Savonarola, Girolamo an Italian monk, reformer, and martyr, the leader of an incipient reformation of the Church in the latter half of the 15th century, a man whose eventful life and tragic death have called forth the most contradictory judgments, and whose real character is even to this day a matter of dispute with certain historians. Savonarola was born of an honorable family at Ferrara, Sept. 21, 1452. His education was carefully conducted. It was intended that he should devote himself to natural and medical science, but his early religious development turned him into another course. He was fond of solitude, and avoided the public walks of the ducal palace. Impressed with terror at the wickedness which he saw about him, he finally, in his twenty-third year, fled from his home and friends and took refuge in a Dominican cloister at Bologna. Two days after his arrival in Bologna he wrote to his parents, begging their forgiveness and blessing, and averring as his excuse that he was utterly unable to endure the spectacle of the wickedness of Italian society. He also declared that he had simply followed out a divine impulse given him in prayer, and that he felt that he should be ready to suffer anything, even death, rather than disobey the voice of duty.
At first Savonarola desired to be simply a lay brother, and to perform the commonest menial services; but his superior saw his gifts, and charged him from the start with the teaching of what was then called philosophy and physics. His chief authorities in this teaching were the great Dominican theologian Thomas Aquinas, the Church father St. Augustine, and, above all, the Holy Scriptures. The latter he knew almost by heart. He was particularly fond of the Old Test. prophets and of the Apocalypse. It was in the study of these that his spiritual imagination nurtured itself, and attained such an intense vividness as to make it easy for him to assume to himself too much of the prophetic character. His first attempts at preaching were without special results. His voice was harsh, his gestures awkward, his language clumsy and scholastic. His audience was not attracted. But, while on a visit to Brescia, his power broke forth suddenly, as waters from a pent-up fountain. The people flocked to him in great crowds to hear his imaginative exposition of the Apocalypse; and the impression was not lessened when he made definite inferences ("non per rivelazione, ma per ragione delle Scritture") as to calamities which were soon to fall upon Italy. But his politico-reformatory labors began only in his thirty-eighth year (1490), when he was appointed as lector in the Dominican cloister of San Marco, Florence. His two leading thoughts now were, reformation of the Church and emancipation of Italy. In carrying out these, he shook to its foundations the Florentine government, raised against himself the anathemas of the hierarchy, and finally fell himself a victim to the task. See Rule, Dawn of the Reformation (Lond. 1855).
The family of the Medici had raised Florence to a high degree of prosperity, and were enjoying princely power under the forms of a republic. Cosmo de' Medici (died 1464) was the Rothschild of the age. His gifted nephew Lorenzo (died 1492) followed in his footsteps, promoted commerce, letters, and philosophy, and made Florence the temporary center of a golden age. But beneath the outward polish of refined culture, the moral corruption of high and low festered as an ulcer. In 1492 Lorenzo's son Pietro II followed him as master of Florence, while his younger son, Giovanni — who was made a cardinal at the age of twelve, four years before his father's death — aimed at the papal chair. Such was the condition of Florence at the time when Savonarola began his efforts at political and ecclesiastical reform. He began his lectures in the cloister; then transferred them to the cloister garden; and, when the multitude overflowed this, he repaired to a spacious church. Here, on Aug. 1, 1491, he commenced his elucidation of the Apocalypse before an immense multitude. "The Church must be renewed," said he; "but previously God will send severe judgments upon Italy, and that, too, speedily." He tore off the thin disguise of glory from the much boasted Medicine age, and exposed the great gulf of moral rottenness beneath. He spared neither rank nor sex nor age; neither pope nor monk nor layman. "Your sins," exclaimed he, "make me a prophet! Hitherto I have been but as Jonah warning Nineveh. But, if you heed not my words, I shall be as Jeremiah, predicting your destruction, and