Pope Alexander VI was not deeply disturbed by Savonarola’s criticism of the clergy or of the morals of Rome. He had heard the like before; hundreds of ecclesiastics, for centuries past, had complained that manypriests lived immoral lives, and that the popes loved wealth and power more than became the vicars of Christ.18 Alexander was of a genial temperament; he did not mind a little criticism so long as he felt secure in the Apostolic chair. What disturbed him in Savonarola was the friar’s politics. Not the semidemocratic nature of the new constitution; Alexander had no special interest in the Medici, and perhaps preferred in Florence a weak republic to a strong dictatorship. Alexander feared another French invasion; he had joined in forming a league of Italian states to expel Charles VIII and to discourage a second French attack; he resented the adherence of Florence to its alliance with France, considered Savonarola the power behind this policy, and suspected him of secret correspondence with the French government. Savonarola wrote to Charles VIII about this time three letters seconding the proposal of Cardinal Giuliano della Rovere that the King should call a general council of ecclesiastics and statesmen to reform the Church and depose Alexander as “an infidel and a heretic.”19 Cardinal Ascanio Sforza, representing Milan at the papal court, urged the Pope to end the friar’s preaching and influence.

On July 21, 1495 Alexander wrote a brief note to Savonarola:

To our well-beloved son, greeting and the apostolic benediction. We have heard that of all the workers in the Lord’s vineyard thou art the most zealous; at which we deeply rejoice, and give thanks to Almighty God. We have likewise heard that thou dost assert thy predictions proceed not from thee but from God.* Therefore we desire, as behooves our pastoral office, to have speech with thee considering these things; so that, being by these means better informed of God’s will, we may be better able to fulfill it. Wheretofore, by thy vow of holy obedience, we enjoin thee to wait on us without delay, and shall welcome thee with loving kindness.20

This letter was a triumph for Savonarola’s enemies, for it placed him in a situation where he must either end his career as a reformer, or flagrantly disobey the Pope. He feared that once in the papal power he would never be allowed to return to Florence; he might end his days in a Sant’ Angelo dungeon; and if he did not come back his supporters would be ruined. On their advice he replied to Alexander that he was too ill to travel to Rome. That the Pope’s motives were political appeared when he wrote to the Signory on September 8 protesting against the continued alliance of Florence with France, and exhorting the Florentines not to endure the reproach of being the only Italians allied with the enemies of Italy. At the same time he ordered Savonarola to desist from preaching, to submit to the authority of the Dominican vicar-general in Lombardy; and to go wherever the vicargeneral should bid him. Savonarola replied (September 29) that his congregation was unwilling to subordinate itself to the vicar-general, but that meanwhile he would refrain from preaching. Alexander, in a conciliatory response (October 16), repeated his prohibition of preaching, and expressed the hope that when Savonarola’s health should permit he would come to Rome, to be received in “a joyful and fatherly spirit.”21 There, for a year, Alexander let the problem rest.

Meanwhile the prior’s party had recaptured control of the Council and the Signory. The emissaries of the Florentine government in Rome besought the Pope to withdraw his interdict on the friar’s preaching, urging that Florence needed his moral stimulus in Lent. Alexander seems to have given a verbal consent, and on February 17, 1496, Savonarola resumed his preaching in the cathedral. About this time Alexander commissioned a learned Dominican bishop to examine Savonarola’s published sermons for heresy. The bishop reported: “Most Holy Father, this friar says nothing that is not wise and honest; he speaks against simony and the corruption of the priesthood, which in truth is very great; he respects the dogmas and authority of the Church; wherefore I would rather seek to make him my friend—if need be by offering him the cardinal’s purple.”22 Alexander complaisantly sent a Dominican to Florence to offer Savonarola the red hat. The friar felt not complimented but shocked; this, to him, was but another instance of simony. His answer to Alexander’s emissary was: “Come to my next sermon, and you will have my reply to Rome.”23

His first sermon of the year reopened his conflict with the Pope. It was an event in the history of Florence. Half the excited city wished to hear him, and even the vast duomo could not contain all who sought entry, though within they were crowded so tightly that no one could move. A group of armed friends escorted the prior to the cathedral. He began by explaining his long absence from the pulpit, and affirming his full loyalty to the teachings of the Church. But then he issued an audacious challenge to the Pope:

