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Girolamo Savonarola online

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Siena, and supported by the contingent of Bentivoglio of
Bologna marching from the north, Florence was to be
invested, its government suppressed, and the rule of the
Medici reimposed upon her. The design utterly mis-
carried and ended in fiasco, but it was in the midst of the
alarms created by the appearance of an imminent danger
that Savonarola preached his October sermons. They
must be read in the light of the situation not as it ulti-
mately developed but as it appeared at the moment.
Only so is it possible to understand or to excuse the ex-
traordinary violence of the preacher's language. Govern-
ment by a single person, he cried, is government by the
Devil. In the Grand Council lies your safety. If you


are strong and solid for the Council you need have no
fear of any man : if you abolish the Council you will be
ruined. If you find any one speaking ill of this govern-
ment mark him down as a public enemy and a rebel
against Christ. Execute justice : Off with his head ! Be
he the chief of any family whatever, off with his head !
Whoever would change the government of the Grand
Council let him be eternally cursed by the Lord ! ^

Fortunately for Savonarola's determination the passing
of the crisis was almost contemporaneous with the publi-
cation of the Papal Brief by which he was suspended from
preaching. He felt therefore no hesitation in complying
with the Pope's commands. Abandoning the work of
the pulpit to his lieutenant he awaited with patience the
result of the persistent efforts of the Signoria to modify
Alexander's resolution, while he applied himself actively
to the task of effecting a moral revolution in P'lorence.

Of the reforms accomplished at this time perhaps the
most important was the organization of the "Blessed
Bands " of children — a sort of sacred militia enlisted by the
Friar to assist his campaign against vice — and the purifica-
tion of the carnival festivities from the licence attending
them which long tradition had sanctioned and approved.

It is a proof of Savonarola's sagacity that he should
have seen the importance of influencing strongly the
rising generation if his movement of reform was to have

' My paraphrase is chiefly based on the sermon of the i6th, but it
embodies recommendations given in ail three sermons. I have not seen
it noticed that the sermon of the i6th was the twenty-ninth on the Psalms
while that of 28 July was the twenty-sixth on the Psalms. Can this mean
that he only preached twice between 28 July and 16 October ? Or was
his course on Psalms intermitted to give place to another course of which
we have no record ? It is more probable that he practically ceased to
preach after the receipt of the Brief of 8 September^until forced intoaction
by the crisis of October.


any permanence. And by forming the children of Flor-
ence into an army, regulated by a semi-military discipline,
with ranks and grades, he appealed directly to the love
of excitement and the spirit of imitation which are in
children so strongly developed. He gave them a new
form of amusement and a high sense of self-importance,
and had no difficulty in enrolling under his banner
thousands of boys and girls, if we are to believe the
chroniclers, all of them devoted to their leader, strictly
under his obedience, and full of childlike enthusiasm for
the objects which he had in view. We are told that the
girls thought no more of their dresses, but urged upon
their mothers to give to the poor what would have been
expended on their adornment. This, says Cinozzi, was
truly wonderful, " for girls, as you know, have no other
appetite than that of adorning themselves, and in this
they spend all their time ". But still more marvellous was
it that several thousands of youths of all conditions "who
were given up to every kind of vice," under Savonarola's
influence became an example to the whole city, so that a
"splendour of Divine grace shone upon their faces and a
great work was accomplished by their means". It was
Savonarola's object to regenerate each individual member
of his child-army, and then to use the members collec-
tively to forward his crusade against the prevailing
wickedness. Among their duties were the collection of
alms for the poor, house-to-house visitations for the col-
lection of " vanities " to serve as fuel for the " bonfire of
vanities " which was to be one of the great attractions of
the carnival. It was for them to stimulate religious zeal
for the services of the Church, to repress the passion for
gambling, and to give information to the authorities
where they found any infractions of existing laws, to re-
prove ostentatious or unbecoming modes of dress,


