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Girolamo Savonarola online

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observations on the immodesty of women's dress, the
dissoluteness of their lives; on ceremonial convention
which has supplanted the life of the spirit; masses,
organs, vestments have usur[)ed the place of living
faith and the inner worship of the heart ; on the universal

by a comparison of this passage with the slury told by Ciiio/zi of the
white beans which were miraculously changed into black ones. He says
that when the votes were taken upon the question of establishing the
new Constitution the decision in its favour was unanimous, all the beans
(votes) being black, i.e. in the affirmative. "There were however some
who said ' I know that I cast a white bean '. And some for shame stood
cjuiet: even the adversaries of the Padre Fra Hieronymo held it to lie a
wonderful thing, especially as he had many times asserted in his sermons
that the thing had to be done, whether or no, and that the white beans
would become black ones." Here we have an assertion that CJod would
direct the choice of the voters turned into a miracle performed u[)on the


passion for poetry, rhetoric and mere trifles which
exalts Aristotle, logic, and the poets into the popular
subject matter for the sermons of divines. The fruitful
rain of Heaven does not fructify such seed as this.

In the Forty-eighth Sermon the preacher bids farewell
to his flock for a while. Pestilence was raging in the
city and the contagion might be spread by a concourse
of people crowded within comparatively narrow limits.
Therefore he was going to cease from preaching. It was
true that special prayers had been offered that the pesti-
lence might not hinder the preaching, and so far none
who had attended had been stricken " neither small nor
great, neither women nor girls, but we must not tempt
God. Yet if only three-quarters of Florence would agree
to repent and live well I believe that God would remove
the scourge from us altogether." As a final word of
warning he refers to the current rumour that St. Marco
had become a centre of political intrigue, that, as Mr.
Armstrong puts it, " it was universally believed that the
midnight meetings at the Medici Palace had but been
transferred to the parlour of St. Mark's, and that elections
and legislative proposals were previously settled by an
informal caucus ". " You ought not," Savonarola declared,
" to come worrying us except on matters of real import-
ance. Every one comes to our convent for everything.
You ought not to do it. I do not want to be mixed up with
this person or that in matters concerning your government
and your laws. I am only concerned with the general
peace of the city. Go to your magistrates. Do not
come to me ; though in any case of conscience we shall
be willing to advise."

Such was the general tenor of Savonarola's Lenten
Course on Amos and Zachariah. It is clear that the
Pope's inhibition and the letters which had passed be-


tween him and Alexander had not influenced him to
abate by one jot or tittle either his pretensions to prophetic
powers, his denunciations against wickedness, or his claim
to advise on political matters. The energy and passion
which he infused into these sermons secured for him an
even wider hearing than before, and Florence in 1496
seemed to be more under his influence than at any other
time. " He governs this State," says Somenzi to Sforza
(18 March, 1496), " after his own fashion. He makes the
Signoria and all the other officials and magistrates do
whatever he likes." Yet in a sense his general position
was not so strong. He had now come into definite con-
flict with his supreme ecclesiastical superior, and the con-
flict was necessarily an unequal one. Submission or
suppression must be the inevitable result of such a con-
test, unless he were prepared to relinquish his churchman-
ship and head a schismatic movement against the Papacy.
The utmost that he was prepared to do was to appeal to
the General Council, at a ,time when councils were dis-
credited and when the European powers were engrossed
in their own secular affairs. The resentment of the Pope
might take the shape of ecclesiastical censures levelled
not merely against Savonarola but against Florence
which harboured, aided and abetted him. Time would
show how far Florence would be prepared to support the
F"riar to her own detriment. Thus, though Lent of 1496
may be looked upon as the zenith of Savonarola's for-
tunes, it rather marks the beginning of the end.

On the conclusion of his Lent sermons Savonarola
went for a short time to Prato in order to re-organize the
Dominican Convent in that town which had recently
been attached to the Tuscan Congregation. Thence he
went to Pistoia, returning to Florence about the middle
of May, when he began a course on Ruth and Micah.


