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Girolamo Savonarola online

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Savonarola's first lieutenant, and Fra Francesco da Puglia,
a Franciscan monk. The controversy arose from the fact
that these friars had been chosen to deliver Lenten sermons
at Prato in the churches of S. Domenico and della Pieve
respectively. Fra Francesco's discourses were filled with
impassioned warnings against the presumption of Savo-
narola's pretensions, and at last, carried away by excessive
zeal, or sincerely anxious to bring his rival's prophetic
claims to a definite test, the Franciscan declared that he
was ready to enter the fire in company with Fra Domenico
and thus bring to the decision of an ordeal the questions
at issue between them. The challenge came to nothing,
but is significant of the state of feeling which prevailed,
and of the desire of Savonarola's opponents to force him
to put forward that miraculous proof, which he had fre-
quently insinuated that he was able in good time to pro-
duce, of those mysterious powers with which he claimed
to be endowed.

Now, in Lent, 1498, the challenge was renewed in
Florence, and the parties to it were the same Fra Francesco
da Puglia and Fra Domenico da Pescia who had been
rivals at Prato the year before.

Much rather profitless controversy has raged from that
time to this as to whether the challenge originated with
the Franciscan or the Dominican. Apart from its purely
antiquarian interest the matter is of no importance either
in its bearing upon subsequent events or in elucidating
the characters of those concerned. Some such incident
was the inevitable outcome of Savonarola's movement
and method. His whole position rested upon his repeated
assertions that of himself he was nothing, but that God
spoke through him. Prophecies and advice tendered
upon such authority would be credited just as long as
the prophecies proved true and the advice produced the


predicted results. A public man basing himself upon
a Divine revelation may go unchallenged so long as his re-
velations harmonize with accomplished facts, or the cre-
dulity of his hearers. But when facts and revelation seem
to be at variance then the claim to supernatural powers
must be substantiated by definite proofs. Savonarola had
moved for years in an atmosphere of miracle. The de-
mand for a particular manifestation of his powers arose
therefore not from accident, malice, or calculated design,
but from the nature of things. The phrase " cd fniracoli
e segni'' — with miracles and signs — had almost become a
catch word in S. Marco, and not Savonarola alone, but
his lieutenants in the convent, were in the habit of enforc-
ing their assertions by the statement that their truth
would be established by supernatural testimony. It fol-
lowed as a natural consequence that one day they would
be taken at their word, and definitely challenged to pro-
duce those signs and wonders which were, as they declared,
at their command.

What is certain, amid the clouds of confllicting testi-
monies, is the fact that towards the end of March the two
Friars, Francesco da Puglia in Sta. Croce and Fra Do-
menico in the Duomo were fiercely engaged in a pulpit
warfare, and that Savonarola was the subject of their
contention. It is certain that the Franciscan repudiated
Savonarola's prophetic and supernatural claims, and up-
held the validity of the excommunication. It is equally
certain that the Dominican upheld the claims and repudi-
ated the excommunication. From the character of Fra Do-
menico, which shines transparently through his confession,
we may confidently infer his methods. He would take
his stand simply on supernatural revelation. " It was
the angels who imposed on me what I was to say," as he
naively, and in all good faith, declares in his confession.


Savonarola's " Conclusions " were true, because they were
directly and divinely inspired, and to doubt them was to
doubt God Himself. And in His own good time God, by
miracles and signs, would manifest His truth.

If this was the general tenor of Fra Domenico's Lent
sermons — and we may be practically certain that it was,
— then the Franciscan was in fact receiving a challenge
when technically he might appear to be offering one.
He was expressing his willingness to accept a test which
was not a suggestion of the moment, but one which had
been put forward times out of number over a series of
years, as the touchstone of Savonarola's position.

The crisis of this protracted contention was reached
on the Festival of the Annunciation, Sunday, 25 March.
Then Fra Francesco, to clinch his arguments, offered to
pass through the fire in company with Savonarola and so
bring to a material test the claims of the latter to mira-
culous powers. Fra Domenico welcomed the proposal
with enthusiasm, nailedacopy of Savonarola's Conclusions
upon the doors of Sta. Croce, thus publicly proclaiming
them to be the definite issue, the truth or falsehood of
which the ordeal was to decide.

