Birthplace: Ferrara, Italy
Location of death: Florence, Italy
Cause of death: Execution
Religion: Roman Catholic
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Straight
Executive summary: Italian monk and martyr
Italian monk and martyr, born at Ferrara on the 21st of September 1452, the third child of Michele Savonarola and his wife Elena Bonaccossi of Mantua. His grandfather, Michele Savonarola, a Paduan physician of much repute and learning, had settled in Ferrara, and gained a large fortune there. The younger Michele was a mere courtier and spendthrift, but Elena seems to have been a woman of superior stamp. She was tenderly loved by her famous son, and his letters prove that she retained his fullest confidence through all the vicissitudes of his career.
Girolamo was a precocious child, with an early passion for learning. His first tutor was his grandfather, the physician; and, in the hope of restoring their fallen fortunes, his parents intended him for the same profession. Even as a boy he had intense pleasure in reading St. Thomas Aquinas and the Arab commentators of Aristotle, was skilled in the subtleties of the schools, wrote verses, studied music and design, and, avoiding society, loved solitary rambles on the banks of the river Po. Ferrara was then a gay and bustling town of 100,000 inhabitants, its prince Borso d'Este a most magnificent potentate. To the mystic young student all festivities were repulsive, and although reared in a courtier-household he early asserted his individuality by his contempt for court life. At the age of nineteen, however, he had no thought of renouncing the world, for he was then passionately in love with the daughter of a neighbor, a Strozzi exiled from Florence. His suit was repulsed with disdain; no Strozzi, he was told, might stoop to wed a Savonarola. This blow probably decided his career; but he endured two years of misery and mental conflict before resolving to abandon his medical studies and become a monk. He was full of doubt and self-distrust; disgust for the world did not seem to him a sufficient qualification for the religious life, and his daily prayer was, "Lord! teach me the way my soul should walk." But in 1474 his doubts were dispelled by a sermon heard at Faenza. He secretly stole away to Bologna, entered the monastery of St. Domenico and then acquainted his father with his reasons for the step. The world's wickedness was intolerable, he wrote; throughout Italy he beheld vice triumphant, virtue despised. Among the papers he had left behind at Ferrara was a treatise on "Contempt of the World", inveighing against the prevalent corruption and predicting the speedy vengeance of Heaven. His novitiate was marked by a fervor of humility. He sought the most menial offices, and did penance for his sins by the severest austerities. According to contemporary writers he was worn to a shadow. His gaunt features were beautified by an expression of singular force and benevolence. Luminous dark eyes sparkled and flamed beneath his thick, black brows, and his large mouth and prominent nether lips were as capable of gentle sweetness as of power and set resolve. He was of middling stature and dark complexion. His manners were simple, his speech unadorned and almost homely. His splendid oratorical power was as yet unrevealed; but his intellectual gifts being recognized his superiors charged him with the instruction of the novices. He passed six quiet years in the convent, but his poems written during that period are expressive of burning indignation against the corruptions of the church and profoundest sorrow for the calamities of his country.
In 1482 he reluctantly accepted a mission to Ferrara, and, regarding earthly affections as snares of the evil one, tried to keep aloof from his family. His preachings attracted slight attention there, no one -- as he later remarked -- being a prophet in his own land. An outbreak of hostilities between Ferrara and Venice, fomented by Pope Sixtus IV, soon caused his recall to Bologna. Thence he was despatched to St. Mark's in Florence. Lorenzo de Medici ("the Magnificent") was then (1482) at the height of his power and popularity. At first Savonarola was enchanted with Florence. His cloister, sanctified by memories of St. Antonine and adorned with the inspired paintings of Fra Angelico, seemed to him a fore-court of heaven. But his content speedily changed to horror. The Florence streets rang with Lorenzo's ribald songs (the "canti carnascialeschi"); the smooth, cultured citizens were dead to all sense of religion or morality; and the spirit of the fashionable heathen philosophy had even infected the brotherhood of St. Mark. In 1483 Savonarola was Lenten preacher in the church of St. Lorenzo, but his plain, earnest exhortations attracted few hearers, while all the world thronged to Santo Spirito to enjoy the elegant rhetoric of Fra Mariano da Genazzano. Discouraged by this failure in the pulpit, Savonarola now devoted himself to teaching in the convent, but his zeal for the salvation of the apathetic townsfolk was soon to stir him to fresh efforts. Convinced of being divinely inspired, he had begun to see visions, and discovered in the Apocalypse symbols of the heavenly vengeance about to overtake this sin-laden people. In a hymn to the Savior composed at this time he gave vent to his prophetic dismay. The papal chair was now filled by Pope Innocent VIII, whose rule was even more infamous than that of his predecessor Sixtus IV.
