Renaissance Tales – III: Savonarola and Botticelli

They call him the Prophet of Doom, a man whose fanatical discourse seemed completely out of place in XV-century Florence, a city completely transformed and re-invented through the minds and spirits of Renaissance men like Dante, Boccaccio, Brunelleschi, Botticelli and others. Florence became the undisputed centre of humanist learning, the essence of which was challenged by one man: Savonarola.

The man who started humanism at a young age and was on his way to studying medicine eventually underwent a radical change, becoming a preacher. Sadly, he succumbed to his imperfections and fears, and launched a ruthless attack against all the values of Renaissance, condemning the revival of pagan traditions and ideals, and threatening the people of Florence with a divine punishment for their loose morality.

As he criticized the Medici and all the power structures in the community in the name of religion and social justice, his sermons became more appealing to the masses, and his audience base became broader. His ‘visions’ became more scary and his status grew steadily as he managed to stop the King of France from ruining Florence, having met him as part of a delegation dispatched by a terrified Florence.

Then started the processions that he sent to collect what he deemed ‘objects of vanity’: jewelry, mirrors, wigs…but also poetry books, paintings depicting mythological subjects…they were all collected. In February 1497, the sky of Florence turned black with the ashes of all these objects, burned in a huge bonfire known in history as ‘Bonfire of the Vanities’. The scene seemed to defy all logic, dealing a strong blow to the progress that Renaissance Florence stood for. Even more scary was the influence that he exercised even on the most refined of minds: how about Botticelli sending some of his paintings to the Bonfire?!

Then came the fall as Savonarola committed the classical mistake: attacking the Vatican and the Pope. The Pope responded aggressively, preventing him from preaching and threatening the entire city. Savonarola had insinuated at his ability to work miracles, but when put to the test he seemed confused and attempted an escape. A failed one.

Imagine this: in 1498, people gathered to witness yet another bonfire at the Piazza della Signoria. This time, it was Savonarola and two companions burning, accused of heresy (among other things). The river Arno carried away the ashes, but not the memory: a commemorative plaque marks the site of the execution, and a high tower (that of Palazzo Vecchio) cast its shadow, sealing the victory of the Renaissance refinement.

4 thoughts on “Renaissance Tales – III: Savonarola and Botticelli

  1. How do you explain the influence Savonarola had on Pico della Mirandola (which, considering the humanist background of the latter and the crucial role he played, is all the more striking)?

    -ASH

    • I think the real power of Savonarola was his discourse. Sometimes, a strong discourse can clothe an inconsistent ideology, something that della Mirandola would not have fallen for being a philosopher, but then there was something appealing about Savonarola: he himself was coherent to a great extent, he lived by the values that he preached.
      I’m sure there are more reasons, but this is a quick reflection.

      • Yes. You can find excerpts from his speeches and sermons scattered all over the net. You can even find some Wikipedia. Here is a quote of his that gives an idea: “Elegance of language must give way before simplicity in preaching sound doctrine.”

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