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§ 76. Girolamo Savonarola.
Ecce gladius Domini super terram cito et velociter.
In the closing decade of the 15th century the city of Florence seemed to be on the eve of becoming a model municipality, a pattern of Christian morals, a theocracy in which Christ was acknowledged as sovereign. In the movement looking towards this change, the chief actor was Jerome Savonarola, prior of the
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Dominican convent of St. Mark’s, the most imposing preacher of the Middle Ages and one of the most noteworthy preachers of righteousness since St. Paul. Against the dark moral background of his generation he appears as a broad sheet of northern light with its coruscations, mysterious and protentous, but also quickly disappearing. His message was the prophet’s cry, "Who shall abide the day of His coming and who shall stand when He appeareth?"
Savonarola, born in Ferrara Sept. 21, 1452, died in Florence May 23, 1498, was the third of seven children. Choosing his grandfather’s profession, he entered upon the study of medicine, from which he was turned away by a deepening impression of the corruption of society and disappointment at the refusal of a family of Strozzi, living at Ferrara, to give him their daughter in marriage. At the age of 23, he secretly left his father’s house and betook himself to Bologna, where he assumed the Dominican habit. Two days after his arrival in Bologna, he wrote thus to his father explaining the reason of his abrupt departure.
I could not endure any longer the wickedness of the blinded peoples of Italy. Virtue I saw despised everywhere and vices exalted and held in honor. With great warmth of heart, I made daily a short prayer to God that He might release me from this vale of tears. ’Make known to me the way,’ I cried, ’the way in which I should walk for I lift up my soul unto Thee,’ and God in His infinite mercy showed me the way, unworthy as I am of such distinguishing grace.11751175 The translation is from Schottmüller, pp. 2, 3. This writer gives two of Savonarola’s letters to his mother.
He begged his father to console his mother and referred him to a poem by his pen on the contempt of the world, which he had left among his papers. In this letter and several letters to his mother, which are extant, is shown the young monk’s warm affection for his parents and his brothers and sisters.
In the convent, the son studied Augustine and Thomas Aquinas and became familiar with the Scriptures, sections of which he committed to memory. Two copies of the Bible are extant in Florence, containing copious notes in Savonarola’s own handwriting, made on the margin, between the printed lines and on added leaves.11761176 The one, the Vulgate printed in Basel, 1491, the other in Venice, 1492. See Luotto: Dello Studio, etc. This author draws a parallel between Leo XIII.’s commendation of the study of the Bible and Savonarola’s emphasis upon it as the seat of authority. After his appointment as provincial, he emphasized the study of the Bible in Hebrew and Greek.
In 1481, he was sent to Florence, where he became an inmate of St. Mark’s. The convent had been rebuilt by Cosimo de Medici and its walls illuminated by the brush of Fra Angelico. At the time of Savonarola’s arrival, the city was at the height of its fame as a seat of culture and also as the place of lighthearted dissipation under the brilliant patronage of Lorenzo the Magnificent.
The young monk’s first efforts in the pulpit in Florence were a failure. The congregation at San Lorenzo, where he preached during the Lenten season, fell to 25 persons. Fra Mariano da Gennazzano, an Augustinian, was the popular favorite. The Dominican won his first fame by his Lenten sermons of 1486, when he preached at Brescia on the Book of Revelation. He represented one of the 24 elders rising up and pronouncing judgments upon the city for its wickedness. In 1489, he was invited back to Florence by Lorenzo at the suggestion of Pico della Mirandola, who had listened to Savonarola’s eloquence at Reggio. During the remaining nine years of his life, the city on the Arno was filled with Savonarola’s personality. With Catherine of Siena, he shares the fame of being the most religious of the figures that have walked its streets. During the first part of this short period, he had conflict with Lorenzo and, during the second, with Alexander VI., all the while seeking by his startling warnings and his prophecies to bring about the regeneration of the city and make it a model of civic and social righteousness. From Aug. 1, 1490, when he appeared in the pulpit of St. Mark’s, the people thronged to hear him whether he preached there or in the cathedral. In 1491, he was made prior of his convent. To preaching he added writings in the department of philosophy and tracts on humility, prayer and the love of Jesus. He was of middle height, dark complexion, lustrous eyes dark gray in color, thick lips and aquiline nose. His features, which of themselves would have been called coarse, attracted attention by the serious contemplative expression which rested upon them, and the flash of his eye.
Savonarola’s sermons were like the flashes of lightning and the reverberations of thunder. It was his mission to lay the axe at the root of dissipation and profligacy rather than to depict the consolations of pardon and communion with God. He drew more upon the threatenings of the divine wrath than upon the refreshing springs of the divine compassion. Tender descriptions of the divine love and mercy were not wanting in his sermons, but the woes pronounced upon the sinfulness of his time exceeded the gentle appeals. He was describing his own method, when he said, "I am like the hail. Cover thyself lest it come down upon thee, and strike thee. And remember that I said unto thee, Cover thy head with a helmet, that is clothe thyself with virtue and no hail stone will touch thee."11771177 Sermon, March 14, 1498. Schottmüller, p. 111. Roscoe: Life of Lorenzo, ch. VIII., says: "The divine word from the lips of Savonarola, descended not amongst his audience like the dews of heaven. It was the piercing hail, the sweeping whirlwind, the destroying sword."
In the time of his greatest popularity, the throngs waited hours at the doors of the cathedral for the preacher’s arrival and it has been estimated by Villari, that audiences of 10,000 or 12,000 hung on his discourses. Like fields of grain under the wind, the feelings of his audiences were swayed by the preacher’s voice. Now they burned with indignation: now they were softened to tears. "I was overcome by weeping and could not go on." So wrote the reporter while taking down a sermon, and Savonarola himself felt the terrible strain of his efforts and often sank back into his seat completely exhausted. His message was directed to the clergy, high and low, as well as to the people and the flashes of his indignation often fell upon the palace of Lorenzo. The clergy he arraigned for their greed of prebends and gold and their devotion to outer ceremonies rather than to the inner life of the soul. Florence he addressed in endearing terms as the object of his love. "My Florence," he was wont to exclaim. Geneva was no more the city of Calvin or Edinburgh of Knox than was Florence the city of Savonarola. Portraying the insincerity of the clergy, he said: —
In these days, prelates and preachers are chained to the earth by the love of earthly things. The care of souls is no longer their concern. They are content with the receipt of revenue. The preachers preach to please princes and to be praised by them. They have done worse. They have not only destroyed the Church of God. They have built up a new Church after their own pattern. Go to Rome and see! In the mansions of the great prelates there is no concern save for poetry and the oratorical art. Go thither and see! Thou shalt find them all with the books of the humanities in their hands and telling one another that they can guide mens’ souls by means of Virgil, Horace and Cicero ... The prelates of former days had fewer gold mitres and chalices and what few they possessed were broken up and given to relieve the needs of the poor. But our prelates, for the sake of obtaining chalices, will rob the poor of their sole means of support. Dost thou not know what I would tell thee! What doest thou, O Lord! Arise, and come to deliver thy Church from the hands of devils, from the hands of tyrants, from the hands of iniquitous prelates.11781178 Villari, I. 183 sqq.
Dizzy flights of fancy abounded in Savonarola’s discourses and took the place of calm and logical exposition. On the evening before he preached his last sermon in Advent, 1492, Savonarola beheld in the middle of the sky a hand holding a sword with the inscription, Behold the sword of the Lord will descend suddenly and quickly upon the earth—Ecce gladius Domini super terram cito et velociter. Suddenly the sword was turned toward the earth, the sky was darkened, swords, arrows and flames rained down. The heavens quaked with thunder and the world became a prey to famine and death. The vision was ended by a command to the preacher to make these things known. Again and again, in after years did he refer to this prophetic vision.11791179 So Nov. 1, 1494, etc. See Schottmüller, p. 28 sqq. The motto, cito et velociter, was repeated to Savonarola by the Virgin in his vision of heaven, 1495. Its memory was also preserved by a medal, representing on one side Savonarola and on the other a sword in the heavens held by a hand and pointing to a city beneath.
