Saturday, January 24, 2009

Savonarola, A Man for Our Time

Girolamo Savonarola as St. Peter Martyr, a portrait by his follower and fellow Dominican monk, Fra Bartolomeo.

The same Dominican monastery of San Marco in Florence that produced Fra Angelico and his luminous paintings (where the tone is always contemplative and hopeful) also produced Savonarola. The monastery is now a museum primarily devoted to the art of Fra Angelico, but Savonarola's quarters are there to see along with his carefully preserved habit and other personal effects.
The name Savonarola is synonymous with fire-breathing moralistic preaching and fanaticism. But it was no less a humanist than Pico della Mirandola who brought him to Florence from Bologna. He was a learned man earning the respect of scholars such as Erasmus.

What to do with Savonarola? He was born into a noble family in Ferrara, yet gave voice to the disenfranchised multitudes whose labor produced Florence's wealth through textile manufacturing. When Piero de Medici fled after a revolution in 1494, Savonarola played a decisive role in the creation of the Great Council of the Florentine Republic, the closest thing anywhere in the world at that time to a democratic representative assembly. Savonarola was a very harsh critic of corruption in the court of Pope Alexander VI, the infamous Borgia Pope, and questioned papal authority boldly -- and ultimately fatally.

Then there is this from a sermon preached December 14, 1494 to the assembled Florentine government:
The Signoria must make a law against that cursed vice of sodomy, for which Florence is defamed throughout all of Italy, as you know. Perhaps you have this disgraceful reputation because you talk and chatter so much about this vice; maybe it's not so widespead in fact as it's said. I say, make a law that is without mercy, that such persons be stoned and burned.

Savonarola was hardly the first such preacher in Florence. There were earlier preachers such as Bernardin of Siena and Antoninus (later Archbishop of Florence) who railed and preached doom against the city for its vices, most especially for its famous toleration of "sodomy," meaning primarily sexual relations between men.  Some of that preaching, especially from Bernardin, could be downright bloodthirsty in its violence.  The laws on the books condemning this "vice" were always very harsh, but enforcement was usually lax and reluctant.  The offender usually was let off with a fine.  The accuser, usually anonymous, got a share of the fine as a reward.  It was well known that a sodomy accusation was a great way to get rid of political rivals and settle scores. The Medici, among others, made extensive use of such anonymous accusations. Because of such cynical uses, authorities were usually skeptical of such charges. The full measure of the law as a capital offense was very rarely carried out, and usually only in cases of rape and violence, especially against minors.
There were times, usually at the instigation of the preachers and in the wake of some civic misfortune or catastrophe, when the city would make an example out of someone to terrorize others into compliance. A notorious example from 1365 (about 17 years after the first appearance of the plague in the Black Death) is the execution of Giovanni di Giovanni, a 15 year old boy who was publicly mutilated and executed for sodomy.  
Under Savonarola's rule, punishments became much harsher for sodomy:  a 500 Florin fine  (remember a Florin is a gold coin, a lot of money) and exclusion from all public office, and sometimes a public flogging with 25 strokes of the lash, for a first offence; second offense was public humiliation and branding or exile; third offense was death by fire.  Prosecutions and punishments became much more frequent.  Savonarola set up parallel enforcement agencies to get around the reluctance of the official criminal courts to prosecute and punish to the fullest extent.

Savonarola was little different from the earlier preachers except in his ability to exploit a particular set of political and religious circumstances. The overthrow of the Medici left Florentine politics very unsettled and faction-ridden. There was growing class conflict between the extravagant ruling oligarchy of the city, and an increasingly resentful artisan and shop-keeper class. There were economic hardships. There was growing resistance to church corruption. Above all, there was a pervading millenialist dread as the year 1500 approached. After the 1494 revolution, Savonarola ruled Florence from his cell in San Marco. Like the Medici he so detested, he ruled from behind the scenes, never assuming any official position in the government. Also like the Medici, he brilliantly exploited public opinion (especially Florentine patriotism and popular resentment against the established oligarchy) to get his way. He was a famously effective and popular orator. Michelangelo said in his old age that he could still hear the Frate's voice ringing in his ear, from sermons he heard as a boy. The crowds listening were spellbound with many erupting into shouts and tears of repentance. Those same crowds were so large that Savonarola frequently preached in the cathedral. There was no other church or piazza in Florence big enough to accommodate the multitudes.
Savonarola frequently scolded the city authorities for their reluctance to prosecute vice, especially sodomy. Anticipating many a later modern political and religious leader, Savonarola formed his own vigilante force answerable only to him to enforce, violently if necessary, the new harsh laws against vice. They were usually teenaged boys between 12 and 18 who cut their hair short, wore sober clothing, and staged spectacular religious processions. They also flogged prostitutes and trashed taverns, beating up their owners and patrons. What the Frate could not accomplish through persuasive oratory, he accomplished through intimidation.
Savonarola wanted to turn Florence, a city made great through industry and commerce, into a holy city, the Jerusalem of Europe. He wanted Florence to be the center of a religious awakening throughout Europe.

