AmblesideOnline AO Parents' Review Articles AmblesideOnline.org

The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
______________________________________
Savonarola.

by Hilda Spearman.
Volume 10, 1899, pg. 645


(Continued from page 597.)

There followed six months later another lull in the storm, when the Piagnone once more enjoyed a brief lease of power, and their first care was to re-erect the scaffolding in the Duomo and throw open its doors to their excommunicated champion. Interdicted as he was by the formally published ban of the Pope, to return to the pulpit was an act of overt rebellion, which he could only justify to himself and to the world by denouncing Alexander Borgia as no true Pope, and appealing from his ban as null and void to the tribunal of Christendom. To do this was to draw the sword, and fling away the scabbard, but he did not hesitate. "Oh! Lord!" he tried, "Thou has launched me upon a troubled sea, whence I cannot, nor would I if I could, turn back . . . Know ye that God governs the world, using men as His instruments. If then God withdraws Himself from any ruler, be he lay or ecclesiastic, he is but a broken tool . . . Human perfection does not stand in creed or law, but in charity. All laws, canonical or civil, all Governments, all rites are ordered to an end of charity. Whoever, then, commands anything opposed to charity, be he anathema. If any Pope have done so, he too is anathema; he is no instrument of God's; he is a broken tool." That sermon, with its fiery barb of the "broken tool," flew all over Europe. The rage of Alexander know no bounds. He threatened to put the whole state under interdict if the authorities gave any further countenance to their "monstrous idol." And the wheel of politics having once more turned, the new Signoria was hostile to the Monk, and so the mighty voice was silenced once more, and he had to recourse to his only weapon, the pen, and sent forth his great appeal to the princes of Europe to convene a General Council to deliberate whether Alexander was Pope, considering, in conjunction with his abominable sins, the simony by which he purchased the Papal seat. The end was now inevitable; but it did not come as all lovers of Savonarola would have wished. The peril of his claim to the prophet's dower has already been pointed out--the abyss before and behind him if ever the demand should be made from him for the prophet's credentials. It was, in fact, while caught in this fatal strait, although he did not fail in his part, that his foes fell on him at last.

A certain Franciscan monk, preaching in Sta. Croce, in the course of a furioius diatribe, challenged the Dominican to enter the fire in support of his prophetic pretensions. Before Savonarola, who at first severely disapproved, could interfere, the challenge was eagerly taken up by his enthusiastic henchman, Fra Domenico. Here was an opportunity on which the Signoria was not slow to seize. It had a formal document drawn up, specifying the principal theses of Savonarola, and inviting subscription from any who were ready to sustain or combat them by the Ordeal of Fire.

St. Mark's went wild with excitement, all 250 monks wished to sign, and at last Savonarola, carried along by the flood, began to believe that this way might be the hand of God pointing a way to deliverance. St. Mark's went, in all good faith, to the Piazza della Signoria, on the Palm Sunday appointed for the ordeal. The Franciscans also came, but their champion never even appeared. Hour after hour the impatient crowd waited; Fra Domenico, eager as a bridegroom for his espousals, consented to change his vestment, to stand far from his beloved master, to do anything if he could bring his antagonist on to the field.

Rain fell, impatience waxed to tumult, and at last, when the due pitch of exasperation had been reached, the Signoria sent orders that the ordeal should not take place at all. Then the baffled expectations of the populace broke into a paroxysm of rage. It was through no mismanagement of the Signoria that Savonarola and his monks were not torn to pieces on the spot. That was doubtless in the programme, and was only frustrated by the stout Piagnoni guard, who with infinite difficulty succeeded in escorting them back to the convent. Savonarola was lost beyond remedy. The revulsion in the city was as sudden as it was general. It was not merely that his enemies felt their time had come, but his own party had for the moment forsaken him.