The inscription on the heavenly sword well represents the style of Savonarola’s preaching. It was impulsive, pictorial, eruptive, startling, not judicial and instructive. And yet it made a profound impression on men of different classes. Pico della Mirandola the elder has described its marvellous effect upon himself. On one occasion, when he announced as his text Gen. 6:17, "Behold I will bring the flood of waters upon the earth," Pico said he felt a cold shudder course through him, and his hair, as it were, stand on end. One is reminded of some of the impressions made by the sermons of Christmas Evans, the Welsh preacher, and the impression made by Whitefield’s oratory upon Lord Chesterfield and Franklin. But the imagery of the sermon, brilliant and weird as it was, is no sufficient explanation of the Florentine preacher’s power. The preacher himself was burning with religious passion. He felt deeply and he was a man of deep devotion. He had the eye of the mystic and saw beneath the external and ritual to the inner movements of spiritual power.
The biblical element was also a conspicuous feature of his preaching. Defective as Savonarola’s exegesis was, the biblical element was everywhere in control of his thought and descriptions. His famous discourses were upon the ark, Exodus, and the prophets Haggai, Ezekiel, Amos and Hosea, and John’s Revelation. He insisted upon the authority of Scripture. "I preach the regeneration of the Church," he said, "taking the Scriptures as my sole guide."11801180 Rudelbach, pp. 333-346, presents an elaborate statement of Savonarola’s attitude to the Bible, and quotes from one of his sermons on the Exodus thus: "The theologians of our time have soiled everything by their unseemly disputations as with pitch. They do not know a shred of the Bible, yea, they do not even know the names of its books."
Another element which gave to Savonarola’s sermons their virility and power was the prophetic element. Savonarola was not merely the expounder of righteousness. He claimed to be a prophet revealing things which, to use his own words, "are beyond the scope of the knowledge which is natural to any creature." This element would have been a sign of weakness, if it had not been associated with a great personality, bent on noble ends. The severity of his warnings was often so fearful that the preacher himself shrank back from delivering them. On one occasion, he spent the entire night in vigils and prayer that he might be released from the duty of making known a message, but in vain. The sermon, he then went forth to preach, he called a terrific sermon.
Savonarola’s confidence in his divine appointment to be the herald of special communications from above found expression not only from the pulpit but was set forth more calmly in two works, the Manual of Revelations, 1495, and a Dialogue concerning Truth and Prophecy, 1497. The latter tract with a number of Savonarola’s sermons were placed on the Index. In the former, the author declared that for a long time he had by divine inspiration foretold future things but, bearing in mind the Saviour’s words, "Give not that which is holy unto the dogs," he had practised reserve in such utterances. He expressed his conception of the office committed to him, when he said, "The Lord has put me here and has said to me, ’I have placed thee as a watchman in the centre of Italy ... that thou mayest hear my words and announce them,’ " Ezek. 3:17. If we are inclined to regard Savonarola as having made a mistake in claiming prophetic foresight, we easily condone the mistake on the ground of his impassioned fervor and the pure motives by which he was animated. To his prophecies he applied Christ’s own words, that no jot or tittle should fail till they were fulfilled.
None of his messages was more famous than the one he received on his visit to paradise, March, 1495. Before starting on his journey, a number of ladies offered to be his companions. Philosophy and Rhetoric he declined. Accepting the company of Faith, Simplicity, Prayer and Patience, he was met on his way by the devil in a monk’s garb.11811181 Lucas, pp. 55-61, gives a translation of the interview. Also Perrens, II. 167-177. Satan took occasion to present to him objections against the supernatural character of his predictions. Savonarola ought to have stopped with preaching virtue and denouncing vices and left prophecy alone. A prophet was always accredited by miracles. True prophets were holy men and the devil asked Savonarola whether he felt he had reached a high grade of saintliness. He then ventured to show that Savonarola’s prophecies had not always been fulfilled. By this time they had arrived at the gates of paradise where prudently Satan took his leave. The walls of paradise—so Savonarola described them—were of diamonds and other precious stones. Ten banners surmounted them inscribed with the prayers of Florence. Hierarchies and principalities appeared on every side. With the help of angels, the visitor mounted a ladder to the throne of the Virgin who gave him a crown and a precious stone and then, with Jesus in her arms, supplicated the Trinity for Savonarola and the Florentines. Her request was granted and the Florentines promised an era of prosperity preceded by a period of sorrows. In this new time, the city would be more powerful and rich than ever before.
The question arises whether Savonarola was a genuine prophet or whether he was self-deluded, mistaking for the heated imaginations of his own religious fervor, direct communications from God.11821182 Luotto asserts that the dilemma is presented of the genuineness of Savonarola’s predictions or downright imposture and he boldly supports the former view. Pastor, Villari, Lucas and others show that we are not narrowed down to this dilemma. Alexander VI. made Savonarola’s "silly declaration of being a prophet" one of the charges against him.11831183 In his first letter to Savonarola July 21, 1495. See the text in O’Neil, p. 10 sqq. Savonarola’s reply, p. 26 sqq. In his Manual of Revelations, Savonarola advanced four considerations to prove that he was a true prophet—his own subjective certainty, the fulfilment of his predictions, their result in helping on the cause of moral reform in Florence and their acceptance by good people in the city. His prophecies, he said, could not have come from astrology for he rejected it, nor from a morbid imagination for this was inconsistent with his extensive knowledge of the Scriptures, nor from Satan for Satan hated his sermons and does not know future events.
For us, the only valid test is historical fact. Were Savonarola’s prophecies fulfilled? The two prophecies, upon whose fulfilment stress is laid, were the political revolution in Florence, which occurred, and the coming of Charles VIII. from across the Alps. Savonarola saw in Charles a Cyrus whose advent would release Florence from her political bondage and introduce an era of civil freedom . He also predicted Charles’ subsequent retreat. Commines, who visited Savonarola in the convent of St. Mark’s after the trials which followed Charles’ advent in Italy had begun, went away impressed with the friar’s piety and candor, and declared that he predicted with certainty to him and to the king, "things which no one believed at the time and which have all been fulfilled since."11841184 Villari I. 855 and Bonet-Maury, p. 232. On the other hand, such solemn prognostications failed of fulfilment, as the extension of Florentine dominion even to the recovery of Pisa, made May 28, 1495, and the speedy conversion of the Turks and Moors, made May 3, 1495. The latter purported to be a revelation from the Virgin on his visit to paradise. Where a certain number of solemn, prophetic announcements remained unfulfilled, it is fair to suspect that the remainder were merely the predictions of a shrewd observer watching the progress of events. Many people trusted the friar as a prophet but, as conditions became more and more involved, they demanded with increasing insistence that he should substantiate his prophetic claim by a miracle. Even the predictions which came true in part, such as the coming of Charles VIII. across the Alps, received no fulfilment in the way of a permanent improvement of conditions, such as Savonarola expected. The statement of Prof. Bonet-Maury expresses the case well. Savonarola’s prophetic gift, so-called, was nothing more than political and religious intuition.11851185 This is the view of Lucas, pp. 69 sq., Pastor, Creighton, III. 248, who pronounces "the prophetic claims a delusion," and Villari. The last author says, I. 362 sqq., "Is it not possible that Savonarola was intoxicated by the feeling that the earlier predictions had been fulfilled, and, as the difficulty of maintaining his position in Florence in the last years of his life increased, he felt forced to appeal more and more to this endowment as though it were real?" Rudelbach gives a long chapter to Savonarola’s prophecies, pp. 281-333. Pastor discusses Savonarola’s alleged prophetic gift thoroughly in his Gesch. d. Päpste, III. 146 sqq., and in refutation of Luotto in his Zur Beurtheilung Some of his predictions were not in the line of what Christian prophecies might be expected to be, such as the rehumiliation of Pisa. The Florentines felt flattered by the high honor which the prophet paid to their city, and his predictions of her earthly dominion as well as heavenly glory. In his Manual of Revelations he exclaims, "Whereas Florence is placed in the midst of Italy, like the heart in the midst of the body, God has chosen to select her, that she may be the centre from which this prophetic announcement should be spread abroad throughout all Italy."
