4.2.7. Girolamo Savonarola and the Florentine theocracy

4.2.7. Girolamo Savonarola and the Florentine theocracy

(This text is incomplete. If you wish to read it in full, please purchase the book)The influence of the monk in Florence grew as the House of Medici lost the control of its subjects. Under Lorenzo the Magnificent art and literature felt the humanist renaissance of the 15th century, whose spirit was in complete opposition with Savonarola’s view about spirituality and morality. The expensive Renaissance art paid by the leading Italian families contrasted with the poorness of the common people, becoming a source of resentment for the hungry crowd. In parallel, the relations between France and Italy worsened and clouds of war gathered. In 1494 Charles VIII of France entered Italy to occupy Naples. But in order to reach his destination, Charles had first to pass through Florence. Savonarola saw the French invasion as the hand of God which releases Florence from the authority of the corrupt pope. The political revolution was necessary; without it the religious and moral revolution could not take place. He urged the Florentines to peacefully and willingly obey the French invasion because that was God’s will.405 Accordingly, the Florentines opened the gates to the invaders, warmly welcoming them. The ruling House of Medici was dethroned, and when the French left Florence toward Naples, Savonarola was installed as the new leader of the city.406

Far from being democratic, the new political structure concentrated extensive powers in the hands of a council formed of Piagnoni (the “Wailers”), close followers of Savonarola. Dressed in white mantles decorated with red crosses according to the monk’s vision, the Piagnoni immediately took a series of anti-sin measures: they abolished luxury and usury, created a mount of piety407 and levied wealth tax. Florence was designed as a Christian commonwealth, a theocracy, in which God was the absolute sovereign and his Word was the law. The most severe enactments were made for the repression of vices, corruption and frivolity. Betting and gambling were prohibited, and the vanity of clothing was restricted through levy. Sodomy and homosexuality, which were sanctioned before with the pecuniary penalty, were now punished by death.408

The main target of Savonarola’s sermons was Pope Alexander VI “Borgia,” accused of extortion, adultery and simony. In reply, Rome accused Savonarola of heresy and in 1495 banned him from preaching. But the monk ignored the interdiction; the rumors about the papal crimes and abuses reached the ears of the Florentines and deprived the orders of Rome of any credibility and authority.409 On June 14, 1495, the body of the Duke of Gandia was found in the Tiber River. Pope Alexander, overwhelmed by grief, isolated himself in Castle Sant’Angelo and declared that from that point on the reform of the church would be his only purpose in life – a promise he did not fulfill. Numerous efforts to discover the assassin were made, but when the rumor spread that Cesare, the second son of the pope, was guilty, the inquiry was suspended. This was the first in a long series of domestic tragedies due to which the House of Borgia became notorious and determined the French writer Michel Zevacho to dedicate it a historical novel 400 years later.410

In contrast to Rome’s depravation, Florence was the witness of an unprecedented action: Savonarola and his followers began the famous processions of Bonfire of the Vanities, which have become iconic for the medieval repentance. Children and youngsters went from door to door to collect objects associated with sin: mirrors, cosmetics, paintings of nudes, books considered pagan or immoral, elegant and expensive clothes, musical instruments, works of art, manuscripts of secular songs, table games or immoral sculptures (which Savonarola tried to transform into modest statues and representations of biblical scenes). All objects of this kind were gathered and burned in a great pile in Piazza della Signoria, the central point of Florence. An unknown number of works of art, most of them created under the patronage of the House of Medici, were lost forever in the purifying fires organized by the monk. Even the painter Sandro Botticelli, himself an ardent adept of Savonarola, destroyed a part of his paintings in these processions. This is how the monk understood to prepare the earth for the descent of Christ: fighting not only against debauchery and the ostentatious lifestyle, but also against the ancient pagan cult and, as a consequence, against the art insufficiently imbued by Christian spirituality. He imposed on people moral rigor and radical austerity, because only these measures could save the city from destruction.411

Savonarola wanted only to clean the corrupt political machinery of the city and to offer its citizens a healthy and free-from-sin lifestyle. But faith cannot replace or compete with hunger; and this is a conclusion all subsequent utopias came to. The eradication of vices was a veritable existential shock for 15th-century Florence. The overnight transformation of a nest of profligates into a place of pilgrimage proved to be a simple fantasy. It was impossible for drunkards to give up drinking, for profligates the addiction of sex, for thieves stealing, and all to start singing psalms dressed in white mantles. After almost three years of religious dictatorship, the Florentines were tired of the continuous political and economic misery, partially derived from ... (This text is incomplete. If you wish to read it in full, please purchase the book)

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