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opinion for denying the privileges of the Constitution,
on which he had been the loudest to insist, to a body of
accused persons who happened to be prominently identi-
fied with opposition to his party. Five citizens were
condemned to death on the charge of having been privy
to a conspiracy against the State. They appealed from
the verdict of the Signoria to the Grand Council under
the law of " the six beans ". The appeal was refused,
and the refusal was generally attributed to the influence
exercised by Savonarola.

These developments were the outcome of events to
which reference has already been made. The attempt
of Piero de' Medici had occurred at the end of April, and
had resulted, as has been seen, in fiasco. A small com-
mission was at once appointed to investigate the affair
and to discover to what extent it represented an organized
conspiracy against the government. But little had come
of these investigations. However, at the beginning
of August, when the matter had been almost forgotten,
a certain Lamberto della Antella, a Medicean agent
and deep in Piero's counsels, moved by treachery or
revenge, or by the hope that a sentence of banishment
against him might be revoked, wrote to a private citizen
in Florence to the effect that he had important secrets to
reveal, and that, if a safe conduct were granted him, he
would come to Florence and disclose them. A know-
ledge of this letter having at last reached the Signoria it
was determined to hear what Antella had to say. As a
result many leading citizens found themselves com-
promised, and Bernardo del Nero, who had been chief
magistrate at the time when Piero's attempt was made,
Lorenzo Tornabuoni, Piero's cousin, Niccolo Ridolfi,
Giannozzo Pucci and Giovanni Cambi were indicted on a



THE CLIMAX 227

charge of high treason. The charge against Bernardo
was that he had known of the plot and had not disclosed
it, and there seems no doubt that to this extent he was
guilty. He and his companions were condemned and
sentence of death was pronounced upon them. But by
the Constitution an appeal was authorized in criminal
cases to the Grand Council, and such an appeal was im-
mediately lodged. There were, however, circumstances
in the case which rendered it doubtful if, in this instance,
the right of appeal applied. Counsel for the prisoners
had originally refused the proposal that the Grand
Council instead of the Signory should pronounce the
the verdict. The trial had not been conducted by the
Signoria alone, but by a Pratica consisting of about 200
persons. It might be urged that the substantial purposes
of the law of appeal had already been served. However,
it was determined to leave the decision in the matter to
the Signoria, the Pratica, summoned anew to give an
opinion on the point, having advised that an appeal
should not be permitted.

In the Signoria opinion was almost equally divided,
for when the question was put to the vote it was found
that four blacks had been cast against five whites, that is,
the advocates of appeal were actually in a majority,
though the question was still in abeyance, for a two-thirds
majority was necessary to carry a final decision. The
Pratica was again convened, and on this occasion Francesco
Valori, who was identified in the public mind with Sav-
onarola, uttered a threatening and violent harangue. With
outstretched arm he called upon the Signoria to do its duty,
and furiously banging on the box in front of him declared
that, if they failed, either he or they should die. The
excitement ran so high that Carlo Strozzi seized Piero
Guicciardini, one of the Signoria, and threatened to throw



228 GIROLAMO SAVONAROLA

him out of the window. Thus intimidated two of the
weaker members deserted their colours, and, by six blacks
to three whites, the right of appeal was refused.^

There is no evidence to connect Savonarola with these
proceedings beyond the fact that Valori was his close
adherent and much in his confidence. Indeed the only
charge against him is that he was silent. None the less,
in view of the fact that Savonarola was so much the
author of the law of appeal and in view of the influence
which he exercised, there were many who thought at the
time, what George Eliot thought in our day, that it was
his obvious duty to intervene and that he refrained from
doing so because of his strong personal feeling in opposi-
tion to the accused. Men remembered that when Valori
was Gonfalonier the Friar had told him in the strongest
language that if he failed to execute justice upon the guilty
God would do so to him and more also. Valori's conduct
seemed to be the interpretation in action of Savonarola's
admonitions. The whole question of Savonarola's at-
titude towards the affair is not one of facts but of im-
pressions. There are no facts except that he was silent
and did nothing in a matter with which he may be re-
presented as having no concern. The practical point is
that some of his influential supporters disapproved of his
inaction, and that, to use the words of Machiavelli, " this
disclosure of his ambitious and partisan temper deprived
him of his reputation and gave him much trouble".