No scene in Savonarola’s career excels in moral grandeur and dramatic interest his appearance at the death-bed of Lorenzo the Magnificent, in 1492. History has few such scenes to offer. When it became apparent to the brilliant ruler of the Florentine state that his days were numbered, he felt unwilling to face the mysteries of death and the future without the absolution priestly prerogative pretends to be competent to confer. Savonarola and Lorenzo loved Florence with an equal love, though the one sought its glory through a career of righteousness and the other through a career of worldly dominion and glittering culture. The two leaders found no terms of agreement. Lorenzo had sought to win the preacher by personal attention and blandishments. He attended mass at St. Mark’s. Savonarola held himself back as from an elegant worldling and the enemy of the liberties of Florence. "You see," said Lorenzo, "a stranger has come into my house, yet he will not stoop to pay me a visit." "He does not ask for me; let him go or stay at his pleasure," replied the friar to those who told him that Lorenzo was in the convent garden.
Five influential citizens of Florence called and suggested to the friar that he modify his public utterances. Recognizing that they had come at Lorenzo’s instance, he bade them tell the prince to do penance for his sins, for the Lord is no respecter of persons and spares not the mighty of the earth. Lorenzo called upon Fra Mariano to publicly take Savonarola to task. This he did from the pulpit on Ascension Day, 1491. Lorenzo himself was present, but the preacher’s charges overshot the mark, and Savonarola was more popular than ever. The prior of St. Mark’s exclaimed, "Although I am a stranger in the city, and Lorenzo the first man in the state, yet shall I stay here and it is he who will go hence."
When the hour of death approached, Lorenzo was honest with himself. In vain did the physician, Lazzaro of Pavia, resort to the last medical measure, a potion of distilled gems. Farewell was said to Pico della Mirandola and other literary friends, and Lorenzo gave his final counsels to his son, Piero. The solemn rites of absolution and extreme unction were all that remained for man to receive from man. Lorenzo’s confessor was within reach but the prince looked to St. Mark’s. "I know of no honest friar save this one," he exclaimed. And so Savonarola was summoned to the bedside in the villa Careggi, two miles from the city. The dying man wanted to make confession of three misdeeds: the sack of Volterra, the robbery of Monte delle Fanciulle and the merciless reprisals after the Pazzi conspiracy. The spiritual messenger then proceeded to present three conditions on which his absolution depended. The first was a strong faith in God’s mercy. The dying man gave assent. The second was that he restore his ill-gotten wealth, or charge his sons to do it. To this assent was also given. The third demand required that he give back to Florence her liberties. To this Lorenzo gave no response and turned his face to the wall. The priest withdrew and, in a few hours, April 8, 1492, the ruler of Florence passed into the presence of the omnipotent Judge who judgeth not according to the appearance but according to the heart and whose mercy is everlasting.
The surmisal has been made that, if Savonarola had been less rigid, he might have exercised an incalculable influence for good upon the dying prince who was still susceptible of religious impressions.11861186 So Pastor, III. 141. The account given of Lorenzo’s interview with Savonarola is based upon Burlamacchi and Mirandola. Politian, in a letter to Jacopo Antiquario, gave a different amount of the three demands and made no mention of Savonarola’s demand that Florence be restored her liberties. He also added that Savonarola left the room pronouncing upon the dying man a blessing. Politian’s version is accepted by Roscoe, ch. X., Creighton, III. 296-299 and Lucas, 83 sq. The version given above is accepted by Villari, 168 sqq., W. Clark, p. 116, and the rigid critic Hase, p. 20. Ranke did not see his way clear to deny its truth and Reumont, II. 443, who denied it in the 1st ed. of his Lorenzo de’ Medici, hesitates in the 2d ed. Pastor proceeds upon the basis of its truth but expresses doubt in a note. But who can with probability conjecture the secrets of the divine purpose in such cases? Perhaps, Savonarola’s relentless demands awakened in Lorenzo a serious impression showing itself in a cry to God for absolution, while the extreme unction of the priest might have lulled the dying man’s conscience to sleep with a false sense of security. At any rate, the influence of the friar of St. Mark’s with the people increased.
During the years, beginning with 1494, Savonarola’s ascendancy was at its height and so cold a witness as Guicciardini reports his influence as extraordinary. These years included the invasion of Charles VIII., the banishment of the Medici from Florence and the establishment of a theocratic government in the city.
"He will come across the Alps against Italy like Cyrus," Savonarola had prophesied of the French king, Charles VIII. And, when the French army was approaching the confines of Florence, he exclaimed, "Behold, the sword has come upon you. The prophecies are fulfilled, the scourge begun! Behold these hosts are led of the Lord! O Florence, the time of singing and dancing is at an end. Now is the time to shed floods of tears for thy sins."
Florence listened eagerly. Piero de’ Medici went to the French camp and yielded to the king’s demand for 200,000 florins, and the cession of Pisa, Leghorn and Sarzana. But Savonarola thundered and pled from the pulpit against the Medicean house. The city decreed its banishment and sent commissioners to Charles, with Savonarola among them. In his address, which is preserved, the friar reminded his Majesty that he was an instrument sent by the Lord to relieve Italy of its woes and to reform the Church. Charles entered Florence but, moved by Savonarola’s intercession, reduced the tribute to 120,000 florins and restrained the depredations of the French soldiery. The king also seems to have listened to the friar’s stern words when he said to him, "Hearken unto the voice of God’s servant and pursue thy journey onward without delay."
When Charles, after sacking Rome and occupying Naples, returned to Northern Italy, Savonarola wrote him five letters threatening that, if he did not do for Florence the things about which he had spoken to him, God’s wrath would be poured out upon his head. These things were the recognition of the liberties of Florence and the return of Pisa to her dominion. In his letter of May 25, 1495, bidding Charles favor the city of Florence, he asserted, "God has chosen this city and determined to magnify her and raise her up and, whoso toucheth her, toucheth the apple of His eye." Certainly, from the standpoint of the welfare of Italy, the French invasion was not of Providential origin. Although the banners of his army were inscribed with the words Voluntas Dei — the Will of God—and Missus Dei — the legate of God—Charles was bent on territorial aggrandizement and not on breaking the bonds of civic despotism.
