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Girolamo Savonarola online

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States might be averted from Florence. Thus Savonarola
dominated the situation. He was at once Prophet and
Redeemer. And just as he had foretold the woe which
was about to fall so it was within his power to shield
Florence and her people from its incidence. Such was
the state of the public mind when the Pratica, the as-
sembly of representative citizens, met on 4 November,
and it was under the influence of such feeling that Savona-
rola on the following day was appointed one of four am-
bassadors to wait upon the King of France at Pisa.

In his " Compendium Revelationiim " Savonarola has
given an abstract of his speech to Charles on this occasion.
No doubt he left to his colleagues the purely political
and diplomatic business of the embassy which was to
secure such modification as was possible of the terms to
which Piero dei Medici had agreed. It was the special
function of the Friar to impress upon Charles the sense
of a Divine mission and to induce him to accept Savona-
rola as an exponent of the Divine will. He addressed
Charles as Most Christian King and Great Minister of
Divine Justice. As such he was the appointed in-
strument to accomplish the purposes of Omnipotent
Jehovah " who distributes and communicates His infinite
bounty to His creatures in two ways, to wit, by way of
Mercy and by way of Justice." After expatiating at
length upon this theme in the abstract and upon its
special application to Charles's circumstances he pro-
ceeded to assure the King that a Divine revelation had

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been made to him that God would send a grievous
scourge upon Italy and that Charles was that scourge.
"And so at last, O King, thou hast come. Thou hast
come as the Minister of God ; the Minister of Justice.
Thou wilt always be welcome. We receive thee with
joyful hearts and with a glad countenance. Thy coming
has rejoiced our hearts, has exalted our minds, and has
made to rejoice all the servants of Jesus Christ, all who
love justice and wish to live well. For we hope that by
thee Jehovah will abase the pride of the proud, will exalt
the humility of the humble, will crush vice, exalt virtue,
make straight the things that are crooked, will renew the
old and reform all that is deformed. Come then, glad,
secure, triumphant, since He who sent you forth triumphed
upon the Cross for our salvation." But having been
thus sent by God to accomplish the purposes of Providence
Charles must learn " from God's unprofitable servant to
whom this secret has been revealed " to exercise mercy,
especially to God's chosen city of Florence, to defend
innocence, to pardon offences by whomsoever done, " for
they have innocently offended, not knowing that you were
sent by God."

The effect of Savonarola's utterances was genuinely to
impress Charles with the sanctity of the purpose he had
set himself to accomplish in Italy. He began to regard
himself in the light of the Friar's representations, and
the emblem ^'Missus a Deo'' was soon added to his ban-
ners. But he found his position as liberator of Italy a
difficult and embarrassing one. The city of Pisa seized
the opportunity presented by the general confusion to
throw off the yoke of Florence which it loathed. De
Commines draws a vivid picture of a concourse of Pisan
citizens waylaying Charles, as he was going to Mass with
cries of " Liberty, liberty," beseeching him with tears that


he would vouchsafe to restore it to them. . . . The King,
not understanding what they meant by that word Liberty
and beginning to commiserate the afflictions which the
people of Italy endured, both under Princes and Com-
monwealths, replied that he was willing it should be so,
though, to speak truth, he had no authority to grant it,
for the town was not his own.

To Florence the retention of Pisa was vital, for it com-
manded the mouth of the Arno and thus gave her free
access to the sea. It seemed a strange commentary on
Savonarola's assurances that God would spare Florence,
that God's appointed minister should, at the very outset
of his task, rob Florence of her only effective seaport and
threaten the complete ruin of her commercial greatness.
Charles, too, as the patron of Pisan liberties and the would-
be ally of Florence found himself in a dilemma from
which he sought to extricate himself by vague assurances
to both parties. In the meantime he pursued his way to
Florence where he arrived on 17 November. There,
since the departure of the embassy, stirring events had
taken place. Piero dei Medici had arrived home from
the camp of Charles on the 8th. On the 9th — '' il giorno
propria di S. Salvadore " — a popular rising in the city re-
sulted in the flight of Piero with his brothers, their formal
banishment, and the overthrow of the Medicean govern-
ment. Charles, upon his arrival, found Florence in the
throes of a revolution, without a government, without
a representative, and, as it seemed, absolutely at his
mercy. He was in a position to exact hard conditions,
and the conditions which he exacted, notwithstanding
the brilliant intervention of Piero Capponi, were hard.
But it was hoped that they were final, and that Charles
would now pass on. He, however, showed no disposition
to depart, and the sack of the city by the French seemed