Amid the war of words and diplomats which was rag-
ing around his name Savonarola himself remained quiet,
corresponding with his friends, composing various short
tractates embodying his teaching — among them his treatise

1 1 have mainly followed Guicciardini's account. As his father was
one of the Signori, and a staunch member of the minority, he ought to
have known what ggcurred.



THE CLIMAX 229

" The Triumph of the Cross " — and fighting the plague
from S. Marco with heroic tenacity and self-sacrifice. This
was the time when he enjoyed the gratification, so often
denied to the labourer in the field of moral reform, of wit-
nessing some fruit from his exertions. Many of the
younger novices were sent away from Florence to avoid
the contagion, and such, writes Savonarola, was the spirit
of charity and Christian zeal among the citizens that some
of them received as many as twenty or thirty novices into
their own villas, and maintained them at their own ex-
pense in order to isolate them from infection and secure
the advantages of a more salubrious air. He himself,
with the older brethren, remained in S. Marco, daily faring
forth among the plague-stricken people, ministering to the
sick and bringing comfort to the dying, to the joy and con-
solation of their spirits and his own. "Fear not," he
said one day, when Fra Domenico and Fra Silvestro
were in gloomy converse as to the dark prospects before
them, "what need is there for your fears? Do we not
know that we must all die the death ? It is only the time
of it of which we are ignorant." "Be not afraid" — he
writes at this time (14 August) to his brother Alberto —
" be not afraid that I stay in Florence in the midst of
plague : The Lord will help me. I remain to console
the afflicted. Though I have been urged to go I am
not willing to abandon my little f^ock (Je peccorelle). The
joy and equanimity of all, hovering as they are between
life and death is incredible. Not our brethren alone but
citizens and even women seem, as they render up their
souls to their Saviour, to sleep rather than to die ; and
those who remain alive not only have no fears of death,
but even seem to desire it."

But as the summer season of 1497 waned and the year
deepened into autumn, with each passing day the sense



230 GIROLAMO SAVONAROLA

of weariness, of unsatisfied passion for action deepened
with the year ; the impulse to preach became more and
more irresistible. It was torture to Savonarola not to be
up and doing ; it was impossible to possess his soul in
patience when the pulpit was denied him. The efforts of
his friends seemed to be having some effect at Rome, and
a Signoria favourable to him at home was instant in
pressing his cause with the Pope. The course of events
seems at last to have impressed upon him the sense that
he was himself the chief obstacle to his own emancipa-
tion. By a timely admission of the Pope's authority and
some non-committal suggestion of a willingness to submit
to it the way might be smoothed to an accommodation
and a decent covering be provided for a papal act of grace.
What precise steps in this direction Savonarola took is
doubtful, but it is certain that an impression prevailed in
responsible quarters that he had done something, perhaps
much, towards conciliating Alexander. " We believe,"
said the Signoria on 13 October to Bracci, " that Fra
Hieronymo has fulfilled everything" {ara exeguito tutto)
though we are left in doubt as to what " everything" im-
plied. Possibly the reference is to a letter, dated on the
same day (13 October) from S. Marco which purports to be
abetter from Savonarola to the Pope. For the authenticity
of this actual letter I should by no means like to vouch,
but, authentic or not, it is perhaps legitimate to refer to
it as expressing in particular terms that general willing-
ness towards an accommodation with which at the
moment he was credited. " Most Holy Father, I kiss
the feet of your Holiness. As a child, grieving at his
father's displeasure ... I fly to your feet, begging you
at last to give ear to my cries and keep me no longer
away from your embrace. For to whom shall I go, if
not to the Shepherd whose voice I love to hear, whose



