E. L. S. (Edward Lee Stuart) Horsburgh.

Girolamo Savonarola online

. (page 13 of 23)
Online LibraryE. L. S. (Edward Lee Stuart) HorsburghGirolamo Savonarola → online text (page 13 of 23)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

even his self-imposed embassy to Charles would have
counted for little by themselves. The great facts of the
situation were that Charles had pursued his march from
Siena to Pisa by way of Castel Fiorentino and had passed
Florence by : and that the whole question of restoring
Pisa and the other Florentine towns had been debated
at Poggibonsi where Savonarola pressed hard upon the
King for their restitution. Thus Florence was preserved
from the imminent danger of a French occupation, and
for the moment at any rate there were good hopes of the
restoration of her territories at the hands of Charles.
These hopes, it is true, were destined to disappointment,


but for about six months — until the end of 1495 in fact
— Florence laboured under the pleasing expectation
that her towns were about to be restored and the credit
of Savonarola was accordingly enhanced. For a brief
period he was able to apply himself to matters more
directly within his own sphere than Florentine politics.
He was engaged throughout the summer in the organiza-
tion and extension of his new Dominican Congregation :
he was actively setting on foot his reform movement in
Florence. It was at the moment when the stormy seas
seemed to have sunk into comparative calm that there
were heard the first mutterings of that Papal thunder
which heralded the tempests which were to destroy him.



We may, I think, regard the summer of 1495 as the
period when the star of Savonarola reached its zenith.
The new Constitution was established. It is scarcely
exaggeration to say that Savonarola's word was law, for
recommendations made in sermons not unfrequently
found expression within a week or two in the Statute
book. The fear of a French occupation had subsided,
and the large subsidies which Florence had paid to
Charles VIII seemed likely to produce an equivalent in
the restoration of Pisa and the other sequestered terri-
tories. Internal opposition had been borne down if not
actually crushed out, and external opposition to the
Friar had been so far subterranean and ineffective. Now,
in the autumn of 1495, he was called upon to meet ex-
ternal opposition in an open and declared form, and by
far the most formidable of his external opponents was
the Pope, Alexander VI.

Alexander comes suddenly upon the scene. So far
there has been no mention of him, no thought of him.
In the matter of the New Congregation indeed the Pope
was the ultimate authority who must decide it, but he
did decide it in favour of Savonarola's policy. In Sa-
vonarola's sermons against ecclesiastical corruptions his
denunciations were always abstract ; against the clergy,
the prelates ; against Florence ; against the cattivi and



tepidi ; against Rome, but never against the Pope person-
ally. Much more than half of Savonarola's active career
in Florence is over before the Pope is even heard of as
an actor in the Savonarola tragedy. When at last the
Pope intervened politics, not personalities, were the cause
of his intervention.

In estimating the relations between Savonarola and
the Pope it is of the first importance to rid ourselves as
far as possible of sentiment, and to view the two men
not in the light of their respective characters but in the
light of their political ideas. Because Alexander was a
very wicked man placed in the highest seat of ecclesias-
tical authority, and because Savonarola was a holy son
of the Church who raised his protest against the corrup-
tions of Rome, there is a natural tendency to see in Sa-
vonarola's fate the triumph of a scandalous Pope over the
man who denounced him. The truth is that Alexander's
private character and the isanctity of Savonarola's aims
had little to do with the questions at issue between them.
Alexander's attitude towards the Friar was governed by
his political interests, not by his personal feelings. Sa-
vonarola fell, not because he was a moral reformer, who
rebuked the vices of a Pope, but because he was a poli-
tician whose political aims crossed the policy which the
Papacy was resolute in pursuing.

The cardinal fact of Italian politics in 1495 was the
presence in Italy of the French King with an apparently
irresistible army of invasion. It is necessary now to re-
vert to the French expedition and to enter a little more
fully into the effects which Charles's enterprise had pro-
duced upon Italian statesmen.