The superior may not give me any command contrary to the rules of my order; the pope may not give any command opposed to charity or the Gospel. I do not believe that the pope would ever seek to do so; but were he so to do I should say to him, “Now thou art no pastor, thou art not the Church of Rome, thou art in error.”… Whenever it be clearly seen that the commands of superiors are contrary to God’s commandments, and especially when contrary to the precepts of charity, no one is in such case bound to obedience…. Were I to clearly see that my departure from a city would be the spiritual and temporal ruin of the people, I would obey no living man that commanded me to depart… forasmuch as in obeying him I should disobey the commands of the Lord.24

In a sermon for the second Sunday in Lent he denounced the morals of Christendom’s capital in harsh terms: “One thousand, ten thousand, fourteen thousand harlots are few for Rome, for there both men and women are made harlots.”25 These sermons were spread throughout Europe by the new marvel, the printing press, and were read everywhere, even by the sultan of Turkey. They aroused a war of pamphlets in and out of Florence, some of them accusing the friar of heresy and indiscipline, others defending him as a prophet and a saint.

Alexander sought an indirect escape from open war. In November, 1496, he ordered the union of all Tuscan Dominican monasteries in a new Tuscan-Roman Congregation, to be directly under the authority of Padre Giacomo da Sicilia. Padre Giacomo was favorably disposed toward Savonarola, but would presumably accept a papal suggestion to transfer the friar to another environment. Savonarola refused to obey the order of union, and took his case over the head of the Pope to the public at large in a pamphlet called “An Apology of the Brethren of San Marco.” “This union,” he argued, “is impossible, unreasonable, and hurtful, nor can the brethren of San Marco be bound to agree to it, inasmuch as superiors may not issue commands contrary to the rules of the order, nor contrary to the law of charity or the welfare of our souls.”26 Technically all monastic congregations were directly subject to the popes; a pope might compel the merger of congregations against their will; Savonarola himself, in 1493, had approved Alexander’s order uniting the Dominican Congregation of St. Catherine’s at Pisa, against its will, with Savonarola’s Congregation of St. Mark.27 Alexander, however, took no immediate action. Savonarola continued to preach, and issued to the public a series of letters defending his defiance of the Pope.

As the Lenten season of 1497 approached, the Arrabiati prepared to celebrate carnival by such festivities, processions, and songs as had been sanctioned under the Medici. To counter these plans Savonarola’s loyal aide, Fra Domenico, instructed the children of the congregation to organize a quite different celebration. During the week of Carnival—preceding Lent—these boys and girls went about the city in bands, knocked at doors, and asked for—sometimes demanded—the surrender of what they called “vanities” or cursed objects (anathemase)—pictures considered immoral, love songs, carnival masks and costumes, false hair, fancy dresses, playing cards, dice, musical instruments, cosmetics, wicked books like the Decameron or the Morgante maggiore.… On the final day of Carnival, February 7, the more ardent supporters of Savonarola, singing hymns, marched in solemn procession, behind a figure of the Infant Jesus carved by Donatello and borne by four children in the guise of angels, to the Piazza della Signoria. There a great pyramid of combustible material had been raised, 60 feet high and 240 feet in circumference at the base. Upon the seven stages of the pyramid the “vanities” collected during the week, or now brought to the sacrifice, were arranged or thrown, including precious manuscripts and works of art. Fire was set to the pyre at four points, and the bells of the Palazzo Vecchio were rung to acclaim this first Savonarolan “burning of the vanities.”*

The Lenten sermons of the friar carried the war to Rome. While accepting the principle that the Church should have some terra firma of temporal power, he argued that the wealth of the Church was the source of her deterioration. His invective now knew no bounds.