THE CLIMAX 231

blessing I implore, whose saving presence I ardently de-
sire. 1 would go at once and cast myself at your feet if
I could be safe on the journey from the malice and plots
of my enemies. As soon as I can do so without risk I
will at once set out, and I wish heartily that I could do so
now that I might at last clear myself of every calumny.
Meanwhile, most humbly do I submit in all things, as I
have ever done, to your authority, and if, through any
want of judgment or inadvertence I have erred in any-
thing, I humbly ask forgiveness. Be pleased, therefore,
I beseech you, not to close against me the fountains of
your clemency, nor to spurn one whom you would find,
if once you knew him, not less devoted to you than sin-
cere." Whatever may have been the precise terms in
which the Friar framed his submission there can be little
doubt that this letter expresses the substance and degree
of the submission he was prepared to make. It is little
more than a restatement and amplification of what he had
already repeatedly said as to his general willingness to
submit himself to the authority of the Church. Except
on the matter of a personal visit to Rome he has nothing
to say, and no assurances to give, as to the particular acts
of disobedience cited against him in the Brief of Excom-
munication, and even as regards the visit the gist of what
he has to say is that he is sorry he cannot come. Nor,
from his point of view, was anything more to be expected.
He had been given to understand that a few formal sen-
tences from him, expressive of his reverence and respect
for Catholic authority, would make it easy for the Pope
to retreat from a position which he was not specially
anxious to maintain. There was a prospect that a quarrel
congenial to neither party could be brought to an end by
the interchange of mutual civilities and acknowledgments,
and Savonarola on his part would not be wanting in mak-



232 GIROLAMO SAVONAROLA

ingthe necessary overtures. But that he was to be taken
as making a frank and unreserved surrender of the whole
ground on which he stood could scarcely have occurred
to him. Indeed Manfredi, the Ferrarese ambassador at
Florence, a man deep in Savonarola's confidence, probably
expresses the situation exactly as the Friar regarded it
when, a month later, he informed the Duke that "he
(Savonarola) hopes his affairs with the Pope will soon be
satisfactorily arranged . . . and this, if it comes to pass,
will redound to his great praise and commendation, the
more so because he has not yielded to the Pope's de-
mands ". Submission with reservations is of course a
dangerous game to play and it exposes the player to the
charge of insincerity. But here it was not insincerity so
much as miscalculation and a misunderstanding of the
circumstances which actuated Savonarola, and we can
conceive him as being genuinely surprised and disappointed
that his well-meant overtures should have failed to pro-
duce the results he felt entitled to expect.

To the Pope on the other hand it appeared that at-
tempts were being made to throw dust in his eyes by
submission which was no submission, by polite general
assurances which produced no fruit either in the policy
of Florence towards the League or in the obedience of
Savonarola to specific commands. The situation be-
tween Pope and PViar had become intensified rather than
relieved.

It was, moreover, just as the year was drawing to a
close that the hopes of Florence from Charles VIII and
the French were once more beginning to revive. Pre-
parations were being made in Marseilles for an expedi-
tion to Leghorn and it was hoped that D'Aubigny would
soon be in possession .of the port, to hold it against the
League in the interests of Florence and the Friar's party.



THE CLIMAX 233

Manfred! reports that Savonarola expressed the opinion
in November that " he did not see that the King of
France had as yet been rejected of God " — in other
words, that he had once more become established in the
belief in the efficacy of the Franco-Florentine alliance.
The Signoria of November-December was favourable to
him, and the Gonfalonier elected for January and Febru-
ary, Giuliano Salviati, was his friend. The threats of
Rome had been menacing for six months, but nothing
had come of them. All the omens were favourable, and
the hour, it seemed, was striking for some decisive action.
On Christmas Day Savonarola resolved openly to defy
Pope and excommunication alike. Privately, in the
seclusion of S. Marco, he had ignored the excommunica-
tion from the first. Now he emerged from that seclu-
sion, and publicly and solemnly celebrated High Mass in
the Duomo on one of the chief festival days of the
Catholic Church.

This act of bold and flat defiance was followed within
a few weeks by the announcement that Savonarola in-
tended to resume preaching in the Duomo, and on Sep-
tuagesima Sunday (i I February, 1498) the resolve was
carried into execution. The sense of shock was uni-
versal throughout Florence. The proceedings of Christ-
mas Day had already aroused general surprise, and no
small disquietude even to his devotees. But the pro-
ceedings of Christmas Day were an affair of outposts.
Now the battle was joined and men had to determine
definitely on which side they stood. Neutrality between
Pope and Friar was no longer possible : therefore, as
Guicciardini tells us, one of the first effects of Savona-
rola's resolution was to range in the ranks of his de-
clared opponents that party which had sought to maintain
a neutral footing amid the strife of factions and opinions.



