(Ferrara, then Duchy of Ferrara, September 21, 1452 – Florence,
May 23, 1498), also translated as Jerome Savonarola or Hieronymus Savonarola,
was an Italian Dominican priest and leader of Florence from 1494 until
his execution in 1498. He was known for religious reformation, anti-Renaissance
preaching, book burning, and destruction of art. He vehemently preached
against what he saw as the moral corruption of the clergy, and his main
opponent was Pope Alexander VI. He is sometimes seen as a precursor
of Martin Luther, though he remained a devout and pious Roman Catholic
his whole life.
a Dominican friar in 1475, during the Italian Renaissance, and entered
the convent of San Domenico in Bologna. He immersed himself in theological
study, and in 1479 transferred to the convent of Santa Maria degli Angeli.
Finally in 1482 the Order dispatched him to Florence, the 'city of his
destiny'. Savonarola was lambasted for being ungainly, as well as being
a poor orator. He made no impression on Florence in the 1480s, and his
departure in 1487 went unnoticed. He returned to Bologna where he became
'master of studies'. Savonarola returned to Florence in 1490 at the
behest of Count Pico della Mirandola. (More about his return to Florence
can be found in Fire in the City.)
At this time the
Roman Catholic Church's clergy was increasingly corrupting morality
and leading a corrupt life themselves. The Papacy was filled with abuses
and personal immorality; and friars, in almost every district, were
sometimes traveling peddlers of indulgences. Savonarola's
grief over these sins caused him to withdraw more from his secular studies.
Instead he concentrated closely on the Bible and Church Fathers, which
became his constant companion and guide. In Florence his Church of St.
Mark was always crowded to excess. His impassioned discourses brought
about a social reform which has never been duplicated in history. Savonarola
was not a theologian. He did not proclaim doctrines. Instead, he preached
that Christian life involved being good rather than carrying out displays
of excessive pomp and ceremonies. He did not seek to make war on the
Church of Rome. Rather he wanted to correct its transgressions.
Oddly, Lorenzo de
Medici, the previous ruler of Florence and patron of many Renaissance
artists, was also a former patron of Savonarola. It has been said Lorenzo
called for Savonarola on his death bed in 1492, and the Friar did attend.
Eventually, Lorenzo and his son Piero de Medici became the target of
After Charles VIII
of France had invaded Florence in 1494, the ruling Medici were overthrown
and Savonarola emerged as the leader of the city. He set up a rather
modern democratic republic in Florence. Characterizing it as a "Christian
and religious Republic," one of its first acts was to make sodomy,
previously punishable by fine, into a capital offence. His chief enemies
were the Duke of Milan and Pope Alexander VI, who issued numerous restraints
against him, all of which were ignored.
It is said that
Savonarola predicted several key events such as the invasion of Italy
by a foreign king, the death of Lorenzo de Medici and of Pope Innocent
In 1497 he and his
followers carried out the Bonfire of the Vanities. They sent boys from
door to door collecting items associated with moral laxity: mirrors,
cosmetics, lewd pictures, pagan books, sculptures, gaming tables, chess
pieces, lutes and other musical instruments, fine dresses, women's hats,
and the works of immoral poets, and burnt them all in a large pile in
the Piazza della Signoria of Florence.  Fine Florentine Renaissance
artwork was lost in Savonarola's notorious bonfires, including paintings
by Sandro Botticelli and Buonarroti Michelangelo were thrown on the
pyres by the artist themselves.
Florence soon became
tired of Savonarola's hectoring. During his Ascension Day sermon on
May 4, 1497, bands of youths rioted, and the riot became a revolt: taverns
reopened, and men gambled publicly.
Painting of his
execution in the Piazza della Signoria.On May 13, 1497 he was excommunicated
by Pope Alexander VI, and in 1498, Alexander demanded his arrest and
execution. On April 8, a crowd attacked the convent of San Marco; a
bloody struggle ensued, during which several of Savonarola's supporters
were killed: he surrendered along with Fra Domenico da Pescia and Fra
Silvestro, his two closest associates. Savonarola was charged with heresy,
uttering prophecies, sedition, and religious error.
