HISTORICAL BOOK REVIEW SERIES: ‘Girolamo Savonarola: The Renaissance Preacher’ by Samantha Morris

Born on 21 September 1452, the very same year that Leonardo Da Vinci was born, Girolamo Savonarola: The Renaissance Preacher tells the story of a man who believed so wholeheartedly in God and the message that He was giving, that he gave his life for it.

The book is an introduction to the life and times of this infamous preacher, a man who was witness to the dramatic downfall of the Medici dynasty in fifteenth-century Florence, who instigated some of the most dramatic events in Florentine history and whose death is still commemorated today.

cover and blurb via amazon

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If you are new to Savonarola, here is a great place to begin. Savonarola was a Dominican friar and preacher up until 1498 when he was excommunicated and executed for throwing out prophesies and for calling for the end of corruption, the type of thing that gets you killed in Italy during this period. Yet he is constantly made out to be a crazy man, who preached as a friar, who was mad as a hatter, pretended to see the future and callously destroyed priceless art in the process. This time, Morris has created a different man, a portrayal given time and clarity.

Savonarola began life in 1452, and entered life as a friar in 1475. After studying and praying, he gained momentum in 1494, when he set off to preach in Florence, and bumped heads with the most powerful men around at that time. In four years, he would be burned in public for his work. How? By hitching his wagon to the current anti-Medici feelings in Florence at the time. Florence, a Republic then, was in the Medici grip, but only for the last 16 years, so they still had plenty of enemies to go around. Combined with the fact that the French king wanted to storm through Italy and there was the great Borgia Pope on the papal throne, Florence was a jittery mess and Savonarola was right in the middle.

Savonarola believed he could see the future, and began preaching that he was destined to save Florence and its people from sin. He also thought the French king Charles was placed on Earth by God to restore Italy to the ways of 2000 years earlier. Charles himself wanted the Kingdom of Naples, though places such as Florence and Rome stood in his way. But while Savonarola was crushing on the French, he was also busy hating the powerful Medicis, masters of Florence, the Borgia Pope and the strong Sforza family of Milan.

Foretelling the future and also preaching chastity, poverty, piety and repentance, Savonarola hit out against the friars of Florence who lived luxurious lives. He hated the art and beauty of Florence, the greatest to be found in Europe. He was a huge homophobe, so much so that maybe he was possibly over-compensating? (That’s my theory). Savonarola was desperate to make sodomy a crime. He also hated the Church in general for its lavish lifestyle, massive wealth and for its corruption, crimes, whores, nepotism, you name it. Savonarola seemed to think himself the great saviour of everyone.

Along with two others, Savonarola was arrested and tortured, and he caved very quickly, unlike nutters or those desperate to cling to martyrdom. He confessed to everything he had said and done against the Church and Pope. The sad thing is, Savonarola wasn’t some bigot crying in the streets while living it up in private; he seemed to believe what he said completely. It gives the man a little sympathy, as he was not looking for personal gain, just had a desire to change the world order, but it was all in his head.

Poor Savonarola was taken out as a defeated crazy man and set alight, his ashes scattered in the Arne river so they wouldn’t be relics. Savonarola was a victim of his own delusions, of his own pride and vanity, and he burned just like the books and artwork, clothes and wigs he had his faithful followers destroy.

I love Morris’ enthusiasm for Savonarola, a man largely overlooked, always written the same way. Anyone who loves the Medici like Morris is bound to be an authority on all the big players of Florence.

 

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