The earth teems with bloodshed, yet the priests take no heed; rather, by their evil example, they bring spiritual death upon all. They have withdrawn from God, and their piety consists in spending their nights with harlots…. They say that God hath no care of the world, that all cometh by chance; neither believe they that Christ is present in the sacrament…. Come hither, thou ribald Church. The Lord saith: I gave thee beautiful vestments, but thou hast made idols of them. Thou hast dedicated the sacred vessels to vainglory, the sacraments to simony. Thou hast become a shameless harlot in thy lusts; thou art lower than a beast; thou art a monster of abomination. Once thou felt shame for thy sins, but now thou art shameless. Once anointed priests called their sons nephews, but now they speak of their sons.… And thus, O prostitute Church, thou hast displayed thy foulness to the whole world, and stinkest unto heaven.28

Savonarola suspected that such tirades would earn him excommunication. He welcomed it.

Many of ye say that excommunication will be decreed…. For my part I beseech Thee, O Lord, that it may come quickly.… Bear this excommunication aloft on a lance, open the gates to it! I will reply to it: and if I do not amaze thee, then thou mayest say what thou wilt.… O Lord, I seek only Thy cross! Let me be persecuted; I ask this grace of Thee. Let me not die in my bed, but let me give my blood for Thee, even as Thou gavest thine for me.29

These passionate sermons created a furore throughout Italy. Men came from distant cities to hear them; the duke of Ferrara came in disguise; the crowd overflowed from the cathedral into the square, and each striking sentence was relayed from those within to those without. In Rome the people turned almost unanimously against the friar, and called for his punishment.30 In April, 1497 the Arrabiati secured control of the Council, and—on pretext of danger from the plague—forbade all preaching in the churches after May 5. Urged on by Roman agents of the Arrabiati, Alexander signed a decree excommunicating the friar (May 13); but he let it be known that he would rescind the excommunication if Savonarola would obey the summons to Rome. The prior, fearing imprisonment, still refused, but for six months he held his peace. Then on Christmas Day he sang High Mass at San Marco, gave the Eucharist to his friars, and led them in a solemn procession around the square. Many were scandalized at an excommunicate celebrating Mass, but Alexander made no protest; on the contrary he intimated that he would withdraw the excommunication if Florence would join the league to resist a second invasion from France.31 The Signory, gambling on the success of the French, rejected the proposal. On February 11, 1498, Savonarola completed his rebellion by preaching in San Marco. He denounced the excommunication as unjust and invalid, and charged with heresy any man who should uphold its validity. Finally he issued an excommunication himself:

Therefore, on him that giveth commands opposed to charity anathema sit [let there be a curse]. Were such a command pronounced by an angel, even by the Virgin Mary herself and all the saints (which is certainly impossible), anathema sit.… And if any pope hath ever spoken to the contrary, let him be declared excommunicate.32

On the last day before Lent Savonarola read Mass in the open square before San Marco’s, administered the sacrament to a great multitude, and publicly prayed: “O Lord, if my deeds be not sincere, if my words be not inspired by Thee, strike me dead on this instant.” That afternoon his followers staged a second burning of the vanities.

Alexander informed the Signory that unless it could dissuade Savonarola from further preaching he would lay an interdict upon the city. Though now thoroughly hostile to the prior, the Signory refused to silence him, preferring to let the onus of such a prohibition remain with the Pope; besides, the eloquent friar might be useful in combating a pope who was organizing the Papal States into a power too strong for the comfort of its neighbors. Savonarola continued to preach, but only in the church of his monastery. The Florentine ambassador reported that feeling against the friar was so intense in Rome that no Florentine was safe there; and he feared that if the Pope issued the threatened interdict all Florentine merchants in Rome would be thrown into jail. The Signory yielded, and ordered Savonarola to quit preaching (March 17). He obeyed, but predicted great calamities for Florence. Fra Domenico filled the convent pulpit in his stead, and served as the voice of his prior. Meanwhile Savonarola wrote to the sovereigns of France, Spain, Germany, and Hungary, begging them to call a general council for the reform of the Church:

The moment of vengeance has arrived. The Lord commands me to reveal new secrets, and make manifest to the world the peril by which the bark of St. Peter is threatened, owing to your long neglect. The Church is all teeming with abomination, from the crown of her head to the soles of her feet; yet not only do ye apply no remedy, but ye do homage to the cause of the woes by which she is polluted. Wherefore the Lord is greatly angered, and hath long left the Church without a shepherd…. For I hereby testify… that this Alexander is no pope, nor can be held as one; inasmuch as, leaving aside the mortal sin of simony, by which he hath purchased the papal chair, and daily selleth the benefices of the Church to the highest bidder, and likewise putting aside his other manifest vices, I declare that he is no Christian, and believes in no God.33

If, he added, the kings will call a council he will appear before it and give proof of all these charges. One of these letters was intercepted by a Milanese agent, and was sent to Alexander.

