The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

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

by Hilda Spearman.
Volume 10, 1899, pg. 585

The story of Savonarola forms a fitting prelude to any account of the part played by Italy in the Reformation of the 16th century, although in no way was that part due to his initiative.

Hardly one of the reformers who arose all over Italy within half a century of his death, recognized any sort of spiritual paternity in the great Dominican preacher and reformer. But if Savonarola did not originate the after-movement, he most remarkably prefigured it. The tragedy of his struggle and defeat was a rehearsal on a smaller and more vividly-lighted stage of the tragedy which was soon after enacted all over Italy. Nowhere better than in Medicean Florence can be studied the foul encumbered soil into which in Italy the seed of the new truth fell. The state of politics, art, literature, morals, and religion throughout the peninsula was there intensely and vividly focussed. The favour Savonarola found, the resistance he encountered, his brief triumph, and his tragic end, the causes which for a moment seemed to lay the city at his feet, and the reactionary forces which so quickly overwhelmed him, were all reproduced in the history of the reformers who followed him.

It is impossible to predict whether, had his lot been cast half a century later, he would have become a leader of revolt or a Catholic zealot. We can conceive him developing into an Italian Luther; and equally we can conceive his helping with a Loyola, a Carlo Borromeo, or a Michele Ghisleri, to give a new lease of life to the Papal Church. His nature held in solution the qualities that went to the making of both the one and the other. He had the consistent acceptance of the logical consequences of conviction, the pronounced individualism, the restiveness of conscience under mere human impositions, which characterized the reformers who dissented from the Church, together with the asceticism, the mysticism, the credulity, the reverence for traditional dogma which characterized the men who would have quenched all dissent by a reformation of the Church itself.

Girolamo Savonarola was not a Florentine. He was born in Ferrara, in 1452, the grandson of an eminent physician at the court of the Duke, and intended by his parents to follow the same profession.

Of his father little is known. He seems to have studied medicine, but it came to nothing, and he dawdled through life as a hanger-on at the court, and squandered the fortune gained by his father's talent and industry. His wife, Elena, one of the illustrious Mantuan family of Bonacossi, seems to have been a woman of most lofty mind and character. We do not hear much of her, but that little testifies to her nobility of character. In all his difficulties and distresses, Girolamo turns to her, showing an unchanging love which almost amounts to worship. Savonarola was learned in the learning of the day, making a special study of Aristotle, until the great metaphysic of natural science gave way to the great metaphysic of theology, Thomas Aquinas. And simultaneously with this change, there grew up in Savonarola a profound sense of dissonance with the world around him. The times were indeed evil. The ancient liberty of the Italian states was all but extinguished. Even the despots had degenerated. To the first generation--masters for the most part in war or statecraft--had succeeded a race of heirs, prodigal, splendid, some of them highly cultured and ostentatious patrons of culture, but steeped in cruelty and vice. To maintain their power, no crime was too foul, no slaughter too bloody. Worst of all, the Church, instead of attempting to stem the tide of iniquity, was itself swept away by the flood. These public evils, and especially the complicity of the Church, sank deeply into the soul of Savonarola. The issue in those times was a foregone one.

At the age of twenty-three, Savonarola entered the Dominican convent at Bologna. His history during his seven years' sojourn therein is almost a blank. We know that he practised a rigid asceticism and that he taught the novices. But what is of more account in the making of the man is the burden that the world from which he had fled still laid on his imagination and heart. Ever there grew up in his soul the presage of the coming vengeance. Driven from Bologna by the breaking out of war, he came, in 1482, in the thirtieth year of his age, to that Florence which he was to shake to its centre. Several years were to pass before his hour should come.