Savonarola's first success as a preacher was gained at St. Gemignano (1484-85), but it was only at Brescia in the following year that his power as an orator was fully revealed. In a sermon on the Apocalypse he shook men's souls by his terrible threats of the wrath to come, and drew tears from their eyes by the tender pathos of his assurances of divine mercy. A Brescian friar relates that a halo of light was seen to flash round his head, and the citizens remembered his awful prophecies when in 1512 their town was put to the sack by Gaston de Foix. Soon, at a Dominican council at Reggio, Savonarola had occasion to display his theological learning and subtlety. The famous Giovanni Pico della Mirandola was particularly impressed by the friar's attainments, and is said to have urged Lorenzo de Medici to recall him from Lombardy.
When Savonarola returned to Florence in 1490, his fame as an orator had gone there before him. The cloister garden was too small for the crowds attending his lectures, and on the 1st of August 1490 he gave his first sermon in the church of St. Mark. To quote his own words, it was "a terrible sermon", and legend adds that he foretold he should preach for eight years. And now, for the better setting forth of his doctrines, to silence pedants, and confute malignant misinterpretation, he published a collection of his writings. These proved his knowledge of the ancient philosophy he so fiercely condemned, and showed that no ignorance of the fathers caused him to seek inspiration from the Bible alone. The Triumph of the Cross is his principal work, but everything he wrote was animated by the ardent spirit of piety evidenced in his life. Savonarola's sole aim was to bring mankind nearer to God.
In 1491 he was invited to preach in the cathedral, Sta. Maria del Fiore, and his rule over Florence may be said to begin from that date. Lorenzo sent leading citizens to him to urge him to show more respect to the head of the state. Savonarola rejected their advice and foretold the impending deaths of Lorenzo, of the pope and of the king of Naples. In the July of the same year he was elected prior of St. Mark's. As the convent had been rebuilt by Cosimo, and enriched by the bounty of the Medici, it was considered the duty of the new superior to present his homage to Lorenzo. Savonarola, however, refused to conform to the usage. His election was due to God, not Lorenzo; to God alone would he promise submission. Upon this the sovereign angrily exclaimed: "This stranger comes to dwell in my house, yet will not stoop to pay me a visit." Nevertheless, disdaining to recognize the enmity of a mere monk, he tried, but in vain, conciliatory measures. The Magnifico then sought to undermine his popularity, and Fra Mariano was employed to attack him from the pulpit. But the preacher's scandalous accusations missed their mark, and disgusted his hearers without hurting his rival. Savonarola took up the challenge; his eloquence prevailed, and Fra Mariano was silenced. But the latter, while feigning indifference, was thenceforth his rancorous and determined foe.
In April 1492 Lorenzo de Medici was on his deathbed at Careggi. Oppressed by the weight of his crimes, he summoned the unyielding prior to shrive his soul. Savonarola reluctantly came, and offered absolution upon three conditions. Lorenzo asked in what they consisted. First, "You must repent and feel true faith in God's mercy." Lorenzo assented. Secondly, "You must give up your ill-gotten wealth." This, too, Lorenzo promised, after some hesitation; but upon hearing the third clause, "You must restore the liberties of Florence", Lorenzo turned his face to the wall and made no reply. Savonarola waited a few moments and then went away. And shortly after his penitent died unabsolved.