imminent. At this juncture men again looked to Sav-
onarola for salvation. He was invited, " as I believe by
the Signoria," says Cinozzi, to go to Charles and to ex-
hort him to depart. At the moment when the invitation
reached him — it was Saturday, 29 November — the Friar
was about to sit down to dinner with his brethren in the
refectory of S. Marco. Enjoining upon his colleagues to
betake themselves to the chapel and there to remain
prostrate in prayer till his return, he went to the Medici
palace where Charles was quartered, passed the guards
and penetrated into the inner chamber of the King.
There he addressed Charles, " con grand inipeto di spirito "
— says Filipepi, in correspondence with Cinozzi's " vwa-
mente " .• enjoined upon him to leave Florence, both him-
self and his army, and to leave her unscathed as he had
found her. In answer to the demand of the "superbis-
simo Re " for the authority by which Savonarola spoke
the Friar is said to have drawn from his bosom a small
brass Crucifix. "This Christ," he said, "crucified for
sinners, lays this command upon you." The King made
no reply, but immediately, on the following day, set
forth (30 November).

This story related by pietistic biographers is sufficiently
in agreement with the record of sober annalists, such as
Nardi, to convince us that such an interview actually took
place, and that Charles was strongly urged by Savonarola
to depart. It happened, however, that the Friar's coun-
sel was in agreement wath that given to the King by
his military advisers. D'Aubigny, the French Captain-
General in Romagna, had come in person to Florence in
order to impress upon Charles that he was wasting precious
time which might more profitably be spent in pursuing
his march to Naples, Savonarola had equally insisted
that precious time was being wasted, for Charles was


doing nothing for that renovation of the Church which it
was his special mission to acomplish. But whether the
King's ultimate decision to depart from Florence was
prompted more by religious than military considerations
is a question which in the absence of fuller information it
is impossible to determine. It is sufficient to lodge a
caveat against the popular notion that the sack of Flor-
ence was averted and the departure of Charles effected
solely by the influence which Savonarola exercised over
the King.

The relations of Savonarola with Charles VIII are in-
teresting, chiefly for the light they throw upon Savona-
rola's character and political conduct. The invasion itself
was regarded in Italy at the time, and may be regarded
still, from two points of view. There were those who,
disgusted by the shifty aims and selfish intrigues of Italian
princes and statesmen, could see deliverance for Italy only
at the hands of the foreigner. Just as in days gone by it
had been the dream of some of the noblest Italian patriots
that Italian unity and concord were to be secured for
Italy from the Emperor, so it was possible now for genuine
patriots to look to France to secure liberty for the Italian
States. The dream may have been an illusion, but there
was nothing necessarily shameful in entertaining it. But
on the other hand there were those who saw in the ad-
vent of the stranger the ruin of the land. To drive the
foreigner from Italy seemed to them to be the first duty
of every true Italian, and events showed that those who
took this view were the most far-seeing statesmen and
the best patriots.