His rough eloquence and direct language jarred on the Florentines, who regarded a sermon as an intellectual form of amusement. Fra Girolamo offended their ears by furious diatribes against the vices of mankind--especially by condemning the strange craze for ancient writers which was at that time the cult of Florence, whose intellect was entirely dominated by the teaching of the Accademia Platonica. Instead of giving an imitation of some ancient writers and copious extracts from others, the Frate [friar] based all his sermons on the Bible, which book was not approved of the Florentines, since finding its Latin incorrect, they feared the study of it might corrupt their style. They expected an eloquent discourse to charm the ears, such as they heard from Fra Mariano da Genazzano, who was then preaching in Santo Spirito, and who became, and always remained, an implacable enemy to Savonarola. Within the convent, the Frate's influence soon became deep and strong. Already, too, the fatal element of weakness in his character had begun to manifest itself. There can be no doubt that Savonarola's intense broodings over the prophetic burden--which he believed to have been laid upon him, his straining after mystic communion with God and with the unseen, working upon an imagination exceptionally vivid, and on a nervous system highly sensitized by fast and vigil, did at times throw him into a state of trance, in which the creations of his brain had for him the certainty of objective realities. But it was not in Florence that his transcendent gift of oratory first broke all fetters. In the little town of San Gimigniano he first found the style and themes in which lay the giant strength of his genius.

There he pronounced the words which gave the tone to his life:--
I. The Church shall be scourged.
II. Then renewed.
III. That soon.

That two years' preaching tour was the turning-point of Savonarola's life. He had discovered his own powers, and they were such as seemed to justify his conviction of a divine call and mission. His name too had sprung into celebrity, and it was natural that the rumour should soon be carried to Florence. It was at once the policy and the pleasure of Lorenzo de' Medici, the then ruler of the Florentine State, to draw to his capital all whose genius promised to add to its lustre. That, and the enthusiasm of Pico della Mirandola, who had attended the Dominican chapter at Reggio, and there seen and heard Savonarola, led to Lorenzo's authoritatively recalling Fra Girolamo to Florence. He was not very anxious to begin preaching. He knew that if he once opened his mouth it would not be to gratify the expectation of those dilettani Florentines, who impatiently awaited his justifying the fame of his eloquence. He resumed his lessons to the novices, to whose number, day by day, was added a larger audience, till on the last day of July, 1489, he dismissed his class with the words, "To-morrow we meet in Church, and it shall be lecture and sermon in one," adding that he should preach for eight years; which afterwards came true. The next day, from the pulpit of St. Mark's, he delivered his soul of the message with which he believed himself charged. "That day I was terrible," he says of himself. Terrible indeed was the subject of the flood of eloquence which swept his audience along with him. St Mark's could not contain the crowds which thronged to hear him, and in the Lent of 1491 Savonarola preached in the Duomo. He had all Florence for his audience, and so for seven years he dominated it.

The brilliant but baleful rule of Lorenzo de' Medici had made the Tuscan capital a hotbed of corruption. Lorenzo himself was an impersonation of the degeneracy of the later Renaissance. No man in Italy possessed in a higher degree its splendid intellectual qualities; its exquisite taste; its ease and grace of expression; and no man combined with these in larger measure the essential paganism--masked indeed under a show of religious conformity--the shameless licentiousness and frivolous greed of present enjoyment. Florence was as near a Pagan city as it was possible for her rulers to make her. The very form of Medicean tyranny was corrupting. Lorenzo held no title or office in the state. He was simply the Magnificent. The power of his family lay in its coffers, but even its riches were unable to stand the drain which their system of bribery and corruption exercised, and Lorenzo had been driven to lay a rapacious hand even on the treasures of the state and the sacred funds of public charities. For eight long years these abominations had been before the eyes of the prophet-monk; no wonder that he felt the hour of denunciation had come; also he could survey the whole political aspect of Europe. Lorenzo was the great diplomatist of his age. To live near his court was to be in touch with the politics of the world. The ascendency rapidly acquired by Savonarola over the crowds which thronged to hear him, and his tremendous invectives and menaces, naturally made Lorenzo uneasy. His uneasiness increased when the election of Savonarola to the priorship of St. Mark's gave him a stable footing in the city. It was customary for each new-elected prior to go and pay his respects to Lorenzo. Savonarola refused. "Who elected me Prior--God or Lorenzo?" he demanded. But Lorenzo did not take it in anger, as was expected. The Magnifico had genius enough to understand Savonarola, and apparently an almost wistful desire for his friendship. The efforts he made to conciliate the friar are almost pathetic. He would go and hear mass in the church, then stray in the garden awhile, in the hopes of a chance meeting. He sent presents to the convent; he dropped gold in the box, which the prior sternly sent to a neighbouring charity. And when at last he sent a deputation, the message of the stern monk was, "Tell your master that though I am a stranger, and Lorenzo the first citizen of Florence, yet shall he go, and I remain."