Savonarola's influence now rapidly increased. Many adherents of the late prince came over to his side, disgusted by the violence and incompetency of Piero de Medici's rule. The same year witnessed the fulfilment of Savonarola's second prediction in the death of Innocent VIII (July 1492); men's minds were full of anxiety, an anxiety increased by the scandalous election of Cardinal Borgia to the papal chair. The friar's utterances became more and more fervent and impassioned. It was during the delivery of one of his Advent sermons that he beheld the celebrated vision, recorded in contemporary medals and engravings, that is almost a symbol of his doctrines. A hand appeared to him bearing a flaming sword inscribed with the words: "Gladius Domini supra terram cito et velociter." He heard supernatural voices proclaiming mercy to the faithful, vengeance on the guilty, and mighty cries that the wrath of God was at hand. Then the sword bent towards the earth, the sky darkened, thunder pealed, lightning flashed, and the whole world was wasted by famine, bloodshed and pestilence. It was probably the noise of these sermons that caused the friar's temporary removal from Florence at the instance of Piero de Medici. He was presently addressing enthusiastic congregations at Prato and Bologna. In the latter city his courage in rebuking the wife of Bentivoglio, the reigning lord, for interrupting divine service by her noisy entrance nearly cost him his life. Assassins were sent to kill him in his cell; but awed, it is said, by Savonarola's words and demeanor they fled dismayed from his presence. At the close of his last sermon the undaunted friar publicly announced the day and hour of his departure from Bologna; and his lonely journey on foot over the Apennines was safely accomplished. He was rapturously welcomed by the community of St. Mark's, and at once proceeded to reestablish the discipline of the order and to sweep away abuses. For this purpose he obtained, after much difficulty, a papal brief emancipating the Dominicans of St. Mark from the rule of the Lombard vicars of that order. He thus became an independent authority, no longer at the command of distant superiors. He relegated many of the brethren to a quieter retreat outside the city, only retaining in Florence those best fitted to aid in intellectual labor. To render the convent self-supporting, he opened schools for various branches of art, and promoted the study of Oriental languages. His efforts were successful; religion and learning made equal progress; St. Mark's became the most popular monastery in Florence, and many citizens of noble birth flocked there to take the vows.
Meanwhile Savonarola continued to denounce the abuses of the church and the guilt and corruption of mankind, and thundered forth predictions of heavenly wrath. In 1494 the Duke of Milan demanded the aid of France, and King Charles VIII brought an army across the Alps. Piero de Medici made alliance with the Neapolitan sovereign whose kingdom was claimed by Charles. Then, repenting this ill-judged step, he hurried in person to the French camp at Pietra Santa and humbled himself before the king. Not content with agreeing to all the latter's demands, he further promised large sums of money and the surrender of the strongholds of Pisa and Leghorn. This news drove Florence to revolt. But even at this crisis Savonarola's influence was all-powerful, and a bloodless revolution was effected. Piero Capponi's declaration that "it was time to put an end to this baby government" was the sole weapon needed to depose Piero de Medici. The resuscitated republic instantly sent a fresh embassy to the French king, to arrange the terms of his reception in Florence. Savonarola was one of the envoys, Charles being known to entertain the greatest veneration for the friar who had so long predicted his coming and declared it to be divinely ordained. He was most respectfully received at the camp, but could obtain no definite pledges from the king, who was bent on first coming to Florence.
Returning full of hope from Pietra Santa, Savonarola might well have been dismayed by the distracted state of public affairs. Nevertheless, with the aid of Capponi, he guided the bewildered city safely through these critical days. Charles entered Florence on the 17th of November 1494, and the citizen's fears evaporated in jests on the puny exterior of the "threatened scourge." But the exorbitance of his demands soon showed that he came as a foe. Disturbances arose, and serious collision with the French troops seemed inevitable. The signory resolved to be rid of their dangerous guests; and, when Charles threatened to sound his trumpets unless the sums exacted were paid, Capponi tore up the treaty in his face and made the memorable reply: "Then we will ring our bells." The monarch was cowed, accepted moderate terms, and, yielding to Savonarola's remonstrances, left Florence on the 24th of November.