The sermons were much the same in character and sub-
stance as those preached in Lent. But Alexander VI
remained quiet. He seems to have hoped by lenient
treatment to conciliate the Friar, and is said on somewhat
insufficient authority to have made him an offer of a
Cardinal's hat. At any rate, in his sermon of 20 August,
Savonarola declared that he had no desire for hats or
mitres, save, " that which Thou hast given to all Thy
saints, death, a red hat, a hat red with blood. This is
all my desire." This sermon is of special importance, for
it may be regarded as an official manifesto issued to
friends and opponents alike. It was preached not in the
Duomo but in the New Council Hall, by request of the
Signoria, and all the city magistracy was invited to be
present. Savonarola justifies his past action, defends
himself from the charge of having ruined the State, and
" of doing everything here". Far from this being true,
he is no politician (Jo non sono uonio di Statd)^ he does
not concern himself with affairs of state. He, an alien,
who had nothing to lose, was not a fit person to advise
in regard to the particulars of government : all his re-
commendations had been of a general character, such as
his advocacy of the Grand Council and the abolition of the
Parlamento. He was charged with having advocated an
alliance with France, or an alliance with the League.
He has not spoken on the matter, nor given grounds for
any Prince, King or Lord being able to boast that he has
favoured one rather than another. His advice had been
that the government should submit its problems to God
in prayer, and then act in accordance with divine inspira-
tion. "Nevertheless, O Friar, you have said 'Lilies
and Lilies'? You did not understand my meaning."
i^Tu non lo intendi quello).

This is a remarkable declaration, and a very summary


way of disposing of an impression which was universally
entertained. What then had been his meaning when he
urged the union of the Lilies ? In what sense did he de-
sire what appeared to be his whole course of policy since
the coming of Charles VIII into Italy to be taken?
What justification does he offer for leading all the world
to believe that he meant one thing when in fact he meant
another and a different thing? An answer to these
questions consistent with the good faith and veracity of
Savonarola may perhaps, even though with difficulty, be
found. The statesmen and the theologian are seldom
at a loss to find reasons drawn from metaphysics and
etymology which will reconcile statements which to the
plain man appear contradictory. But in this case it
is at least probable that the explanation of Savonarola's
guarded words of 20 August upon his attitude towards
the Franco-Florentine alliance is to be found in the
political situation of Florence at the moment which was
leading him to contemplate a rupture with France and
the possibilities of securing foreign support for Florence
from other quarters.

For by this time it was obvious to all men that the
alliance with France was producing none of those results
which had been expected from it. Charles, as Landucci
puts it, was evidently "making game of them". Pisa
seemed to be irretrievably lost ; territories which be-
longed to Florence had first been appropriated and then
sold out of hand by a French officer ; Florence by the
rest of Italy was held as a traitor to the common cause ;
plague, pestilence and famine ran riot in the city. More
than this, nothing had been done by Charles to accom-
plish the reformation of the Church and of Italy which,
according to Savonarola, he was divinely commissioned
to effect. In such circumstances and at such a time it


was certainly a happy idea on the part of those who
opposed the Friar to concoct letters — or a letter — pur-
porting to be written by Savonarola to Charles, to intro-
duce into them offensive references to Charles's falseness,
and then to intercept these letters and make them public.
It was towards the end of August, just at the time of
Savonarola's sermon of the 20th, that Somenzi, the agent
of Sforza, showed to the Signoria certain letters, osten-
sibly from Savonarola to the King of France, at the same
time causing a copy of them to fall into the hands of the
French envoy at Florence who found that he was himself
alluded to in very disparaging terms. Savonarola, when
appealed to, declared that he knew nothing about the
letters — he could only judge of their authenticity when the
originals were in his hands. The Signoria would express
no opinion as to the genuineness of the letters, but en-
deavoured to excuse them to Somenzi as containing no-
thing, whether they were forged or genuine, detrimental to
the interests of Sforza or of the League. The French envoy
rushed off to the Signoria demanding instant explanations
and apologies. He would hear nothing of the letters
being a forgery, insisting that they were undoubtedly the
handiwork of the Friar, on whom he \'owed vengeance, de-
claring that he would " show up his hypocrisies and
rascality". " Thus," says Somenzi, "the matter is made
public to the great shame of the Friar," and for three
weeks Florence was in the throes of a diplomatic crisis.
Savonarola tried to pacify the envoy through the medium
of the Cardinal of Gurk. The envoy assured the Signoria
that it was this Friar who was ruining Florence. The
matter was at last patched up, but the incident left an
unpleasant taste behind it, and impressed observers with
the conviction that the popularity of the French cause
was declining in Florence.