Within a year that presage was fulfilled. The Magnifico lay dying, and the only man whose absolution seemed real to him was that friar who had repulsed him. There is surely not in history a more remarkable scene; and I quote in full the end of Burlamacchi's narrative:--

    " 'Lorenzo,' Savonarola said, 'be not so despairing, for God is merciful, and will be merciful to you, if you will do the three things I will tell you.' Then said Lorenzo, 'What are those three things?' The Padre answered, 'The first is that you should have a great and living faith that God will pardon you.' To which Lorenzo answered, 'This is a great thing, and I do believe it.' The Padre added, 'It is also necessary that everything wrongfully acquired should be given back by you, as far as you can do this, and still leave your children as much as will leave them private citizens.' These words drove Lorenzo nearly out of himself; but afterwards he said, 'This also will I do.' The Padre then went on to the third thing, and said, 'Lastly, it is necessary that freedom, and her popular government according to Republican usage, should be restored to Florence.' At this speech Lorenzo turned his back on him, nor ever said another word. Upon which the Padre left him and went away without other confession."

Before Lorenzo had been twelve months dead, the bolt predicted by Savonarola had fallen. A French army, 60,000 strong, led by Charles VIII., was marching to the conquest of the kingdom of Naples. Even in its immediate causes this descent might well appear as a divine retribution. In Naples the cruelties of Alfonso was driving his subjects to madness. Piero de' Medici, son of Lorenzo, was disgusting the Florentines by his arrogant parade of the tyranny his father had so splendidly veiled. The atrocities of Pope Alexander VI. and of his yet more infamous son, Cesare Borgia, had driven the best of his cardinals into open revolt. But the perfidious Ludovico il Moro definitely fixed the wavering ambition of Charles. It was in alarm at the horror excited throughout Italy by his treatment of his ward and nephew, the young Duke of Milan, Galeazzo Sporza, that Ludovico offered to the king the alliance which at length overcame Charles's hesitation.

What wonder that Savonarola should see in such an invasion the "overflowing scourge" of God. While the event was pending, and during the critical months which followed, Savonarola virtually ruled Florence. It was well that it was so; the titular leader, Piero de' Medici, altogether lost his head. He surrendered the three fortresses of Lunigiana to Charles, and when he returned to Florence he found her gates closed, and his family and party driven into exile.

And Florence was free! Despite the entrance of the French, she regained some of her Republican courage, and when the fierce old bell pealed out its summons from the airy heights of the Palazzo Vecchio, armed men, fierce and furious, rushed out to punish the impertinence of the foreign soldiers, Savonarola was ever to the front. In the uncertainty of the future, all eyes turned to him for direction. Even the profligate Charles succumbed to the man who threatened him with God's vengeance if he fell short in the mission to which Savonarola believed him assigned. Great was the influence of the Frate in moderating the vengeful spirit of party. In this turbulent Florence, where sack and slaughter had hitherto accompanied every change of power, such a great revolution as the expulsion of the Medici took place without any shedding of blood. Charles VIII. was hard to get rid of. Not only the ordinary motives which tempted the invader of those fighting days, cupidity and thirst for conquest, but also the fact that Piero de' Medici was praying for help on one side, while the Republic, firmly holding by its newly-gained liberty, faced him on the other, kept the French negotiators in a dubious mood. And their own position was precarious enough. Florence was roused at last from her long lethargy, as the French soldiers soon found, and as is shown in Piero Capponi's bold retort to Charles' threat, "Then shall we sound our trumpets." "And we our bells!" returned the Florentine.

