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to a lofty spiritual ideal, but he was unable to form a just
estimate of the material forces against which he was con-
tending : he failed to realize that the factors which would
determine the struggle were iiot spiritual but political.
He could not understand how any one professing to be
the servant of God could be opposed to him in his work
for God's service. God would assuredly vindicate his
faithful minister, if need be by Divine intervention and
the performance of a miracle. Thus Savonarola uncon-
sciously appealed to the lower nature of his supporters
rather than to their loftiest and most spiritual ideals.
He stood before them rather as a wonder-worker who
could at will call down from Heaven miraculous assist-
ance to his aid than as the apostle of a higher life. In-
stead of calling the people to God, he was calling God
to the people, and basing himself upon his reputation as
a prophet and magician when his strength should have
rested on his position as a moral reformer. Thus, unless
he could show some evidence, when the demand should
arise, of supernatural support, his influence was bound
to be transient. As long as he could maintain his per-
sonal credit his followers would be true to him, but at
the first sign of reverses they would demand a miracle,
and, failing its production, they would repudiate their
prophet as an impostor. The suddeness of Savonarola's
fall is the measure of the unsound and unsubstantial
character of the foundations on which he rested.

In the meantime the report that the Friar had again
begun to preach was promptly circulated in Rome and
at the Italian Courts, and created profound indignation.
Six days after the Septuagesima sermon the Florentine
ambassador at Rome wrote to the Signory saying that a


serious situation had been created : dispatches followed
quickly in succession whereby the government was made
acquainted with the Pope's displeasure and warned of the
inevitable consequences. The contest between Savonarola
and Alexander had now become a personal matter, for
the Pope could scarcely hear with equanimity of the in-
vectives which had been levelled against his private and
public character. Moroever there was a serious danger in
the threat of a General Council which the Friar obscurely
held out, a danger all the more real because of the open
support given by the Florentine government to Savonarola
in allowing him to preach in spite of the excommunica-
tion. The Pope, being also persuaded that it was due
to this "chattering Friar" that the Florentines adhered to
their French alliance, a strong combination of motives
urged him to severe measures against Savonarola and the
government which supported him. He wished to silence
an inconvenient critic of his private life, to vindicate the
authority of the occupant of the Holy See, and to win
over Florence from her attachment to a mischievous monk
and an anti-Italian policy. The financial embarrassments
of Florence and her earnest desire to recover Pisa were
circumstances which played into the Pope's hands, for it
was easy to make the suppression of Savonarola a con-
dition of any favours he might be disposed to grant.
Hence on 26 February, 1498, the Pope addressed a letter
to the Signory in which he recounted the grievances
which he had suffered at the hands of "that son of ini-
quity, Fra Hieronymo Savonarola," and declared that
unless the Friar were sent to Rome, or at least kept in
confinement at Florence, he would be compelled to lay
Florence under an interdict or even to proceed to more
severe measures.

Apart from the expression "that son of iniquity" ap-


plied to Savonarola, the Pope expressed himself in
moderate terms and not unreasonably. Judging Alex-
ander simply as a man, and not as a synonym for every
form of wickedness, we can scarcely be surprised that he
was indignant, and that he expressed his indignation
forcibly. He had been called a broken iron, and the ex-
pression rankled. The death of his son had been alluded
to as a judgment of God upon him, and as a fulfilment of
Savonarola's prophecies. Rather is it surprising that he
should so soon have allowed his personal feelings to cool
down to the extent of expressing to the Florentine envoy
on 27 February his willingness to absolve Savonarola
and to allow him to preach if he would submit to the
Pope's authority. There is no evidence to show that
the Pope pursued Savonarola with rancorous hostility,
nor that he hid beneath the mask of an easy toleration
the murderous schemes of an intriguing bravo. He was
too encased in worldliness and corruption to feel, as it is
imagined that he felt them, the shafts of Savonarola's em-
bittered invective. But he was too essentially a man to
be wholly insensitive to what he deemed personal insults.
Having read the remonstrances and explanations offered
by the Signory to his Brief of 26 February, Alexander
characterized the dispatch as "a sorry letter" {una trista
litterd). Here was an excommunicated monk who had
dared to defy his sentence, whose defiance had been en-
dorsed and abetted by the government, who had openly
called the Pope a broken iron, who had reproached him
as being responsible for the death of his own son, who
had declared he would rather go to Hell than seek ab-
solution, and all the government could do was to write
a dispatch which barely concealed their determination to
do nothing ! The whole letter smacked of the Friar,
and the Pope expressed his conviction that it was actually