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 the Frate's forces could not control it. Resistance to his rule became open and defiant. In 1498, an angry mob besieged San Marco, and finally broke in and seized Savonarola and 2 of his closest disciples. Pope Alexander VI excommunicated Savonarola. He was severely tortured and then publicly hanged and burned in the Piazza Signoria for heresy and sedition. According to one diarist, a young man heckled the dying Savonarola as he hung on the gallows, then grabbed a torch from the executioner and lit the fire shouting, "He who wanted to burn me is now himself put to the flames!"

Savonarola's execution in 1498 by an anonymous artist. This picture is misleading showing a sparsely populated piazza with most people ignoring the execution. In fact, the piazza was packed with people watching the spectacle, some cheering, others weeping. The executioners burned brushwood with the pieces of the remains to make sure nothing remained that could be venerated by followers as relics. Savonarola's ashes were thrown into the Arno from the Ponte Vecchio.

After his death, it was frequently remarked that governing a monastery is one thing and governing a city is quite another. It was the experience of Savonarola that caused the Chancelor of the Florentine Republic, Niccolo Macchiavelli, to call for a seperation between religion and politics; the first to do so. Savonarola was a divisive figure at a time when the republic faced mortal peril from the Pope and from exiled Medici conspiring with foreign princes; a time when the city needed to be united. Macchiavelli, that dark pragamatist and Florentine patriot, concluded that the interference of the unworldly into the very worldly business of politics could only lead to disaster.
In our age where religious doctrine now plays the role that political ideology did in the 20th century, Savonarola is a very familiar type.   He was the charismatic religious leader, ruthless ideologue, and cunning politician all in one.  He exploited popular resentments against corrupt rulers.  He told his followers that they were really saints of God no matter what their enemies said about them.  He told his followers that God would avenge the wrongs they suffered.  He created solidarity by a sense of constant threat.  He controlled the official government apparatus from outside through intimidation.  He maintained his own private force. He urged people to spy and report on each other.  He maintained a clear distinction between who was Holy and who was not, and kept it thoroughly policed.  He presented a glorious post-Apocalyptic vision of a clean and orderly world in contrast to the confusion and squalor of the present.  He persuaded people to give up their own dreams to pursue his. 


Anonymous said...

Might also want to mention Dante's treatment of homosexuals in the Inferno.

Göran Koch-Swahne said...

Strange this murdering of poor junior Giovanni di Giovanni.

Generally, as I understand it, juniors in pre Modern Societies, were subjects subjected to whatever whim of their Seniors, hence not executed for sodomía...

Not to mention, that accusations of sodomía seems to have been rare (sometimes covered with other ideological victim-less "crimes") and executions very rare indeed, until the late medieaval city states of Renaissance Italy.

This must have been a first? due to the great plague.

Anonymous said...

He persuaded people to give up their own dreams to pursue his.

You write really well, Doug.


A curious personal note: my great-grandmother (rather notorious within my family, for her many marriages&"dalliances" *g*) was a miniature portrait painter (exhibiting some of her work in Paris---of course! ;-p)

A couple of these miniatures have come to me (by my good luck). And one of them is of (for God's sake, WHY?) Savonarola. A woman of vice, painting the vice-fighter: go figure.

["Miniature on ivory . . . from the original by Fra Bartolommeo, 1910", it says in the note, by my late grandfather, on the back of the frame]


What to do with Savonarola?

What to do? Say the man was a human being---with all the unfathomable complications of everyone else. [A persecutor of "sodomites", who gathered around himself "teenaged boys between 12 and 18"? Hello??? Does that set off any "Closet Queen Projecting His Demons" alarms for anyone else?]

Counterlight said...

"Generally, as I understand it, juniors in pre Modern Societies, were subjects subjected to whatever whim of their Seniors, hence not executed for sodomía..."

Indeed, civil authorities were usually very reluctant to prosecute and punish to the full extent of the law, especially minors. Giovanni di Giovanni's case is very exceptional. Minors were usually released to their families.

The best book I know of on this topic is "Forbidden Friendships; Homosexuality and Male Culture in Renaissance Florence" by Michael Rocke. Rocke is one of the few historians of this subject who spent time in the Florentine archives researching diaries, and especially court and police records that go back to the mid 14th century.