The success which had attended the expedition of
Charles VIII seemed to contemporary observers little
short of miraculous. Every obstacle to his progress


which Italy could devise had melted away almost with-
out a blow, and, in the triumph of the French, men tardily
recognized the ruin of Italy. Even Ludovico Sforza,
who had called the French into the land, was compelled
to admit that he had done great mischief to Italy. But
the mischief was done. The practical question was how
it could best be repaired. In order to repair it a league
of the principal Italian Powers, Milan, Venice and the
Papacy, was formed in 1495, and was supported by some
of the foreign rivals of France, by the Emperor Maxi-
milian and Ferdinand the Catholic of Spain. Arrange-
ments for the formation of this " Holy League" as it was
called, were completed by 31 March, and on 12 April
the articles of federation between the contracting parties
were signed. Of this League the Pope was the leading
spirit, and the essential object at which it aimed was the
expulsion of the French from Italy. But there was one
Italian State of importance which resolutely opposed the
League. This was Florence, which adhered to its old
policy of alliance with France, and which had received
Charles VIII as the protector of its liberties. This policy,
which isolated P'lorence from the rest of Italy, was closely
indentified with Girolamo Savonarola, who had fortified
Charles in his enterprise, had impressed upon him the
sense of a Divine mission, and had associated Charles in
the minds of the Florentines, with the overthrow of the
tyrannical power of the Medici and the re-establishment
of liberty in the State. Thus, in the opinion of the rest
of Italy, Florence was taking a course which was un-
patriotic, a course which precluded the Florentines from
being looked upon as " good Italians ".

It is not necessary to enter into a discussion as to the
respective merits of the rival policies. There is something
to be said for both. Neither policy was prompted by


very exalted motives of abstract patriotism, but by the
motives of self-interest. In view of subsequent events the
League can scarcely command our respect, for the time
was soon to come when the very men who had formed
it were found intriguing against the objects which it had
been formed to attain. The Florentine alliance with
France was maintained, however much Savonarola might
have wished it otherwise, for the simple reason that it
seemed to promise the greatest advantages to Florence.
This much may be frankly admitted, but nevertheless for
the moment, and at the time of its formation, the League
stood for whatever spirit of nationality and common
patriotism existed in Italy at the time ; the alliance be-
tween France and Florence, in the eyes of their opponents,
stood for everything which was opposed to these senti-

It was natural that the first object of the League would
be to show a solid front to the invader. To this end the
adhesion of Florence must at all costs be secured. This
was the object which Alexander VI set himself to attain,
and, whatever may be our opinion about Alexander's
private character, it must be admitted that his object was
not inconsistent either with piety or patriotism. When,
therefore, Alexander discovered that the chief obstacle
in the way of his endeavours was an obscure friar who
had gained for himself a position of ascendancy in Flor-
ence, it was not excess of wickedness which led him to
seek to crush the Friar, but a natural and not unjustifi-
able desire to clear away a difficulty from his diplomatic

The relative positions occupied by the two men gave
Alexander an immense advantage. He was Pope, the
head of Christendom ; Savonarola was an ecclesiastic sub-
ordinate to the Pope's authority. The Pope, in any con-


flict with an ecclesiastic, held in his hands irresistible
weapons, authority such as no orthodox Churchmen
could gainsay, the control of ecclesiastical censures, and
the power to excommunicate. Alexander was not the
man to feel any scruples about using these weapons in a
political contest. The Papacy had long been secularized,
and the application of its spiritual powers to its political
necessities had become customary before the days of
Alexander. The public opinion of to-day regards such
a misuse of spiritual authority as a scandal. In the days
of the Renaissance Papacy men were too accustomed to
it to regard it as anything else than legitimate, justifiable,
and a matter of course. Once again we see in Savonarola's
position the elements of weakness and of strength com-
bined. As a moral reformer he could have done nothing
had he not been a Churchman ; as a politician opposed to
the Papal policy the fact of his being a Churchman was
fatal to his success.