Again it was the Frate who poured oil on the troubled waters, and induced Charles to leave the city. It is a wonderful picture. Savonarola, by the power of his mighty intellect and unbounded eloquence, ruling the great city, free after a hundred years' servitude. But it was a rule which in the very nature of things could not endure. Savonarola was not like the great families, with influence, and above all, great riches, to back him. He was not even an officer of the State. He stood alone, far in advance of his age, practical in many ways, visionary in many others, unable to afford any material help to the city in the financial difficulties which began to press more and more heavily on her. His entrance into political life had raised up against him two classes of powerful and implacable enemies. The Medicean party, [known as] the Bigi--who, by reason of that very spirit of pardon and tolerance which Savonarola had infused into the revolution, were still numerous in the State--hated him of course, with the avowed hatred of defeated enemies. But not less bitter and more powerful were the other great families, into whose hands in former times, on the overthrow of their rivals, the leadership would have fallen, but who now found themselves equally with the Medici, displaced by the Frate. The Arrabiati saw in Savonarola the one insuperable barrier to their ambition. So long as the ascendency of his character and genius kept the great popular party welded together and inflamed with the love of liberty, its strength was invincible. Nor was this hostility confined to Florence. Every tyrant in Italy was bound to hate and fear the triumphant Demos of Florence and its leader. The exiled Medici, too, had powerful connections all over Italy, and there was hardly a ruler, beginning with the Pope, who did not make common cause with them. Seldom had Florence been begirt by such a leaguer of hostility and menace. Her very dependencies, with Pisa at their head, taking advantage of her isolation, were in open revolt. It may seem matter for regret that Savonarola should have provoked so wide and deep an antagonism merely on political grounds. Pity, many have said, that he did not confine himself to his one great mission of religious reform. But the fruits of Savonarola's political work were good and enduring. If, in the general overthrow of Italian liberties, Florence fell, nobly fighting to the last, with a Michel Angelo at her guns; if, after more than three hundred years, the inspiration of that heroic story has been no unimportant factor in the making of the Italy of to-day, it is all due, more than to any other cause, to the politics preached by Savonarola from his pulpit in Sta. Maria de' Fiori. Besides, he really had no choice. On no other terms could he have been a religious reformer at all. With the Medici in power, his mouth would soon have been gagged; the dissolute Bigi and Arrabiati were as much the foes of religion and morality as they were of civil liberty; it was from the popular party alone that he could hope for freedom to preach, or for converts to his preaching. Nor indeed did his political activity make him for one moment forget the other great burden which he believed to have been laid upon him. Even when, in the course of his sermons, he turned aside to discuss and advocate the Great Council, or the Council of Eighty, or the land assessment, or any other political measure which might at that moment be "on the tapis" [under consideration], still the Alpha and Omega of the discourse, the theme of the impassioned passages that thrilled or melted his auditors, was always his famous conclusions. "The Judge is at the door--repent, reform!" And religiously as well as politically, the results which he achieved were great--the wider ones, it is true, evanescent, but some deep and enduring because divine. For with the mighty natural oratory of the preacher there was a power, not of man, but of God.