During the next
several weeks all three were tortured on the rack. All three signed
confessions; the torturers spared only Savonarola's right arm, in order
that he might be able to sign his confession, which he did sometime
prior to May 8. On that day he completed a written meditation on the
Miserere, Psalm 51, entitled Infelix ego, in which he pleaded with God
for mercy for his physical weakness in confessing to crimes he believed
he did not commit. On the day of his execution, May 23, 1498, he was
still working on another meditation, this one on Psalm 31, entitled
Tristitia obsedit me.
On the day of his
execution he was taken out to the Piazza della Signoria along with Fra
Silvestro and Fra Domenico da Pescia. The three were ritually stripped
of their vestments, degraded as heretics and schismatics, and given
over to the secular authorities to be burned. The three were hanged
in chains from a single cross; an enormous fire was lit beneath them;
they were thereby executed in the same place where the Bonfire of the
Vanities was lit, and in the same manner that he had condemned others.
Jacopo Nardi, who recorded the incident in his Istorie della città
di Firenze, wrote that his executioner lit the flame exclaiming, "The
one who wanted to burn me is now himself put to the flames." Luca
Landucci, who was present, wrote in his diary that the burning took
several hours, and that the remains were several times broken apart
and mixed with brushwood so that not the slightest piece could be later
recovered, as the ecclesiastical authorities did not want Savonarola's
followers to have any relics. The ashes of the three were afterwards
thrown in the Arno beside the Ponte Vecchio. 
author of The Prince, also witnessed and wrote about the execution.
The Medici subsequently regained control of Florence.
A plaque commemorates
the site of Savonarola's execution in the Piazza della Signoria, Florence.
Character and influence
Savonarola was supposedly intense, fervent, and electrical in personal
appearance. He can be compared to Luther in his denunciation of sin
but was unlike the German monk in following out divisive conclusions.
It can be speculated that had he lived a generation later he might have
achieved a revolution in the Church as great as that of Luther. However,
Savonarola was convinced of the truth of Catholic doctrine, and unlike
Luther, concentrated on purging the Church from immorality, not from
supposedly unsound doctrine.
In the twentieth
century, a movement for the canonization of Savonarola began to develop
within the Roman Catholic Church, particularly among Dominicans, with
many judging his excommunication and execution to have been unjust.
His potential beatification and canonization is opposed by Jesuits.
Born at Ferrara, 21 September, 1452; died at Florence, 23 May, 1498.
The Dominican reformer came from an old family of Ferrara. Intellectually
very talented he devoted himself to his studies, and especially to philosophy
and medicine. In 1474 while on a journey to Faenza he heard a powerful
sermon on repentance by an Augustinian and resolved to renounce the
world. He carried out this decision at once and entered the Dominican
Order at Bologna without the knowledge of his parents. Feeling deeply
the widespread depravity of the era of the Renaissance, as is evident
from the poem "On the Decline of the Church", which he wrote
in the first year of his monastic life, the young Dominican devoted
himself with great zeal to prayer and ascetic practices. In the monastery
at Bologna he was entrusted with the instruction of the novices. He
here began to write philosophical treatises based on Aristotle and St.
Thomas Aquinas. In 1481 or 1482 he was sent by his superior to preach
in Florence. In this centre of the Renaissance he immediately opposed
with great energy the pagan and often immoral life prevalent in many
classes of society and especially at the court of Lorenzo de Medici.
Savonarola's sermons made no impression, for his method and mode of
speaking were repulsive to the Florentines; but this did not discourage
his reforming zeal. He preached in the other cities of Italy during
the years 1485-89. At Brescia, in 1486, he explained the Book of Revelation
and from that time became more and more absorbed in Apocalyptic ideas
concerning his own era, the judgment of God which threatened it, and
the regeneration of the Church that was to follow. At the same time
he was filled with an intense zeal for the salvation of souls, and was
ready to risk all in order to combat wickedness and to spread holiness
of life. In 1489 he returned to Florence which was to be the scene of
his future labours and triumphs as well as of his fall.
In August, 1490,
Savonarola began his sermons in the pulpit of San Marco with the interpretation
of the Apocalypse. His success was complete. All Florence thronged to
hear him, so that from his sermons in the cathedral he acquired a constantly
growing influence over the people. In 1491 he became prior of the monastery
of San Marco. He made manifest his feelings towards the ruler of Florence
by failing to visit Lorenzo de Medici, although the Medici had always
shown themselves generous patrons of the monastery. Lorenzo took no
notice of this but continued his benefits, without however changing
the opinion of the new prior. Savonarola began at once with the inner
reform of the monastery itself. San Marco and other monasteries of Tuscany
were separated from the Lombard Congregation of the Dominican Order
and were formed in 1493 with papal approval into an independent congregation.