his handiwork. Yet Alexander swallowed his sense of
personal resentment sufficiently to reply in language of
studied moderation. In a dispatch of 9 March he reit-
erated the grounds of his displeasure against the Friar,
which was wholly unconnected with his evangelical zeal
or with malicious and false representations which had been
made concerning him. " What you have written about
him inspires us with sentiments of paternal love and com-
passion, but we grieve that he has been misled by we
know not what spirit of pride into his present contumacy.
The keys were given by Christ to St. ^q.\.qx principaliter ;
wherefore whoever declares himself independent of ec-
clesiastical censures cuts himself off from Christ. You
must not wonder then, if, having tolerated him so far, we
can do so no longer."

In the meantime in Florence a state of confusion and
uncertainty prevailed which almost amounted to panic.
The Papal Brief of 26 February which stigmatized Sa-
vonarola as a "son of iniquity" and demanded his sur-
render or his imprisonment, arrived on i or 2 March.
It proved a rude awakening to those who, lulled into a
sense of security by the Pope's prolonged inactivity, had
deluded themselves into the belief that he would never
act. So far, since he had begun to preach again, Savona-
rola had carried everything before him. On Septuagesima,
1 1 P*ebruary, he had defied the Pope's authority, had de-
clared that he had it from God Himself that the ex-
communication was invalid, and had threatened "to turn
the key". On Sexagesima, 18 February, he set out to
prove the thesis that " whoever believes the excommunica-
tion to be valid is ipso facto a heretic," and in order to
prove it he passed in review all the points at issue be-
tween the Pope and himself during the past two years.
With complete satisfaction to himself he showed that


every charge which had been brought against him was
wholly without justification, and traversed every state-
ment on which the sentence of excommunication had
been based. On Quinquagesima, 25 February, he had
challenged God Himself to attest the truth of his mis-
sion. Attended by his faithful following he had gone
forth from the Duomo to S. Marco, and there had
solemnly invoked the fire of heaven that it would fall
upon him and plunge him quick into Hell if he were
indeed a deceiver of the people. Then, sunk on their
knees in silent prayer, all awaited in solemn silence
the issue of this tremendous invocation. On 27 Feb-
ruary Savonarola was again the central figure to whom
all eyes were turned, for it was the day of the Carnival,
Once again the white-robed procession filed through
the city streets, the red crosses flashed their challenge
to the unbelieving, and once again the Vanities blazed up
in the Piazza of the Signoria. But the Carnival was
scarcely over when it was rumoured that a Brief from
Rome had come, and from the moment of its arrival the
fate of Savonarola began to tremble in the balance.

Already some premonition of coming trouble seems to
have warned Savonarola that it was necessary to be
prudent. Either upon his own initiative or acting under
the suggestion of the Signoria he determined to withdraw
from the Duomo, and to preach only in S. Marco. After
Quinquagesima the Duomo heard him no more. Limits
of space in S. Marco made it necessary to confine at-
tendance to men only, but as a concession to the outcries
of the women the service on Saturdays was reserved
exclusively for them. But these arrangements by no
means implied the silence of Savonarolism in the Cathe-
dral pulpit. The full teaching of the prophet still found
eloquent expression there from the mouth of Fra Do-


menico and other brethren of S. Marco : the Pope had
some grounds for his subsequent complaint that a change
of preacher made Httle apparent difference to the char-
acter of the preaching.