The time had now come to realize in Florence Savonarola’s ideal of government, a theocracy with Christ at its head. The expulsion of the Medici made possible a reorganization of the state and the new constitution, largely a matter of Savonarola’s creation, involved him inextricably in civic policies and the war of civic factions. However, it should not be forgotten that his municipal constitution secured the commendation of Guicciardini and other Italian political writers. It was a proof of the friar’s remarkable influence that, at his earnest advice, a law was passed which prevented retaliatory measures against the followers of the Medici. Landucci wrote in his diary that, but for Savonarola, the streets would have been bathed in blood. In his great sermons on Haggai, during the Advent season of 1494, and on the Psalms in 1495, Savonarola definitely embarked as a pilot on the political sea. "The Lord has driven my bark into the open ocean," he exclaimed from the pulpit. Remonstrating with God for imposing this duty upon him, he declared, ’I will preach, if so I must, but why need I meddle with the government of Florence.’ And the Lord said, ’If thou wouldst make Florence a holy city, thou must establish her on firm foundations and give her a government which cherishes righteousness.’ Thus the preacher was committed. He pronounced from the pulpit in favor of virtue as the foundation of a sound government and democracy as its form. "Among northern nations," he affirmed, where there is great strength and little intellect, and among southern nations where there is great intellect and little strength, the rule of a single despot may sometimes be the best of governments. But in Italy and, above all in Florence, where both strength and intellect abound,—where men have keen wits and restless spirits,—the government of the one can only result in tyranny."
In the scheme, which he proposed, he took for his model the great council of Venice, leaving out its head, the doge, who was elected for life. The great council of Florence was to consist of, at least, 1500 men, who had reached the age of 29, paid their taxes and belonged to the class called beneficiati, that is, those who held a civil office themselves or whose father, grandfather, or great-grandfather had held a civil office. A select council of 80 was to be chosen by it, its members to be at least forty years of age. In criminal cases, an appeal from a decision of the signory was allowed to the great council, which was to meet once a week and to be a voting rather than a deliberative body.
The place of the supreme doge or ruler, Savonarola gave to God himself. "God alone," he exclaimed from the pulpit, "God alone will be thy king, O Florence, as He was king of Israel under the old Covenant." "Thy new head shall be Jesus Christ,"—this was the ringing cry with which he closed his sermons on Haggai. Savonarola’s recent biographer, Villari, emphasizes "the masterly prudence and wisdom shown by him in all the fundamental laws he proposed for the new state." He had no seat in the council and yet he was the soul of the entire people.11871187 One of Savonarola’s propositions was to levy taxes on real property alone and, it seems, he was not averse to taxing Church property. Landucci, p. 119; Villari, I. 269, 298; II. 81.
In the last chapter of his career Savonarola was pitted against Alexander VI. as his contestant. The conflict began with the demand made by the pope July 25, 1495, that Savonarola proceed to Rome and answer charges. Then followed papal inhibitions of his preaching and the decree of excommunication, and the conflict closed with the appointment of a papal commission which condemned Savonarola to death as a heretic.
Alexander’s order, summoning the friar to Rome, was based on his announcement that his predictions of future events came by divine revelation.11881188 See the document in Lucas, p. 180, and O’Neil, p. 9 sq. The original in Rudelbach. At the same time, the pope expressed his great joy over the report that of all the workers in the Lord’s vineyard, Savonarola was the most zealous, and he promised to welcome him to the eternal city with love and fraternal affection. Savonarola declined the pontiff’s summons on the ground of ill-health and the dangers that would beset him on the way to Rome. His old rival in the pulpit, Fra Mariano de Gennazzano, and other enemies were in Rome intriguing against him, and the Medici were fast winning the pope’s favor.
Alexander’s first letter inhibiting him from preaching, Sept. 9, 1495, condemned Savonarola’s insane folly in mixing up with Italian political affairs and his announcement that he was a special messenger sent from God. In his reply Savonarola answered the charges and, at the invitation of the signory, continued to preach. In his third brief, Oct. 16, 1495, the pontiff forbade him to preach openly or in private. Pastor remarks, "It was as clear as the sun that Savonarola was guilty of rank disobedience to the papal authority."11891189 Zur Beurtheilung, p. 66. Pastor is refuting Luotto’s position.
For five months, the friar held himself aloof in his convent but, Feb. 17, 1496, at the call of the signory to preach the Lenten sermons, he again ascended the pulpit. He took the bold position that the pope might err. "The pope," he said, "may command me to do something that contravenes the law of Christian love or the Gospel. But, if he did so command, I would say to him, thou art no shepherd. Not the Roman Church, but thou errest." From that time on, he lifted his voice against the corruptions of the papal city as he had not done before. Preaching on Amos 4:1, Feb. 28, 1496, he exclaimed, "Who are the fat kine of Bashan on the mountains of Samaria? I say they are the courtesans of Italy and Rome. Or, are there none? A thousand are too few for Rome, 10,000, 12,000, 14,000 are too few for Rome. Prepare thyself, O Rome, for great will be thy punishments."11901190 The Italian text in Perrens, I. 471 sq. The sermons of this period were on Amos, Zachariah, Micah and Ruth. According to Burlamacchi, the sultan had some of them translated into Turkish. Villari, II. 87.
Finding threats would not stop Savonarola’s mouth, Alexander resorted to bribery, an art in which he was well skilled. Through a Dominican sent to Florence, he offered to the friar of St. Mark’s the red hat. But Alexander had mistaken his man and, in a sermon delivered August, 1496, Savonarola declared that neither mitres nor a cardinal’s hat would he have, but only the gift God confers on His saints—death, a crimson hat, a hat reddened with blood. Lucas, strangely enough, ascribes the offer of the red hat, not to vicious shrewdness but to the alleged good purpose of Alexander to show his appreciation of, an earnest but misguided man."
The carnival season of 1496 and the seasons of the next two years gave remarkable proofs of the hold Savonarola had on the popular mind. The carnival, which had been the scene of wild revelries, was turned into a semi-religious festival. The boys had been accustomed to carry their merriment to rude excesses, forcing their demands for money upon older persons, dancing around bonfires at night and pelting people and houses promiscuously with stones. For this "festival of the stones," which the signory had been unable to abolish Savonarola and his co-helpers substituted a religious celebration. It was called the reform of the boys. Savonarola had established boys’ brigades in different wards of the city and arranged tiers of seats for them against the walls of the cathedral. These "boys of Fra Girolamo," as Landucci calls them, marched up and down the streets singing hymns which Savonarola and Benivieni composed and taking their places at stands, erected for the purpose, received collections for the poor.
On the last day of the carnival of 1497, occurred the burning of the vanities, as it was called. The young men, who had been stirred to enthusiasm by Savonarola’s sermons, went through the city, knocking from door to door and asking the people to give up their trinkets, obscene books such as Ovid and Boccaccio, dice, games of chance, harps, mirrors, masks, cosmetics and portraits of beautiful women, and other objects of luxury. These were piled up in the public square in a pyramid, 60 feet high and 240 feet in circumference at the base. The morning of that day, throngs listened to the mass said by Savonarola. The young men went in procession through the streets and reaching the pile of vanities, they with others joined hands and danced around the pile and then set fire to it amid the singing of religious songs. The sound of bells and trumpets added to the effect of the strange spectacle. Men thought of the books and philters, burnt at Ephesus under the spell of Paul’s preaching. The scene was repeated the last year of Savonarola’s life,1498.
Savonarola has been charged with having no sympathy with the Renaissance and the charge it is not easy to set aside. As Burckhardt, the historian of that movement, says, he remained a monastic. In one writing, he sets forth the dangers of literature. Plato and Aristotle are in hell. And this was the judgment expressed in the city of the Platonic Academy! Virgil and Cicero he tolerated, but Catullus, Ovid and Terence he condemned to banishment.11911191 Dio Kultur d. Renaissance, II. 200 sq.
At one time, under the spell of the prior’s preaching, all Florence seemed to be going to religion. Wives left their husbands and betook themselves to convents. Others married, taking the vow of nuptial abstinence and Savonarola even dreamed that the city might reach so perfect a condition that all marrying would cease. People took the communion daily and young men attended mass and received the eucharistic emblem. Fra Bartolomeo threw his studies of naked figures into the fire and for a time continued to think it sinful to use the hands in painting which ought to be folded continually in prayer. It was impossible that such a tension should continue. There was enthusiasm but not regeneration. A reaction was sure to come and the wonder is that Savonarola retained so much of the popular confidence, almost to the end of his life.