Monastic life was reformed in this new congregation by rigid observance
of the original Rule. Savonarola, who was the vicar-general of the new
congregation, set the example of a strict life of self-mortification;
his cell was small and poor, his clothing coarse, his food simple and
scanty. The lay brothers were obliged to learn a trade and the clerics
were kept constantly at their studies. Many new brethren entered the
monastery; from 50 the number of the monks of San Marco rose to 238,
among them being members of the first families of the city.
preached with burning zeal and rapidly won great influence. He was looked
upon and venerated by his followers as a prophet. His sermons, however
were not free from extravagance and vagaries. Without regard to consequences
he lashed the immoral, vain-glorious, pleasure-seeking life of the Florentines,
so that a very large part of the inhabitants became temporarily contrite
and returned to the exercise of Christian virtue. Both his sermons and
his whole personality made a deep impression. He bitterly attacked Lorenzo
the Magnificent as the promoter of paganized art, of frivolous living,
and as the tyrant of Florence. Nevertheless, when on his death bed,
Lorenzo summoned the stern preacher of morals to administer spiritual
consolation to him. It is said that Savonarola demanded as a condition
of absolution that Lorenzo restore its liberties to Florence; which,
however, the latter refused to do. This however cannot be proved with
absolute historical certainty. From 1493 Savonarola spoke with increasing
violence against the abuses in ecclesiastical life, against the immorality
of a large part of the clergy, above all against the immoral life of
many members of the Roman Curia, even of the wearer of the tiara, Alexander
VI, and against the wickedness of princes and courtiers. In prophetic
terms he announced the approaching judgment of God and the avenger from
whom he hoped the reform of Church life. By the avenger he meant Charles
VIII, King of France, who had entered Italy, and was advancing against
Florence. Savonarola's denunciation of the Medici now produced its results.
Lorenzo's son Pietro de Medici, who was hated both for his tyranny and
his immoral life, was driven out of the city with his family.
The French king,
whom Savonarola at the head of an embassy of Florentines had visited
at Pisa, now entered the city. After the king's departure a new and
peculiar constitution, a kind of theocratic democracy, was established
at Florence, based on the political and social doctrines the Dominican
monk had proclaimed. Christ was considered the King of Florence and
protector of its liberties. A great council, as the representative of
all the citizens, became the governing body of the republic and the
law of Christ was to be the basis of political and social life. Savonarola
did not interfere directly in politics and affairs of State, but his
teachings and his ideas were authoritative. The moral life of the citizens
was regenerated. Many persons brought articles of luxury, playing-cards,
ornaments, pictures of beautiful women, the writings of pagan and immoral
poets, etc., to the monastery of San Marco; these articles were then
publicly burned. A brotherhood founded by Savonarola for young people
encouraged a pious, Christian life among its members. Sundays some of
this brotherhood went about from house to house and along the streets
to take away dice and cards from the citizens, to exhort luxuriously
dressed married and single women to lay aside frivolous ornament. Thus
there arose an actual police for regulating morality, which also carried
on its work by the objectionable methods of spying and denunciation.
The principles of the severe judge of morals were carried out in practical
life in too extreme a manner. Success made Savonarola, whose speech
in his sermons was often recklessly passionate, more and more daring.
Florence was to be the starting point of the regeneration of Italy and
the Church. In this respect he was constantly looking for the interposition
of Charles VIII for the inner reform of the Church, although the loose
life and vague extravagant ideas of this monarch in no way fitted him
to undertake such a task.
These efforts of
Savonarola brought him into conflict with Alexander VI. The pope, like
all Italian princes and cities, with the exception of Florence, was
an opponent of the French policy. Moreover, Charles VIII had often threatened
him with the calling of a reform council in opposition to him. This
led Alexander VI to regard all the more dubiously the support that Florence
under the influence of Savonarola gave the French king. Furthermore
the Dominican preacher spoke with increasing violence against the pope
and the Curia. On 25 July, 1495, a papal Brief commanded Savonarola
in virtue of holy obedience to come to Rome and defend himself on the
score of the prophecies attributed to him. Savonarola excused himself
on the plea of impaired health and of the dangers threatening him. By
a further Brief of 8 September the Dominican was forbidden to preach,
and the monastery of San Marco was restored to the Lombard Congregation.