severely to repress the prevalent habit of throwing stones,
to be diligent themselves in their attendances at the
Duomo. Processions of children, carrying olive branches
and chanting hymns to the praise of Christ and the
Virgin, were to replace the barbaric pageants of the
carnival. "Children of my own," says Landucci, " were
among those blessed bands. The children were held
in such reverence that every one abstained from scan-
dalous vice," Many of the sumptuary enactments were
embodied in legal form and confirmed by the Signoria.
Filipepi, who is delightful by reason of his passion for the
marvellous and his complete deficiency in the sense of
humour, tells us that the law affecting women's dress
was recited in Council by an official who was an op-
ponent of Savonarola. He read it with such an into-
nation and in such a manner as to make it sound ridicu-
lous. It happened, however, by a curious accident that
this man shortly afterwards lost his office which was one
of the best in the Palazzo. P'ilipepi evidently has no sus-
picion that an offence against Savonarola and the loss
of a lucrative government office may have been a case of
cause and effect. At Rome, indeed, it was openly said
that Florence was in truth governed by a Friar and a
troup of children, and the Florentine envoy warned the
Signory that it was making itself and the city ridiculous
by tolerating such a state of things. Indeed, though
Savonarola's intentions were excellent, and though much
good was undoubtedly done, it may be questioned
whether the methods adopted were not bad for the city and
bad for the children. The whirl of excitement in which
they lived, the inquisitorial powers with which they were
invested, the unhealthy self-consciousness which could not
fail to be engendered, were liable to give rise to as many
evils as were suppressed by the " blessed bands ". Nor


was it likely that precocious piety, stimulated by purely
external and artificial incitements, would be permanent,
nor that the results obtained from the children's efforts
would be anything but ephemeral.

Associated with the organization of the children-militia
was the purification of the carnival in Florence. Here
Savonarola's object was to impress upon the festivities
and pageants which were customary at carnival time a
distinctly religious stamp, while maintaining as far as
possible the essential features of the carnival celebrations,
the processions, dances, songs and bonfires. The pro-
cessions were of children, white-robed and singing; the
songs were hymns of praise set to the well-known tunes
which Heinrich Izaak had composed for Lorenzo dei
Medici's " Canti Carnascialeschi" ; the dances were such
as angels and purified souls are represented as per-
forming on the frescoes and canvasses of Fra Angelico
and Botticelli, " so that it seemed as if the angels had
come down to earth to rejoice with the children of men.
Ah ! what a glorious city Florence then was ! " (Cinozzi.)
The bonfires were a consuming fire for the destruction of
" lascivious pictures, immoral books, masks, mirrors,
false hair, cosmetics, cards, dice, daggers, all the apparatus
of licentious gallantry, of extravagant play, of vindictive
passion ". It has been said that many precious works
of art perished in these bonfires, and that Savonarola's
pyramid of vanities was a fabric reared by a vandal. The
discussion of this point may, however, be postponed to a
subsequent chapter dealing with Savonarola's general
attitude towards the Renaissance.

In the meantime the city was pining to hear the voice
of its prophet sounding once more in the Duomo. Things
were going badly with Florence. The Medicean party
was raising its head, the animosity of the League was


greater than ever; the Pope was steadily exercising pres-
sure to induce Florence to abandon the French alliance,
the new Constitution was languishing for want of the
stimulus and encouragement which the man who had
called it into being could best supply. But far exceeding
all this was the sting of disappointed hopes, the sense of
bitter disillusionment in relation to the fortunes of the
war with Pisa. In June, after Savonarola's interview
with Charles at Poggibonsi, there were, as we have seen,
bright prospects for the acquisition of Pisa, and for the re-
storation of the sequestered territories of Florence. Be-
fore the end of the year the French commander in Pisa,
Entragues, had betrayed the obligations and the solemn
oaths of his master by selling the fortress of Pisa, which
Florence had built, to the Pisans, Pietra Santa to Lucca,
and Sarzana to the Genoese. Such were the conse-
quences of trusting to the predictions of an inspired
Friar ! Indeed, we cannot wonder if men pointed the con-
trast between the government of the Medici and that of the
Piagnoni. Under Lorenzo Pietra Santa and Sarzana
had been acquired ; under the Piagnoni they had been
lost. Under Lorenzo Pisa had become the first Florentine
seaport, affording easy access to the open world beyond,
under the Piagnoni Pisa had thrown off the rule of Flor-
ence, never, as it now seemed, to be regained ; while
even by land the northern roads were in the hands of
open enemies or doubtful friends.

