” If you’re going to San Francisco be sure to wear some flowers in your hair”. The same could be said for Florence,which, in the fifteenth century was a permissive, liberal society. The pendulum of the permissive revolution swung the other way and the radicalized flower children of that epoch, imbued with messianic mass hysteria, transformed themselves into reactionaries of the time.
After the Medici were driven out, the dictator of Florence, Fra Girolamo Savonarola ( 1452-1498 ) dreamed of making the city the New Jerusalem. The vision was an idealization of a Christian pattern for the world in contrast to Rome and the Borgia papacy. The Florentines were perceived as a chosen people, ”the elect” , with a sacred mission, and Savonarola demanded that they purify themselves as a collective holy example. The eloquence of the Friar, his gift of rhetoric and persuasion, captured the imagination and created an hysteria resulting in overwhelmingly favorable response to his project. Savonarola’s sacred legion of child inquisitors roamed the streets of Renaissance Florence by the regiment, policing the morality of the streets, penetrating its houses. The zealots dressed in white robes,flowers in their hair, carrying olive branches and little scarlet crosses.
”But now his preaching began to point plainly to a political revolution as the divinely-ordained means for the regeneration of religion and morality,…The republic of Florence was to be a Christian commonwealth, of which God was the sole sovereign, and His Gospel the law: the most stringent enactments were made for the repression of vice and frivolity. Gambling was prohibited an the vanities of dress were restrained by sumptuary laws. Even the women flocked to the public square to fling down their costliest ornaments and Savonarola’s followers made huge “bonfires of the vanities.’ ”
They tore veils and jewelry from women, finery from men. They hounded gamblers, courtesans and blasphemers and cropped the hair of youths. If a homeowner co-operated, they collected condemned ”vanities” peacefully,pronouncing on his house a benediction especially composed by Savonarola. If the owner refused, he was subject to a ransacking for lascivious paintings, books, pieces of sculpture and pagan objects. These they threw into the street, mutilating them and piling them in baskets, carting them to the public square for great bonfires that have come to be known as the famous Burning of the Vanities of 1497 and 1498; the greatest catastrophe for Florentine art treasures until the flood of 1966.
How could Florence, the epicenter of the great cultural surge known as the Italian Renaissance, have come to this form of policed state. How did the extraordinary figure of Savonarola mange to hold such power; a cowled Dominican monk of dark complexion preying on the idealism of adolescents. An army of teenage inquisitors with little red crosses. He applied a fiery prophecy to a simple unadorned preaching style and fame soon followed after a long interim period in Lombardy and Tuscany. Rapt in a kind of ecstasy, ” an inward fire consuming my bones, compelling me to speak” , Savonarola preached of impending disaster, but equally rapid redemption if Florence and the church were reformed. In 1492, two of his three prophecies came true. It was a turning point for the Friar. Lorenzo who had sent for him on his deathbed, and Pope Innocent VIII, a man scarcely better than his Borgia successor. Savonarola also foretold the death of the King of Naples, which occurred in 1494, a climactic year that brought King Charles of France across te Alps in an invasion of Italy, as a new Babylonian Cyrus also predicted by Savonarola.
The Friar became the preacher of the growing party of the opposition as the Medici’s carefully built political machine began to fall apart under Lorenzo’s less than shrewd twenty-two year old son, Piero. Piero in an attempt at eleventh-hour salvation of Florence, was forced instead to hand over the fortresses of Pisa and Leghorn to the French. Terrified and furious, the Florentines gathered in the streets and squares, some with ancient arms. They flocked to the Duomo, crowding it to the walls. There Savonarola held them and calmed them, and a peaceful revolution was accomplished within the palace of the city’s governing body.
By now the political aspect of Florence had completely changed. Partisans of the Medici had disappeared as if by magic. The Popular Party ruled over everything, and Savonarola ruled the will of the people. He had prophesied the King of France’s coming and had induced him to depart. At that time, the Friars sermons were almost daily, and he had audiences of thirteen to fourteen thousand in the Piazza del Duomo out of a population of Florence of about ninety thousand.
With no offical post save the pulpit, Savonarola became the lawgiver of Florence, the signory signing the decrees. Taxes were reduced for the lower classes, shops opened for the unemployed, people told to trust in God and so in his Prime Minister. The governing councils at this time were composed mostly of the Friar’s supporters which were called the Piagnoni , or snivelers, by the opposing faction of the Arrabi. The real reform had to begin. Not only to save the people of Florence, but the world.