On March 25, 1498 a Franciscan friar, preaching in the church of Santa Croce, turned the drama of the case upon himself by challenging Savonarola to an ordeal of fire. He stigmatized the Dominican as a heretic and false prophet, and offered to walk through fire if Savonarola would do the same. He expected, he said, that both of them would be burned, but hoped by his sacrifice to free Florence from the disorders that had been caused by a proud Dominican’s disobedience of the Pope. Savonarola rejected the challenge; Domenico accepted it. The hostile Signory seized the chance to discredit a prior who in its view had become a troublesome demagogue. It approved of the resort to medieval methods, and arranged that on April 7 Fra Giuliano Rondinelli of the Franciscans and Fra Domenico da Pescia should enter a fire in the Piazza della Signoria.

On the appointed day the great square was filled with a crowd eager to enjoy a miracle or the sight of human suffering. Every window and roof overlooking the scene was occupied with spectators. In the center of the square, athwart a passage two feet wide, twin pyres had been erected of wood mixed with pitch, oil, resin, and gunpowder, guaranteed to make a searing flame. The Franciscan friars took their stand in the Loggia dei Lanzi; the Dominicans marched in from the opposite direction; Fra Domenico carried a consecrated Host, Savonarola a crucifix. The Franciscans complained that Fra Domenico’s red cape might have been charmed into incombustibility by the prior; they insisted on his discarding it; he protested; the crowd urged him to yield; he did. The Franciscans asked him to remove other garments which they thought might have been charmed; Domenico consented, went into the palace of the Signory, and changed clothes with another friar. The Franciscans urged that he should be forbidden to approach Savonarola, lest he be re-enchanted; Domenico submitted to being surrounded by Franciscans. They objected to his carrying either a crucifix or a consecrated Host into the fire; he surrendered the crucifix but kept the Host, and a long theological discussion ensued between Savonarola and the Franciscans as to whether Christ would be burned along with the appearances of bread. Meanwhile the Franciscan champion remained in the palace, begging the Signory to save him by any ruse. The priors allowed the discussions to go on till darkness fell, and then announced that the ordeal could no longer take place. The crowd, cheated of blood, attacked the palace, but was repulsed; some Arrabiati tried to seize Savonarola, but his guard protected him. The Dominicans returned to San Marco, jeered by the populace, though apparently the Franciscans had been the chief cause of delay. Many complained that Savonarola, after claiming that he was inspired by God and that God would protect him, had allowed Domenico to represent him in the ordeal, instead of facing it himself. These thoughts spread through the city, and almost overnight the prior’s following faded away.

On the morrow, Palm Sunday, a mob of Arrabiati and others marched to attack the monastery of San Marco. On the way they killed some Piagnoni, including Francesco Valori; his wife, drawn to a window by his cries, was shot through with an arrow; his house was pillaged and burned; one of his grandchildren was smothered to death. The bell of San Marco tolled to call the Piagnoni to the rescue, but they did not come. The friars prepared to defend themselves with swords and clubs; Savonarola in vain bade them lay down their arms, and himself stood unarmed at the altar, awaiting death. The friars fought valiantly; Fra Enrico wielded his sword with secular delight, accompanying each blow with a lusty cry, Salvum fac populum tuum, Domine—“Save thy people, Lord!” But the hostile crowd was too numerous for the friars; Savonarola finally prevailed upon them to lay down their arms; and when an order came from the Signory for his arrest and that of Domenico, the two surrendered, and were led through a mob that jeered, struck, kicked, and spat upon them, to cells in the Palazzo Vecchio. On the following day Fra Silvestro was added to the prisoners.

