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Girolamo Savonarola online

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A miracle is that which is above and beyond nature. To
live well and lead a Christian life is in itself something
^ sopra natura'. Seek for no other miracle than that,
though I say of a truth that whenever the need shall
arise I have such faith in Our Saviour that He will cer-
tainly provide one."

While Savonarola's Lent course was in progress the
reaction against him, of which the election of Bernardo
del Nero as Gonfalonier is a testimony, found expression
in a rival course of Lent sermons, preached in response
to a special invitation, by the Friar's whilom adversary,
Fra Mariano da Genazzano. Mariano's well-known Medi-
cean proclivities, coupled with the Gonfalonierate of del
Nero, who was supposed to favour a Medici restoration,
were certainly suggestive of a concerted plan on the part
of the Palleschi, — as the adherents of the exiled family
were styled — to subvert the republican government, and
to establish either Piero, or the younger branch of his
family, in the seat of power. Additional weight attached
to Fra Mariano's presence and utterances in Florence
from the fact that he had lived for some years in Rome,


was deep in the counsels of the Pope, and might be
taken therefore as representing the Papal mind in re-
gard to the existing situation. But Mariano's immediate
purpose was not to restore the Medici but to undermine
Savonarola ; to show the hoUowness of his pretensions to
Divine inspiration, and to warn the Florentines of the
penalties which they incurred by continuing to harbour
and support a rebel against the Pope's authority. No
record of Mariano's sermons has come down to us other
than his dramatic appeal to the Pope to "cut off, cut off,
most blessed Father, this monster from the Church of
God," but it is not a large assumption to suppose that he
alluded to the state of impotence to which Florence had
reduced herself by her adhesion to the Friar, to the dis-
sensions which rent the city, to the arbitrary and fanatical
government of Valori, to the intolerance of the Piagnoni
when in power which had just shown itself in the banish-
ment of many Franciscan preachers who had presumed
to raise their protest against Savonarola's ascendancy.
These were some of the facts of the moment which en-
grossed public attention, and Mariano's congregation
went, we may be sure, to hear his views on the situation
whether he actually expressed them or not.

Savonarola at any rate considered the sermons of his
rival to be sufficiently damaging to merit a reply. On
Saturday, 1 1 March, and on the following Sunday, he
preached two sermons, both of which were prompted
by the remarks of Mariano. In the first he referred to
the threat of an excommunication against himself which
Mariano seems to have let fall, and declared that no ex-
communication would come this year just as, in accord-
ance with his prediction, none had come last year. In
the second he inveighed with renewed fervour against the
corruptions of the Church ; " he took the bit from his


tongue" — to quote Villari — "and, stimulated by the re-
proofs of the Augustinian, was once more so aggressive
against the Church and the Pope that the sermon still
remains upon the prohibited list".

In the meantime vigorous preparations had been in
operation for many weeks for the celebration of the Mid-
Lent Carnival. As early as Christmas Day, 1496, the
vast congregation gathered in the Duomo (Nardi tells us
it numbered over 1300) had been exhorted to surrender
their "Vanities" into safe keeping against the great day
of the "Bonfire of the Vanities" which was to be the
crowning feature of the occasion. The children composing
the Blessed Bands were active in the public collection of
alms in the streets, and in domiciliary visits for the
ostensible purpose of persuading the citizens to give up
their Vanities, which also bore the appearance of a novel
form of police espionage organized by the Piagnone party
against those who disagreed with them. Among the
articles collected Nardi enumerates books, both in Latin
and the vulgar tongue, which were likely to prove in-
jurious to morals; pictures and statues of all kinds which
might arouse lascivious suggestions : so that from the
beginning of the Advent fast up to the Carnival a multi-
tude of such things were given up : false hair, head-
dresses and ornaments for the head ; face paints, washes,
perfumes of all kinds and similar vanities ; beautiful
pictures, chessboards, playing cards, books of fate, of
magic and of superstition ; the works of Boccaccio and
the Morgante — a marvellous quantity. On the appointed
day a solemn Mass was celebrated in the Duomo ; then
a procession was marshalled in due order, and the pro-
cessionists, all clothed in white, with red crosses in their
hands, their heads entwined with olive garlands, marched
first to S. Marco, then back to the Cathedral, where the