But now, with the beginning of March, the time had
arrived when Florence as a State must define its posi-
tion towards the Papal demands, and the Government
must assume full responsibility in regard to a pressing
matter of foreign policy. And the Government which
entered upon office upon i March was by no means so
favourable towards the Friar's party as preceding Signorias
had been. The Gonfalonier was Piero, of the house of
Medici, but in the access of democratic enthusiasm which
had overthrown the power of that house, he had dropped
his patronymic and assumed the name of Popoleschi.
The views of Popoleschi himself were adverse to Savona-
rola, but the Signoria over which he presided was neither
strong enough nor sufficiently united to give the weight
and authority to its action which the situation demanded.
We enter therefore upon the period of Praticas, of which
there were no less than ten in the course of two months,
all of them summoned to assist the Signoria in the deter-
mination of particular questions, as they arose in con-
nexion with the Savonarola controversy.

The first was summoned on 3 March to consider what
answer should be returned to the Pope's Brief. The
motion submitted to the Assembly officially ran : ^^ An
dandus esset Pontifici Savonarola an prohibendus a predica-
tione" {should Savonarola be given up to the Pope or
prohibited from preaching). The opinions expressed were
so various and conflicting that the Pratica was adjourned
without coming to a decision, but the letter of the Sig-
noria of 4 March — that "sorry letter" of which the Pope
complained — embodied in the strongest form the views


which had been expressed by Battista Ridolfi and other
pronounced partisans of the Friar's party. Villari pro-
fesses himself unable to understand how it was that a
Signoria which he describes as hostile to Savonarola
could have written a letter so strongly in his favour,
while Dr. Pastor attempts to solve the difficulty presented
by the proceedings of the Signoria during the next few
weeks by the ingenious suggestion that the inaction, dila-
toriness, and general conduct of the Government in thwart-
ing Alexander and supporting Savonarola were deliberate-
ly designed to arouse the Pope to an extreme of irritation
and then to use that irritation as a pretext for drastic
action against the Piagnone party. Mr. Armstrong
dismisses this explanation as being "too far fetched," but
it derives some colour from a dispatch of 17 March from
the Venetian envoys to the Anziani, which details the
rumours from Florence which were current in Venice,
and among them this impression that the policy of the
Florentine Government was, under guise of opposing the
Pope, to force his hand against Savonarola. Somenzi
also in his dispatches to Sforza, can only account for the
action of the Signori, of whom, he says, six to three were
against the Friar, on the same supposition.

The Signoria's letter of 4 March produced from the
Pope the Brief of the 9th to which reference has already
been made. If its terms were general and guarded there
could be no doubt as to what they specifically implied,
for the Government was plainly told by its envoy at
Rome that Florence would be put under an interdict if the
Pope's warnings and commands were any longer neg-
lected. With this fresh information before it the ad-
journed Practica reassembled on 14 March. From the
full report of the debate which has come down to us we
are able to see as if in actual movement the cross-currents


of opinion by which the State was agitated. In the
opinion of many the personal question, as it affected
Savonarola, had become merged in the larger, and far
more important question of the independence of the State
from foreign dictation. Was the Pope to be permitted to
interfere in the domestic affairs of Florence ? Was such
language as that which the Papal Brief addressed to
Florence to be tolerated? "Why ! such a Brief would
never have been sent even to Perugia and such-like "
(siinili). Thus Paolo Antonio Soderini on behalf of the
Ten, and several of the speakers echoed his words. The
comparison of Florence to " Perugia and such-like "
evidently rankled. Some, in the interest of trade and
commerce, urged obedience ; some eulogized the Friar ;
some thought the situation ought to be represented to
him, leaving it to him to determine what course he should
adopt. Eventually the Pratica was again adjourned, to
meet again on the 17th, when a unanimous resolution was
arrived at, either by the Pratica as a whole or by certain of
its members sitting as a select committee, that " Fra
Hieronymo be persuaded to cease altogether from preach-
ing ; and so satisfy the Pope : but as to the other de-
mands of the Brief they were deemed unworthy of the