Thus, to have invited the French into Italy and to have
encouraged their enterprise seemed to some a glory, to
others a disgrace ; but there could be no compromise, nor
any basis for a common understanding between those


who were for the foreigners and those who were against
them. The shame or the glory, as the case may be, of
calling the French into Italy does not rest upon Savona-
rola. It was not he who influenced Charles to undertake
his expedition. But upon Savonarola lies the respon-
sibility, for good or evil, of encouraging Charles's enter-
prise when once it had been undertaken, and of stamping
with the hall-mark of Divine approval an invasion which
was the beginning of endless woes for Italy. It would
be to exaggerate Savonarola's importance and to over-
estimate the influence which he exerted to lay upon him
the blame for all the miseries which Italy from this time
had to endure at the hands of the stranger. The French
expedition would assuredly have taken place if Savona-
rola had never existed, but at a time when a little resolute
eflbrt would have been sufficient to check Charles's advance
and ruin his undertaking the influence of Savonarola and
of Florence was thrown into the French scale, and an
enterprise which was fraught with disaster for Italy was
by him represented to the Italian people as under the
special guidance and control of God, who was employing
Charles as his minister.

But while Savonarola's general attitude towards the
French invasion lays him open to adverse criticism, the
services which he rendered to Florence at this time of
crisis were great, and entitle him to the praise which has
been bestowed upon him. If he was able to imbue
Charles with a superstitious belief in the divinely inspired
character of his expedition, he was also able to impress
Charles with the belief that the terms of his mission im-
plied a lenient policy towards Florence. To Savonarola
Florence was the chosen city of God, and so he repre-
sented it to the French King. Any undue severity exer-
cised by God's instrument upon God's chosen city involved


a glaring contradiction. It was largely due to the Friar
that the French occupation of Florence, from 17 to
30 November, brought comparatively little suffering to
the city. It was owing to him, at any rate in part,
that Charles was induced to pass on ; it was by his re-
straining influence that the citizens themselves during
those anxious days were kept under some degree of control,
and that the internal peace of Florence was maintained.
The French invasion shows at once the weakness and the
strength of Savonarola : his weakness in that he stood
forward to champion an enterprise which was fatal to
Italy, in that he gathered for himself from that enterprise
fresh credentials for his fatal claims to be a prophet ;
while his strength is shown by the fact that he was able
to impose something of the vigour and intensity of his
own character upon a weak and irresolute prince, and to
secure the comparative immunity of Florence amid the
barbaric licence which attended the progress of an invad-
ing and triumphant army.



THE expulsion of Piero de Medici from Florence in-
volved the dissolution of all the principles of govern-
ment which had been in operation during the period of the
Medici ascendancy. If the State was not to fall into
anarchy it was essential that new systems of government
should be evolved as rapidly as possible. The times were
favourable for a liberal Constitution, for the Florentines,
by overthrowing their despotic rulers, supposed that they
had regained their ancient heritage of liberty. All that
was needed was to formulate a system under which this
newly recovered liberty could be enjoyed. The need for
immediate action was pressing, for all the energies of the
republic would be wanted to reduce Pisa once more to
subjection and to restore to their obedience such other
dependencies as had shown an inclination to follow the
example of the Pisans. As long as the internal govern-
ment of Florence was unsettled movements of revolt were
to be looked for outside, and there were still left within
the city many partisans of the Medici who would natur-
ally seize the opportunity presented by the absence of
strong government to secure the return of Piero and the
continuation of the old system.

Accordingly on 2 December, 1 494, two days after the de-
parture of Charles, a general assemblage of the people, or
Parlamento, was held on the Piazza, and by popular vote



the right of the BaVia was granted to the Signory, which
meant that the Signory was temporarily invested with
practically dictatorial powers. A board of twenty Accop-
piatori was appointed whose function it was to select the
Signoria. The board was invested with a twelve-months'
tenure of power, and thus became, to all intents and pur-
poses, the government for that period. Thus, for the
moment at any rate, provision was made for carrying on
the government of the State, while the Constitution which
should ultimately replace this provisional government
was left over for full and careful discussion.