But though in any contest between Pope and Friar the
superiority of the former was enormous, yet the advan-
tages were not wholly on the Pope's side. There still
remained a certain degree of force in the idea, to which
Christendom at the beginning of the century had become
accustomed, of an appeal from the Pope to a Council of
the Church Universal, while the private character of Alex-
ander VI exposed him in a special degree to the force of
such an appeal. It was notorious that he had secured
his election by unblushing simony : decrees of councils
had frequently declared that a Pope simoniacally elected
was no true Pope : moreover the scandals associated with
the Pope's manner of life were a standing shame to the
Papacy as an institution. It was open therefore to Sav-
onarola to parry the Papal thrusts by a demand for a
General Council, and the demand was one which Chris-


tendom wou!d not be unlikely to entertain against such
a Pontiff as Alexander VI.

To these general considerations one or two particulars
have to be added. The Florentines, or rather the Sa-
vonarolists, looked to their alliance with France to secure
two special objects — the maintenance of the Republican
Constitution, which could only be maintained by the
permanent exclusion of the Medici from the State — and
the recovery of Pisa, which had revolted from its allegi-
ance. The League, on the other hand, looked upon the
Republic as the creation of Savonarola, as the outcome
of ephemeral excitement, and as giving no guarantee for
any permanent or stable policy on the part of Florence.
Hence the restoration of the Medici was included among
the objects of the League, and the restoration of Pisa
was by it dangled before the Florentines as a bait to in-
duce them to swallow the restoration of the Medici, and
to reject the alliance with France. The Savonarolists on
their part were resolute that the exiled house should not
be restored, and were persuaded that the best hopes for
regaining Pisa rested upon the aid of France.

For the moment the followers of Savonarola were in
the ascendant and constituted the government. But the
government, by the terms of the Constitution, was subject
to constant change. The support which it gave to the
Friar's policy was in a large measure conditioned by the
verification of his predictions. On one point only all
parties were unanimous, that Pisa must be recovered, and
if its recovery should ultimately seem more probable at
the hands of the League than from dependence on Sa-
vonarola's assurances the strongest temptation would
arise to abandon him and his policy together, and to
unite in one concerted effort to secure the grand object
of the universal hope.


The attitude of Florence, and of Savonarola, towards
the revolt of Tisa from its Florentine allegiance and the
revolt of Florence from its allegiance to the House of
Medici, though perfectly natural, yet involved an in-
consistency which almost amounted to a contradiction.
The Florentines were enthusiastic for their own republican
liberties which they had recovered from the Medici, but
were equally enthusiastic in their determination to crush
the Pisans and to destroy the liberty which Pisa had re-
covered from Florence. It was enough for Florence that
the subjection of Pisa was essential to her own commer-
cial prosperity. She showed not the slightest capacity
to realize the aspirations of Pisa in the light of her own,
or to estimate the situation from any other than a purely
self-centred point of view. The fierce fanaticism of the
dominant party in Florence against Pisa is exemplified
in a sentence of five years' banishment pronounced
against a certain Canon of the Cathedral, Giovanni Fran-
cesco di Bracciolini, on the ground that he had expressed
the opinion that the Pisans were not unreasonable in their
desire to regain their liberty. A slight offence, surely,
in a man living under a free republic ! Savonarola shared
to the full the popular sentiments. Never again should
Florence endure that the heel of a tyrant should trample
upon her ancient freedom ; but never should it consent to
unloose the chains which held Pisa in unwilling servitude
to herself. The man who was the most determined
enemy of the despotic rule of the Medici in Florence was
the most determined advocate of the despotic rule of
Florence over Pisa.

The Holy League was ratified in the spring of 1495,
and throughout the summer the Pope as its head was
making vigorous efforts to secure the adhesion of Flor-
ence. His surprise was only equalled by his annoyance


that, at such a crisis, one of the foremost Italian
States should range itself on the side of the invader.
This surprise was increased when it was represented to
him that Florence was in fact completely dominated by a
Dominican monk, who professed to have visions, and who,
on the strength of these visions, made himself the cham-
pion of the P'ranco-Florentine alliance. To Alexander
the situation, had it not contained serious consequences
for his own projects, would have seemed nothing else
than absurd. But it was a situation to be reckoned with.
This blighting influence exercised by a fantastical friar
must be undermined and destroyed, and, this could best
be done by bringing to bear upon him the lawful and
recognized authority of the head of the Church over a
subordinate. Accordingly, on 21 July, 1495, a Papal
Brief was addressed to Savonarola, in which he was in-
vited in courteous language to come to Rome in order to
render an account of the claims which the Pope under-
stood him to have put forward to prophetic inspiration.
Savonarola's reply, dated 30 July, was couched in respectful
language. In it he excused himself from obeying at
once the Pope's commands on the ground that his health
forbade him to travel, that it was against the interest of
Florence that he should leave the city at present, and
that it was contrary to the will of God that he should
do so. As to his prophetic claims he promised to for-
ward, immediately upon its publication, his " Compendium
Revelationuvi^' in which he had set forth all that was to
be said and known upon that matter. He expressed him-
self as eager to fulfil the Pope's wishes while humbly
praying that a brief delay might be granted to him.