The Signory sent to Pope Alexander an account of the ordeal and arrest, begged his absolution for the violence committed on an ecclesiastic, and asked his authorization to subject the prisoners to trial, and, if necessary, to torture. The Pope urged that the three friars should be sent to Rome to be tried before an ecclesiastical court; the Signory refused, and the Pope had to be content with having two papal delegates share in examining the accused.34 The Signory was resolved that Savonarola should die. As long as he lived his party would live; only his death, they thought, could heal the strife of factions that had so divided the city and its government that alliance with Florence had become worthless to any foreign power, and Florence lay open to internal conspiracy or external attack.

Following the custom established by the Inquisition, the examiners put the three friars to torture on various occasions between April 9 and May 22. Silvestro succumbed at once, and answered so readily as the examiners wished that his confession was too facile to be useful. Domenico resisted to the last; tortured to the verge of death, he continued to avow that Savonarola was a saint without guile or sin. Savonarola, high-strung and exhausted, soon collapsed under torture, and gave whatever replies were suggested to him. Recovering, he retracted the confession; tortured again, he yielded again. After three ordeals his spirit broke, and he signed a confused confession that he had no divine inspiration, that he had been guilty of pride and ambition, that he had urged foreign and secular powers to call a general council of the Church, and that he had plotted for the deposition of the Pope. On charges of schism and heresy, of revealing confessional secrets as pretended visions and prophecies, of causing faction and disorder in the state, the three friars were condemned to death by the united sentence of state and Church. Alexander graciously sent them absolution.

On May 23, 1498, the parricide Republic executed its founder and his comrades. Unfrocked and barefoot, they were led to the same Piazza della Signoria where twice they had burned the “vanities.” As then, and as for the trial by ordeal, a great crowd gathered for the sight; but now the government supplied it with food and drink. A priest asked Savonarola, “In what spirit do you bear this martyrdom?” He answered, “The Lord has suffered much for me.” He kissed the crucifix that he carried, and did not speak again. The friars walked bravely to their doom, Domenico almost joyfully, singing a Te Deum in gratitude for a martyr’s death. The three men were hanged from a gibbet, and boys were allowed to stone them as they choked. A great fire was lighted under them, and burned them to ashes. The ashes were thrown into the Arno, lest they be worshiped as the relics of saints. Some Piagnoni, braving incrimination, knelt in the square and wept and prayed. Every year until 1703, on the morning after the 23rd of May, flowers were strewn on the spot where the hot blood of the friars fell. Today a plaque in the pavement marks the site of the most famous crime in Florentine history.

Savonarola was the Middle Ages surviving into the Renaissance, and the Renaissance destroyed him. He saw the moral decay of Italy under the influence of wealth and a declining religious belief, and he stood bravely, fanatically, vainly against the sensual and skeptical spirit of the times. He inherited the moral fervor and mental simplicity of medieval saints, and seemed out of place and key in a world that was singing the praises of rediscovered pagan Greece. He failed through his intellectual limitations and a forgivable but irritating egotism; he exaggerated his illumination and his capacity, and naively underestimated the task of opposing at once the power of the papacy and the instincts of men. He was understandably shocked by Alexander’s morals, but intemperate in his denunciations and intransigeant in his policy. He was a Protestant before Luther only in the sense of calling for a reform of the Church; he shared none of Luther’s theological dissents. But his memory became a force in the Protestant mind; Luther called him a saint. His influence on literature was slight, for literature was in the hands of skeptics and realists like Machiavelli and Guicciardini; but his influence on art was immense. Fra Bartolommeo signed his portrait of the friar, “Portrait of Girolamo of Ferrara, prophet sent byGod.” Botticelli turned from paganism to piety under Savonarola’s preaching. Michelangelo heard the friar frequently, and read his sermons devotedly; it was the spirit of Savonarola that moved the brush over the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, and traced behind the altar the terrible Last Judgment.

The grandeur of Savonarola lay in his effort to achieve a moral revolution, to make men honest, good, and just. We know that this is the most difficult of all revolutions, and we cannot wonder that Savonarola failed where Christ succeeded with so pitiful a minority of men. But we know, too, that such a revolution is the only one that would mark a real advance in human affairs; and that beside it the bloody overturns of history are transient and ineffectual spectacles, changing anything but man.

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