At once the whole city was thrown into a state of
violent and morbid excitement. On all sides the ordeal
was welcomed. To the populace it promised a spectacle
with thrills such as no carnival or Medicean festivities had
ever provided. To the enemies of the Friar it promised
an opportunity of discrediting him for ever. To his friends
it brought the day, long looked for, and long foretold,
when miracle would for ever silence incredulity, and the
reputation of the master would be established beyond the
possibility of doubt.

Touching evidence of the devotion for Savonarola felt
by his adherents is afforded by the numbers who came


forward, men, women, children of all classes and all ages,
as candidates for the honour of entering the flames.
Cinozzi records one particular application which he him-
self witnessed. He was walking with Savonarola in the
convent garden when "a youth of substance and beau-
teous person presented a written petition in which he
offered himself to the fire, and fearing lest that should
not suffice, he prostrated himself upon the ground before
the feet of the Friar, urging his request with all the energy
of voice and gesture which he could command". Such
enthusiasm was regarded by Savonarola himself, and was
represented to the Pope by his brethren, as in itself a
manifestation of the justice of their cause, more especially
when contrasted with the mere handful of Franciscans
who expressed themselves willing to undergo the test.
But the fact was forgotten that the Franciscans expected
to be burned ; the Savonarolists were convinced that they
would go unscathed. To the one party the only prospect
offered was that of certain death. To the other the
danger of personal risk was swallowed up in the certainty
of a miraculous preservation. The volunteers on either
side were strictly proportionate to the felt sense of danger.
The affair, however, could not go forward until the
Government had defined its attitude towards it ; for it was
only by the sanction of Government and under its protec-
tion, that such an experiment could be carried out. The
Signoria apparently had no choice but to acquiesce and
assume responsibility, for public excitement had reached
such a pitch that a popular rising would have followed an
official decision to quash the proceedings. All that the
Signoria could do was to regularize them and to formulate
precisely the conditions of the test. Accordingly, on 28
March, both Fra Domenico and Fra Francesco were called
before the Signoria, and formal documents were drawn


up and registered embodying the terms of the ordeal.
Difficulties upon matters of detail soon arose, for the
Franciscan, whose challenge had been made to Savona-
rola personally, was not prepared to sign an agreement
which accepted Domenico as a substitute. He had no
cause of quarrel with Domenico, and moreover even if
Domenico were to perish, the prime author of the confu-
sion would still remain alive. Another Franciscan Friar
would doubtless be ready to try conclusions with the lieu-
tenant, but Fra Francesco would match himself only
against the commander. Savonarola, however, regarded
these proceedings with disapproval and refused to be
personally a party to them. He would do nothing to
damp the ardour of those who were willing to undertake
so great an adventure, but for himself he felt that he was
reserved for a greater work. At length, after much dis-
cussion, the names both of Francesco and Savonarola were
withdrawn, the champions eventually chosen being Fra
Domenico to represent S. Marco and Fra Giuliano Ron-
dinelli to do battle for Sta. Croce.

Having arranged the preliminaries the Signoria, with
a view to strengthening its hands and minimizing its own
responsibility, summoned a Pratica for 30 March, when
the action of the Government was subjected to much
hostile criticism, a very general opinion being expressed
that such matters as the quarrels of rival Friars were alto-
gether outside the province of government. " When I hear
of such things as these," said Giovanni Canacci, " I know
not whether I wish to be alive or dead. If our ancestors
who founded our City had thought that matters of this kind
would be debated here, and that we should be held up as
a laughing stock to the scorn of all the world, they would
have disdained to do anything at all. The business of
Government is to relieve the distresses of the people —


whether by fire, water, air, or in any other manner is of
little consequence. Put an end to all this that misery and
disaster may not fall upon our City." One speaker sug-
gested that an ordeal by water would be equally conclusive
as a test of truth and far less dangerous. Another thought
that to cross the Arno without getting wet would be an
effective way of carrying out the suggestion of the last
speaker, and "just as good a miracle".