The inactivity of Charles VIII, the hopelessness of
resting any confidence upon his support, were thrown in-
to more glaring relief by the vigour and enterprise of the
League, While Charles lingered in his own kingdom
beyond the Alps, long expected but doing nothing, the
League was successful in securing for its cause not merely
the name and patronage of the Emperor Maximilian but
his actual presence at the head of an army in Italy.
By the end of September, 1496, he was at Vigevano in
Lombardy, and in October he had made his way by
Genoa to Pisa. Every effort was made in Florence to
propitiate Maximilian and to secure his friendship. A
special embassy pursued the vagrant Emperor from place
to place until at last he was found at Pisa. He was as-
sured of the great desire of Florence to do everything
that was pleasing to him. He was reminded of the ad-
vantages which might accrue to himself from an alliance
with her, though the ambassadors were candid enough to
declare that in no circumstances, not even to secure the
Emperor's friendship, could Florence join the League :
to do so would be contrary to her honour, her good faith
and her interest. The Emperor saw the advantage of
temporizing while he pursued his plan of campaign.
Professing his inability to give a definite reply without
consulting his allies he referred the Embassy to the
Papal Legate who was at Genoa. He in turn referred
them to Sforza at Milan. Meantime, while the ambassa-
dors were thus engaged in futile wanderings, Maximilian,
in conjunction with the Venetians, invested Leghorn,
thus threatening the last source of supply for Florence
from the outside world.

Within Florence every one was in despair. The price
of corn rose to between five and six lire per bushel. The
gaunt figure of famine stalked through her streets, and


pestilence added its horrors to starvation. The Signoria
confessed its impotence by declaring that the citizens
must trust to other than human aid. At this juncture
Savonarola was foremost in the endeavour to keep up
the sinking hearts of the people. The rich were exhorted
to charity with such effect that, Filipepi tells us, 2000
scudi were collected in the Duomo alone. The operations
of the Monte were largely extended. At Savonarola's
suggestion the famous image of the Virgin was brought
from Sta. Maria Impruneta and carried in solemn pro-
cession through the city. As the procession moved along
— " even at the very hour when the Virgin was entering
the city" — news arrived that some corn ships from
Marseilles had forced the blockade of Leghorn (29 Octo-
ber). Florence was saved, surely by nothing less than a
direct interposition of Providence on her behalf. Her
prophet had proved a saviour more powerful than her
government : the timely intervention of a French squad-
ron had given visible evidence of the advantages of the
French alliance. The sinking credit of Savonarola was
restored, and the popularity of his Francophil policy be-
came greater than ever.

The day before the great news came from Leghorn
Savonarola resumed his course of sermons on Ruth and
Micah. For more than a month he had abstained from
preaching, but in the existing crisis he felt he could be
silent no longer. The sermon, the twenty-sixth on Ruth,
created a tremendous impression, for Somenzi, writing
the same day, gives Sforza an abstract of it, remarking
that " the Friar has spoken wonderful things ". The
preacher recalled the services which in past times he had
rendered to Florence, how he had saved her when
threatened by Charles, and how his predictions had been
realized in the past. So it would be with those predic-


tions which had not yet come to pass. If only Florence
stood firm in the faith, God's promises would be fulfilled
in her. " This doctrine which I preach is not mine : it is of
God. You murmur against me : you want to make me
out to be a prophet. I am not a prophet, nor the son
of a prophet . . . but I say to you in verbo Domini,
that if you set up a tyrant amongst you it will go ill with
you and with him."