Had these things happened at a time when Savona-
rola was in possession of the Cathedral pulpit, at a time
when he was continually declaiming what men took to be
inspired assurances of success and prosperity for P'lorence,
it would probably have gone hard with him. But now
misfortune itself redounded to his credit. P'or it was
possible to maintain that it was because his voice had


been silenced that these disasters had fallen upon the
State. If only the Pope could be induced to withdraw
his prohibition and to allow Savonarola to preach then
perchance the clouds would roll away and the sun of
fortune shine on Florence once more. Already urgent
representations had been made to the Pope to this effect.
In November the Signoria had written that " in the midst
of all our troubles nothing has helped us more . . . than
the presence and labours of Fra Hieronymo of Ferrara, a
man whom the Divine Mercy has sent to save us from
ruin. . . . Holy Father, we need this man of God and
his preaching, whereby he may bring our city, as he has
ever done, to a better way of life and to the service of
the living God." In the same month a letter was dis-
patched to Cardinal Caraffa, urging the same request in
similar terms, exhorting him to use his influence with
the Pope in order to secure permission for Savonarola to
preach the Advent sermons in the Duomo. About the
same time a special envoy, Ricciardo Becchi, was dis-
patched to Rome primarily to secure the Pope's consent
to a levy of a tenth upon ecclesiastical property. But his
instructions were precise and repeated that, in addition
to financial favours, he should endeavour to obtain a
formal sanction for the resumption of Savonarola's
preaching, " and nothing you can do could be more
pleasing and acceptable to your fellow-citizens ". For
the time, however, all these efforts were unavailing. At
last in February, 1496, the Signoria, after much debate,
formally invited Savonarola to preach during Lent, and
the invitation was accepted.

This bare statement of fact carries with it the sugges-
tion that Savonarola's resolve was nothing less than flat
rebellion against the supreme authority over that Holy
Church of which he was at once a member and a


minister. As such it is regarded by Dr. Pastor, that
eminent Roman Catholic historian of the Papacy, to
whose labours history is so much indebted. But before
stamping Savonarola as a rebel, at this stage of his career,
against the constituted authority of his Church, it is
necessary at least to take note of a mass of evidence
which presents his action in quite another light. This
evidence is so contradictory that it would, I think, be rash
to draw final conclusions from it : but, on the strength of
it, the opinion can be supported that Savonarola only
consented to preach again under the supposition that he
had the formal or implied permission of the Pope to do
so. There is the statement of the annalist, Nardi, which
Villari follows, that the Pope was induced by the efforts
of Savonarola's friends, and especially of the Ten of Lib-
erty, " to revoke the aforesaid Brief," that is, the Brief,
which suspended Savonarola from preaching. There is
the statement of Savonarola himself, reported to Ludovico
Sforza, 16 February, by Somenzi, the Milanese ambassa-
dor at Florence, that he had the Pope's leave to preach
the Lent course in Florence. There is the impression,
current at the time, and definitely expressed both in dis-
cussion and in extant correspondence, that " a certain
Cardinal " — who sometimes assumes the form of Cardinal
Caraffa — had extracted from the Pope some sort of im-
plied permission. There is a letter from Becchi to the
Ten, dated 5 April, 1496, in which he relates an inter-
view between himself and the Bishop of Capaccio. The
Bishop assured Becchi that he had done his utmost, and
with success, to appease the Pope, but that the exe-
cutive at Florence ought to see to it that Savonarola
" speaks modestly of His Beatitude, of the Most Reverend
Cardinals, and of the other prelates, not exceeding the
limits of other excellent and worthy preachers, and that


he shuts his mouth about what does not concern him,
nor belong to his office ". This means little or nothing
if it does not mean that, as far as the Pope was concerned,
Savonarola might open his mouth, provided he spoke
respectfully of dignitaries, and confined his remarks to
what concerned him.