But whatever may have been the objections of level-
headed men to an appeal to the rude and barbarous
methods of a bygone age, the expectations of the public
had been roused to such a pitch that it was felt to be
dangerous to leave them unsatisfied. It was therefore
determined to proceed, and, on the same day, the regu-
lations and conditions under which the trial was to be
carried on were formally embodied in a State paper.

It was enacted that if the ordeal resulted in the death
of the Dominican alone, then Savonarola was to be per-
petually banished ; if in the death of the Franciscan alone,
a like penalty was to befall the chief representative of the
order, Francesco da Puglia ; but if both should perish
the sentence of banishment should affect the Dominicans
only. This was a decision altogether in accordance with
the merits of the case, and is no proof, as has been often
alleged, of favouritism towards the Franciscans ; for they
claimed no power of working miracles, but fully expected
their champion to be burned. The death of both parties
would be a sufficient vindication of the truth of the conten-
tions of the Francisans.

The precise issue which the ordeal was to decide was
defined by Fra Domenico in his " Conclusions ". He ap-
pealed to a miracle to affirm the truth of the following
propositions, all originally laid down by Savonarola : The
Church of God needs reform. It will be scourged. It will


be renewed. Florence after the scourge will be renewed
and will prosper. The infidels will be turned to Christ.
These things will happen in our time. The excommunica-
tion lately issued against Fra Hieronymo is null and void.
Those do not sin who disregard it.

The Franciscans on their part made no appeal to a
miracle to confirm the truth of their contention that Sa-
vonarola was not a prophet and that his excommunication
was valid. The destruction of Savonarola's champion
would be sufficient proof that they were right. It was
true that their champion must also be destroyed, but
they were prepared for that : their representative was
willing to sacrifice his life " for the salvation of souls ".
Thus the onus probandi lay altogether on one side. An
appeal to supernatural intervention had to justify itself
against an appeal to natural law ; or rather, the Domini-
cans had to afford proof that contradictory effects can
follow from one and the same cause — that fire could,
under Divine impulsion, be made to discriminate between
individuals in accordance with their opinions, natural law
acting naturally in the case of one party to the dispute ;
supernatural intervention acting miraculously in the case
of the other. It is obvious therefore that all the heroism
of the adventure lay, by the hypothesis, on the side of the
Franciscans who knew that for them at any rate it could
have no other issue than excruciating suffering and cer-
tain death. But the admiration of the world in this
matter has usually been reserved exclusively for the
SavonaroHsts who made no claims to the glory of
martyrdom, seeing that their whole contention was that
for them no risk was involved.

Vividly does this appeal to trial by fire bring home to
us the intermingling, as it were, of the mediaeval with
the Renaissance world. Amid all the culture, the refine-


ment and the learning of Florence the forces of supersti-
tion were still rampant enough to compel the Florentine
magistracy to arrange a spectacle completely out of har-
mony, as it seems to us, with the mental attainment of
the age. That the superstitions of the vulgar could
force such a reversion to the blind judicial system of an
unlettered age is a clear indication that even in the
golden days of classical refinement barbarism had not en-
tirely lost its hold upon Italy.

Before proceeding to relate the story of the ordeal a
word must be said as to the impression created at Rome
by the news from Florence. Alexander and the College
of Cardinals were astonished at the proposal of the rival
parties and expressed their strongest disapproval of the
whole business. Villari's contention that the Pope
secretly aided and abetted the ordeal rests on no extant
evidence and is indeed contrary to what evidence is
available. The Pope must necessarily have been opposed
to a project which cut at the root of his claim to supreme
authority in matters of faith and discipline, and which
submitted to the hazard of a miracle a question on which
he had already pronounced an authoritative judgment.
It may be retorted that the Pope was hostile to the
ordeal because he was fearful that a miracle would ensue
and that Savonarola would be vindicated, but in that
case he could not have been favourable to it. The Pope's
objections followed naturally from his position as head
of the Church which a miracle was invoked to undermine.
No measures, however, were taken at Rome to put a stop
to the affair, for the Pope was assured by the Florentine
ambassador that it could not be stopped save by the
revocation of the Brief of excommunication. Nothing,
however, appears to have been done to encourage or
countenance it in any way whatever.