In his reply of 29 September, Savonarola sought to justify himself,
and declared that, as regards his teaching, he had always submitted
to the judgment of the Church. In a new papal Brief of 16 October written
with great moderation the union of the monastery of San Marco with the
Lombard Congregation was withdrawn, Savanarola's conduct was judged
mildly, but the prohibition to preach, until his vindication at Rome,
In the meantime
Savonarola had again entered the pulpit on 11 October in order to rouse
the Florentines against Pietro de Medici and on 11 February the Signoria
of Florence actually commanded the Dominican to preach again. Savonarola
now resumed his sermons on 17 February and was thus unjustifiably disobedient
to ecclesiastical authority. In these Lenten sermons he violently lashed
the crimes of Rome thereby increasing the passionate excitement at Florence.
A schism threatened and the pope was again forced to interpose. On 7
November, 1496, the Dominican monasteries of Rome and Tuscany were formed
into a new congregation, the first vicar of which was Cardinal Caraffa.
Even then Savonarola refused obedience and again during the Lenten season
of 1497 preached with uncontrolled violence against the Church in Rome.
On 12 May, 1497, he was excommunicated. Under the date of 19 June he
published a letter "against the excommunication" as being
fraudulently obtained and sought to show that the judgment against him
was null and void. The Florentine ambassadors at Rome probably hoped
to prevent any further measures on the part of the pope, but their hopes
were unfounded, especially as Savonarola became more defiant. Notwithstanding
his excommunication he celebrated Mass on Christmas Day and distributed
Holy Communion. Moreover, disregarding an archiepiscopal edict, he began
again on 11 February, 1498, to preach at the Cathedral and to demonstrate
that the sentences against him were void. Even at this juncture the
pope desired to act with gentleness, if the obstinate monk would submit,
but the latter remained defiant and with his adherents set about calling
a council in opposition to the pope. He drew up letters to the rulers
of Christendom urging them to carry out this scheme which, on account
of the alliance of the Florentines with Charles VIII, was not altogether
In Florence itself
the opposition to Savonarola grew more powerful, and an adversary from
the Franciscan Order offered to undergo the ordeal by fire in order
to prove him in error. Savonarola himself did not want to take up the
challenge, but some of his ardent adherents among the Dominicans declared
themselves ready for it. The ordeal for both sides was to take place
on 7 April, 1498, before a large public gathering. Everything was ready
for the test, but it did not take place. The people now turned against
Savonarola. There were outbreaks and the monastery of San Marco was
attacked; Savonarola and a fellow-member of the order, Domenico da Pescia,
were taken prisoners. The papal delegates, the general of the Dominicans
and the Bishop of Ilerda were sent to Florence to attend the trial.
The official proceedings, which were, however, falsified by the notary,
still exist. The captured monks were tortured; Savonarola's following
in the city fell away. On 22 May, 1498, Savonarola and two other members
of the order were condemned to death "on account of the enormous
crimes of which they had been convicted". They were hanged on 23
May and their bodies burned.
In the beginning
Savonarola was filled with zeal, piety, and self-sacrifice for the regeneration
of religious life. He was led to offend against these virtues by his
fanaticism, obstinacy, and disobedience. He was not a heretic in matters
of faith. The erection of his statue at the foot of Luther's monument
at Worms as a reputed "forerunner of the Reformation" is entirely
unwarranted. Among his writings mention should be made of: "Triumphus
Crucis de fidei veritate" (Florence, 1497), his chief work, an
apology for Christianity; "Compendium revelationum" (Florence,
1495); "Scelta di prediche e scritti", ed. Villari Casanova
(Florence, 1898); "Trattato circa il Reggimento di Firenze",
ed. Rians (Florence, 1848); further letters edited by Marchese in the
"Archivio. storico italiano", App. XIII (1850); poems edited
by Rians (Florence, 1847). The "Dialogo della verita" (1497)
and fifteen sermons were placed later on the Index.