On the other hand no formal Brief revoking the Brief
of 1 6 October is extant, and Pastor has negative evi-
dence to warrant his statement that " of course no Brief
to that effect was forthcoming ". Somenzi's assertion to
Sforza is directly contradicted by that of Tranchedino,
Sforza's envoy at Bologna, who, writing four days after
Somenzi (20 February) informs his master that it is not
true that Savonarola has the Pope's permission, but
"has taken it upon himself". The good offices of a cer-
tain Cardinal — of Caraffa or whoever is meant — seem to
have been assumed by rumour rather than to be estab-
lished by ascertained facts, and the correspondence be-
tween Becchi and the Ten in March shows that strenuous
efforts were being made to secure the Pope's sanction for
Savonarola's preaching several weeks after his preach-
ing had been in fact resumed. Moreover, if Savonarola
preached by permission from the Pope, his parable of the
Vineyard, elaborated in his sermon of 16 P'ebruary (the
first sermon after his suspension), loses much of its point.
A certain man had a vineyard which he committed to the
care of his son. Wicked men, desirous of ruining the
vineyard, maligned the son to his absent father. The
father sent for his son to answer these accusations, but
the son refused to obey the summons, for he knew that in
his absence the vineyard would be wrecked. Thus in
refusing to obey his father the son was most effectively
safeguarding his father's interests. " Whenever therefore
it is patent that the commands of superiors are contrary to


the commands of God, and especially to the laws of love,
no one in such a case ought to obey, for we must obey
God rather than man. ... It is the intention of law, not
the letter of it, which ought to be obeyed." The parable
directly applies to the speaker's refusal to go to Rome
in obedience to the Pope's commands, but indirectly it
implies that obedience to ecclesiastical superiors must
be conditional on the circumstances which have given
rise to the commands — and this in fact became Savona-
rola's fundamental position.

Reviewing the evidence I can only say for my own
part that the assertion that Savonarola, by resuming his
preaching, pronounced himself an open rebel against
Papal authority, does not seem to me to be established
though it may be true. The time was scarcely ripe for
open rebellion. Moreover the impression that something
in the nature of an implied sanction had been obtained
from Alexander was so general, both in Florence and in
Rome, that it is difificult to believe that there was no
substance behind it. More significant perhaps than any-
thing is Alexander's inaction. He grumbled, it is true,
but he took no active and immediate steps to suppress
the rebel. Alexander was not the kind of man to brook
an open defiance of his authority. On the whole it seems
probable that something which could be construed into
an implied sanction was extorted from the Pope, or that
Savonarola believed that some such sanction had been

It was on Ash Wednesday (17 February, 1496) that
Savonarola began his Lent Sermons on Amos and
Zachariah, a course which he continued daily until 3
April. All the old familiar chords are struck again,
but the new situation created by the attitude of the Pope
called for a definition of the preacher's position. There


are many expressions, scattered throughout the sermons,
of his own insufficiency for the work he was appointed
to do. He is a mannikin {omicciuold) who is not worth
threepence. He, in his own strength, is not fit to rule a
henroost. He is the moth around the candle, attracted
by its light but knowing not that it burns, so the insect
flies into it and singes its wings. He is the sailor on the
stormy sea far from port — povto mio dolce, shall I
ever see thee again ? O heart of mine, how could you
ever set sail from so sweet a haven? O my soul, see
whither thou art driven ! O my Lord, Thou seest that
I am sailing on such profound seas, yet sia fatta la tua
volunta — let Thy will be done. But these outpourings
of a soul overwrought detract in no degree from the
vigour of his exposition, from the intensity of his denun-
ciations, from the subtleness of his reasoning. He de-
clared himself repeatedly a true son of the Church, ready
at all times to render submission to lawful authority. " I
say that he will be damned who does not submit to the
Holy Roman Church." But distinction must be drawn
between lawful and unlawful commands, between author-
ity speaking through the mouth of a man, and authority
having behind it the immutable sanction of the Church.
"Commands," he said, "given in consequence of lying
reports are invalid ; when in evident contradiction to the
law of charity laid down by the Gospel it is our duty to
resist them even as St. Paul resisted St. Peter. We are
bound to presume that no such commands will be im-
posed upon us, but in case they are imposed we must
reply, ' Thou dost err, thou art not the Roman Church,
but a man and a sinner'." The Pope had placed Sa-
vonarola on the defensive, and he was compelled to resort
to dangerous distinctions which might be satisfactory
to a theological casuist, but which to plain men seemed