In Florence the ordeal was eventually fixed for Satur-
day, 7 April (1498). Elaborate arrangements were made
for the maintenance of order in the city, and an avenue
about thirty yards long by ten broad was constructed in
the Piazza of the Signory, lined on each side with piles
of fuel, leaving a passage about two and a half feet broad
through the pyre. The Piazza itself was patrolled by
armed men, the presence of Doffo Spini with some hun-
dreds of the Compagnacci in the interests of the Franciscans
being balanced by Marcuccio Salviati at the head of a
special force for the protection of the Dominicans. It
was felt that the peace of the city was trembling in the
balance, and that whichever side won popular fury was
likely to break loose against its defeated antagonist.
All strangers were ordered to leave the City : the gates
were closed, the streets were barricaded, and all approaches
to the Piazza were strongly held by an armed guard.
Rumours were current that it was intended that the
whole affair should end in fiasco, that each party was
engaged in trying to outwit the other, that the Coin-
pagnacci had guaranteed to the Franciscans that their
champion should not enter the fire, that the Dominicans
had organized the arrangements in such a way as to
strike terror into their rivals and intimidate them into with-
drawal. Meantime S. Marco and Sta Croce had been
given up to prayer and fasting, nor did the Dominicans
yield to the Franciscans in the fervour of their devotional
preparations. Early on the morning of the 7th the Domi-
nican brethren assembled in the church of S. Marco where
Savonarola, after celebrating High Mass, defined his
position. The ordeal, he declared, was not of his seeking,
nor could any man command a miracle at will ; yet as
the challenge had been issued it must be taken up, even
though he himself was reserved for a greater work. His


last words to his supporters before setting out were to
the effect that on the previous night two things had been
revealed to him in a vision, one absolute, the other con-
ditional. In any circumstances the triumph of his party
was absolutely assured, but he was unable to say whether
the trial by fire would indeed take place, for this was a
secret of which God had not given him the clue.

The hours between lo a.m. and 2 p.m. had been fixed
by the Signoria as the time for the ordeal, and at lo o'clock,
according to Somenzi's dispatch of the following day,
the Franiscans made their way into the Piazza '• without
any ceremony," and quietly occupied the position allotted
to them. There, according to the Franciscan annalist,
they waited two hours for the arrival of their opponents
" perishing with hunger and cold." Somenzi, however, is
more to be trusted on an unimportant point of detail when
he tells Sforza that it was 10.30 when the Dominicans
arrived. They entered the Piazza marching in pairs
behind an uplifted crucifix and chanting the 67th Psalm
— '■^ Let God arise a?id let His enemies be scattered,'^
followed by the 64th and 43 rd Psalms and the Litany —
the volume of sound "striking terror into the hearts of
all who heard it ". Behind came Fra Domenico supported
by Savonarola, who carried the Host " in his excommuni-
cated hands," as the horrified Franciscan relates. The
whole company entered the Loggia de' Lanzi, which had
been partitioned for the accommodation of the rival
parties, and engaged in prayer, Savonarola kneeling be-
side an altar on which the Sacrament had been de-

Then difficulties began to arise. It is impossible to
assign with any degree of certainty the responsibility for
the delays which ensued, but certain objections were un-
doubtedly raised by the Franciscans which may have been