alms already collected were distributed ; then to the
Piazza del Signoria singing psalms and hymns and popu-
lar lauds. There on the Piazza stood the great pyre of
Vanities piled to a great height. At the appointed signal
a blast of trumpets sounded for action. The four Cap-
tains of the quarters advanced with torches in their
hands, and amid the deafening clamour of trumpets and
applause the symbolic figure of Old Carnival which
crowned the structure seemed under the influence of the
gathering flames for a moment to be endowed with anima-
tion, tottered, fell, and was lost to view amid the fiery
blaze and whirling clouds of smoke.

The Carnival celebration of mid-February marks the
climax of Valori's Piagnone administration and of domin-
ant Savonarolism. But it may be doubted if its ulti-
mate effects did not do more to undermine than to
establish the influence of the Friar. Pietistic excite-
ment inevitably tends to reaction, and scenic extrava-
gances applied to the realm of the spirit may tend to
deaden the very life which they are designed to inspire.
Whatever may have been the momentary outcome of
a spectacular protest against luxury and vice, it could
scarcely fail to pander to a dangerous emotionalism and
to create an appetite for organized destruction. It was
indeed much the same spirit of morbid and unhealthy
sensationalism which led now to the burning of the
Vanities and later to the burning of Savonarola. A
wrought-up mob was being schooled not to discriminate
between combustible objects so long as there was some-
thing to burn. Nor was this the only extravagance
which distinguished the Carnival of 1497. The restraints
enforced by Savonarola in his pursuit of moral reform,
his methods of inquisition into the details of private life,
the whole atmosphere of miracle and thaumaturgy which


breathed around him, seemed to many to impose an in-
tolerable servitude upon the free instincts of nature, to
be a too complete reversion, in the days of Humanism,
to the repressive asceticism of the Middle Age,

Practical measures were deemed necessary to stem the
tide of reaction. The Piagnoni determined that while
they held the reins they would drive furiously, and
practically muzzle opposition by banishment, intimida-
tion, and the brute force of a majority vote. In the
hope of securing a larger measure of support in the
Grand Council the age limit of admission to that body
was reduced from twenty-nine to twenty-four, for it was
thought that younger men might introduce an enthusi-
asm for republican institutions vvdiich was scarcely to be
looked for from those who had been schooled in the
traditions of a despotism. The reduction, however, pro-
duced a contrary result, for it was among the young men
of fashion that Savonarola met with his most determined
and unscrupulous opponents. They in a special degree
found themselves affected by the unwonted Puritanism
which he and his adherents enforced. To indulge all
the vices against which Savonarola inveighed became
almost a point of honour among those to whom vice only
assumed the appearance of a convenient badge of polit-
ical opposition to the Friar. The party known as the
Compagnacci was composed mainly of young men, and
under its leader, Doffo Spini, it was every day becoming
more powerful and more aggressive. It was an in-
formal association of hot-heads and young bloods which
represented nothing but hostility to the Friar and all his
works, and its successive periods of prominence or in-
activity afford a measure of the fluctuations of Savona-
rola's influence.

The Gonfalonierate of Bernardo del Nero marks the


period when the dissensions of faction threatened nothing
less than the disruption of the State. At no time were
strong government, united action, a common sense of
civic patriotism, more necessary. Famine had reached to
such a point that men dropped down dead in the streets
from sheer exhaustion, and a famine-stricken populace
could offer no effective resistance to the ravages of pesti-
lence. The Pisan war was dragging on with no prospect
of success, and in the distance the mutterings of Papal
thunders could be heard threatening excommunication
and interdict upon the devoted city. The situation
drove the government into action. At the beginning of
April a small committee of eleven citizens was appointed,
the members of which were known as / Pacieri, or the
Pacifiers. Their business was to compose the discords
in the city, and it was hoped that a body of men
which included leading representatives of the conflicting
parties — Del Nero himself and Francesco Valori were
members of the committee — might prove successful in
arriving at some common understanding. Guicciar-
dini, however, whose father was one of the Pacieri, dis-
misses their efforts in a sentence : " They produced no
effect, and every day the humours boiled up anew ". The
State was ripe for a revolution.