weeping over the ruins: for God will renew his Church, and that will not take place without blood." It was not a doctrinal, but a moral reformation, which he more immediately contemplated; and closely with this he connected the restoration of the former liberties of the republic. In the main he was in accord with Catholic orthodoxy, and he carried the monkish principles of abstinence and self denial to an intense extreme. But he laid great emphasis on certain doctrines which the clergy of the age had greatly neglected, viz. that the Scriptures lead us chiefly to Christ, and not to the saints; that without the forgiveness of God no priestly absolution is of any avail; and that salvation comes of faith and submission to the Redeemer, and not from outward works or educational polish. Still there was felt throughout his sermons rather more of the earnestness of the law than of the gentleness of the Gospel. One year after his arrival in Florence he was made prior of San Marco. Contrary to all precedent, Savonarola omitted to call and pay his respects to the civil ruler of the city, Lorenzo. This was all the more singular as Lorenzo had made large gifts to San Marco, and had always shown all respect to the priesthood. But Savonarola saw in him simply the incarnation of worldliness, and the robber of his country's liberties. He feared his friendship more than his hatred. Lorenzo resorted to all the arts of cunning and flattery, but in vain; he did not win the smiles of the stern preacher of righteousness. Lorenzo died April 8, 1492. On his death bed he sent for Savonarola and desired absolution. Savonarola exacted three things: faith in Christ; the restoration of all ill gotten property; and the reestablishment of the city's liberties. To the first two he cheerfully assented; to the latter he demurred. Thereupon the stern prior of San Marco departed. This third demand is not mentioned by Politian; it may be apocryphal.
The death of Lorenzo was the signal for the outbreak of the storm. He was succeeded by his rash and arbitrary son, Pietro II. The same year the notorious cardinal Borgia ascended the papal throne as Alexander VI. Savonarola continued his exhortations to repentance and his predictions of speedy judgments. "A storm will break in," said he, "a storm that will shake the mountains; over the Alps there will come against Italy one like Cyrus of whom Isaiah wrote." Soon thereafter Charles VIII of France actually came with a great army, not to reform the Church, however, but to take the vacant throne of Naples. Pietro Medici capitulated without resistance. Thereupon the wrath of the people broke out, and the Medici were forced to fly to Bologna. The senate pronounced them traitors, and set a price on their heads. But, as the aristocratic faction still desired to retain all political offices, Savonarola summoned a great popular assembly in the cathedral, and assumed the role of a theocratic tribune. By general consent he became the legislator of Florence. As the foundation of the new order of things, he proposed four principles: (1) fear God; (2) prefer the weal of the republic to thine own; (3) a general amnesty; (4) a council after the pattern of Venice, but without a doge. His political maxims he borrowed mostly from Aquinas. He was not opposed to monarchy, but he believed that circumstances called for a democracy in Florence. "God alone will be thy king, O Florence!" exclaimed he; "even as he was king in Israel under the old covenant." The ruling element in this "city of God" was to be, not self seeking, but love — love to God and love to the neighbor. "How can we have peace with God if we have it not with each other?" Viva Cristo, viva Firenze! responded the people to the proposition of the enthusiastic monk, and, in the beginning of 1495, committed to him the remodeling of the state. With the details of the new order of things he did not, however, concern himself. His attitude was rather that of a judge in Israel, or of a Roman censor with dictatorial power. He regarded himself as the organ of Christ for the Christocratic republic. He guided it with his counsels, and breathed into it from his throne, the pulpit, a deep moral and religious earnestness. His influence over the people lasted for three years, and was of unprecedented power. This is the testimony not only of the prudent historian Guicciardini, but of the deep seeing Machiavelli. The latter ascribes his downfall to the envy of the people, who can never long endure the spectacle of one great character towering above all the others.