The machinery of government in Florence had always
been exceedingly complex, and the old machinery was
still standing in spite of sixty years of Medicean despot-
ism. It had never been the policy of the Medici to abolish
existing institutions, but to manipulate them cunningly
in their own interests. The whole apparatus of govern-
ment therefore still remained very much as it had been
for centuries, and it was felt to be advisable to retain as
much of it as was possible, only introducing such modi-
fications as would prevent a return of tyranny and secure
a more popular and democratic method of representation.
At the head of the administration stood the Signory,
consisting of the Gonfalonier of Justice, who was the
chief functionary in the State, and eight priors chosen
from the city guilds. The members of the Signory held
office for two months, it being the object of the Florentine
Constitution to ensure that as many individual citizens as
possible should have a chance of holding high offices of
State. Foreign affairs and matters of peace and war
were entrusted to a Committee of Ten appointed for six
months, while another Board of Eight controlled the ad-
ministration of justice, and these held office for a period
of four months. Twenty-eight assessors were also ap-


pointed to sit with the Signory to advise but not to give
decisions, sixteen Gonfaloniers of the city companies and
twelve Buoni Uomini, who, together with the Signory,
constituted what was known as the Collegio.

The legislative functions and the selection of magistrates
were, at any rate in theory, in the hands of two councils,
the Consiglio del Popolo and the Consiglio del Commune,
but Cosimo and Lorenzo de' Medici, by creating two new
Councils of the Seventy and of the Hundred, composed
of their own partisans, and by transferring to these bodies
the most important functions possessed by the old councils,
had been able to secure for their House an uncontrolled
supremacy in the State.

The first step therefore towards the establishment of a
new Constitution based upon democratic principles was
the abolition of the Medicean Councils, and they were
abolished by the authority of the twenty Accoppiatori
who assumed on 3 December the executive government
of the State. The overthrow of the Medicean arrange-
ments involved the reconstruction of a new Legislature,
and the form which that Legislature should assume be-
came a question on which discussion ran high. There
was a natural tendency to look around for models, but
the only State in Italy of any pretensions which had
preserved itself from despotism was Venice, and men
therefore looked to the Venetian Constitution to supply
a pattern for the new Constitution of Florence, But
Florence was bent upon a democratic form of gov-
ernment : the government of Venice was essentially aris-
tocratic. This antagonism between ideals was perhaps
not realized by men who saw democracy triumphant
wherever a Council was installed, and despotism rampant
wherever government was controlled by a single will.
But the antagonism was there none the less and the


difficulty lay in adapting a Venetian model to Florentine
needs and conditions. Eventually out of the long dis-
cussions two definite opinions took shape. Paolo Soderini,
who had been Florentine ambassador at Venice, favoured
the establishment of a Grand Council, consisting of some
1500 members, which should legislate, sanction taxa-
tion and elect the magistrates, while a lesser Council of
Eighty should deliberate upon such matters as were
unsuitable for discussion by so large a number as i 500
men. Guidantonio Vespucci, on the other hand, objected
to the Grand Council altogether on the ground that the
Florentine populace was quite unfitted to exercise so large
a control over the government of the State. Both
Soderini and Vespucci were agreed that the Signoria
and the various executive boards should remain as they
were. It was when matters were at this point that
Savonarola appeared in the political arena and exercised
a deciding influence upon the character of the new Con-

We may well believe him when he tells us it was not
without deep misgivings that he was led to intervene in
these high matters of State. It was Advent, and he was
preaching a course of sermons on the prophet Haggai.
In the nineteenth sermon on Haggai, delivered on the
Fourth Sunday in Advent (2 1 December), we can plainly
perceive the feelings of strong excitement with which
Savonarola watched the course of events, which would
lead, as he trusted, to the realization of one of his grand
ideals, the restoration of liberty to Florence. The feeling
that any interposition on his part would be misplaced
was overborne by the strong political instinct which im-
pelled him to interpose. As usual he saw the call of God
in the promptings of his individual character and fashioned
a Divine revelation out of the conflict between opposing