Indeed responsible men had for some time been con-
sidering what form the inevitable revolution should take,
what system of government should replace the discredited
control of the Grand Council. Bernardo del Nero was
not deterred by his position as temporary head of the
State from contemplating uno Stato stretto, that is to say
an aristocratic and oligarchical system analogous to that
which had existed under the Medici. Though not a
Medicean in the sense of desiring the restoration of Piero,
yet Del Nero looked to the younger branch of the Medici


House to provide representative figureheads for his pro-
posed government which should revert to the old tradi-
tional Medicean policy of alliance between Florence and
Milan. Such proposals being in the air it was natural
that Piero de'Medici should have felt the time to be ripe
for a renewed attempt to re-establish the position which he
had lost. At the head of a small troop he advanced from
Siena at the end of April and appeared at the Porta
Romana, confident in the belief that his presence would be
greeted by an immediate and irresistible rising of his ad-
herents on his behalf. No such rising occurred. Florence
might be in need of a revolution, but she was as yet by no
means determined as to the kind of revolution she wanted,
and was far from showing any real or united enthusiasm
for Piero and his enterprise. Mortified by the absence of
support, and hampered by heavy and incessant rains,
Piero made no effort to use the force at his disposal, but
withdrew ignominiously to Siena whence he had come.

Piero's raid, though in itself as contemptible as it was
abortive, was none the less fraught with the ultimate fate
of Savonarola and his opponents. In a few months it
was to cost Bernardo del Nero his life, and Savonarola
no small part of his credit and reputation. But this was
in the future. For the moment it rather served to in-
crease the confidence of his immediate adherents in the
prophet who, it was said, had predicted what the issue of
Piero's venture would be ; who might indeed be thought
miraculously to have influenced it.^ But the number, if

1 Nardi relates that Filippo Arrigucci, one of the Signory, sent Girolamo
Benivieni as a deputation to Savonarola to inquire what the issue of Piero's
enterprise would be. "O you of little faith," was the reply, "wherefore
do you doubt ? Do you not know that God is with you ? Go, and say
from me to those Signori that we will pray for the City — that Piero shall
come as far as the gate, and turn away having effected nothing " — and it
was so.


not the faith, of his devotees was declining : the glamour
of his eloquence and of his personality was beginning to
fade, and at this time of crisis, confusion and alarm his
opponents seemed to see their opportunity to destroy
him. A new Signoria was installed in office a few days
before the term of its predecessor had expired, and it was
found to be composed of men equally opposed to the
Medici and to Savonarola. Thus once more adversity
was credited with making strange bedfellows. It began
to be rumoured that the Friar was drawing towards the
Mediceans, that he was drawing away from the French
alliance, that he was intriguing to overthrow the Consti-
tution and to establish Francesco Valori in a quasi-
despotism by securing his appointment as Gonfalonier
for life.

The truth of these rumours, whether much or little,
need not now concern us : that they existed is the salient
fact which helps to an understanding of the active and
rancorous hostility which he was now called upon to
meet. A concurrence of opinion tended to identify the
Friar with the distractions by which the City was torn.
A chance suggestion of the year before that he should be
banished from the City was revived : the Compagnacci
were prepared to go farther, and threatened physical vio-
lence if not death against him ; the war of pulpits between
contending preachers added to the clamour. It was the
3rd of May, the eve of the Ascension. On that day a
Pratica met to consider the situation and resolved that,
in consequence of the plague, all preaching should cease
for a time in the City, but it was evidently left doubtful
whether the resolution was to take immediate effect or
was only to be put in force after the Ascension Day
Sermons had been preached. It was known that Sav-
onarola was to preach that day in the Duomo, and he


himself was trusting to the occasion to assist him in re-
trieving the situation. Throughout the 3rd excitement
was at fever point upon the question — would the Friar
preach or would he not? Bets were freely laid by the
Compagnacci that he would not. Savonarola's friends
gathered around him, imploring him not to expose him-
self to an extreme and unnecessary risk. He put all
remonstrances aside, and on the morning of 4 May he
was prepared to set forth to the Duomo. But in the
meantime the Compagnacci had used the silence of the
night to effect a sacrilegious entrj' into the Cathedral.
There they defiled the pulpit by smearing it with grease,
if not with more loathsome and disgusting material ; ^
hung around it the putrid skin of an ass, and in the
middle of the church contrived a collapsible structure,
supporting a heavy chest which was to fall while the ser-
vice was in progress, and create general tumult and