234 GIROLAMO SAVONAROLA

His open and declared enemies were emboldened to a
more vigorous and determined opposition, while the more
cautious and prudent among his friends began to con-
sider the possible dangers which might attach to them-
selves from open support to an avowed rebel against the
recognized head of the Catholic world. Savonarola might
be all that he claimed to be, and yet to accept his minis-
trations and to listen to his preaching involved very
definite penalties which at any moment might take a
material shape. Nor were such timid souls reassured,
but rather the more alarmed, by the violent and high-
handed action of the Signoria, which identified itself
ostentatiously with Savonarola's determination, if it was
not primarily responsible for it. Their policy was the
simple one of crushing out objections by the sheer force
of power. Leonardo de' Medici, the Vicar-General of the
Archbishop of Florence, as soon as Savonarola's intention
to preach was known, issued a prohibition to all the
clergy and laymen within his ecclesiastical jurisdiction
against attendance at the sermons. Whereupon the
Signoria declared that such a prohibition had no validity,
that Savonarola was to preach ' in any event,' and they
commanded the Vicar-General, under penalties of treason,
to quit his office within two hours of the receipt of the
order. In the interests of an ecclesiastic, who in the
eyes of the faithful was a rebel against the Church, ec-
clesiastical and civil authority stood confronted in naked
opposition. Timid and quiet men found themselves un-
willingly forced to choose which they would serve, either
choice being equally fraught with unpleasant if not dis-
astrous consequences to themselves. In the case of such
men, if they were ultimately to declare for Savonarola
against the Pope, it would be necessary for the former to
give convincing evidence that rebellion against God's



THE CLIMAX 235

Vicar upon earth was in truth the cause of God. Ex-
tremists on either side experienced no such difficulties.
Fanaticism is fanned by opposition, and the enemies of
Savonarola were as fanatical as his friends. New that
the battle was joined it must be fought out to a final
issue and each side welcomed the fray. The various and
disunited parties which had represented antagonism to
the Friar now closed their ranks and presented a solid
front. His followers prepared to give an enthusiastic and
imposing welcome to their general upon his reappearance
in the field. Now with confidence renewed, they looked
forward to a certain victory. Now there would be re-
stored to them that spiritual sustenance which for many
months had been denied to them but without which their
spiritual being could scarely be maintained. Comfort,
support, argument would now all be forthcoming to
strengthen and establish their drooping faith and doubt-
ful position. They looked to his declamation and' de-
nunciations to supply the war cries and martial strains
to animate them for the contest, while from the enthusi-
asm and confidence of his faithful followers there would
pass into the leader a double portion of energy and de-
termination.

The Septuagesima sermon was followed by sermons on
the two succeeding Sundays, Sexagesima and Quinqua-
gesima, and these were preached from the pulpit of the
Duomo. They were succeeded by a course of sermons on
Exodus and certain Psalms preached daily in S. Marco
from 26 February to 18 March. The twenty -second on
Exodus on 18 March, 1498, was Savonarola's last sermon.
These Lent discourses may first be considered as a whole,
for they constitute the preacher's vindication of himself
from the charges under which he laboured. Some par-
ticular sermons are inspired by the events of the mo-



236 GIROLAMO SAVONAROLA

ment, but taken together they form a connected body of
reasoning, exposition and declamation which presents the
preacher's general position with absolute clearness. From
the first he goes straight to the point of his relations to
the Pope and his conduct in refusing obedience to the
Papal Briefs. Beginning with a few impassioned sen-
tences of appeal to the Almighty, who has set him afloat
upon a wide sea where he no longer can behold the port
(the figure recalls the Advent sermon of 1494), he came
to the question of his excommunication, and resolutely
impugned its validity. Using the analogy of a carpenter's
tool which is useless for any effective purpose unless
there is a hand to guide it, he declared that the Pope,
unless he be guided as an instrument of a superior agent,
" is no better than you are yourselves " ; he can exercise
no power because he is moved by no guiding hand ; he
is " a broken iron " {Jerro rotto). There are ready means
by which it may be ascertained if the guidance of God is
behind the Pope's commands. All that is necessary is
to see if those commands be in accordance with, or con-
trary to, that which is the root of all wisdom, namely,
godly living and charity, and if they be contrary it may
be at once asserted ,that he is not moved by a supreme
agent and therefore is a broken iron. "He who commands
what is contrary to charity, let him be anathema ! let
him be excommunicate ! nay, such a one is excommuni-
cate of God. If an angel were to give such a command,
let him be anathema ! . . . nay, if all the saints and even
the Virgin Mary herself were to do so — which is impos-
sible — let them be anathema ! " He then proceeded to
endorse the proposition already laid down by his apologist,
Pico della Mirandola the younger, who had asserted that
Savonarola's excommunication was a proof of innocence,
and to declare that, though excommunicated, he stood