Alexander would have none of the Florentine reforms and was determined to silence Savonarola at any cost. Within the city, the air was full of rumors of plots to restore the Medici and some of the conspirators were executed. Enemies of the republic avowed their purpose to kill Savonarola and circulated sheets and poems ridiculing and threatening him. Insulting placards were posted up against the walls of his convent and, on one occasion, the pulpit of the cathedral was defiled with ordure and draped in an ass’ skin, while spikes were driven into the place where the preacher was accustomed to strike his hand. Landucci speaks of it as a "great scandal." Assassins even gathered in the cathedral and were only cowed by guards posted by the signory. The friar of St. Mark’s seemed not to be appalled. It was ominous, however, that the signory became divided in his support.
If possible, Savonarola became more intense in his arraignment of the evils of the Church. He exclaimed: "O prostrate Church, thou hast displayed thy foulness to the whole earth. Thou hast multiplied thy fornications in Italy, in France, in Spain and all other regions. Thou hast desecrated the sacraments with simony. Of old, priests called their bastards nephews, now they call them outright sons." Alexander could not mistake the reference nor tolerate such declamations. The integrity of the supreme seat of Christendom was at stake. A prophetic function superior to the papacy Eugenius III. might recognize, when it was administered in the admonitions of a St. Bernard, but the Florentine prophet had engaged in denunciation even to personal invective. The prophet was losing his balance. On May 12,1497, for "his failure to obey our Apostolic admonitions and commands" and as "one suspected of heresy" Alexander declared him excommunicate. All were forbidden to listen to the condemned man or have converse with him.11921192 The bull is given by Villari, II. 189 sq.; Pastor, III. 411 sq.
In a letter addressed a month later "to all Christians, the elect of God," Savonarola again affirmed his readiness to yield to the Church’s authority, but denied that he was bound to submit to the commands of his superiors when these were in conflict with charity and God’s law. "Henceforth," exclaimed the Puritan contemporary, Landucci, "we were deprived of the Word of God." The signory wrote to Alexander in support of Savonarola, affirming his purity of character and soundness of doctrine, and friends, like Pico della Mirandola the younger, issued defences of his conduct. The elder Pico della Mirandola and Politian, both of whom had died a year or two before, showed their reverence for Savonarola by assuming the Dominican garb on their death-beds.
At this time, Savonarola sent forth his Triumph of the Cross, in which were set forth the verity and reasonableness of the Catholic faith.11931193 Published in 1497, both in Latin and Etruscan, the Etruscan translation being by Savonarola himself. After proving from pure reason God’s existence and the soul’s immortality, the work proceeds to expound the Trinity, which is above man’s reason, and articles of the Apostles’ Creed, and to set forth the superior excellency of the lives of Christians, on which much stress is laid. It closes with a confutation of Mohammedanism and other false forms of religion.
Savonarola kept silence in the pulpit and refrained from the celebration of the sacrament until Christmas day of 1497, when he celebrated the mass at St. Mark’s three times. On the 11th of February, he stood again in the pulpit of the duomo. To a vast concourse he represented the priest as merely an instrument of the Almighty and, when God withdraws His presence, prelate and pope are but as "a broken iron tool." "And, if a prelate commands what is contrary to godly living and charity, he is not only not to be obeyed but deserves to be anathema." On another occasion, he said that not only may the pope be led into error by false reports but also by his own badness, as was the case with Boniface VIII. who was a wicked pope, beginning his pontificate like a fox and ending it like a dog.11941194 Pastor: Beurtheilung, p. 71 sqq.; Villari, II. 252. Many, through reverence for the Church, kept away from Savonarola’s preaching from this time on. Among these was the faithful Landucci, who says, "whether justly or unjustly, I was among those who did not go. I believed in him, but did not wish to incur risk by going to hear him, for he was under sentence of excommunication." Savonarola’s enemies had made the words of Gregory the Great their war-cry, Sententia pastoris sive justa sive unjusta timenda est.—"The sentence of the shepherd is to be respected, whether it be just or unjust."11951195 See Schnitzer: Feuerprobe, p. 144. His denunciations of the corruption prevailing in the Church became more bold. The tonsure, he cried, is the seat of all iniquity. It begins in Rome where the clergy make mock of Christ and the saints; yea, are worse than Turks and worse than Moors. They traffic in the sacraments. They sell benefices to the highest bidder. Have not the priests in Rome courtesans and grooms and horses and dogs? Have they not palaces full of tapestries and silks, of perfumes and lackeys? Seemeth it, that this is the Church of God?
Every Roman priest, he said, had his concubine. No longer do they speak of nephews but of their sons and daughters. Savonarola even sought to prove from the pulpit that the papal brief of excommunication proceeded from the devil, inasmuch as it was hostile to godly living.
It was becoming evident that the preacher was fighting a losing battle. His assaults against the morals of the clergy and the Vatican stirred up the powers in the Church against him; his political attitude, factions in Florence. His assertions, dealing more and more in exaggerations, were developing an expectant and at the same time a critical state of mind in the people which no religious teacher could permanently meet except through the immediate and startling intervention of God. He called heaven to witness that he was "ready to die for His God" and invited God to send him to the fires of hell, if his motives were not pure and his work inspired. On another occasion, he invoked the Lord to strike him dead on the spot, if he was not sincere. Landucci reports some of these wild protestations which he heard with his own ears.
One weapon still remained to the pope to bring Savonarola to terms,—the interdict. This he threatened to fulminate over Florence, unless the signory sent this "son of the evil one" to Rome or cast him into prison. In case the first course was pursued, Alexander promised to treat Savonarola as a father would treat a son, provided he repented, for he "desired not the death of a sinner but that he might turn from his way and live."11961196 See Alexander’s letters in Perrens, I. 481-485; Pastor, III. 418 sq. O’Neil finds no room for them. He urged the signory not to allow Savonarola to be as the fly in the milk, disturbing its relations with Rome or "to tolerate that pernicious worm fostered by their warmth."
Through epistolary communications and legates, the signory continued its attempts to remove Alexander’s objections and protect Savonarola. But, while all the members continued to express confidence in the friar’s purity of motive, the majority came to take the position that it was more expedient to silence the preacher than to incur the pope’s ban. At the public meeting, called by the signory March 9,1498, to decide the course of action to be taken, the considerations pressed were those of expediency. The pope, as the vicar of Christ, has his authority directly from God and ought to be obeyed. A second consideration was the financial straits of the municipality. A tenth was needed and this could only be ordered through the pope. Some proposed to leave the decision of the matter to Savonarola himself. He was the best man the world had seen for 200 years. Others boldly announced that Alexander’s letters were issued through the machinations of enemies of Florence and the censures they contained, being unjust, were not to be heeded.11971197 See Schnitzer: Feuerprobe, p. 38 sqq. On March 17,1498, the signory’s decision was communicated to Savonarola that he should thenceforth refrain from preaching and the next day he preached his last sermon.
In his last sermon, Savonarola acknowledged it as his duty to obey the mandate. A measure had been worked out in his mind which was the last open to a churchman. Already had he hinted from the pulpit at the convention of a general council as a last resort. The letters are still extant which he intended to send to the kings of Spain, England, France, Germany and Hungary, calling upon them to summon a council. In them, he solemnly declared that Alexander was no pope. For, aside from purchasing his office and from his daily sale of benefices, his manifest vices proved him to be no Christian. The letters seem never to have been received. Individuals, however, despatched preliminary communications to friends at the different courts to prepare the way for their appeal.11981198 For the originals, see Perrens, I. 487-492. Excerpts are given by Villari, II. 292 sq. See also Hase, p. 59, Creighton, III. 237. Of the genuineness of the letters, Villari says there can be no doubt. One, addressed to Charles VIII., was intercepted at Milan and sent to the pope. Alexander now had documentary proof of the Florentine’s rebellion against papal authority. But suddenly a wholly unexpected turn was given to the course of events.