His eloquence and the people’s fervor were now at their flood. Wasted by fasting and the vigil of nightly visions, Savonarola would fall into a trance at the pulpit, and men and women of all ages and social class would fall into passionate tears. The fifty originally wearing the Dominican robes of San marco were now two hundred and thirty; many coming from the highest social strata including the Medicis. Others were mature men of literature, art and science. It was more than just the fire of his voice that captured the imagination of intellectuals of the time. It may have been in Savonarola’s anti papal stance based on a view of a church hardened in sin,bent on wealth accumulation,tribute, in need of a major overhaul to deter the impending doom of famine, bloodshed and plague. The Friar’s message went much deeper, though sometimes lost in his own form of extremism. G.K Chesterton, the Catholic essayist and novelist wrote, ” …is a man whom we shall probably never understand until we know what horror may lie at the heart of civilization…his thrilling challenge to the luxury of his day went far deeper than the mere question of sin….he saw that the actual crimes were not the only evils: that stolen jewels and poisoned wine and obscene pictures were merely the symptoms ; that the disease was the complete dependence upon jewels and wine and pictures that…the end of it all is hell of no resistance, the hell of the unfathomable softness…”
”Meanwhile, his rigor and claim to the gift of prophecy led to his being cited in 1495 to answer a charge of heresy at Rome and on his failing to appear he was forbidden to preach. Savonarola disregarded the order, but his difficulties at home increased. The new system proved impracticable and although the conspiracy for the recall of the Medici failed, and five of the conspirators were executed, yet this very rigor hastened the reaction.”
The Friar’s theological fanaticism may have been his undoing. He urged torturing of the outlawed and ruining passions of the Florentines which included freeing servants for informing on their masters. Homosexuals were to be burnt at the stake after a third strike. In truth, for Savonarola, all sexuality was a distraction from the flesh of God; even marriage and its dulling effect of habit offered too many opportunities for it. Weddings were no longer occasions for joy. Often couples vowed chastity for a time and sometimes forever.
Increasingly, Savonarola turned toward youth as the fertile field of permanent reform. Flattered by the Friars attention, the teen-agers were more quickly and generally won over than the adults. They were organized into a sacred legion and the youth leaders given posts ranging from peace officers of church decorum to inquisitors whose mission was the major one of imposing spiritual purity on the lives and in the home of the people. They unleashed a form of moral Clockwork Orange, forced their way into houses, preferably of the rich and subjected them to their juvenile inquisitorial taste as well as to the established list of official offences which included carnival masks, perfume and poetry.
Savonarola’s reform of youth was not initially heralded as mixed blessing. Pre-Lent carnival time, particualrly under the Medici, had been a wild time of drunkenness and debauchery. This involved shaking down the citizenry for money, bonfires, feast, dance ,carousing and stone throwing. No carnival ended without some dead on the ground.”Pageants and festivals were a favorite Florentine custom, and Lorenzo wrote poems to be sung during the festivities extolling the pursuit of pleasure and encouraging female promiscuity. One such vocal performance penned by Lorenzo was delivered to the people in front of the cathedral during his pageant ‘The Triumph of Bacchus.”’ Shrewdly, the Friar substituted religious for carnival activities instead.
A little saintliness for children was not a bad thing except Savonarola told his youth that their first obedience was to Father in heaven and not on earth. Florence became an object of ridicule as the fever engulfed an entire society made more explicit in the famous Bonfire of the Vanities, which occured in 1497, on the last day before Lent. A massive pyramid was constructed for the fire; 60 feet high, fifteen levels and 240 feet around. Musical instruments, works of poetry, astrology, witchcraft, portraits, sculptures and paintings, masks and other works deemed ”degenerate” were all incinerated after Sunday mass.
Highly successful at the height of his career,Renaissance painter Botticelli’s life ended with more of a whimper than a bang, as he died in quite a tragic manner in relative obscurity. Botticelli fell under the spell of Savonarola, and changed his painting style to accompany an ascetic lifestyle.When Botticelli returned to Florence in 1485, he attended the sermons of Savonarola. Michelangelo read them as well through the new invention of mass publication with the printing press. Savonarola had a profound affect on both artists as evidenced in the religious content of their art works.Botticelli willingly participated in the bonfire, consigning many of his own paintings to the flames.
A year later in 1498, Savonarola suffered a fate similar to the vanities he so proudly immolated. He was officially excommunicated, arrested, tortured, hanged, then burned at the stake for heresy, having offended the Florentines and the pope one too many times.Ironically, as he was hung and then burn’t, stones were thrown by a mob of singing and dancing boys .”While it was teenaged boys who gave Savonarola his muscle, it would be teenaged boys who would bring him down. The victims of the anti-sodomy campaigns were overwhelmingly young men and boys. The beginning of the end came in late 1497 when these same juveniles disrupted Savonarola’s sermon and began rioting in the cathedral. The rioting spilled out into the streets, and theFrate‘s forces could not control it. Resistance to his rule became open and defiant.”
Devastated by the loss of his spiritual leader, Botticelli ceased to paint after 1500 and lived in poverty until his death in 1510. Botticelli was sustained in his final years by the charity of the Medici who were then back in Florence waiting to resume the reins of power which happened in 1512.