It is doubtful, in view of what followed and of some
expressions subsequently used by Savonarola himself,
whether this reply reached the Pope, for, on 8 September,


Alexander wrote to the Florentine Signory urging upon
Florence the necessity of joining the League unless the
Florentines wished to incur the odium of being the only
men who were desirous of the ruin of Italy. A threat
to excommunicate Charles VIII, should he again invade
Italy, was coupled with a further threat of a like penalty
on all who might assist him. On the same day the Pope
issued a Brief against Savonarola, addressed, apparently by
a slip of the secretarial pen, to the Friars of Sta. Croce,
though destined for the Friars of St. Marco, In this Brief
no allusion is made to Savonarola's letter of apology, but
it criticizes his pretensions to a Divine commission, regrets
that the patient forbearance hitherto exhibited has had
no effect in inducing him to acknowledge the danger and
folly of his pretensions, and proceeds to inhibit " a certain
Fra Girolamo " as Savonarola is contemptuously styled,
from preaching. The real sting of the Brief lay, however,
in its conclusion, for it ended by reuniting the Convent of
St. Marco with the Lombard Congregation, from which,
through Savonarola's efforts, it had so recently been sep-
arated, a separation which the Pope now qualified as
' scandalous,' and " brought about, as he has since learned,
by the deceitful machinations of certain perverse friars ".
But to Savonarola it was the Pope's intervention
which had been brought about by the deceitful machina-
tions of his political opponents in Florence. Writing on
I 5 September to a Dominican friend at Rome he says :
" I know the root of all these plots. They are the
work of evil-minded citizens who would fain re-establish
tyranny in Plorence . . . nevertheless if there be no
other way ... I am resolved to make submission, so as
to avoid even a venial sin." He lost no time in prepar-
ing his reply to the Papal Brief. Before the end of the
month it was ready (29 September) and dispatched to


Rome. In it the writer expresses his grief that malici-
ous men should have poisoned the Pope's mind against
him by false statements. As he has never taught any-
thing except openly and in the face of the world he can
bring thousands of witnesses to prove the falsehood of
the charges made against him. As regards prophecy he
has followed only the sacred Scriptures and the Doctors
of the Church, but prophecy is not heresy, nor has pro-
phecy ever been forbidden, nor can it be, for if so, then
the very word of God Himself would be ignored, Who,
through Amos, has declared that He hath done nothing
without revealing His secrets to His servants, the Pro-
phets. However he submits himself and all his teach-
ing to the correction of the Holy Roman Church. He
proceeds to deal in detail with the charges made against
him in the Brief, denying that he had ever professed to
be sent by God, or to have had converse with God, or to
have asserted that those who did not believe in him
could not be saved. But even while denying he con-
tinues to assert what he seems to deny. As he has re-
ceived his predictions from God the fact that anyone
should obstinately refuse to believe him is a sign that
such a one is "outside a state of Grace," though in-
credulity, not attended by obstinacy, is not necessarily
such a sign.