After seventy years' subjection to the Medici Florence had forgotten the art of self-government, and felt the need of a strong guiding hand. So the citizens turned to the patriot monk whose words had freed them of King Charles, and Savonarola became the lawgiver of Florence. The first thing done at his instance was to relieve the starving populace within and without the walls; shops were opened to give work to the unemployed; all taxes, especially those weighing on the lower classes, were reduced; the strictest administration of justice was enforced, and all men were exhorted to place their trust in the Lord. And, after much debate, as to the constitution of the new republic, Savonarola's influence carried the day in favor of Soderini's proposal of a universal or general government, with a great council on the Venetian plan. The great council consisted of 3200 citizens of blameless reputation and over twenty-five years of age, a third of the number sitting for six months in turn in the hall of the Cinquecento expressly built for the purpose. There was also an upper council of eighty, which in conjunction with the signory decided all questions of too important and delicate a nature for discussion in the larger assembly. These institutions were approved by the people, and gave a fair promise of justice. Savonarola's program of the new government was comprised in the following formula: (1) fear of God and purification of manners; (2) promotion of the public welfare in preference to private interests; (3) a general amnesty to political offenders; (4) a council on the Venetian model, but with no doge. At first the new machinery acted well; the public mind was tranquil, and the war with Pisa -- not as yet of threatening proportions -- was enough to occupy the Florentines and prevent internecine feuds.
Without holding any official post in the commonwealth he had created, the prior of St. Mark's was the real head of the state, the dictator of Florence, and guarded the public weal with extraordinary political wisdom. At his instance the tyrannical system of arbitrary imposts and so-called voluntary loans was abolished, and replaced by a tax of 10% (la decima) on all real property. The laws and edicts of this period read like paraphrases of Savonarola's sermons, and indeed his counsels were always given as addenda to the religious exhortations in which he denounced the sins of his country and the pollution of the church, and urged Florence to cast off iniquity and become a truly Christian city, a pattern not only to Rome but to the world at large. His eloquence was now at the flood. Day by day his impassioned words, filled with the spirit of the Old Testament, wrought upon the minds of the Florentines and strung them to a pitch of pious emotion never before -- and never since -- attained by them. Their fervor was too hot to be lasting, and Savonarola's uncompromising spirit roused the hatred of political adversaries as well as of the degraded court of Rome. Even now, when his authority was at its highest, when his fame filled the land, and the vast cathedral and its precincts lacked space for the crowds flocking to hear him, his enemies were secretly preparing his downfall.
Pleasure-loving Florence was completely changed. Abjuring pomps and vanities, its citizens observed the ascetic regime of the cloister; half the year was devoted to abstinence and few dared to eat meat on the fasts ordained by Savonarola. Hymns and lauds rang in the streets that had so recently echoed with Lorenzo's dissolute songs. Both sexes dressed with Puritan plainness; husbands and wives quitted their homes for convents; marriage became an awful and scarcely permitted rite; mothers suckled their own babes; and persons of all ranks -- nobles, scholars and artists -- renounced the world to assume the Dominican robe. Still more wonderful was Savonarola's influence over children, and their response to his appeals is a proof of the magnetic power of his goodness and purity. He organized the boys of Florence in a species of sacred militia, an inner republic, with its own magistrates and officials charged with the enforcement of his rules for the holy life. It was with the aid of these youthful enthusiasts that Savonarola arranged the religious carnival of 1496, when the citizens gave their costliest possessions in alms to the poor, and tonsured monks, crowned with flowers, sang lauds and performed wild dances for the glory of God. In the same spirit, and to point the doctrine of renunciation of worldly enjoyments, he celebrated the carnival of 1497 by the famous "burning of the vanities" (i.e. masks and other objects pertaining to the carnival festivities, indecent books and pictures, etc.) in the Piazza della Signoria. A Venetian merchant is known to have bid 22,000 gold forms for the doomed vanities, but the scandalized authorities not only rejected his offer but added his portrait to the pile. Nevertheless the artistic value of the objects consumed has been greatly exaggerated by some writers. There is no proof that any book or painting of real merit was sacrificed, and Savonarola was neither foe to art nor to learning. On the contrary, so great was his respect for both that, when there was a question of selling the Medici library to pay that family's debts, he saved the collection at the expense of the convent purse.