Florence was startled by the rumor that resort was to be had to ordeal by fire to decide the genuineness of Savonarola’s claims.11991199 Landucci’s account of the fuoco, p. 165 sqq., is most vivid. For Cerretani’s account, Schnitzer’s ed., 59-71. The challenge came from a Franciscan, Francesco da Puglia, in a sermon at S. Croce in which he arraigned the Dominican friar as a heretic and false prophet. In case Savonarola was not burnt, it would be a clear sign that Florence was to follow him. The challenge was accepted by Fra Domenico da Pescia, a monk of St. Mark’s and close friend of Savonarola’s, a man of acknowledged purity of life. He took his friend’s place, holding that Savonarola should be reserved for higher things. Francesco da Puglia then withdrew and a Franciscan monk, Julian Rondinelli, reluctantly took his place. Savonarola himself disapproved the ordeal. It was an appeal to the miraculous. He had never performed a miracle nor felt the importance of one. His cause, he asserted, approved itself by the fruits of righteousness. But to the people, as the author of Romola has said, "the fiery trial seemed a short and easy argument" and Savonarola could not resist the popular feeling without forfeiting his popularity. The history of Florence could show more than one case of saintly men whose profession had been tested by fire. So it was, during the investiture controversy, with St. John Gualberti, in Settimo close by, and with the monk Peter in 1068, and so it was, a half century later, with another Peter who cleared himself of the charge of contemning the cross by walking unhurt over nine glowing ploughshares.12001200 See Schnitzer: Feuerprobe, p. 49 sq.
The ordeal was authorized by the signory and set for April 7. It was decided that, in case Fra Domenico perished, Savonarola should go into exile within three hours. The two parties, Domenico and Rondinelli, filed their statements with the signory. The Dominican’s included the following points. The Church stands in need of renovation. It will be chastened. Florence will be chastened. These chastisements will happen in our day. The sentence of excommunication against Savonarola is invalid. No one sins in ignoring it.12011201 Schnitzer, p. 54.
The ordeal aroused the enthusiasm of Savonarola’s friends. When he announced it in a sermon, many women exclaimed, "I, too, I, too." Other monks of St. Mark’s and hundreds of young men announced their readiness to pass through the flames out of regard for their spiritual guide.
Alexander VI. waited with intense interest for the last bulletins from Florence. His exact state of mind it is difficult to determine. He wrote disapproving of the ordeal and yet he could not but feel that it afforded an easy way of getting rid of the enemy to his authority. After the ordeal was over, he praised Francesco and the Franciscans in extravagant terms and declared the Franciscans could not have done anything more agreeable to him.12021202 Schnitzer, p. 64 sq., who goes into the matter at length, and Villari, II. 306 sqq., agree in the opinion that Alexander fully sympathized with the ordeal. They also agree that the Arrabbiati were largely, if not wholly, responsible for the suggestion of the ordeal and making it a matter of public appointment. Pastor, III. 429, represents Alexander as wholly disapproving the ordeal.
The coming trial was looked for with the most intense interest. There was scarcely any other topic of conversation in Florence or in Rome. Great preparations were made. Two pyres of thorns and other wood were built on the public square about 60 feet in length, 3 feet wide at the base and 3 or 4 feet high,12031203 There is a difference among the contemporary writers about the figures. Landucci, p. 168, gives the length at 50 braccia, width 10 and height 4; Bartolomeo Cerretaui, Schnitzer ed. p. 62, the width as 1 braccio and the height 2. the wood soaked with pitch and oil. The distance between the pyres was two feet, just wide enough for a man to pass through. All entrances to the square were closed by a company of 300 men under Marcuccio Salviatis and two other companies of 500 each, stationed at different points. The people began to arrive the night before. The windows and roofs of the adjoining houses were crowded with the eager spectators.
The solemnity was set for eleven o’clock. The Dominicans made a solemn impression as they marched to the appointed place. Fra Domenico, in the van, was clothed in a fiery red velvet cope. Savonarola, clad in white and carrying a monstrance with the host, brought up the rear of the body of monks and these were followed by a great multitude of men, women and children, holding lighted tapers. When the hour arrived for the procession to start, Savonarola was preaching. He had again told the people that his work required no miracle and that he had ever sought to justify himself by the signs of righteousness and declared that, as on Mt. Carmel, miraculous intervention could only be expected in answer to prayer and humility.
Later mediaeval history has few spectacles to offer to the eye and the imagination equal in interest to the spectacle offered that day. There, stood the greatest preacher of his time and the most exalted moral figure since the days of John Huss and Gerson. And there, the ancient method of testing innocency was once more to be tried, a novel spectacle, indeed, to that cultured generation of Florentines. The glorious pageants of Medicean times had afforded no entertainment more attractive.
The crowds were waiting. The hour was past. There was a mysterious moving of monks in and out of the signory-palace. The whole story of what occurred was later told by Savonarola himself as well as by other eyewitnesses. The Franciscans refused to allow Fra Domenico to enter the burning pathway wearing his red cope or any of the other garments he had on, on the ground that they might be bewitched. So he was undressed to his skin and put on another suit. On the same ground, they also insisted that he keep at a distance from Savonarola. The impatience of the crowds increased. The Franciscans again passed into the signory-hall and had a long conference. They had discerned a wooden crucifix in Domenico’s hands and insisted upon its being put away for fear it might also have been bewitched. Savonarola substituted the host but the Franciscans insisted that the host should not be carried through the flames. The signory was appealed to but Savonarola refused to yield, declaring that the accidents might be burnt like a husk but that the essence of the sacred wafer would remain unconsumed. Suddenly a storm came up and rain fell but it as suddenly stopped. The delay continued. The crowds were growing unruly and threatening. Nightfall was at hand. The signory called the ordeal off.
Savonarola’s power was gone. The spell of his name had vanished. The spectacle was felt to be a farce. The popular menace grew more and more threatening and a guard scarcely prevented violence to Savonarola’s person, as the procession moved back to St. Mark’s.
There is much in favor of the view that on that day Savonarola’s political enemies, the Arrabbiati, were in collusion with the Franciscans and that the delay on the square, occasioned by interposing objections, was a trick to postpone the ordeal altogether.12041204 Schnitzer, p. 159 sq., who says the signory and the Franciscans joined "in packing the cards." It was said daggers were ready to put Savonarola out of the way. The populace, however, did not stop to consider such questions. Savonarola had not stood the test. And, it reasoned, if he was sincere and confident of his cause, why did he not enter the flaming pathway himself and brave its fiery perils. If he had not gone through unharmed, he at any rate, in dying, would have shown his moral heroism. It was Luther’s readiness to stand the test at Worms which brought him the confidence of the people. Had he shrunk in 1521 in the presence of Charles V., he would have lost the popular regard as Savonarola did in 1498 on the piazza of Florence. The judgment of modern times agrees with the popular judgment of the Florentines. Savonarola showed himself wanting in the qualities of the hero. Better for him to have died, than to have exposed himself to the charge of cowardice.