In the Ancitint and Afodern GalUry, Florence


valid or may have been mere pretexts. They demanded
that Fra Domenico should put off his cope of cloth of gold,
for it might have been enchanted by Savonarola's arts, and
should exchange clothing with a brother friar. They ob-
jected also to the crucifix being carried through the flames.
The points were yielded, but only after lengthy negotia-
tions. At last, when all was arranged, it was discovered
that Domenico intended to enter the fire carrying the con-
secrated Host in his hand. The shock caused by this
proposal reverberates still through the annals, letters, and
dispatches of the time. It was a point on which the Fran-
ciscans could admit no compromise. They could be no
parties to what they regarded as a horrible and outrageous
sacrilege. A long theological controversy followed on
the question of the substance and the accidents con-
tained within the elements, but all that it served to
settle was that neither party would give way, while the
populace was becoming exasperated by the waste of time.
For, as the hours wore away, and nothing was being
done, the excited spectators began to clamour for the
spectacle, and an ugly rush was only checked by the
firmness of Marcuccio Salviati, and his guard. A thunder-
storm accompanied by heavy rain increased the ill-feeling
already aroused, and it soon became clear that no ordeal
would take place. The people, feeling themselves cheated
of a carnival show, vented their wrath upon Savonarola
and his party who seemed to be shirking an experiment
which they had themselves challenged. Seeing that Sa-
vonarola had so often alluded to a miracle by means of
which his claims would be guaranteed it was inevitable that
the blame would fall upon him if, when opportunity for a
miracle was afforded, advantage was not taken of it.
Whoever was technically in fault for the delays, Savona-
rola's all was staked upon this chance and he should have


forced an issue at all hazards, A fiasco could have little
effect upon the position of the Franciscans, but a fiasco
to Savonarola meant irretrievable ruin.

At last, about 2 o'clock, the Signoria announced that
the people were to return home as the ordeal would not
take place that day. An armed escort was provided for
the Dominicans to protect them from the fury of the mob
which assailed the procession as it returned to S. Marco
with jeers and execrations. Savonarola had built up his
position upon the credulity of the populace. In a mo-
ment the foundation on which he rested crumbled away
beneath his feet. He had established himself in the
hearts of his followers by what they understood to be
definite claims to supernatural powers. On the first
occasion when he was called upon to exercise them he
had failed to justify his pretensions. The popular judg-
ment on the failure of the ordeal may have been very
erroneous and founded upon no very accurate knowledge
of the facts, the responsibility for the fiasco may or may
not have been Savonarola's, but the man who, perhaps
unconsciously to himself, rested in so large a measure on
the superstitions and passions of the vulgar, was courting
destruction if from any cause he allowed superstition and
passion to be turned against him.

The next day, 8 April, was Palm Sunday, and then
the fury of the disappointed mob found vent in open riot.
The disturbance originated in the Duomo, where the re-
maining supporters of Savonarola were gathering to listen
to a sermon from one of his disciples and champions, Fra
Mariano Ughi. Ughi was himself a man of the moment,
for he was not only one of the volunteers for the ordeal,
but had entered into a formal agreement, signed before
the Signoria, to pass through the fire if the Franciscans on
their part could produce a champion to meet him. With-


in the Duomo and on its Piazza outside the Conipagnacci
were gathered in force, determined that the sermon
should not be preached. The frightened congregation
withdrew to San Marco, followed by infuriated crowds
armed with stones and various weapons of assault. An
attack was made upon the convent, which was met by
a vigorous defence on the part of those within. With-
out the knowledge of Savonarola a little store of weapons
had already been gathered together in anticipation of
such an assault, and these were freely used. The conduct
of Savonarola throughout the terrible hours which now
followed shows him in his best light and rouses warm
admiration. He strove to calm the excitement of his ad-
herents and frequently urged them to resort only to the
weapons of prayer and intercession. Fra Benedetto — the
author of " Cedrus Libani" — who was himself prominent
among the defenders — has drawn in his simple rhymes
a vivid picture of the scene and of his master. After re-
lating that he, in company with some other brethren, had
thrown down upon the seething mob below the " alta
scorza,^' or crowning pinnacle of the convent church, he
describes how, on his descent to the level ground, he
found "the Saint" in prayer.

E mi riprese con parlare umano.
Disse : " Figliuolo, ascolta al mio sermone :

Prendi la Croce e noii I'arme e coltello:

Di far cosi non e mia 'ntenzione ".
Allor cesso ciascun di far ripari

Og'n uom di far defesa allor resto'

Per non voler al Santo esser discari.

It was only on the compulsion of his friends that
Savonarola was induced to abandon his intention of
surrendering to the besiegers. Placing himself at the
head of his brethren he proceeded to the choir of the
convent church, where all engaged with him in prayer.

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Online LibraryE. L. S. (Edward Lee Stuart) HorsburghGirolamo Savonarola → online text (page 20 of 23)