On December 2, 1494 the citizens were summoned to a parlamento by the great bell in the Palazzo Vecchio tower. The Signory asked and received the power to name twenty men who would appoint a new Signory and new magistrates for a year, after which all offices were to be filled by lot from a register of the approximately three thousand enfranchised males. The Twenty dismissed the councils and agencies which under the Medici had considered and administered public affairs, and divided the diverse functions among themselves. They were inadequately experienced for these tasks, and were torn by family factions; the new governmental machinery broke down, and chaos was imminent; commerce and industry hesitated, men were thrown out of work, and angry crowds gathered in the streets. Piero Capponi persuaded the Twenty that order could be saved only by inviting Savonarola into their councils.
The friar summoned them to his monastery, and expounded to them an ambitious program of political, economic, and moral legislation. Under his leadership and that of Pietro Soderini, the Twenty devised a new constitution, partly modeled on that which was so successfully maintaining stability in Venice. A Maggior Consiglio or Great Council was to be formed of men who—or their ancestors in the preceding three generations—had held a major office in the state; and these initial members were to choose twenty-eight additional councilors in each year. The executive organs of the government were to remain essentially as under the Medici: a Signory of eight priors and a gonfalonier, chosen by the Council for a term of two months, and various committees—The Twelve, The Sixteen, The Ten, The Eight—to carry on administration, taxation, and war. Complete democracy was postponed as impractical in a society still largely illiterate and subject to waves of passion; but the Great Council, numbering almost three thousand members, was considered to be a representative body. Since no room in the Palazzo Vecchio could house so large an assemblage, Simone Pollaiuolo—II Cronaca—was engaged to redesign part of the interior into a Sala dei Cinquecento, or Hall of the Five Hundred, where the Council could meet in sections; here, eight years later, Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo would be commissioned to paint opposed walls in a famous rivalry. Through Savonarola’s influence and eloquence the proposed constitution received public acclaim, and the new Republic came into operation on June 10, 1495.
It began amiably by issuing amnesty to all supporters of the deposed Medici regime. With self-respecting generosity it abolished all taxes except a ten-per-cent levy on income from real property; the merchants who dominated the Council thus exempted commerce from taxation, and laid the whole burden on the landowning aristocracy and the land-using poor. At Savonarola’s urging the government established a monte di pietà, or state loan office, which lent money at five to seven per cent, and freed the poor from dependence on private moneylenders, who had charged up to thirty per cent. Again at the friar’s prompting, the Council attempted to reform morals with laws: it forbade horse races, gross carnival songs, profanity, and gambling; servants were encouraged to inform against masters who gambled, and convicted offenders were punished with torture; blasphemers had their tongues pierced, and homosexuals were degraded with merciless penalties. To aid in the enforcement of these reforms Savonarola organized the boys of his congregation into a moral police. They pledged themselves to attend church regularly, to avoid races, pageants, acrobatic displays, loose company, obscene literature, dancing, and music schools, and to wear their hair short. These “bands of hope” roamed the streets soliciting alms for the Church; they dispersed groups that had gathered to gamble, and tore from the bodies of women what they judged to be indecent dress.
For a time the city accepted these reforms; many women gave them enthusiastic support, behaved modestly, dressed plainly, and put aside their jewelry. A moral revolution transformed what had been the gay Florence of the Medici. People sang hymns, not Bacchic lyrics, in the streets. Churches were filled, and alms were given in unprecedented quantity. Some bankers and merchants restored illegal gains.13 Savonarola called upon all the population, rich and poor, to shun idleness and luxury, to work assiduously, and to give a good example with their lives. “Your reform,” he said, “must begin with the things of the spirit… your temporal good must serve your moral and religious welfare, on which it depends. And if you have heard it said that ‘states are not ruled by paternosters,’ remember that this is the rule of tyrants… a rule for oppressing, not for liberating, a city. If you desire a good government you must restore it to God.”14 He proposed that Florence should think of its government as having an invisible king—Christ Himself; and under this theocracy he predicted Utopia: “O Florence! then wilt thou be rich with spiritual and temporal wealth; thou wilt achieve the reformation of Rome, of Italy, of all countries; the wings of thy greatness shall spread over the world.”15 And in truth Florence had seldom been so happy before. It was a bright moment in the hectic history of virtue.
