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Scourge and Fire: Savonarola and Renaissance Italy by Lauro Martines

The politician who tried to be a prophet

The resurgence of religious influence in world affairs over the past 25 years, and in particular the apparent tensions between heroic puritanism, which seeks to order the world through repression, and secular freedom, which produces enervating decadence, has caused the role of Savonarola in the Florentine Republic to be re-evaluated again and again.

In 1494 the Dominican monk Girolamo Savonarola was a popular and charismatic preacher who told his large congregations that their frivolous ways would bring retribution on their heads, as many preachers, secular and divine, have warned before and since. As happens from time to time, events bore these prophecies out. Charles VIII of France invaded Italy, partly to revive his claim on the throne of Naples, and partly because he could think of nothing better to do. One unintended domino the invasion knocked down was the domination of Florence by the Medici Family. Faced with chaos within and an enemy army without, Florentines looked to Savonarola, above the fray as a foreigner (born in Ferrara) and a churchman, to sort things out. His solution was effective: a new, elected assembly, the Grand Council, too large to be dominated by family factions, too small to be swept by demagogic passions, and arguably the first modern democracy. It has never been clear to what extent Savonarola was a politician and to what a prophet.

Savonarola appears to have been convinced he was a prophet, a conviction which led to both his and the Republic's downfall. He saw the reforms he had made in Florence as the beginning of a divinely inspired reform of Christendom. In political terms this left Florence dangerously isolated as the only city state allied to the French, because Savonarola believed Charles, who had become bored with his Italian project, was an instrument of Divine will. Savonarola's apocalyptic ambitions also proved useful leverage for his Florentine enemies to stir up the Papacy against him and the Republic. He was excommunicated, although since Pope Alexander VI had recently excommunicated his mistress for returning to her ex-lover, this sanction did not carry much moral weight. The Pope's threat to excommunicate all Florence was far more serious. The French alliance had damaged the city's local agricultural interests, bringing it to near-famine. Excommunication would destroy Florence as a merchant city and bring absolute disaster. Before this could happen, the popular religious hysteria which gave Savonarola his authority collapsed, and the patricians and the Papacy swiftly arranged his trial and execution.

Interest in Savonarola outside Florence is a modern phenomenon, dating from the early 19th century when the first full-length biography appeared. Lauro Martines argues that to understand Savonarola we must see him within his own times. Martines has ably accomplished this. It is evident that, after a lifetime's study of 15th-century Florence, Martines knows the personalities of everyone involved as vividly as he knows his own neighbours. He uses this expertise sparingly, judiciously using light and shade where it is required, but presenting most of the material in clear outline.

Savonarola was capable of preaching to and holding a full cathedral for hours at a time (his portrait, by Fra Bartolomeo, shows an unusually large nose, so perhaps he was physically built as a natural amplifier). Away from the pulpit he was noted for a gentle, winning manner, and a sincere, and persuasive, holiness. Hardly what we expect in a fanatic or, as he has been called, a terrorist. He was barely a fundamentalist, even if Martines is more comfortable with this term. Savonarola was a Fifth Monarchist, a believer that Christ will rule the Earth for 1,000 years before Armageddon. He believed that the Republic was the start of the Fifth Monarchy, but clearly had no expectation that Jesus would appear in person. He seems to have been troubled too, that he was unable to produce miracles himself and, as a medieval scholastic, had far more confidence in the power of reason than religious spectacle. There was religious spectacle - Savonarola's youthful enthusiasts christianised Florence's carnival and made bonfires of vanities - but on examination such demonstration seem closer in spirit to the Church of England's Greenbelt Festival than to the Taliban.

We know the records of Savonarola's interrogations have been corrupted but it is plain that when his popular support collapsed, so did his confidence. Put in the context of his own times, Savonarola, passionate yet sceptical in faith, seems far more modern than men like Marsilio Ficino and Martin Luther, who are considered the midwives of modernity.