magistrates of the city. No one can persuade you that usury [interest] is sinful; you defend it at the peril of your souls. No one is ashamed of lending at usury; nay, those who do otherwise pass for fools…. Your brow is that of a whore, and you will not blush. You say, a good and glad life lies in gain; and Christ says, Blessed are the poor in spirit, for they shall inherit heaven.7

And a word for Lorenzo:

Tyrants are incorrigible because they are proud, because they love flattery, and will not restore ill-gotten gains…. They hearken not unto the poor, and neither do they condemn the rich…. They corrupt voters, and farm out taxes to aggravate the burdens of the people8…. The tyrant is wont to occupy the people with shows and festivals, in order that they may think of their own pastimes and not of his designs, and, growing unused to the conduct of the commonwealth, may leave the reins of government in his hands.9

Nor shall that dictatorship be excused on the ground that it finances literature and art. The literature and art, said Savonarola, are pagan; the humanists merely pretend to be Christians; those ancient authors whom they so sedulously exhume and edit and praise are strangers to Christ and the Christian virtues, and their art is an idolatry of heathen gods, or a shameless display of naked women and men.

Lorenzo was disturbed. His grandfather had founded and enriched the monastery of San Marco; he himself had given to it lavishly; it seemed to him unreasonable that a friar who could know little of the difficulties of government, and who idealized a liberty that had been merely the right of the strong to use the weak without hindrance by law, should now undermine, from a Medici shrine, that public support upon which the political power of his family had been built. He tried to appease the friar; he went to Mass in San Marco’s, and sent the convent rich gifts. Savonarola scorned them, and remarked in a subsequent sermon that a faithful dog does not leave off barking in his master’s defense because a bone is thrown to him. When he found an unusually large sum, in gold, in the alms box, he suspected that it came from Lorenzo, and gave it to another monastery, saying that silver sufficed the needs of his brethren. Lorenzo sent five leading citizens to argue with him that his inflammatory sermons would lead to useless violence, and were unsettling the order and peace of Florence; Savonarola answered by telling them to bid Lorenzo do penance for his sins. A Franciscan friar famous for eloquence was encouraged to preach popular sermons with a view to drawing the Dominican’s audience away; the Franciscan failed. Greater throngs than ever before came to San Marco, until its church could no longer hold them. For his Lenten sermons of 1491 Savonarola moved his pulpit into the cathedral; and though that edifice had been designed to contain a city, it was crowded whenever the friar was scheduled to speak. The ailing Lorenzo made no further effort to interfere with his preaching.

After Lorenzo’s death the weakness of his son Piero made Savonarola the greatest power in Florence. With the reluctant consent of the new pope, Alexander VI, he separated his convent from the Lombard Congregation (of Dominican monasteries) of which it had been a part, and made himself in practice the independent head of his monastic community. He reformed its regulations, and raised the moral and intellectual level of the friars under his rule. New recruits joined his flock, and most of its 250 members developed for him a love and fidelity that upheld him in all but his final ordeal. He became bolder in his criticism of the laic and clerical immorality of the time. Inheriting, however unwittingly, the anticlerical views of the Waldensian and Patarine heretics who still lurked here and there in northern Italy and central Europe, he condemned the worldly wealth of the clergy, the pomp of ecclesiastical ceremony, “the great prelates with splendid miters of gold and precious stones on their heads… with fine copes and stoles of brocade”; he contrasted this affluence with the simplicity of the priests in the early Church; these “had fewer gold miters and fewer chalices, for what few they possessed were broken up to relieve the needs of the poor; whereas our prelates, for the sake of obtaining chalices, will rob the poor of their sole means of support.”10 To these denunciations he added prophecies of doom. He had predicted that Lorenzo and Innocent VIII would die in 1492; they did. Now he predicted that presently the sins of Italy, of her despots and her clergy, would he avenged by a dire disaster; that thereafter Christ would lead the nation in a glorious reform; and that he himself, Savonarola, would die a violent death. Early in 1494 he foretold that Charles VIII would invade Italy, and he welcomed the invasion as the chastening hand of God. His sermons at this time, says a contemporary, were “so full of terrors and alarms, cries and lamentations, that everyone went about the city bewildered, speechless, and, as it were, half dead.”11

In September, 1494, Charles VIII crossed the Apennines into Italy, resolved to add the Kingdom of Naples to the French crown. In October he entered Florentine territory and besieged the fortress of Sarzana. Piero thought he could save Florence from France as his father had saved it from Naples, by going in person to the enemy. He met Charles at Sarzana, and yielded to all demands: Pisa, Leghorn, and every bastion of Florence in the west were surrendered to the French for the duration of the war, and Florence was to advance 200,000 florins ($5,000,000) to help finance Charles’s campaign.12 When news of these concessions reached Florence the Signory and the Council were shocked; contrary to Lorenzo’s precedents, they had not been consulted in these negotiations. Led by the Medici opponents of Piero, the Signory decided to depose him and restore the old republic. When Piero returned from Sarzana he found the gates of the Palazzo Vecchio closed in his face. As he rode to his home the people jeered him, and urchins pelted him with stones. Fearing for his life, he fled from the city with his family and his brothers. The populace sacked the Medici palace and gardens, and the homes of Piero’s financial agents; the art collection gathered by four generations of Medici was plundered and scattered, and its remains were sold at auction by the government. The Signory offered a reward of five thousand florins for the delivery of Piero and Cardinal Giovanni de’ Medici alive, two thousand for their delivery dead. It sent five men, including Savonarola, to Charles at Pisa to ask for better terms; Charles met them with noncommittal courtesy. When the delegation had left, the Pisans tore the lion and lilies of Florence from their buildings, and declared their independence. Charles entered Florence, consented to some slight modification of his demands, and, eager to get to Naples, led his army to the south. Florence addressed itself now to one of history’s most spectacular experiments in democracy.

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