But human nature remained. Men are not naturally virtuous, and social order maintains itself precariously amid the open or secret conflict of egos, families, classes, races, and creeds. A powerful element in the Florentine community itched for taverns, brothels, and gambling halls as outlets for instincts or as sources of gain. The Pazzi, the Nerli, the Capponi, the younger branch of the Medici, and other aristocrats who had effected the explusion of Piero were furious at seeing the government fall into the hands of a friar. Remnants of Piero’s party survived, and watched for a chance to restore him and their fortunes. The Franciscan friars worked with religious zeal against the Dominican Savonarola, and a small group of skeptics called for a plague on both their houses. These diverse enemies of the new order agreed in satirizing its supporters as Piagnoni or weepers (for many wept at Savonarola’s sermons), Collitorti or wry-necks, Stropiccioni or hypocrites, Masticapaternostri or prayer-munchers; and the recipients of these titles denominated their opponents, from the virulence of their hostility, Arrabiati, mad dogs. Early in 1496 the Arrabiati succeeded in electing their candidate for gonfalonier, Filippo Corbizzi. Having assembled in the Palazzo Vecchio a council of ecclesiastics, he summoned Savonarola before it, and accused him of political activities improper in a friar; and several churchmen, including one of his own Dominican order, joined in the charge. He replied: “Now the words of the Lord are fulfilled: ‘The sons of my mother have fought against me.’… To be concerned with the affairs of this world… is no crime in a monk unless he should mix in them without any higher aim, and without seeking to promote the cause of religion.”16 They challenged him to say whether his sermons were inspired by God, but he refused to answer. He returned to his cell a sadder man.
He might have overcome his enemies had foreign affairs favored him. The Florentines, who praised liberty, were furious at Pisa for demanding and securing it. Even Savonarola dared not defend the rebellious city; and a cathedral canon who remarked that the Pisans too had a right to be free was severely punished by a Piagnone Signory. Savonarola promised to restore Pisa to Florence, and rashly claimed that he held Pisa in the hollow of his hand; but he was, as Machiavelli scornfully said, a prophet without arms. When Charles VIII was chased from Italy, Pisa consolidated its independence by an alliance with Milan and Venice; and the Florentines mourned that Savonarola had tied them to Charles’s falling star, and that they alone had not shared in the glorious expulsion of the French from Italy.17 Before abandoning the lately Florentine fortresses of Sarzana and Pietra Santa, their French commandants had sold one to Genoa and the other to Lucca. Montepulciano, Arezzo, Volterra, and other Florentine dependencies were agitated by movements for liberation; the once proud and powerful city seemed on the verge of losing nearly all its outlying possessions, and all its trade outlets by the Arno, the Adriatic, and the roads to Milan and Rome. Trade suffered, tax revenues fell. The Council tried to finance the war against Pisa by forced loans from rich citizens, offering them government bonds in return; but as bankruptcy neared these bonds declined to eighty to fifty to ten per cent of their face value. In 1496 the treasury was exhausted, and the government imitated Lorenzo by borrowing money from a fund confided to the state to provide dowries for poor brides. In the administration of government funds, whether by Arrabiati or Piagnoni, corruption and incompetence rose and spread. Francesco Valori, made gonfalonier (January, 1497) by a Piagnone majority in the Council, maddened the Mad Dogs by excluding them from all magistracies, denying them membership in the Council if they were delinquent in taxes, allowing none but Piagnoni to address the Council, and expelling from Florence any Franciscan friar who preached against Savonarola. For eleven months in 1496 rain fell almost daily, ruining the crops of the narrowed hinterland; in 1497 people dropped dead of hunger in the streets. The government opened relief stations to provide grain for the poor; women were crushed to death in the multitudes that applied. The Medicean party plotted to restore Piero; five leaders were detected and were condemned to death (1497); appeal to the Council, guaranteed by the constitution, was refused them; they were executed within a few hours of their condemnation; and many Florentines contrasted the faction, violence, and severity of the Republic with the order and peace of Lorenzo’s time. Hostile crowds repeatedly demonstrated before Savonarola’s monastery; Piagnoni and Arrabiati stoned each other in the streets. When the friar preached on Ascension Day of 1497 his sermon was interrupted by a riot in which his enemies tried to seize him and were repulsed by his friends. A gonfalonier proposed to the Signory that he should be banished as a means of quieting the city, and the proposal was lost by a single vote. Amid this bitter collapse of his dream Savonarola faced and defied the strongest power in Italy.