Outside, in the streets between S. Marco and the
Duomo, the coming of the Friar was awaited by an ex-
pectant and uncertain mob which might be swayed this
way or that according to the mood of the moment. Once
more Savonarola's friends besought him not to set forth,
to abandon his intention of preaching that day, not to
expose himself and his cause to the imminent risk of
destruction. Savonarola remained immovable. Seeing
that at all hazards he would go, his followers constituted
themselves into a strong bod}'guard, and thus escorted he
made his way to the Cathedral. His sermon was based
on the text — " Domine, Deus mens, in te speravi. Salvuin
vie facy \0 Lord, my God, in Thee have I trusted.

1 We may hope that popular rumour exaggerated the enormity of this
outrage. Somenzi says "imbratato il pulpito di s«ro " (fat). He is not
likely to have minimized his account for Sforza's benefit.


Make me safe.] He thought, he said, to be in Heaven
with Christ that morning, but he has been disappointed.
*' You thought perhaps that I was afraid ; know you not,
that faith fears nothing. You cannot hurt my soul. You
benefit me by your persecutions. You thought I would
not come to preach to-day. I have come. ' Thanks to
your escort,' you will say. I did not summon it. I de-
sired to come, and always will come when God inspires
me to do so, and no man on earth shall stop me. I will
give my life for my flock. Other good shepherds, better
than I, will not be wanting to take my place, for God,
out of these stones, can raise up children to Abraham.

Lord, my God, they say that I have seduced and
deceived the people. Thou knowest that I have com-
mitted no such sin. Thou knowest what voice it was
that called me to the City of Florence, saying ' Go forth
from thine own land, and from thy kindred, and from
thy father's house, and come to the land which I shall
show thee'. By Thy inspiration, by no will of my own,

1 came to this city, and I am content that the glorious
Virgin Mary has deigned to be a witness, together with
all the blessed spirits and all the patriarchs and prophets,
apostles, martyrs, confessors, virgins and all the company
of Heaven, against my soul if I have not spoken truth.
All that I have preached of the scourge of Italy, of the
renovation of the Church, of the promises made to Flor-
ence, and all the other things I have predicted in Thy
name, I have not pronounced them of myself, but by Thy
illumination and commandment : not the illumination of
dreams, but illumination given openly and clearly in my
waking hours, with all the certainty which is fitting to so
great a thing." All that he has said about the govern-
ment, about the new Constitution has been spoken in
obedience to God ; he has said only that which God has


made htm say. The rumours that under him S. Marco
has become a poHtical conventicle, and its funds the
treasury of a party are false. If the accusations made
against him are true he is willing to lose the grace of
God and to undergo any punishment. He calls Heaven
and Earth to witness that those who speak against " these
things " speak not against him but against God. " Ex-
surge Domine in ira Tiia. I ask not vengeance, nor do I
think of it, but Thou seest, O Lord, how many devils
have come out of Hell ^ to excite the wicked to extinguish
Thy light." He exhorts his hearers to peace, charity
and concord. " But, you say, it is you, Friar, who are the
cause of our dissensions. It is your bad life which is
the cause. Christ came not to bring peace between the
wicked and the good, but war ; to divide the father from
the son, the mother from the daughter, father-in-law from
daughter-in-law, brother from brother, parent from parent.
Live well, and then there will be peace. If you will not,
then it is you, not I, that are the cause of these dissensions.
You seek to hinder my preaching in order that you may
live after your own fashion. Do not do so or it will fare
ill with you. But, Friar, you ought not to be preaching
this morning for fear of scandal. My preaching has
never been cause of scandal. But the Signoria forbade
you. That is not true, and if it were it would be open
to discussion whether I was bound to obey. Whenever
I shall feel that scandal will arise then I shall not preach.