Meanwhile events were taking a turn hostile to the prior. Alexander VI had long regretted the enfranchisement of St. Mark's from the rule of the Lombard Dominicans, and now, having seen a transcript of one of Savonarola's denunciations of his crimes, resolved to silence this daring preacher. Bribery was the first weapon employed, and a cardinal's hat was held out as a bait. But Savonarola indignantly spurned the offer, replying to it from the pulpit with the prophetic words: "No hat will I have but that of a martyr, reddened with my own blood." So long as King Charles remained in Italy Alexander's concern for his own safety prevented vigorous measures against the friar. But no Borgia ever forgot an enemy. He bided his time, and the transformation of skeptical Florence into an austerely Christian republic claiming the Savior as its head only increased his resolve to crush the man who had wrought this marvel. The potent Duke of Milan, Ludovico Sforza, and other foes were laboring for the same end, and already in July 1495 a papal brief had courteously summoned Savonarola to Rome. In terms of equal courtesy the prior declined the invitation, nor did he obey a second, less softly worded, in September. Then came a third, threatening Florence with an interdict in case of renewed refusal. Savonarola disregarded the command, but went to preach for a while in other Tuscan cities. But in Lent his celebrated sermons upon Amos were delivered in the duomo, and again he urged the necessity of reforming the church, striving by ingenious arguments to reconcile rebellion against Alexander with unalterable fidelity to the Holy See. All Italy recognized that Savonarola's voice was arousing a storm that might shake even the power of Rome. Alive to the danger, the pope knew that his foe must be crushed, and the religious carnival of 1496 afforded a good pretext for stronger proceedings against him. The threatened anathema was deferred, but a brief uniting St. Mark's to a new Tuscan branch of the Dominicans now deprived Savonarola of his independent power. However, in the beginning of 1497 the Piagnoni were again in office, with the prior's staunch friend, Francesco Valori, at their head. In March the aspect of affairs changed. The Arrabbiati and the Medicean faction merged political differences in their common hatred to Savonarola. Piero de Medici's fresh attempt to re-enter Florence failed; nevertheless his followers continued their intrigues, and party spirit increased in virulence. The citizens were growing weary of the monastic austerities imposed on them, and Alexander foresaw that his revenge was at hand.
A signory openly hostile to Savonarola took office in May, and on Ascension Day his enemies ventured on active insult. His pulpit in the duomo was defiled, an ass's skin spread over the cushion, and sharp nails fixed in the board on which he would strike his hand. The outrage was discovered and remedied before the service began; and, although the Arrabbiati half filled the church and even sought to attempt his life, Savonarola kept his composure and delivered an impressive sermon. But the signory, in feigned anxiety for the public peace, besought him to suspend his discourses. Shortly afterwards the threatened bull of excommunication was launched against him, and Fra Mariano was in Rome stimulating the pope's wrath. Savonarola remained undaunted. The sentence was null and void, he said. His mission was divinely inspired; and Alexander, elected simoniacally and laden with crimes, was no true pope. Nevertheless the reading of the bull in the duomo with the appropriate, terrifying ceremonial made a deep impression on the Florentines. And now, the Arrabbiati signory putting no check on the Compagnacci, the city returned to the wanton licence of Lorenzo's reign. But in July Savonarola's friends were again in power and did their best to have his excommunication removed. Meanwhile party strife was stified by an outbreak of the plague. During this time Rome was horror-struck by the mysterious murder of the young Duke of Gandia, and the bereaved pope mourned his son with the wildest grief. Savonarola addressed to the pontiff a letter of condolence, boldly urging him to bow to the will of Heaven and repent while there was yet time.