With the new constitution, a new spirit took possession of the people. Unrighteous gains were given up; deadly enemies embraced each other in love; secular sports came to an end; vows of continence were made by husbands and wives; profane love songs gave place to hymns of love for Christ; artists cast their nude paintings into the fire; fasting became a delight; the communion was partaken of daily; never wearying crowds thronged to the great cathedral, over whose pulpit were inscribed the words: "Jesus Christ, the King of Florence;" committees traversed the city gathering up and destroying bad books, cards, and instruments of music; the carnival gave place to a Palm Sunday procession in which thousands of children and of adults, dressed in white, indulged in sacred dances and sang very odd Christian songs, of which the following verse is a fair sample:
"Non fu mai piu bel solazzo, Piu giocondo ne maggiore, Che per zelo e per amore Di Gesu divenir pazzo. Ognun grida com' io grido, Semper pazzo, pazzo, pazzo."
This popular excess Savonarola justified on the Monday after Holy Week, 1496, by citing the example of David dancing before the ark, and by the phenomena of Pentecost after the ascension.
But all this was but a transient enthusiasm of an excitable populace. The general character of levity had been too deeply implanted by ages of prosperity and submission to demagogues to be able now to assume suddenly the self control and steadfastness which are so essential to a religious and free government, and a reaction was inevitable. It came only too soon. The worldly spirit reasserted itself in the form of opposition to the monk's regime at home and of alliance with the pope from without. No more violent contrast could be imagined than the austere Savonarola and the profligate and infamous pope Alexander VI. It was impossible that these two could live in peace at the head of neighboring states. Savonarola hesitated not to attack the character of the papal court as it deserved; and he openly proclaimed his hope that the reform begun in Florence would eventually embrace the whole of Italy. The papal court saw the necessity of putting down so bold a foe. Strategy was at first resorted to. Savonarola was invited to come to Rome; and a cardinal's hat and the archbishopric of Florence were offered to him. He answered the pope in strangely prophetic words: "I desire none of your gifts; I will have no other red hat than that which you have given to other servants of Christ — the red hat of martyrdom." Then Alexander commanded him to come to Rome. Savonarola excused himself on the ground of his feeble health; and he continued to preach against Rome. Thereupon the pope (in the autumn of 1496) forbade him further preaching on pain of excommunication, until the termination of his trial for heresy, which was now to be commenced. At the same time, the jealousy of the Franciscan order, at the prominence of this Dominican, fell upon him. Savonarola ceased preaching for a time; but then, unable to restrain the spirit within him, recommenced. "The pope," said he, "is ill informed and misguided. It is not the ideal pope who has forbidden me to preach; the true pope is the incarnation of the spirit of Christ; and Christ cannot be against the spirit of love, otherwise he would be against himself. This wicked order is, therefore, not from the pope. I must preach, because God has called me thereto." So reasoned Savonarola; so endeavored he to reconcile disobedience to the visible pope with obedience to the Catholic Church. Meantime political affairs took an unfavorable turn for Savonarola. Charles VIII was forced to retire from Italy in inglorious failure. Combined Italy was hostile to Florence because of its alliance with the French. Also a pestilence and famine broke out in Florence (June 1497), against which Savonarola could furnish no miraculous remedy. The party of the Medici made an attempt to seize the government; this failed, and ended with the execution (Aug. 21, 1497) of five prominent men. The avengers of their blood now watched for Savonarola's life. His followers now surrounded him with an armed guard; it was only thus that he could reach his pulpit.
