Dominican reformer, b. at Ferrara, September 21, 1452; d. at Florence, May 23, 1498
Savonarola,, GIROLAMO, b. at Ferrara, September 21, 1452; d. at Florence, May 23, 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 wide-spread 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 center 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 labors 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.
Meanwhile Savonarola 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 July 25, 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 September 8 the Dominican was forbidden to preach, and the monastery of San Marco was restored to the Lombard Congregation. In his reply of September 29, 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 October 16 written with great moderation the union of the monastery of San Marco with the Lombard Congregation was withdrawn, Savonarola’s conduct was judged mildly, but the prohibition to preach, until his vindication at Rome, was maintained.
In the meantime Savonarola had again entered the pulpit on October 11 in order to rouse the Florentines against Pietro de Medici, and on February 11 the Signoria of Florence actually commanded the Dominican to preach again. Savonarola now resumed his sermons on February 17 and was thus unjustifiably disobedient to ecclesiastical authority. In these Len-ten 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 November 7, 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 May 12, 1497, he was excommunicated. Under the date of June 19 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 February 11, 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 beyond possibility.
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 April 7, 1498, before a large public gathering. Everything was ready for the test, but it did not take place. Two 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 May 22, 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 May 25 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.