A furious mob next evening assailed San Marco. The monks, until forbidden by Savonarola, fought for their master like men possessed. When at length the city guard appeared to demand the surrender of the Prior and Fra Domenico and Fra Silvestro, it was to lead them by a veritable via crucis to the Palazzo Vecchio. The fate of Savonarola was a foregone conclusion. But despite the determination of his enemies to destroy, certain forms must still be gone through to satisfy so-called justice. It was necessary that some crime should be laid to his charge; that he should be examined before a legally appointed tribunal, and that his examination should be taken down, signed by himself, read before the great council and given to the press. It was easy to pack the examining commission, and how iniquitously that first step was taken may be judged from the fact that Doffo Spini, leader of the Compagnacci, was among the commissioners. But even that flagitious tribunal was unable to bring home to its prisoner any charge which hatred itself could construe into a crime. The examination was conducted on three counts:--politics, religion and prophecy. For eleven long days the body of the Monk, singularly sensitive to pain, was subject to horrible tortures,--in vain. On the first two counts no extremity of pain could shake him one whit. He had never betrayed the interests of the state; he was no heretic to the creed, no schismatic to the discipline of the Church. It was only on the third count that he at all wavered, and even on that count the only "confession," so-called, which the rack could bring from his tortured lips was that he had based his predictions, not upon direct divine revelation, but upon his own opinion, founded upon the doctrines and study of the Holy Scriptures.

The commissioners must have something more than this, and in their straits they bribed an unscrupulous notary, one Ser Ceccone, to garble the accounts of the trial, and even this garbled document was so far from giving any evidence of guilt that they dare not exhibit it to the great council, and though printed, all circulation was immediately suppressed. Domenico, under almost worse torture, never wavered one instant. Poor weak Silvestro did what might have been expected, recanted at once, and yet even his evidence only added to the testimony in favour of Savonarola. In spite of their dissatisfaction with the report of the commissioners, the magistrates were at length ready to pronounce their foregone sentence. But Savonarola and his companions were ecclesiastics, and as such must first be consigned by the Church to the secular arm. This occasioned some delay, chiefly by excess of vindictiveness on the part of the Pope, who wished to have the victims transferred to Rome, that he might feast his eyes on their degradation. But the republic steadily refusing to make a concession so derogatory to its own independence, he despatched two prelates with full powers, after again trying the culprits, to eject them from the pale of the Church and hand them to the hangman of the state. Savonarola, thanks to these negotiations, had a month's respite. With the right hand that had been left to him that he might sign the false papers, which were intended to cover him with ignominy, he wrote two meditations--one on the Misere (51st Psalm) and the mother on the 31st Psalm. Written without any view to publication, soliloquies of a spirit that has fought the good fight, none of his works had so wide a circulation. The old warrior spirit throbs in them, but without bitterness--tempered to peace with all men. The Papal delegates were as little content as the Florentine magistrates had been, with the report of the examining commission. It was not that they felt any scruples about condemning the innocent. They had come from Rome with written orders to consign the Frate to death "were he a second John the Baptist." But that clean kill was a moral triumph of their victim which they could not away with. Their object was to damn their enemy in the eyes of the world, and so discredit or discourage his followers, therefore they demanded that the monk be re-examined by torture in their presence. A second time his delicate frame, still aching and unstrung from the horrible tortures of a month before, was subjected to their devilish engines, in order that, if possible, these delegates of the Church of Christ might have the satisfaction of hearing him lie to his own perdition. But the result was more disappointing than before. The steadfastness of the victim, even when delirious with agony, balked utterly the malignant will of his persecutors. The report of this second examination was neither printed, signed, nor read before the magistrates. It remains in the archives of Florence to this day, a monument in its incompleteness, of triumphant innocency and baffled malice. Not for that did the Papal delegates hesitate to carry out the orders of their master. For a moment there was demur with regard to Fra Domenico, but on one of the citizens present observing "that in this friar all the doctrines of Savonarola would remain alive," Romolino immediately replied, "One monk more or less, what does it matter? Send him also to death."