The pope, learning of the decline of Savonarola's popularity, excommunicated him, first in May, 1497, and then more emphatically in October, forbidding all Christians to have any intercourse with him, and threatening the city with the interdict. Savonarola, encouraged by a favorable council which was elected Jan. 1, 1498, ascended the cathedral pulpit, denied the charge of heresy, declared null and void the excommunication, and appealed from the human pope to the heavenly head of the Church. He also boldly summoned the crowned heads of all Christendom to unite in calling a general council, to depose this pretended pope, and to heal the wounds of the Church. And yet Savonarola plainly foresaw the fatal result to himself of the present contest. "To the cause there can be no other outcome than victory; but to me it will be death." An incautious step which Savonarola now took precipitated the end. From the balcony of San Marco he asked God to consume him with fire if he had acted from unchristian motives. A Franciscan monk offered to stand the ordeal of fire against him. Savonarola hesitated. An enthusiastic monk of San Marco offered to undergo the test in Savonarola's place; then the whole body of Dominicans declared themselves also ready. Savonarola consented. The issue in controversy was the righteousness of Savonarola and the invalidity of his excommunication. A monk was selected from each order. Two great ranges of fire, close beside each other, were prepared on the great square. The two orders of monks marched in with song and banners through the innumerable multitude; but, just as the moment arrived for the test, a violent disagreement arose as to whether the parties standing the ordeal should bear the crucifix and host. The contest lasted until evening, when a violent rain put out the remnant of the fire. The people dispersed amid loud murmurs, and the whole weight of their displeasure fell upon Savonarola. The fickle people now charged him with being an impostor and a coward, and it was due to his armed guards that he left the spot alive. On the next day — Palm Sunday, 1498 his enemies besieged him in San Marco; he disdained earthly weapons, and fell upon his face in prayer. As he was taken and conducted to judgment he was greeted with all manner of abuse. His adherents were expelled from the council, and a hasty trial was entered upon. On six successive days he was dragged forth and examined under the severest tortures. During the few days of his imprisonment he wrote a beautiful exposition of the 51st Psalm, which Luther afterwards published as a tract. He was then examined again, by torture, before a clerical tribunal; it was but a mere form. He was sentenced to be hanged and burned. He was thus executed with and between two of his friends, May 23, 1498. At the foot of the scaffold he had administered the eucharist to himself and his two friends. "My Lord was pleased to die for my sins; why should not I be glad to give up my poor life out of love to him?" With such words he closed his eyes upon the world and yielded to the gibbet and the flames.
The Dominican order endeavored in later years to effect his canonization. Luther said that God had already canonized him. Though not a dogmatic reformer in the sense of Luther, Zwingli, or Calvin, Savonarola yet holds a most honorable place by the side of Wycliffe, Huss, and Wessel, as a forerunner of the great Reformation. Monuments were erected to Savonarola in San Marco, Florence, in 1873, and in Ferrara, May 23, 1875. Savonarola left numerous writings. In his Triumphus Crucis (Trionfo della Croce ), he tries to turn the Church away from its modern corruptions to Christ as the center of all moral power. In his De Divisione Omnium Scientiarum he opposes pagan writers and praises the riches of the fathers. Recently (1845) his sermons (Prediche) were printed at Florence; also his poems (Poesie) in 1862. A portion of his works was published at Lyons, in six volumes, in 1633-40. His Life has been written by Carle (Paris, 1842); by Madden (Lond. 1853); by Perrens (Paris, 1853, 2 vols.; 3d ed. 1859); by Villari (Florence, 1859-61, 2 vols.); of the latter, a French translation by G. Gruyer (1874, 2 vols). His earlier biographers were: Burlamacchi (died 1519), G.F. Picodella Mirandola, and Bartoli. Excellent modern German biographers are: Rudelbach [A.G.], Savonarola (Hamb. 1835); Meier [F.K.], Savonarola (Berl. 1836); Hase, Neue Propheten (Leips. 1851). See the historical works of Guicciardini, Nardi, Roscoe, Machiavelli, Sismondi, and especially Villari, History of Savonarola (from the Italian, by Horner [Lond. 1863, 2 vols. 8vo]); Madden, Life of Savonarola (Lond. 1853, 2 vols. 8vo); also the Brit. Quarterly, Oct. 1849; Eclectic Review, Dec. 1853; Christian Remembrancer, Oct. 1858; Prot. Episc. Review, Oct. 1860; Baptist Quarterly, Oct. 1873; London Quar. Rev. July 1856; Methodist Quar. Rev. Oct. 1867; Schaff in Herzog, Real-Encyklop. 13, 444, 455. (J.P.L.)