Counterlight said...

"What to do? Say the man was a human being---with all the unfathomable complications of everyone else. [A persecutor of "sodomites", who gathered around himself "teenaged boys between 12 and 18"? Hello??? Does that set off any "Closet Queen Projecting His Demons" alarms for anyone else?]"

He was very much a human being with complex motivations. I'm sure he really believed that he was doing God's work (and occasionally really did it) -- which makes him all the more frightening.
People certainly did make the closet-queen-projecting-his-demons connection at the time. His enemies did from the beginning. Shortly before his fall and after his death, lewd and crude pictures of him in shtupping young novices were common in the streets and taverns.

Anonymous said...

[Pssst! Doug! That was me fishing for your questions re my great-grandmother, for whom I would love to post a guest-entry sometime? I was prompted to Google her last night, and have come up w/ a fair amount---but I also have some juicy stuff that (apparently) isn't yet online. One final tease: she's buried in Paris, w/ her last husband, who was world-famous. ;-)]

Leonard said...

Savonarola was little different from the earlier preachers except in his ability to exploit a particular set of political and religious circumstances. Doug

Good Lord his bastard child married a sailor and generations later Karl Rove was born in his very image.

Wormwood's Doxy said...

He has always fascinated me, ever since I started reading Florentine history in my teens.

JCF--*I* want to know more about your grandmother! Seems like she and I have something in common... ;-)

Anonymous said...

Assembling info, Doxy! (but she was my great-grandmother)

Unfortunately, other than the two miniatures that I own (besides Savonarola, the other is of---again, quoting my grandfather's note---"Countess Marie Walewska (Mistress of Napoleon I). Painted on ivory...Exhibited at Paris Salon, 1914"), I haven't yet found any other examples of her art online (though I know that there are others in the possession of my family). But I'm still working on that.

I really don't want to make pretensions that she was a great artist . . . more that she was ANY kind of artist, as a woman of her time (and that she always seemed to find another husband/lover, en route! ;-D)

Another teaser about her Paris grave: she and a group of her husband's admirers gathered 10 years after his death, to re-bury him . . . including on his tomb, the implements of his trade (which made him so famous). Theirs is one tomb which one can have fun and games with... ;-)

Counterlight said...

JCF, whoever she was, and whoever she was married to, you've got me stumped.

I'm afraid that I'm the first artist in my family. All of my family scandals are either sad or contemptible, and certainly not colorful.

June Butler said...

What a time of the famous and the infamous! I admire Fra Angelico, who was apparently a holy man, living in the midst of the turmoil, painting his lovely paintings, frescos, and altar pieces.

Museo di San Marco seemed a magical place to me when I visited for the first time. I felt as though I was in heaven, and then I was brought up short when I came to Savonarola's cell. But, as you say, he was a complex man. He seemed creepy to me, as do most preachers who whip up crowds into frenzy.

Beautifully written, Doug.

Anonymous said...

[Progress on my search for my great-grandmother: sorry to clog this thread w/ essentially OT stuff, Doug!]

She DOES have a Wiki page! :-D

...thing is, her Wiki is ALL about her famous (last) husband.

...whereas she also has a listing (in fact, several: duplicates) on AskArt dot Com (are you familiar w/ this site, Doug?). But they seem not to know about the famous husband! (at least as much of the page as I can see for free)

All of the bio pages I can find (plus stuff I have at home which, infuriatingly, I don't know where my late mom got) are FILLED w/ inconsistencies and errors. Argh.

What stuff I can find IS very interesting. She was Jewish: I'm sure this will interest my brother (who left the family tradition of TEC, to convert to Judaism almost 20 years ago). This doesn't surprise me: I've been stopped by Lubavichers before (because of my looks), and I always thought my mom had a "Virtual Map of Israel" face (though sadly, SHE was the one most upset at my brother's conversion. This past Christmastime, when my father, brother, as well as good friends were together, my brother felt free to whip out his portable Menorah: he wouldn't have dare done that when my mom was alive.)

Enough blather about JCF's family! [Sorry, Doug: at this moment, I'm missing Not of the World, my blog of 2003-2005, till it went kaput]

Anonymous said...

Last post, promise!

Here she is.

[Work-in-progress: haven't yet been able to upload any art]

Milan H said...

I liked your critique, but you completely forgot about the Bonfire of the Vanities, the hallmark of Savonarola's rule!!! Still, interesting facts.

Counterlight said...

I intend to discuss Savonarola further, including the Bonfire of the Vanities, in a future post, part of the series on Florence which is dormant right now, but not dead.