to bring him perilously near to rebellion against the

Equally outspoken were his denunciations against the
sins of Italy and especially of Rome. He was unmuzzled
now and meant to make full use of his freedom. With-
out referring in terms to the character of Alexander, he
yet inveighed with fiery earnestness against the vices
which prevailed at Rome, vices with which the name of
Alexander was identified. " O Rome, prepare thee, for
thy punishment shall be heavy. Thou shalt be girdled
with steel, put to the sword, to fire. . . . Thou, Rome,
art stricken with a mortal disease even unto death. Thou
hast lost thy health, thou hast forsaken the Lord, thou
art sick with sins and tribulations. If thou wouldst be
healed forsake feasting ; forsake thy pride, thy ambition,
thy lust, thy greed : these be the food that have caused
thy sickness, these that bring thee to death."

Notwithstanding the Pope's remonstrances and Briefs
the Friar still continued to put forward his claims to pro-
phetic inspiration; and incidentally to repudiate the charge
that he was a disturber of Italy. " O fools ! where are
my hosts and my treasure wherewith to throw Italy into
confusion? Not by me is Italy disturbed, but I foretell
that she will be disturbed. I foretell that the scourge
will be hastened by your sins. Thou unbelieving one,
a mighty war shall strip thee of thy pomp and pride.
Thou shalt see the barbers shaving Italy to the bone. A
mighty pestilence shall make you cast aside your vanities,
O women ; as for thee, thou murmuring populace, thy
tongue shall be stilled by a great famine. Citizens, un-
less ye live in the fear of God and the love of free govern-
ment, the Lord will bring sorrow on you, and His promises
to Florence will only be fulfilled in your children."

The high-water mark of passion and emotion was


reached in the Twenty-first Sermon on Amos, preached
on Tuesday, 8 March. The theme was the familiar one —
the sins of Italy and of Rome, and God's coming judg-
ments. " O Rome, I, the Lord, will give you up to
those who will lay you waste to your foundations. I will
bring pestilence upon you, and men bestial and cruel,
savage even as are the lions and the bears. There will
not be left enough people to bury the dead." As if in-
spired with a holy fury the preacher then proceeded to
draw so graphic a picture of the woes to come that the
exaltation of his hearers was wrought to such a pitch
that the sermon could not be continued.

In the midst of fiery prophecy and fierce denunciation
there are interspersed passages of cool and grave political
advice. The Grand Council was to elect a new Signoria
on 25 February. On the 24th the Friar's sermon was
devoted to the sense of responsibility under which the
election of chief magistrates should be made. On the day
of the election the congregation was warned against the
government of " tyrants " ; whoever desired to set up a
tyranny should be persecuted even unto death. The
doggerel couplet against the Parlaniento was repeated,
and it was dogmatically affirmed that whoever wished
to destroy the Grand Council desired to take the govern-
ment out of the hands of Christ. Electors, in casting
their vote, should cast it for the man of known prudence
and wisdom, but should the personal qualities of the
candidate be unknown, then the voter, after prayer,
should take a black bean and a white one in his hand
and, without looking, draw one of them out and put it
in the box. God would direct the choice even as He
directed the Apostles when they chose Matthias.^ There

' The growth of Savonarola legend and the transfusion of a vulgar
materialism into hyperbolical and allegorical assertions may be illustrated


was a rumour that the new Council Hall was not se-
curely built. Let them go forward without fear. Even
should the report be true, God would miraculously make
it strong enough and ensure its stability.

In the twenty-sixth Sermon he endeavours to reconcile
his frequent assurances that in the tribulations of Italy
Florence would be spared, with the existing fortunes of
the city. Bad as things were in Florence other cities
were in far worse case. Disorder is sometimes necessar)''
if order is to ensue. The calamities of P'lorence will be
great or small according to the degree in which she acts

One sermon (the twelfth) is devoted to the '^lunrae
pingiies quae estis in ino)ite Samarue'' — "ye fat cows that
are upon the mountain of Samaria " — by which are meant
the harlots who abound in Italy and most of all in Ivomc.
"Hear, O vacche grasse (pardon me, ladies, I know no
other word to use. It is not I but the Prophet that
speaks it.") The discourse is composed of miscellaneous

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Online LibraryE. L. S. (Edward Lee Stuart) HorsburghGirolamo Savonarola → online text (page 14 of 23)