The plague ended, Florence was plunged in fresh troubles from Medicean intrigues, and a conspiracy for the restoration of Piero was discovered. Among the five leading citizens concerned in the plot was Bernardo del Nero, a very aged man of lofty talents and position. The gonfalonier, Francesco Valori, used his strongest influence to obtain their condemnation, and all five were put to death. It is said that at least Bernardo del Nero would have been spared had Savonarola raised his voice, but, although refraining from any active part against the prisoners, the prior would not ask mercy for them. This silence proved fatal to his popularity with moderate men, gave new adherents to the Arrabbiati, and whetted the fury of the pope, Sforza and all potentates well disposed to the Medici faction. He was now interdicted from preaching even in his own convent and again summoned to Rome. As before, the mandate was disobeyed. He refrained from public preaching, but held conferences in St. Mark's with large gatherings of his disciples, and defied the interdict on Christmas Day by publicly celebrating mass and heading a procession through the cloisters.
The year 1498, in which Savonarola was to die a martyr's death, opened amid seemingly favorable auspices. The Piagnoni were again at the head of the state, and by their request the prior resumed his sermons in the duomo, while his dearest disciple, Fra Domenico Buonvicini, filled the pulpit of St. Lorenzo. For the last time the carnival was again kept with strange religious festivities, and some valuable books and works of art were sacrificed in a second bonfire of "vanities." But menacing briefs poured in from Rome; the pope had read one of Savonarola's recent sermons on Exodus; the city itself was threatened with interdict, and the Florentine ambassador could barely obtain a short delay. Now too the Piagnoni quitted office; the new signory was less friendly, and the prior was persuaded by his adherents to retire to St. Mark's. There he continued to preach with unabated zeal; and, since the women of Florence deplored the loss of his teachings, one day in the week was set apart for them. The signory tried to conciliate the pope by relating the wonderful spiritual effects of their preacher's words, but Alexander was obdurate. The Florentines must either silence the man themselves, or send him to be judged by a Roman tribunal.
Undismayed by personal danger, Savonarola resolved to appeal to all Christendom against the unrighteous pontiff, and despatched letters to the rulers of Europe adjuring them to assemble a council to condemn this antipope. The council of Constance, and the deposition of John XXIII, were satisfactory precedents still remembered by the world. One of these letters being intercepted and sent to Rome by the Duke of Milan (it is said) proved fatal to the friar. The papal threats were now too urgent to be disregarded, and the cowed signory entreated Savonarola to put an end to his sermons. He reluctantly obeyed, and concluded his last discourse with the tenderest and most touching farewell.
The government now hoped that Alexander would be appeased and Florence allowed to breathe freely. But although silenced the prophet was doomed, and the folly of his disciples precipitated his fate. A creature of the Arrabbiati, a Franciscan friar named Francesco di Puglia, challenged Savonarola to prove the truth of his doctrines by the ordeal of fire. At first the prior treated the provocation with merited contempt, but his too zealous disciple Fra Domenico accepted the challenge. And, when the Franciscan declared that he would enter the fire with Savonarola alone, Fra Domenico protested his willingness to enter it with any one in defense of his master's cause. As Savonarola resolutely declined the trial, the Franciscan deputed a convert, one Giuliano dei Rondinelli, to go through the ordeal with Fra Domenico. There were long preliminary disputes. Savonarola, perceiving that a trap was being laid for him, discountenanced the "experiment" until his calmer judgment was at last overborne by the fanaticism of his followers. Aided by the signory, which was playing into the hands of Rome, the Arrabbiati and Compagnacci pressed the matter on, and the way was now clear for Savonarolas destruction.