duties : " The Lord has driven my bark into the open sea —
the wind drives me forward ; the Lord forbids my return.
I communed last night with the Lord and said : ' Pity me,
O Lord ; lead me back to my haven '. ' It is impossible,
see you not that the wind is contrary ? ' 'I will preach, if
so I must, but why need I meddle with the government of
Florence ? ' 'If thou wouldst make Florence a holy city
thou must establish her on firm foundations and give her a
government which favours virtue.'" To Savonarola his
mission as a reformer of morals was inextricably interwoven
with the political reformation of the State. It was there-
fore as the agent of a higher power that he now declared
the will of Heaven in the matter of the new Constitution.
But already, immediately after the establishment of the
provisional Government, on the Sunday following the
departure of Charles, Savonarola in his eighth sermon on
Haggai had expressed his general views upon government
and reform. Choosing for his text " Cantate Domino
canticuni novum quia mirabilia fecit" he first impressed
upon his hearers that recent events in Florence had been
brought about directly by God, and that any one who
did not recognize this must be a fool or blind or obsti-
nate. The only possible return for these favours was to
love God with all the heart and with all the mind. If
Florence would renovate her understanding and turn to
God then she need have no fear of these armies nor of
the new Cyrus who was marching against the modern
Babylon, the corrupted Roman Church. The time had
come for Florence to become new. " O citta nuova, you
must sing a new song, and seek to have a new form."
First of all it was necessary to enact such laws as would
prevent any one man from making himself Head of the
State. Authority must be derived from character alone.
But in order to make good laws it was necessary first of


all to be reconciled to the laws of God, seeing that all
good laws depend upon the Eternal Law which could
only be observed by the Grace of the Holy Spirit.

The preacher again renewed his assurances that Flor-
ence was in God's special charge. God loves her and
wishes her well. He will save her for Himself " Salvabit
sibi". Note well that ' For Himself ,' for God will not
save Florence for the benefit of such a man as may wish
to make himself supreme and to say, Florence is Mine.
The Lord hath saved her for Himself, and He will give
grace to Florence whereby she may find a good form of
government under which no one man can lift up his head,
a government for example on the Venetian pattern, or an-
other as God may inspire." At this point the preacher
hinted that he himself might not be unwilling to give his
advice if he were invited to address his exhortations to
the Signoria in the Palazzo. In the meantime let the
people give themselves up to prayer and fasting for three
days, and then let the Councils meet to determine on the
form of government.

But it was not sufficient to be renewed in government.
The citizens must be renewed in the spirit of their under-
standing, so that they might be directed by the impulse
of humility, charity and simplicity. In choosing men for
office let them exalt good men who were humble, and if
need be force them to accept appointment. Let the
charitable exert themselves to diminish the weight of
taxation which oppressed the people : " As to simplicity,
you must, O Florence, live a little more simply than you
have done, without so much luxury and superfluity as in
past times." From such simplicity of life it must follow
that the City will become richer, will have more to spend
in time of war, will be in a better position to protect and
defend itself. The people too will be thus kept quiet


and in peace, no longer needing, as many blind fools
think, to be kept happy by festivals. " That may be true
where tyrants rule but it is not true in a free city."

This sermon, from which it appears that Savonarola
was among the first to suggest a Constitution on the
Venetian model, was followed up during the week by
four others, so that his discourse upon 14 December —
the third Sunday in Advent — was the thirteenth of his
course on Haggai. On this occasion none but men were
admitted to the Duomo, and we may assume a large at-
tendance of the principal men in Florence. Savonarola
addressed them upon the text Enuiiniini qui judicatis ter-
rain {Be ye instructed, ye that judge the earth). Man, he
said, being a social animal, must congregate with his fellows
and therefore is in need of government which may be of
many kinds. Government by a single ruler, if he be a
good one, is the best government of all ; but if he be a bad
one it is the worst. In hot climates where men are more
enervated than elsewhere they are more inclined to sub-
mit to one-man rule. Again, amid northern colds where
there is much blood but little intellect {ingegnd) they are
also willing to submit to one man. But in Italy, where
blood and intellect commingle, men do not remain
patient under the rule of one. Each man would like to
be head and rule over others. Thus discords arise. So
in Italy, in Florence especially, the government of more
than one is better than that of one. But this government
must be well ordered or it will split up into factions, and

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Online LibraryE. L. S. (Edward Lee Stuart) HorsburghGirolamo Savonarola → online text (page 10 of 23)