All the proceedings of the Praticas had been accom-
panied by a running fire of comment from Savonarola
himself delivered from the pulpit of S. Marco. He had
already declared that this was a war which must be
carried on a ferri puliti — with polished swords — and that
its effects would be to stagger humanity {faremo stupire
tullo il inondd). In the fifth sermon on Exodus he re-
proached the Signoria for the mildness and moderation
it exhibited in its replies. " Let me answer a word or
two. I will thunder in their ears in such a fashion that


they will hear indeed " (i March). " Hold your Councils
then," he cried on the 14th, " and if you determine that I
am not to preach I will cease. . . . Do you want a sign
that what I preach is the truth ? Then you will see that
those in the Council who get up to speak in favour of this
truth will speak like valiant men {gagltardi) for angels
will guide their tongue. Those who oppose it will speak
like men muffled {rnozzt) between their teeth like foxes.
Should there be one who speaks boldly against me he
will be some fool, sent as a spy, and wrought up to the
point by others. . . . Tell those who are seeking to make
themselves great and exalted that their seats are prepared
for them — in Hell. You wish to be of the Ten, of the
Eight? You will quickly be of the Ten, of the Eight —
in Hell. Tell them that the rod has come. Some one
has his seat in Hell already. Send and tell me in good
time what you determine that I may not fatigue myself
in preparing sermons."

War " with polished swords," though scarcely with
polished taste or polished language ! The time for reti-
cences and civilities had gone by. The sword once drawn
Savonarola threw away the scabbard, and resorted to the
sheer force of vituperation to assist him in his contest.
He had already (13 March) written to the Pope in terms
which closed the door with a bang against all possibilities
of reconciliation or compromise. " Your Holiness has let
loose savage wolves upon an innocent lamb. You have
not listened to my reasons. I cannot hope any longer
in your Holiness, but I must trust myself wholly to Him
who chooses the weak things of this world to confound
the strong. I do not seek this world's glory, but I look
for death and I desire it. Your Holiness will do well to
delay no longer but to provide for your own salvation."

The last reference doubtless is to Alexander's salvation


in another world than this. But it would not be the fault
of Savonarola if the Pope did not shortly have to provide
for his salvation in this world also. In the war of naked
swords which was now definitely engaged the time seemed
to have come for bringing into action the forces of Euro-
pean intervention which Savonarola had long held in re-
serve. He must now "turn the key and unlock the
casket ". The flood-gates were to be unloosed, and the
reprobation of the Catholic world, expressed through a
General Council of the Universal Church, was to pour
like a torrent upon the head of a profligate, simoniacal
and unworthy Pope.

Already, while the Praticas were busy in the discussion
of his case, Savonarola was contemplating an appeal to
the Princes of Europe to summon a General Council.
Any doubt, if indeed he felt any doubt, as to the expe-
diency of such a project was finally removed by the de-
cision of the Pratica that he should be dissuaded from
preaching. This decision was communicated to him in
the evening of 17 March, a few hours after it had been
taken. Savonarola, in accordance with his declaration of
a few days before, resolved to acquiesce in the wishes of
the Government even though his consent meant nothing
less than the evacuation of his principal stronghold, the
pulpit. The more reason therefore that he should seek to
compensate this reverse by a bold strategic movement
which might retrieve all. Before the end of the month
draft letters had been drawn up on the subject of a General
Council, and the best means were being sought whereby
their safe delivery might be ensured into the hands of
those for whom they were intended.

But meanwhile there was to be one sermon more —
the last one. Savonarola stipulated that he should be
allowed to bid farewell, and so on the next day, Sunday,


1 8 March, he preached the twenty-second and final sermon
of his Lent course on Exodus. The sermon consists of
one more eloquent vindication of the right to resist unlaw-
ful authority ; of an explanation of the causes which had
led him to yield, in such a matter as preaching, to the
persuasions of a secular government, the whole being
interspersed with passionate outbursts which lay bare
the innermost recesses of his soul. He has preached not
because he wished, but because he must : a raging fire
within his bones and heart has compelled him to speak :
"I felt myself all burning, all inflamed with the spirit of
the Lord. Oh, spirit within ! you rouse the waves of the
sea, as the wind does ; you stir the tempest as you pass.
Do not do so, O spirit ! . . . I can do no other. This is
the conclusion " {non si pub fare altro. Questa e la con-

On such a note, of which Luther was to catch the echo,
the voice of the great preacher died away into silence.
His day of preaching was over, but it should end not in
defeat but victory ; action should now take the place of