In those days there was a law allowing the disputation of a sentence. One voice only was raised in protest, that of Agnolo Niccolini. "Signori, it seems to me a heavy crime to put to death a man of such excellent qualities, that his like hardly seen once in a century; a man so loftily endowed as to be capable of reviving, not only the faith of the world, but its learning, if that were necessary. Wherefore my counsel would be, not to preserve him in life merely, but to furnish him with such means, that the world may not lose the fruits of his genius." This noble protest, it is unnecessary to say, was not heeded. Empowered at last to deal freely with their victims, the Florentine magistrates lost no time in pronouncing the sentence of death. On the 22nd of May, the death sentence was published, and was that same evening communicated to he condemned. Domenico received the news as if it were an invitation to a feast; poor Silvestro was full of alarms, but Savonarola took it with perfect calm. The record of this last night is very full, but it is only necessary to say that in some merciful manner Fra Girolamo's last request was granted. He was allowed a final interview with his brethren. What that meeting must have been should be left to the imagination. Savonarola's companions had both been told of his supposed confession, but no word of reproach, no question or explanation seems to have passed between them. If they had ever believed these, the sight of their master's worn countenance was enough to clear away such doubts. The presence of Savonarola was enough to immediately give him his own place, that of their ruler, their leader, their father. There was not a moment to lose, therefore he turned to Fra Domenico, saying: "I know that you would choose to be burned alive, that is not right. We are not allowed to choose the death we would, only to endure it firmly, and the strength comes from the grace which God will give us." Then more severely he turned to Fra Silvestro: "I know that you would defend your innocence from the scaffold. I lay on you to abandon such a thought, and to follow rather the example of our Lord Jesus Christ, who even on the cross did not defend his innocence."

After Savonarola had given his companions his blessing they were separated from each other, Burlamacchi tells us, in different corners of the hall, and Savonarola, weary and worn out, begged of that Jacopo Niccolini, through whose influence the interview had been granted, to sit down and make a pillow of his knee, where he might rest his head. And so in the great hall of the Consiglio Maggiore, the hall built under his influence for the Council established by his advice, Fra Girolamo spent his last night on earth.

Then the day having broken, the three Friars once more drew together and celebrated their last sacrament. Here Savonarola made a final confession of his faith:--"Having then in his hands his Lord, with much fervour and gladness of spirit, he broke forth into these words: 'My Lord, I know that Thou art that Trinity, perfect, invisible, distinct in three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. I know that Thou art that Eternal Word, Who didst descend into the womb of the Virgin Mary, and didst rise upon the Cross to shed Thy most precious blood for us miserable sinners. I pray Thee, my Lord, I pray for my salvation. I entreat Thee, Consoler, that this precious blood may not have been shed for me in vain, but may be for the remission of my sins, of which I ask Thee pardon, from the day when I received the waters of holy baptism till now; and I confess to Thee, Lord, my sins. And I ask Thee pardon for everything, spiritual and temporal, in which I may have offended this city and all this people, and for every offence of which I am unaware.' " (Burlamacchi.)

No slightest sign of weakness was displayed by any of the three. Fra Domenico was in so exultant a mood that he was with difficulty restrained from chanting aloud the Te Deum as he walked along the lofty platform to the scaffold. Even poor weak Fra Silvestro, who was the first to suffer, went with a new light in his eyes, saying that now was the time to be strong to meet death with gladness.

The three friars were dressed in their religious habits, to be first unfrocked and then degraded. When the Bishop, losing his head in his agitation, instead of separating him only from the Church militant, exclaimed, "I separate thee from the Church militant and triumphant," he was corrected by Savonarola, who said with perfect calm, "From the Church militant, yes, but from the Church triumphant, no, that is not yours to do." Of the howls and insults of rabble--scum of the gaols and galleys whom Doffo Spini had thrust forward to the immediate vicinity of the scaffold--he seemed absolutely unconscious. To a pitying bystander who ventured on a word of consolation, he replied, "In the last hour it is God alone can comfort mortal man." To another, a priest who cried out, "Oh, how canst thou support this mortal anguish?" he responded simply, "The Lord has suffered so much for me!" They were his last words.

So died Girolamo Savonarola, in the 45th year of his age, with all his defects, for genius and piety, for the highest powers that dominate men, and the consecration of them to the highest ends, the greatest Italian of his generation. Florence found, too late, that he only salvation lay in following the system he had instituted. And Rome and Christendom found out, also too late, what it was to have crushed the good genius within the Church, when the ruder revolt outside broke forth, and there was none to aid her.

"Even in the city of Dante, no greater figure has its dwelling. The shadow of him still lies across those sunny squares and the streets through which in triumph and in agony he went upon his lofty way; and consecrates alike the little cell in San Marco, and the little prison in the tower, and the great hall built for his great Council, which in a beautiful poetical justice received the first Italian parliament, a greater council still. Thus, only four hundred years too late, his noble patriotism had its reward. Too late! though they do not count the golden years in that land where God's great servants wait to see the fruit of their labours--and have it, sooner or later, as the centuries come and go." (Oliphant.)