This timely appearance in the pulpit confirmed the
conviction on the part o^ his adherents that in some
supernatural way the fortunes of the State were at the
disposal of the Friar. When he was silent everything
went ill : when he preached, immediately everything be-
gan to go well. In less than three weeks after the
delivery of this sermon the Emperor had withdrawn in
disgust from a thankless task which had brought him to
bankruptcy but had effected nothing for his cause. On
17 November, Maximilian retired from Italy, and his
active participation in the efforts of the Holy League
was at an end.

In Florence itself the strife of parties towards the
close of the year had resulted in developments which
on the whole were favourable to the Piagnoni and to
Savonarola. Piero Capponi, one of the strongest men in
Florence, who had drifted into the position of leader of
the anti-Savonarola faction, had earlier in the year been
killed while prosecuting the war with Pisa, and his death
had cleared the way for the emergence of Francesco
Valori as the most powerful man in the State. Valori
was fanatical in his support of Savonarola and the
Piagnoni interest, and his election as Gonfalonier for the
months of January and February, 1497, was a striking
evidence of the ascendancy which the Friar now en-
joyed. It was, however, at the moment when Savona-


rola seemed to be once more in the ascendant that a new
blow was dealt him from the hands of the Pope. A
Papal Brief of 7 November, 1496, was issued within a
few days of the relief of Leghorn, and struck Savonarola
at the very time when he was specially identified with
the miraculous preservation of the State from an over-
whelming danger. By this Brief he found himself deposed
from the independent position which, as Vicar-General
of the Tuscan Congregation of Dominican Convents, he
had secured, with the alternatives of submission and re-
bellion clearly defined before him. Submission meant
that the sources of his power would be undermined to a
degree which might imply their total destruction : re-
bellion meant consequences both for himself and for
Florence which could scarcely fail to be fatal.

A new chapter in Savonarola's history opens with the
renewed warfare between Prophet and Pope,



THE Papal Brief of 7 November, 1496, announced the
appointment of Cardinal Caraffa as Vicar-General
of a new Congregation of Dominican houses, to be known
as the Tusco-Roman Congregation, and of these associated
Convents S. Marco was to be one. The effect of the
Brief was to destroy the newly created Tuscan Congrega-
tion, to depose Savonarola from the position of its
Vicar-General, and to reduce S. Marco from a situation
of independent superiority to one of subservience.

These effects, however, were incidental to the Brief:
they were not necessarily the animating causes of it. The
name of Savonarola is not mentioned ; the name of S.
Marco merely finds its place with the other houses which
were to form the new Congregation, Cardinal Caraffa
was Savonarola's friend. The document itself, in its cold
official language and in its formal statement of papal
policy, bears upon its face no other appearance than that
of a pronouncement upon a minor detail of ecclesiastical
organization. There is not a word in it which is incon-
sistent with the zeal of a conscientious and spiritually-
minded Pope for the best interests of a religious order
which he was desirous of sei^ving.

It would, however, be to put a strain even upon charity
to suppose that Alexander VI was wholly unmindful of
the personal consequences for Savonarola which the



Brief entailed, and, if those consequences were clearly
foreseen, it must be admitted that under the innocent
disguise of a harmless and ordinary administrative act
the Pope cleverly covered a crushing blow dealt against
the Friar. For if Savonarola resisted he declared him-
self a rebel ; if he acquiesced he surrendered a vital source
of his power. In either event the advantage was all
with the Pope. It is therefore as an astute move in the
game of war between Pope and Prophet that the Brief
of 7 November must be estimated.

The precise motives which prompted aggressive action
on the part of Alexander at this time rather than at
another can only be determined inferentially. More than
fifteen months had elapsed since he had commanded
Savonarola's presence at Rome, but the command had not
yet been obeyed : more than thirteen months ago he had
been inhibited from preaching, yet in the interval he had
continually preached : S. Marco had been officially and on
paper reunited to the Lombard Congregation, yet it still
remained independent. More than twelve months had
passed since the Friar's suspension had been formally
confirmed, yet his activity had continued as great as
ever. At any moment throughout 1496 further action
on the part of the Pope was to be looked for, yet no
action was taken until the year had nearly expired.