The idea of a General Council of the Universal Church
which might overthrow a wrongful Pope and effect
the reformation of ecclesiastical abuses, was by no
means chimerical. At the beginning of the century the
papacy had been in abeyance, and the authority of
Councils became supreme. The dangers to which the
restored Papacy was exposed from the prevalence of the
Counciliar spirit had been apparent to Alexander's
immediate predecessors. Pius H's Bull of Execrabilis
which denounced any appeal to a General Council
as "execrable and in former times unheard of," and
which declared that any one making such an appeal was
excommunicate, reflected the present sense of danger


which a Pontiff even in 1460 entertained. The character
and policy of Alexander himself had given a 'fresh impetus
to the Counciliar spirit. It was with a view to calling a
General Council that Cardinal della Rovere had urged
upon Charles VIII the invasion of Italy in 1494, and so
late as 1497 Charles had secured the sanction of the
Sorbonne to a series of propositions asserting generally
and in the abstract the authority of Councils even when
convened independently of a Papal summons, and, in
particular, the individual power of the King of France to
summon a Council on his own responsibility.

The measures which Savonarola now adopted were
therefore really formidable both to the Pope personally
and to the Papacy as an institution. If they were
successful they would be fatal to Alexander, and would
almost certainly result in another schism. The natural
law of self-defence urged the Pope to strong measures, and
his position as defender of the unity of the Church gave
a sort of moral sanction to any action he might take to
maintain his personal position. Before the end of March
Savonarola's letters to the principal European sovereigns
were ready in draft and only awaiting dispatch. They
were destined for the Kings of France, England, Spain,
Hungary, and for the Emperor. If the content of all
may be judged from one which is extant, Savonarola
urged the summoning of a General Council on the
grounds that the Church was without a head, that Alex-
ander was no true Pope, and these assertions he was pre-
pared to prove by reasons, and if necessary by miracles.
One such letter was actually dispatched by Domenico Maz-
zinghi to the Florentine ambassador in France, but it never
reached its destination. The courier who bore it fell
into the hands of the emissaries of Ludovico Sforza at
Milan, who relieved him of his dispatches and immedi-


ately forwarded them to the Pope. Alexander was thus
in possession of documentary evidence of the Friar's
designs, and a quarrel upon a matter of ecclesiastical
discipline at once assumed the proportions of a struggle
for existence. The chances of war had thrown Savon-
arola, bound hand and foot, into the grasp of his adver-
sary, and Alexander was not the man to hesitate nor to
forbear when motives of self-interest and ecclesiastical
expediency combined to induce him to strike hard.
There is no doubt that from the moment when the Pope
received from Sforza the intercepted letter Savonarola's
cause was lost. It was due to unforeseen accidents that
the actual circumstances of his fall were independent of
the direct action of his principal adversary.

The story of those accidents has now to be related.



THROUGHOUT Savonarola's career in Florence he
had constantly had to face the opposition of the
Franciscans. Under the spell cast by the eloquent Domi-
nican over the city, Santa Croce saw itself compelled to
yield the pride of place to San Marco, but yielded with no
good will. Franciscan preachers had from the first de-
nounced Savonarola's claims to Divine inspiration ; they
had opposed him on the question of the appeal from the
Six Beans, had vehemently urged the validity of the Brief
of excommunication, and had condemned Savonarola's
disobedience to it. In all this there is nothing to show
that the Franciscans were not perfectly sincere. Their
opposition was not necessarily the malignant spite of dis-
appointed rivals, for it was quite consistent with piety
and good living to regard Savonarola as a doubtful pro-
phet and unsound politician. Nevertheless the jealousies
existing between rival houses no doubt counted for some-
thing in the war of pulpits which had been carried on.
Now that Savonarola was silenced the Franciscans were
able to gain more attention, " Santa Croce," says Dr.
Creighton, "rang with denunciations of the false prophet,
the heretic, the excommunicated monk."

It appears from the narrative of Burlamacchi that
twelve months earlier, in Lent, 1497, a violent controversy
had broken out at Prato, between Fra Domenico da Pescia,



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Online LibraryE. L. S. (Edward Lee Stuart) HorsburghGirolamo Savonarola → online text (page 19 of 23)