The spiritual influence of Savonarola made itself felt in many of the customs of the city. The Reform of the Carnival and the Bonfire of Vanities are noteworthy instances. Savonarola, instead of imitating the vain attempts at repression hitherto made, wisely turned all the energy into better channels. Within the walls of St. Mark's, the same influence made itself felt. Himself an example of the most unsparing self-mortification and devotion, he infused the same spirit into all his monks. But he would have no barren or mendicant asceticism. St. Dominic's vow of poverty must be kept in its utmost rigour, yet the community must be self-supporting--nay, must minister both with alms and service to the world outside. Both the traditions of the order and his own high and varied culture prompted the direction of these activities into intellectual channels. Schools of theology and ethics, of Greek and Hebrew for the better study of the Scriptures, and of the arts of design, sculpture, and painting were established or revived. St. Mark's thus reformed, in spite of its rigorous discipline, exercised a sort of spiritual magnetism. Pico della Mirandola begged that his corpse might be clothed in the habit of the order, and laid in the cloister. The painters, Fra Bartolommeo, Lorenzo di Credi, and Sandro Botticelli, the Della Robbias, were some of them fellow-monks, and all devoted followers of the great Frate.

Probably the secret of Savonarola's power as a preacher lay largely in his humanity and directness; add to his marvellous eloquence that wonderful voice which could echo through St. Maria dei Fiori, and by the simple announcement of a text send a thrill through the audience. These were all legitimate sources of power, but there was another to which that epithet could scarcely be applied. Savonarola's faith in his own particular mission, and in the visions and voices through which special revelations were made to him, had become ever stronger and stronger. The strain on his nervous system, always morbid in its sensitiveness, of long trance-like devotions in his cell, of excessive abstinence, and of the exhaustive excitement of his preaching, all contributed to this end. Still more unwholesome were his relations with one Fra Silvestro, who was apparently a hypnotic subject, and whose diseased hallucinations Savonarola believed to be genuine communications with the upper world. Even the deep devotion with which the best of his monks regarded him, the utter faith in him of a sweet strong soul like Fra Demenico of Pescia was not altogether harmless. He lived in an atmosphere of enthusiasm, which a high-strung nature such as his could not breathe daily without danger. At that time there still existed a broad and wavering borderland between the natural and supernatural. To the faith of the devout, the claim of Savonarola was well attested by the saintliness and sincerity of the man himself; to the credulity of the scoffer it was quite within the range of the possible. But the spell might be broken, might recoil on the wielder. What if the supernatural attestation, if the prophet, should be challenged for a sign? Both the demand and the ordeal came, and both alas! with the same disastrous result of showing the one weak place in the great Frate's armour of integrity.

Any sketch of Savonarola's life would be incomplete without some reference to his work as a writer. The first years of his priorship, before the agitated politics of the State had drawn him into their vortex, had been years of considerable literary activity. He had written treatises on experimental and practical religion, and chiefly for the use of his own students, text-books on philosophy, ethics, and logic. After his absorption into public life, his pen became one of his chief weapons of offence and defence in the strife in which he was plunged. And when it was sought to close his mouth under impeachment of heresy, he drew up in self-defence two treatises, the more important of which, "The Triumph of the Cross," presents in the form of a Dantesque allegory, a complete compendium of Catholic theology. But the most voluminous writings of Savonarola, those to which he gave most love and time, were never printed. In the public libraries of Florence there are two folio Bibles annotated by his hands, in characters so small that they can only be diciphered with the aid of a lens, and so abbreviated as to form a species of shorthand.

They contain the daily work of years. There is hardly a text from Genesis to Revelations into which the writer does not delve. Fold after fold, meanings were involved, until often, it must be confessed, they become wildly fantastical. But if the exaggeration was mistaken, the deep, reverent research bore wonderful fruit. It fed the fountains of faith and love in his soul, sustained him in his dark hours of depression, and gave wealth and freshness to his exposition, and clothed his style with something of the force and dignity of the inspired writings in which his soul was steeped.

I should like here to note that Savonarola always insisted in both theology and philosophy on the efficacy and necessity of good works, and consequently on man's free will. "It is free will," he says, "that distinguishes man from beast." He inveighs against the astrologer's dictum of the influence of the stars over the human will. "Our will can be moved by no extraneous force, neither by the stars, nor by the passions, nor even by God. For the Creator does not destroy, but preserves, moving the world and all created things according to the laws of their nature. Now, as we said, if our will is of its nature essentially free, if indeed it is freedom itself, God may move it, but always leaves it free in order not to destroy it."