On the 7th of April 1498 an immense throng gathered in the Piazza della Signoria to enjoy the barbarous sight. Two thick banks of combustibles 40 yards long, with a narrow space between, had been erected in front of the palace, and five hundred soldiers kept a wide circle clear of the crowd. Some writers aver that the piles were charged with gunpowder. The Dominicans from one side, the Franciscans from the other, marched in solemn procession to the Loggia dei Lanzi, which had been divided by a hoarding into two separate compartments. The Dominicans were led by Savonarola carrying the host, which he reverently deposited on an altar prepared in his portion of the loggia. The magistrates signalled to the two champions to advance. Fra Domenico stepped forward, but neither Rondinelli nor Fra Francesco appeared. The Franciscans began to urge fantastic objections, and, when Savonarola insisted that his champion should bear the host, they cried out against the sacrilege of exposing the Redeemer's body to the flames. All was turmoil and confusion, the crowd frantic. And, although Rondinelli had not come, the signory sent angry messages to ask why the Dominicans delayed the trial. It was now late in the day, and a storm shower gave the authorities a pretext for declaring that heaven was against the ordeal. The Franciscans slipped away unobserved, but Savonarola raising the host attempted to lead his monks across the piazza in the same solemn order as before. On this the popular fury burst forth. Defrauded of their bloody diversion, the people were wild with rage. Fra Girolamo's power was suddenly at an end. Neither he nor his brethren would have lived to reach St. Mark's but for the devoted help of Salviati and his men. Against the real culprits, the Franciscans, no anger was felt; the zealous prior, the prophet and lawgiver of Florence, was made the popular scapegoat. Notwithstanding the anguish that must have filled his heart, the fallen man preserved his dignity and calm. Mounting his own pulpit in St. Mark's he quietly related the events of the day to the faithful assembled in the church, and then withdrew to his cell, while the mob on the square outside was clamoring for his blood.
The next morning, the signory having decreed the prior's banishment, Francesco Valori and other leading Piagnoni hurried to him to concert measures for his safety. Meanwhile the government decided on his arrest, and no sooner was this made public than the populace rushed to the attack of the convent. The doors of St. Mark's were hastily secured, and Savonarola discovered that his adherents had secretly prepared arms and munitions and were ready to stand a siege. The signory sent to order all laymen to quit the cloister, and a special summons to Valori. After some hesitation the latter obeyed, hoping by his influence to rally all the Piagnoni to the rescue. But he was murdered in the street, and his palace sacked by the mob. The monks and their few remaining friends made a most desperate defense. In vain Savonarola besought them to lay down their arms. When the church was finally stormed Savonarola was seen praying at the altar, and Fra Domenico, armed with an enormous candlestick, guarding him from the blows of the mob. A few disciples dragged their beloved master to the inner library and urged him to escape by the window. He hesitated, seemed about to consent, when a cowardly monk, one Malatesta Sacramoro, cried out that the shepherd should lay down his life for his flock. Thereupon Savonarola turned, bade farewell to the brethren, and, accompanied by the faithful Domenico, quietly surrendered to his enemies. Later, betrayed by the same Malatesta, Fra Silvestro was also seized. The prisoners were conveyed to the Palazzo Vecchio, and Savonarola was lodged in the tower cell which had once harbored Cosimo de Medici.
Now came an exultant brief from the pope. His well-beloved Florentines were true sons of the church, but must crown their good deeds by despatching the criminals to Rome. Sforza was equally rejoiced by the news, and the only potentate who could have perhaps saved Savonarola's life, Charles of France, had died on the day of the ordeal by fire. Thus another of the friar's prophecies was verified, and its fulfilment cost him his sole protector. The signory refused to send their prisoners to Rome, but they did Rome's behests. Savonarola's judges were chosen from his bitterest foes. Day after day he was tortured, and in his agony, with a frame weakened by constant austerity and the mental strain of the past months, he made every admission demanded by his tormentors. But directly he was released from the rack he always withdrew the confessions uttered in the delirium of pain. These being too incoherent to serve for a legal report, a false account of the friar's avowals was drawn up and published.
Though physically unable to resist torture, Savonarola's clearness of mind returned whenever he was at peace in his cell. So long as writing materials were allowed him he employed himself in making a commentary on the Psalms, in which he restated all his doctrines. Alexander was frantically eager to see his enemy die in Rome. But the signory insisted that the false prophet should suffer death before the Florentines whom he had so long led astray. The matter was finally compromised. A second mock trial was held by two apostolic commissioners specially appointed by the pope. One of the new judges was a Venetian general of the Dominicans, the other a Spaniard. Meanwhile the trial of Brothers Domenico and Silvestro was still in progress. The former remained faithful to his master and himself. No extremity of torture could make him recant or extract a syllable to Savonarola's hurt; he steadfastly repeated his belief in the divinity of the prior's mission. Fra Silvestro on the contrary gave way at mere sight of the rack, and this seer of heavenly visions owned himself and his master guilty of every crime laid to their charge.