Florence felt mad anger at having been imposed upon. The next day St. Mark’s was stormed by the mob. The signory voted Savonarola’s immediate banishment. Landucci, who wept and continued to pray for him, says "that hell seemed to have opened its doors." Savonarola made an address, bidding farewell to his friends. Resistance of the mob was in vain. The convent was broken into and pillaged. Fra Domenico and the prior were bound and taken before the galfonier amidst insults and confined in separate apartments. A day or two later Fra Silvestro, whose visions had favored the ordeal, was also seized. "As for saying a word in Savonarola’s favor," wrote Landucci, "it was impossible. One would have been killed."
The pope, on receiving the official news of the occurrences in Florence, sent word congratulating the signory, gave the city plenary absolution and granted it the coveted tithes for three years. He also demanded that Savonarola be sent to Rome for trial, at the same time, however, authorizing the city to proceed to try the three friars, not neglecting, if necessary, the use of torture.12051205 Etiam per torturam. Alexander’s letter in Lucas, p. 372. A commission was appointed to examine the prisoners. Torture was resorted to. Savonarola was bound to a rope drawn through a pulley and, with his hands behind his back, was lifted from the floor and then by a sudden jerk allowed to fall. On a single day, he was subjected to 14 turnings of the rope. There were two separate trials conducted by the municipality, April 17 and April 21–23. In the delirious condition, to which his pains reduced him, the unfortunate man made confessions which, later in his sane moments, he recalled as untrue.12061206 The reports of Savonarola’s trial and confessions are of uncertain value, as they were garbled by the reporter Ser Ceccone. See Pastor, III. 432 sq. Landucci says that from 9 A. M. till nightfall the cries of Domenico and Sylvestro under the strain of torture could be heard in the city prison. He even denied that he was a prophet. The impression which this denial made upon such ardent admirers as Landucci, the apothecary, was distressing. Writing April 19,1498, he says:—
I was present at the reading of the proceedings against Savonarola, whom we all held to be a prophet. But he said he is no prophet and that his prophecies were not from God. When I heard that, I was seized with wonder and amazement. A deep pain took hold of my soul, when I saw such a splendid edifice fall to the ground, because it was built upon the sorry foundation of a falsehood. I looked for Florence to become a new Jerusalem whose laws and example of a good life—buona vita — would go out for the renovation of the Church, the conversion of infidels and the comfort of the good and I felt the contrary and took for medicine the words, "in thy will, O Lord, are all things placed"—in voluntate tua, Domine, omnia sunt posita. Diary, p. 173.
Alexander despatched a commission of his own to conduct the trial anew, Turriano, the Venetian general of the Dominicans and Francesco Romolino, the bishop of Ilerda, afterwards cardinal. Letters from Rome stated that the commission had instructions "to put Savonarola to death, even if he were another John the Baptist." Alexander was quite equal to such a statement. Soon after his arrival in Florence, Romolino announced that a bonfire was impending and that he carried the sentence with him ready, prepared in advance.
Fra Domenico bore himself most admirably and persisted in speaking naught but praise of his friend and ecclesiastical superior. Fra Silvestro, yielding to the agonies of the rack, charged his master with all sorts of guilt. Other monks of St. Mark’s wrote to Alexander, making charges against their prior as an impostor. So it often is with those who praise in times of prosperity. To save themselves, they deny and calumniate their benefactors. They received their reward, the papal absolution.
The exact charges, upon which Savonarola was condemned to death, are matter of some uncertainty and also matter of indifference, for they were partly trumped up for the occasion. Though no offender against the law of God, he had given offence enough to man. He was accused by the papal commissioners with being a heretic and schismatic. He was no heretic. The most that can be said is, that he was a rebel against the pope’s authority and went in the face of Pius II.’s bull Execrabilis, when he decided to appeal to a council.12071207 See the miserable letters sent by the papal commission to Alexander, Lucas, pp. 434-436.
The intervals between his torture, Savonarola spent in composing his Meditations upon the two penitential Psalms, the 32d and the 51st. Here we see the gloss of his warm religious nature. The great preacher approaches the throne of grace as a needy sinner and begs that he who asks for bread may not be turned away with a stone. He appeals to the cases of Zaccheus, Mary Magdalene, the woman of Canaan, Peter and the prodigal son. Deliver me, he cries, "as Thou hast delivered countless sinners from the grasp of death and the gates of hell and my tongue shall sing aloud of thy righteousness." Luther, who published the expositions with a notable preface,1523, declared them "a piece of evangelical teaching and Christian piety. For, in them Savonarola is seen entering in not as a Dominican monk, trusting in his vows, the rules of his order, his cowl and masses and good works but clad in the breastplate of righteousness and armed with the shield of faith and the helmet of salvation, not as a member of the Order of Preachers but as an everyday Christian."12081208 Weimar ed. XII. 248. Twenty-three edd. of Savonarola’s exposition appeared within two years of the author’s death and, before half a century elapsed, it had been translated into Spanish, German, English and French. In Italy, it was used as a tract and put into the hands of prisoners condemned to death. It was embodied in the Salisbury Primer,1538, and in Henry VIII.’s Primer,1543.
At their own request the three prisoners, after a separation of six weeks, were permitted to meet face to face the night before the appointed execution. The meeting occurred in the hall of the signory. When Savonarola returned to his cell, he fell asleep on the lap of Niccolini of the fraternity of the Battuti, a fraternity whose office it was to minister to prisoners. Niccolini reported that the sleep was as quiet as the sleep of a child. On awaking, the condemned man passed the remaining hours of the night in devotions. The next morning, the friends met again and partook together of the sacrament.
The sentence was death by hanging, after which the bodies were to be burnt that "the soul might be completely separated from the body." The execution took place on the public square where, two months before, the crowds had gathered to witness the ordeal by fire. Savonarola and his friends were led forth stripped of their robes, barefooted and with hands bound. Absolution was pronounced by the bishop of Verona under appointment from the pope. In pronouncing Savonarola’s deposition, the prelate said, "I separate thee from the Church militant and the Church triumphant"—separo te ab ecclesia militante et triumphante. "Not from the Church triumphant," replied Savonarola, "that is not thine to do"—militante, non triumphante: hoc enim tuum non est. In silence he witnessed the deaths of Fra Domenico and Fra Silvestro, whose last words were "Jesus, Jesus," and then ascended the platform of execution. There were still left bystanders to fling insults. The bodies were burnt and, that no particle might be left to be used as a relic, the ashes were thrown into the Arno.
Savonarola had been pronounced by Alexander’s commission "that iniquitous monster—omnipedium nequissimum — call him man or friar we cannot, a mass of the most abominable wickedness." The pious Landucci, in thinking of his death, recalled the crucifixion and, at the scene of the execution, again lamented the disappointment of his hopes for the renovation of the Church and the conversion of the infidel—la novazione della chiesa e la conversione degli infedeli.
Savonarola was one of the most noteworthy figures Italy has produced. The modern Christian world, Catholic and Protestant, joins him in close fellowship with the flaming religious luminaries of all countries and all centuries. He was a preacher of righteousness and a patriot. Among the religious personalities of Italy, he occupies a position of grandeur by himself, separate from her imposing popes, like Gregory VII. and Innocent III.; from Dante, Italy’s poet and the world’s; from St. Francis d’Assisi and from Thomas Aquinas. Italy had other preachers,—Anthony of Padua, Bernardino of Siena,—but their messages were local and ecclesiastical. With Arnold of Brescia, Savonarola had something in common. Both had a stirring message of reform. Both mixed up political ideals with their spiritual activity and both died by judicial sanction of the papal see.
Savonarola’s intellectual gifts and attainments were not extraordinary. He was great by reason of moral conviction, his eloquence, his disinterested love of his country, his whole-souled devotion to the cause of righteousness. As an administrator, he failed. He had none of the sagacity or tact of the statesman and it was his misfortune to have undertaken to create a new government, a task for which he was the least qualified of all men.12091209 See the excellent remarks of Burckhardt: Renaiss., II. 200. He was a preacher of righteousness and has a place in the "goodly fellowship of the prophets." He belonged to the order of Ezekiel and Isaiah, Nathan and John the Baptist,—the company in which the Protestant world also places John Knox.