It was not for long that Savonarola maintained in Florence the ascendency which paralyses opponents. Through the two years which followed the expulsion of the Medici, the enthusiasm of the people swept all before it, and the preacher-politician rode on the crest of the wave. But before 1496 had closed, there were indications of a change, and the following year was one of strife and waning power. And among all Savonarola's enemies none was more bitter than Alexander VI., who had political as well as moral grounds of hostility to the austere monk. The Pope's great object was to carve out a dynasty for his even more infamous son, Caesar. Apiero de' Medici in Florence would have been his tool; a vigorous democracy in Florence thwarted his designs, and the soul of that democracy was Savonarola. Hence, by some means, the inconvenient monk must be suppressed.

At first blandishments were tried, then cunningly mixed threats. Savonarola had to tread warily for the Republic's sake rather than his own. For three months he abstained from preaching, but when he saw the people discouraged by the disasters of the time he threw caution to the winds and mounted again his throne of power. The excitement was intense. The monk had to be escorted to the Cathedral by armed Piagnoni. Within the church were spies of the Pope. Savonarola stood silent for a moment, and then began with:--"Monk! What means it that thou hast been idly resting, and hast not come to the camp to help thy soldiers? Hast been afraid of death? No, my children, had I been afraid of death I should not be here now. Hast thou had scruples of conscience, then, about preaching? Not I. Listen, then, and I will tell you. I have thought before taking another step forward, I will consider my ways. Seeing so much contradiction from so many quarters against a foolish mannikin who is not worth three halfpence, I said to myself, 'Perhaps thou hast not kept well the ways of thy heart, perhaps thy tongue hath spoken that which is not true.' " Then he clearly lays down his belief in, and his readiness always to obey, the holy Roman Church. Having thus carefully picked his way, he takes his stand. "Supposing, then, the Pope were to lay upon me a command contrary to the charity of the gospel--I do not say he will do, but were he to do it--I would reply to him, 'Now thou art not the pastor; thou art not the Roman Church; thou errest.' " Then he broke out:--"If I saw clearly that my leaving this city would be the spiritual and temporal ruin of its people, I would obey no man living who should command me to depart. O thou lying spy of Rome there, what wilt thou write now? I know what thou wilt write. What, O monk? Thou wilt write that I have said the Pope is not to be obeyed, that I will not obey the Pope. This I have not said. Report my words truly, or thou shalt see that they will not serve thy turn." The gauntlet was definitely flung down, and for some months the contest waged on the same lines, until in the Lent of 1497, Fra Girolamo spoke out the words which went ringing over Europe, and announced his attention of appealing to Christendom against its simoniacal head. It was the dread of such an appeal which had hitherto restrained Alexander from letting loose upon the head of the monk the bolts which, as Jove of the Church, he held in his hand, but now there could be no more hesitation. The Florentine constitution framed on the principle dear to Savonarola, that the ideal government is that which gives to the largest number of citizens a direct share of power, now told against him. When the Signoria which changed every two months, was of Savonarola's party, its ambassador at Rome fought fiercely in his favour, but when the Arrabiati were in power, they did all they could, with the concurrence of the Pope, to silence the great voice, once all-powerful in Florence, until at times the tumult of factions grew too much for them, and they were obliged to appeal to his help to quiet the city. A dissolute young firebrand of the Bigi faction, Doffo Spini, now banded his companions into an armed band. The Compagnacci, as they were called, had one avowed object, the destruction of the monk. To Pope Borgia it seemed that his hour had come, and in May or June, 1497, he launched the bull of excommunication. It was a fresh shock to Savonarola's waning influence. He replied promptly in two epistles to "All Faithful and Elect Christians," protesting against the validity of the sentence; but the mighty voice was one thing, the pen altogether another, and what cut most to the heart of the silent preacher was to see the sluice gates of vice thrown open, and vice and profanity, headed by work had been a preaching to the winds.

(To be continued.)

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