This reply throws light on the subtle, metaphysical,
and scholastic mind of the writer, while the definite
denial, in the face of his sermon of 17 March (p. 153),
that he had ever claimed to have converse with God is
only to be reconciled with truth on the assumption that
his assertions in that sermon were hyperbolical and in-
tended only in an allegorical sense. No one, neither his
most convinced opponent nor his most unsympathetic
critic, has seriously accused Savonarola of deliberate


falsehood. In this specific denial we have, not proof it is
true, but notable evidence that his visions are to be in-
terpreted in the light of his perfervid imagination and
a bent towards allegorical exposition, though doubtless
there were moments when even to himself allegory be-
came indistinguishable from reality, when poetic fancy
assumed to him the form of concrete fact. The misfor-
tune was that his prosaic hearers, agape for the mar-
vellous, would be immeasurably less competent to
discriminate between poetry and experience. On them
the visions produced all the effects of deception, though
the visionary himself perhaps was altogether without
intention to deceive.

The receipt of Savonarola's letter at Rome was almost
immediately followed by a third Papal Brief dated i6
October. Its content is on the whole creditable to Alex-
ander VI, for there is not a word in it which breathes the
spirit of personal resentment. The Pope restates his
objections to Savonarola's preaching on the ground that
it tended to provoke disturbance, and being based upon
the prediction of future events, was likely to mislead
simple-minded persons. But, seeing that Savonarola
was willing in all things to submit himself to the correc-
tion of the Holy Roman Church, the Pope was ready to
believe that he had erred, not with evil intent, but from
a certain simplicity and misguided zeal. But from hence-
forth the Pope insists that Savonarola shall desist from
preaching of any kind, public or private, " until such time
as it may be possible for you to come to our presence,
not under the protection of an armed escort, as is your
present fashion of going abroad, but with the security,
quietness, and modesty, which become a religious man,
or until we shall make some other provision ". If Savona-
rola would obey these injunctions then the Pope would


rescind his former Brief " so that you may live in peace
according to the dictates of your own conscience".

Such terms, hard as they may have seemed to Savona-
rola, were yet more lenient, and conveyed in a more con-
ciliatory tone, than he had reason to expect. Though
they condemned him to silence in the pulpit, yet they
revoked the threatened dissolution of the new Tuscan
congregation. They left open to Savonarola a great
field for his work of reform both within his convents and
in Florence herself To refuse them, he felt, would be at
once rash and impolitic. He therefore determined to de-
sist from preaching, and from the end of October until
the following P'ebruary his place in the pulpit of the
Duomo was filled by his devoted follower, Fra Do-
menico. The voice was the voice of Domenico but the
spirit which animated it was that of Savonarola still.

It may be doubted if the Papal Brief of October would
have been couched in such conciliatory language if the
Pope had been aware of the character of the sermons
which Savonarola preached immediately pending its
arrival. On the [ ith, on the i6th, and again on the 26th
of October, he used his freedom, which he could still claim,
to avert a crisis which threatened the Government.^

Already, before the end of June, the new Constitution
was in working order, and the full authority over the
State had passed into the hands of the Grand Council.
Such celerity in establishing a new system had not been
anticipated, for, it will be remembered, the provisional
government of Twenty Accoppiatori had received its
powers for a period of twelve months. The twelve
months were not up until November, but largely owing
to the influence of the Friar, the Twenty were induced

' The Papal Brief of the i6th had not arrived, or had not been made
pubHc, in Florence by 26 October.


to lay down their office in June in order to make room,
with the least possible delay, for the permanent republi-
can Constitution. Identified as it was with Savonarola
and the Franco-Florentine alliance, the new Constitution
presented the most formidable obstacle alike to the hopes
of the Medici and of the Holy League. It barred the way
to a Medici restoration and to the entry of Florence into
the Italian federation against the French. Accordingly
the policy of the League was directed to the subversion
of the new government which was to be replaced by that
of Piero dei Medici. Nor had this policy been allowed
to stand still pending the negotiations between the Pope
and Savonarola. At the moment when Alexander was
accusing Savonarola of fomenting disturbances in Flor-
ence he was himself actively engaged in an endeavour
to overthrow the form of government which Florence had
imposed upon herself. By the joint exertions of the
Pope, the Venetians, and Ludovico Sforza, a body of
troops was raised under the command of Virginio Orsini,
Piero's brother-in-law, and with Orsini was Piero himself.
Marching from the south, from the neighbourhood of

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 13 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23

Online LibraryE. L. S. (Edward Lee Stuart) HorsburghGirolamo Savonarola → online text (page 13 of 23)