Savonarola was a true Catholic. He did not deny a single dogma of the mediaeval Church. But he was more deeply rooted in the fundamental teachings of Christ than in ecclesiastical formulas. In the deliverance of his message, he rose above rituals and usages. He demanded regeneration of heart. His revolt against the authority of the pope, in appealing to a council, is a serious stumbling-block to Catholics who are inclined to a favorable judgment of the Friar of St. Mark’s. Julius II.’s bull Cum tanto divino,1505, pronounced every election to the papacy secured by simony invalid. If it was meant to be retroactive, then Alexander was not a true pope.12101210 Pastor, III. 436 says that Savonarola was always true to Catholic dogma in theory. His only departure was disobeying the pope and appealing to a council. Father Proctor, Pref. to Triumph of the Cross, p. xvii, calls Savonarola "Of Catholics the most Catholic."
The favorable judgments of contemporaries were numerous. Guicciardini called him the saviour of his country—salvatore di patria — and said that "Never was there so much goodness and religion in Florence as in his day and, after his death, it was seen that every good thing that had been done was done at his suggestion and by his advocacy." Machiavelli thus expressed himself: "The people of Florence seemed to be neither illiterate nor rude, yet they were persuaded that God spake through Savonarola. I will not decide, whether it was so or not, for it is due to speak of so great a man with reverence."
The day after Savonarola’s death, women were seen praying at the spot where he suffered and for years flowers were strewn there. Pico della Mirandola closed his biography with an elaborate comparison between Savonarola and Christ. Both were sent from God. Both suffered in the cause of righteousness between two others. At the command of Julius II., Raphael,12 years after Savonarola’s death, placed the preacher among the saints in his Disputa. Philip Neri and Catherine de Ricci 12111211 Cardinal Capecelatro in his Life of St. Ph. Neri. trsl. by Father Pope, I. 278, says, "Philip often read Savonarola’s writings especially the Triumph of the Cross, and used them in the instruction of his spiritual children." Quoted by Proctor, Preface, p. 6. For Catherine de Ricci, see her Life by F. M. Capes, Lond.,1908, pp. 48, 49, 53,270 sq. She was devoted in her cult of Savonarola and wrote a laud to him. This was the chief objection to her beatification in 1716, but the arguments for an unfavorable judgment of Savonarola were answered on that occasion. revered him, and Benedict XIV. seems to have regarded him worthy of canonization.12121212 Villari, II. 417, following Schwab and other Catholic writers. The interpretation put upon Benedict’s words is denied by Pastor: Beurtheilung, p. 16 sq., and Lucas.
Within the Dominican order, the feeling toward its greatest preacher has undergone a great change. Respect for the papal decision led it, for a hundred years after Savonarola’s death, to make official effort to retire his name to oblivion. The Dominican general, Sisto Fabri of Lucca, in 1585, issued an order forbidding every Dominican monk and nun mentioning his name and commanded them to give up any article to their superiors which kept warm admiration for him or aroused it. In the latter half of the 19th century, as the 400th anniversary of his execution approached, Catholics, and especially Dominicans, in all parts of the world defended his memory and efforts were made to prepare the way for his canonization. In the attempt to remove all objections, elaborate arguments have been presented to prove that Alexander’s sentence of excommunication was in fact no excommunication at all.12131213 Father O’Neil, a Dominican, in his work, Was Savonarola really excommunicated? takes this position and says, p. 132, "Alexander did not inflict any censure on Savonarola." The fact, however, is that in his letters to the signory, Alexander proceeded on the basis of his brief of excommunication. He stated distinctly the reasons for his being excommunicated and he called upon the priests of Florence to publicly announce his sentence of May 12,1497, upon pain of drawing ecclesiastical censure upon themselves. O’Neil replies that a papal decision, based upon a false charge, is invalid, p. 175 sqq. The sound and judicious Catholic historians, Hefele-Knöpfler, do not hesitate to pronounce his death a judicial murder.12141214 Rechtlos hingemordert, Kirchengesch., p. 503. Ranke’s statement that view making Savonarola a hero is a Dominican legend "worked out after the preacher’s death" has been rendered untenable by the latest research by the eminent Savonarola scholar, the Catholic Professor Schnitzer. See his Feuerprobe, p. 152.
By the general consent of Protestants, Jerome Savonarola is numbered among the precursors of the Reformation,—the view taken by Ranke. He was not an advocate of its distinguishing tenet of justification by faith. The Roman church was for him the mother of all other churches and the pope its head. In his Triumph of the Cross, he distinctly asserts the seven sacraments as an appointment of Christ and that Christ is "wholly and essentially present in each of the eucharistic elements." Nevertheless, he was an innovator and his exaltation of divine grace accords with the teaching of the Reformation. Here all Protestants would have fellowship with him as when he said:12151215 Sermon VIII. in Prato ed. quoted by Rudelbach. Bayonne wrote his work in 1879 to dispose of this charge and to prepare the way for Savonarola’s canonization. —
It is untrue that God’s grace is obtained by pre-existing works of merit as though works and deserts were the cause of predestination. On the contrary, these are the result of predestination. Tell me, Peter; tell me, O Magdalene, wherefore are ye in paradise? Confess that not by your own merits have ye obtained salvation, but by the goodness of God.
Passages abound in his Meditations like this one. "Not by their own deservings, O Lord, or by their own works have they been saved, lest any man should be able to boast, but because it seemed good in Thy sight." Speaking of Savonarola’s Exposition of the Psalms, Luther said that, although some clay still stuck to Savonarola’s theology, it is a pure and beautiful example of what is to be believed, trusted and hoped from God’s mercy and how we come to despair of works. And the whole-souled German Reformer exclaimed, "Christ canonizes Savonarola through us even though popes and papists burst to pieces over it."12161216 Canonizat eum Christus per nos, rumpanter etiam papae et papistae simul. Weimar ed. XII. 248.
The sculptor has given him a place at the feet of Luther and at the side of Wyclif and Huss in the monument of the Reformation at Worms. When Catholics, who heard that this was proposed, wrote to show the impropriety of including the Florentine Dominican in such company, Rietschel consulted Hase on the subject. The venerable Church historian replied, "It makes no difference whether they counted Savonarola a heretic or a saint, he was in either case a precursor of the Reformation and so Luther recognized him."12171217 Kirchengesch., II. 566.
The visitor in Florence to-day finds two invisible personalities meeting him everywhere, Dante, whom the city banished, and Savonarola, whom it executed. The spirit of theexecutioner has vanished and the mention of Savonarola’s name strikes in all Florentines a tender chord of admiration and love. In 1882, the signory placed his statue in the Hall of the Five Hundred. There, a few yards from the place of his execution, he stands in his Dominican habit and cowl, with his left hand resting on a lion’s head and holding aloft in his right hand a crucifix, while his clear eye is turned upwards. Again, on May 22,1901, the city honored the friar by setting a circular bronze tablet with portrait on the spot where he suffered death. A great multitude attended the dedication and one of the wreaths of flowers bore the name of the Dominicans.
In Savonarola’s cell in St. Mark’s has been placed a medallion head of the friar, and still another on the cloistral wall over the spot where he was seized and made prisoner, and the visitor will often find there a fresh wreath of flowers, a proof of the undying memory of the Florentine preacher and patriot.
This was he,
Savonarola,—the star-look shooting from the cowl.
—Browning, Casa Guido Windows.
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