THE CLIMAX 237

for the cause of Christ ; all good men and lovers of
Christ were upon his side, and if it was impossible to do
good without being excommunicated then he was con-
tent to throw in his lot with the excommunicate : nay
more, he would deem it sin to seek absolution from an
excommunication which was a penalty for well-doing. " O
my Lord, I turn to Thee and say : If ever I should seek
absolution from this excommunication, send me to hell.
I should fear to commit a mortal sin were I to seek ab-
solution."

Before commenting on the position which Savonarola
thus boldly took up, it may be well to bring together a
few more passages from the sermons of this time in order
to exhibit that position in the clearest light. The whole
man and the pent-up passion of many months of silence
are revealed to us in these, his latest utterances ; in them
we see displayed at once the sources of his weakness and
his strength. Referring further to the action of the Pope
he asserted that it was possible for the Pope, as Pope, to
err, for it was very evident that Popes had been in error
in the past from the fact that the decrees of one Pope
had often been set aside by another, and as for excommu-
nications and absolutions both could be had by the
judicious expenditure of a little money. " Excommuni-
cations ! " he exclaimed on Quinquagesima — " Excommu-
nications are cheap to-day." He reiterated his claims
to Divine inspiration, for though all that he had foretold
had not yet come to pass, still much had already been
fulfilled, and all would be fulfilled in due time. Signs
enough had been given to stamp him as God's prophet,
and wonders would not be wanting in God's good time.
*' The Lord has not yet been pleased to work a miracle
. . . you 'have not yet constrained me to work a miracle . . .
O Lord, I would that Thou shouldst make haste . . .



238 GIROLAMO SAVONAROLA

and that God may be the more ready to make haste, I pro-
pose that on the carnival day we should all join in earnest
prayer, and I will say Mass, and I will take the Sacrament
in my hands, and let every one earnestly pray that if this
thing proceeds from me, if I am deceiving myself, Christ
will send down upon me fire from heaven, which may
then and there swallow me up in hell, but that if it is from
God, let us pray that He will make haste."

In addition to such denunciations of the Pope as have
been quoted and to such a vehement challenge to his op-
ponents, there also occur veiled and mysterious allusions
to the power which he himself possessed to ensure triumph
for himself and for his cause. " It is not yet time," he
declared, " /£» turn the key" " We have so far brought forth
but one of those five stones which David carried, but it
will not be long before we shall bring forth the others."
From the confession extracted from Fra Domenico, Sa-
vonarola's disciple, it is clear that the expression "turn
the key" referred to a project on the part of Savona-
rola to instigate the Princes of Christendom to summon
a General Council which should declare Alexander VI
to be no true Pope, proceed to depose him, and set up
another. This was certainly one of the stones which
Savonarola was preparing to use against his Goliath,
though it was a dangerous weapon, liable to recoil upon
himself. What the other stones were we have no precise
means of judging, but it is obvious that in his contest
with Alexander, Savonarola supposed himself to have
the direct sanction of God for his cause as well as certain
definite and terrestrial means whereby he might secure
its ultimate triumph.

From the general drift of these Lenten sermons it is
clear that Savonarola was standing upon very slippery
ground. We cannot fail to be impressed with the



THE CLIMAX 239

earnestness of the man, with his confidence in Divine
approval for his labours, with his single-minded devotion


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Online LibraryE. L. S. (Edward Lee Stuart) HorsburghGirolamo Savonarola → online text (page 18 of 23)