I hear rumours astir " It was probably at this

moment that the heavy box came clattering down on the
stone flooring of the church. Instantly tumult began to

1 The Miltonic idea of the great conspiracy hatched in Hell by proud
Lucifer in order to hinder the Divine word spoken by the holy prophet,
which constitutes the sixth canto of " Cedrus Libani " is doubtless derived
from this passage.


prevail among the congregation. Few knew what had
happened. Everybody in alarm was wondering what
would happen next. The din of confused voices resounded
through the Duomo, and above it for one brief moment
more rose the voice of the preacher. " Have patience :
if you knew what I know — even I — you would cry out.
Have no fear you others, for God is with us, and there
are here many legions of Angels. . . ." Panic was giving
way to riot. The shrill tones from the pulpit were
drowned in the growing tumult. His devoted band
gathered around the preacher, and he was escorted back
through the menacing crowds in safety to S. Marco. Men
said that the days of Guelphs and Ghibellines had returned.
Such, as far as my imagination can read through the lines
of the records, was the scene enacted in the Duomo
on this Ascension morning. It was the last sermon which
Savonarola was to preach that year. He determined to
submit to the decision of the Signoria, a decision which
was still in operation when a higher authority intervened.
The government, under the pretext of the general interest,
had impartially suspended all preaching for a time, and
Savonarola was silent with the rest. Within a fortnight
he was a marked man, an ecclesiastical outcast, for upon
1 3 May a Papal Brief pronounced upon him the sentence
of excommunication.

Rather more than six months had passed since the
issue of the Papal Brief of November, enjoining the union
of S. Marco with the Tusco-Roman Congregation of
Dominican Convents. In the interval Savonarola had
done nothing in obedience to the Papal injunction, but
had been vigorous in protest against it. We can but
marvel at the prolonged patience of a Pope who was
content for six months to sit still and see himself defied.
The diplomatic correspondence of those months shows


him to have been constantly in a state of irritation and
annoyance, not so much perhaps against Savonarola
personally as against Florence which allowed itself to be
led by the nose by a " chatterer " {parabolano). His
complaint especially was that Florence would not join
the League, insisted on the maintenance of the French
alliance, would pay no attention to his assurances, on
behalf of the League, as to the restoration of Pisa,
and would take no steps to check the extravagant in-
vectives of the Friar against one who, however un-
worthily, occupied the sacred seat of St. Peter. Perhaps
the Pope's indulgence was prompted by Piero's prepara-
tions for his attempt in the Spring. If the Medici were
restored the subordination of Florence, and of Savona-
rola, to the Pope's policy would be automatically secured.
But the attempt had failed ; the credit of Savonarola was
on the wane : the events of Ascension Day showed the
strength of internal opposition against him. The mo-
ment seemed opportune and the Pope determined to
profit by it.

The Brief ^^ Cum saepe a quaniplurimis'' of 13 May,
1497, recapitulates the previous history of the case be-
tween Savonarola and the Holy See. The Pope having
understood that a certain Fra Hieronymo Savonarola
of P^errara has disseminated some kind of pernicious
dogma to the scandal and destruction of simple souls,
had hoped that, his error being demonstrated, he would
return to the path of obedience. Therefore Papal
Briefs had been issued bidding the said Friar to come
to Rome and to cease from preaching, but these he has
shown himself totally unwilling to obey. The Pope has
treated his disobedience with greater leniency perhaps
than the case deserved, for he has tolerated the Friar's
excuses and even endured his persistence in preaching


" trusting by our clemency to convert him to the true path
of obedience". But it has turned out otherwise, for
when, by a further Brief the Convent of S. Marco was
united to the Tusco-Roman Congregation the Friar
utterly refused obedience to the Papal commands, neg-
lected the ecclesiastical censures which he had thus au-
tomatically incurred, and, ^'pertinaciter et damnabiliter''
persisted in his obstinacy, " Wherefore we, desirous of
affording suitable remedies for the safety of souls for
which by virtue of our pastoral office we are responsible,
lest their blood be required at our hands in the last
Judgment Day, enjoin and command you, and anyone
of you, that in your churches on holy days, when the
people are present in numbers, you declare and pronounce

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Online LibraryE. L. S. (Edward Lee Stuart) HorsburghGirolamo Savonarola → online text (page 16 of 23)