The fact seems to be that throughout this long in-
terval the Pope scarcely knew his own mind upon the
matter. The diplomatic correspondence with Rome in
1496 shows him in a state of irritable uncertainty as to
the proper course to adopt. Continually beset by re-
presentations from Florence on behalf of the Friar he
was equally beset by the representations of the League
in opposition to him. The Pope probably knew the
danger to any cause which lies in manufacturing a martyr


against it : moreover it must have been difficult for him
to realize that an obscure monk was worth serious at-
tention except at the moments when his case was thrust
prominently before him. While Savonarola naturally
in the eyes of his biographers completely fills the picture,
yet, beyond their perspective, the great world to which
Savonarola was unknown was still going on, and Alex-
ander had many other things to do and to think about.

Now, however, in the autumn of 1496 when the Friar's
influence seemed to be weakening, when his pro-French
policy was being discredited, when the activities of the
League seemed likely to be crowned with some definite
results, the moment appeared to be opportune for a
move which, under the guise of an impersonal adminis-
trative measure, forced the adversary's hand, and placed
him in a dilemma from which escape with advantage was

Savonarola felt the blow keenly and entered a vigor-
ous protest. He was supported by the whole brother-
hood of S. Marco, who unanimously, to the number of
about 250, protested, by letter to the Pope, against the
proposals of the Brief, this protest being followed by an
elaborate Apology in which they justified their opposition
in detail. In the meantime Torriano, the General of the
Dominican Order, was busy in conjunction with Cardinal
Caraffa in carrying the Pope's instructions into execution,
but no immediate steps were taken in regard to S. Marco
until the issue of the appeal of the brethren to Alexander
should be made known. Savonarola himself utilized
the interval to strengthen his improved position in Flor-
ence, and to take all possible advantage of the ascend-
ancy which at the close of the year his party had so
providentially gained in the city. Throughout Advent
he preached a course upon Ezekiel which he continued


into Lent, and celebrated the Carnival festivities of 1497
on an even more extended scale of pietistic enthusiasm
than in the previous year.

The Advent sermons call for no special comment, for
they follow closely the lines, with which we have be-
come familiar, of previous courses. Li Lent, however, and
especially in the sermon of 27 February, he rises to a
note of unwonted exaltation in his appeal to Florence —
Vivi ! levasu, anwia mia ! Vivi, viviy Firenze ! Risorgi,
Firenze ! Vivi! apri gli occhi!^' This is one of many of the
Friar's sermons which must be interpreted in the light of
the immediate political situation. \n a few hours Fran-
cesco Valori would lay down his office of Gonfalonier,
and his place would be taken by Bernardo del Nero,
leader of the aristocratic party, and well known as having
little sympathy with the Piagnone. For the next two
months at any rate Savonarola would have to face the
opposition of a hostile Signoria.

In the same sermon the preacher makes reference to
the demand which had arisen that he should perform a
miracle. The demand was not unnatural. Savonarola
claimed to be the mouthpiece of God, and the assurances
which he gave to Florence assumed the colour of divinely
inspired prophecies. When the actual course of events
seemed to be running contrary to those assurances it was
inevitable that some unmistakable manifestation should
be asked for to prove that Savonarola was a prophet in-
deed. The suggestion of a miracle had first fallen,
with or without conscious intention, from the Pope him-
self in his Brief of September, 1495 — " It is not enough
for any one simply to declare that he has been sent by
God. . . . He must confirm this claim to a Divine mission
either by a miracle, or by some special testimony of Holy
Scripture." And in the atmosphere of sensationalism


and religious excitement which surrounded Savonarola
such a demand, emanating originally from sceptical op-
ponents, was likely to be favourably received even by
enthusiastic supporters.

To this general and increasing demand for a sign
Savonarola gave his answer in his sermon of 27 February :
"Ah! seek not a miracle, my son, for no miracle is
needed for living well {al ben vivere). Whoever asks for
manifestions of that kind when they are not necessary
asks only from curiosity. And then the Lord will give
answer 'A depraved generation seeks a sign'. Those
who demand miracles are wicked men. . . . The good
life : that is the miracle. Live well : that is the miracle.

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Online LibraryE. L. S. (Edward Lee Stuart) HorsburghGirolamo Savonarola → online text (page 15 of 23)