The two commissioners soon ended their task. They had the pope's orders that Savonarola was to die "even were he a second John the Baptist." On three successive days they examined the prior with worse tortures than before. But he now resisted pain better, and, although more than once a promise to recant was extorted from him, he reasserted his innocence when unbound, crying out, "My God, I denied Thee for fear of pain." On the evening of the 22nd of May sentence of death was pronounced on him and his two disciples. Savonarola listened unmoved to the awful words, and then quietly resumed his interrupted devotions. Fra Domenico exulted in the thought of dying by his master's side; Fra Silvestro, on the contrary, raved with despair.
The only favor Savonarola craved before death was a short interview with his fellow victims. This the signory unwillingly granted. The memorable meeting took place in the hall of the Cinquecento. During their forty days of confinement and torture each one had been told that the others had recanted, and the false report of Savonarola's confession had been shown to the two monks. The three were now face to face for the first time. Fra Domenico's loyalty had never wavered, and the weak Silvestro's enthusiasm rekindled at sight of his chief. Savonarola prayed with the two men, gave them his blessing, and exhorted them by the memory of their Savior's crucifixion to submit meekly to their fate. Midnight was long past when Savonarola was led back to his cell. Jacopo Niccolini, one of a religious fraternity dedicated to consoling the last hours of condemned men, remained with him. Spent with weakness and fatigue he asked leave to rest his head on his companions lap, and quickly fell into a quiet sleep. As Niccolini tells us, the martyr's face became serene and smiling as a childs. On awaking he addressed kind words to the compassionate brother, and then prophesied that dire calamities would befall Florence during the reign of a pope named Clement. The carefully recorded prediction was verified by the siege of 1529.
The execution took place the next morning. A scaffold, connected by a wooden bridge with the magistrate's rostrum, had been erected on the spot where the piles of the ordeal had stood. At one end of the platform was a huge cross with faggots heaped at its base. As the prisoners, clad in penitential haircloth, were led across the bridge, wanton boys thrust sharp sticks between the planks to wound their feet. First came the ceremonial of degradation. Sacerdotal robes were thrown over the victims, and then roughly stripped off by two Dominicans, the bishop of Vasona and the prior of Sta. Maria Novella. To the bishops formula, "I separate thee from the church militant and the church triumphant", Savonarola replied in firm tones, "Not from the church triumphant; that is beyond thy power." By a refinement of cruelty Savonarola was the last to suffer. His disciple's bodies already dangled from the arms of the cross before he was hung on the center beam. Then the pile was fired. For a moment the wind blew the flames aside, leaving the corpses untouched. "A miracle", cried the weeping Piagnoni; but then the fire leapt up and ferocious yells of triumph rang from the mob. At dusk the martyrs' remains were collected in a cart and thrown into the Arno.
Savonarola's party was apparently annihilated by his death, but, when in 1529-30 Florence was exposed to the horrors predicted by him, the most heroic defenders of his beloved if ungrateful city were Piagnoni who ruled their lives by his precepts and revered his memory as that of a saint.
Savonarola's writings may be classed in three categories: (1) numerous sermons, collected mainly by Lorenzo Violi, one of his most enthusiastic hearers; (2) an immense number of devotional and moral essays and some theological works, of which Il Trionfo della Croce is the chief; (3) a few short poems and a political treatise on the government of Florence. Although his faith in the dogmas of the Roman Catholic Church never swerved, his strenuous protests against papal corruptions, his reliance on the Bible as his surest guide, and his intense moral earnestness undoubtedly connect Savonarola with the movement that heralded the Reformation.
Father: Michele Savonarola
Mother: Elena Bonaccossi
Tortured Rome, Italy (1498)
Burned at the Stake
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