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A fearful tumult raged without ; an attempt was made
to fire the walls of the convent and the noise of battle
raged around them ; but within there was only heard
the sound of weeping and the ceaseless chant of the
litanies as each member'of that forlorn company prepared
himself for instant death.

Not only around S. Marco but in all the streets of the
city a wild and furious mob had broken loose from
all authority. Some of the very men who were officially
responsible for the preservation of order placed themselves
at the head of the rioters. One of the Gonfaloniers, rais-
ing the standard of his Company with shouts of Popolo,
Popolo, rallied a force for an attack on the palace of
Francesco Valori. The passions which he, as Savonarola's
most prominent partisan, had done so much to inflame
were now turned against himself. His wife was shot
dead by a crossbowman as she stood watching the tumult
from her window. Valori himself, when obeying a
summons from the Signoria to attend them at the
Palazzo, was assassinated in the street by a Ridolfi and a
Tornabuoni in revenge for the part he had played in
the execution of their kinsmen. The Signoria remained
in permanent session and issued its decrees from hour to
hour — Savonarola was to go into banishment within
twelve hours — all laymen were to leave S. Marco on pain of
being accounted rebels — no citizen under the same penalty
was to enter S. Marco — but no practical measures were
taken to suppress the riot which reached its climax round
the devoted convent as day was drawing to its decline.
It was evening when at length some of the assailants
scaled the walls and made an entrance into the choir.
The instinct of self-preservation was now too strong to be
suppressed and some of the friars again had recourse to
arms. A furious fire carried on from pulpit and high


altar desecrated the House of God, and Savonarola was
powerless to stop it. But taking up the Host he
succeeded at length in drawing the majority of his
remaining brethren with him to the "Greek Library,"
where a messenger from the Signory was received in
audience. The order was that Savonarola, Fra Domen-
ico, and Fra Silvestro should at once attend them at the
Palazzo. There was some delay while the messenger
returned to fetch written evidence that such a resolution
had been passed by the Signory, and Savonarola used the
interval to say a last farewell. He reaffirmed his Divine
mission. " What I have said I have received from God
and God in heaven is my witness that I speak the truth,'
and so he bade his friends take comfort.

Non so se della vita or saro privo,

Ma se purfusse crudelmente morto

Pui morto in Ciel v'aiutero che vivo.
Prendete tutti del mio dir conforto ;

Tutti la croce vogliate abbracciare
Che per quella del Ciel s'acquista el porto.

Then together with Fra Domenico — Silvestro had hidden
himself and could not be found — he put himself into the
hands of the officials of the Signory and was conducted
from San Marco to the Palazzo. It is impossible, when
reading the details of the mockery and insult which at-
tended him on his last journey, to avoid a comparison
between Savonarola and the Master whom he had striven
so faithfully, even if mistakenly, to serve.



THE Signory lost no time in communicating to the
Pope the news of what had occurred in Florence.
Alexander was delighted that the initiative no longer
rested with him, and prepared to profit to the utmost
by the adv^antages which chance had thrown into his
hands. He was profuse in acknowledgment of the services
rendered to the Church by the Franciscans, and willingly
absolved the Signoria from all ecclesiastical censures which
they might have incurred in the course of proceedings
against Savonarola. He did not, it is true, as yet comply
with the request which the Signoria thought it opportune
to make that the Pope would sanction a tax of a tenth
upon ecclesiastical property, but the favour was only de-
layed until the Government should prove by its action
the sincerity of its words.

In the meantime the friars had been put upon their
trial and proceedings against them were being carried on
apace. The Pope was anxious that the prisoners should
be sent to Rome that their trial might be there conducted
by the ecclesiastical authorities, but to this request the
magistrates could not consent. They had already ap-
pointed a commission to conduct the case, without wait-
ing for an ecclesiastical sanction for their action, though
Papal Briefs arrived in due course and were found to per-
mit even the use of torture if so stringent a measure had



been, or should be, considered necessary to elicit the truth
from the accused. This commission consisted of sixteen
persons, of whom one was Doffo Spini, the leader of the
Coinpagnacci. No friends of the Friar seem to have been
appointed to seats upon it, though three or four perhaps
were not actively hostile to him.

Writers upon Savonarola's trial have very largely con-
fined their criticism to the degree of fairness or unfairness
with which the judicial proceedings against him were
conducted, A question almost more important, and cer-
tainly preliminary to any sound judgment upon the trial
itself, is what were the precise offences for which he and
his companions were tried ? When the terms of his in-
dictment have been determined we then may inquire to
what extent, if any, they made Savonarola amenable to
the common law of Florence, to what extent his alleged
offences came within the cognizance of ecclesiastical law,
and whether any proper distinction was drawn in the
conduct of the trial between the civil and the ecclesiastical
charges against him. The irregularities and falsifications
which mark the actual proceedings are notorious and es-
tablished. The exact terms of the indictment seem in a
large degree to have been lost sight of

Before the ordeal and the attack upon San Marco,
Savonarola, in the eyes of the Florentine magistracy, had
been an innocent man. In the previous year (1497) the
letters of the Signorias to the Pope and to the Florentine
ambassadors at Rome constantly represent him as a good
and holy man striving to accomplish in Florence a great
work of spiritual revival and moral reform. In that year,
however, the constantly changing Signorias had been in
the main favourable to him, and their commendation fol-
lowed naturally from their opinions.

The remarkable fact is that the Government under


which Savonarola was tried should have initiated its term
of office by eulogies of Savonarola as warm as those of
its predecessors. On 3 March, 1498, the Signoria in-
formed Alexander that " we can bear witness that he is
an admirable worker in the Lord's vineyard and one who
has gathered therefrom such fruits as none other has been
able to gather ". As late as 31 March, after informing
the Pope that his orders had been obeyed and Savonarola
forbidden to preach, the Signoria expressed itself as glad
to bear witness that he had abstained from doing so, and
pleased " to hear that our submission has appeased your
Holiness". Yet in little more than a week from that
date Savonarola was being examined and put to the tor-
ture by orders of the same Signoria on suspicion of hei-
nous crimes, involving a sentence of death.

We are left to judge of the nature of those crimes by
the interrogatories addressed to the prisoners. These
have been classified as religious, political and prophetic.
A more detailed classification, however, is needed if we
are to understand what particular offences came under
the cognizance of the civil authorities and what were left
to the determination of an ecclesiastical court.

There is a passage in the Papal Brief of 12 April,
addressed to the Signory in which the Pope congratulates
that body on the measures taken " to repress the mad folly
of that son of iniquity, Fra Hieronymo Savonarola, who
had not only deluded the people . . . but had sub-
sequently resisted your commands and ours by force of
arms ".

From this we may gather that one charge was that of
armed rebellion against the authority of the State. Thus
the strictest investigations were made into the circum-
stances in which arms had been collected in S. Marco in
anticipation of the riot, and the depositions of many


citizens and Friars are extant which admit us to view, as
from behind the scenes, the tragic drama of Palm Sunday.

Questions were put to the prisoners with a view to
discover how far they and the brethren at S. Marco had
been mixed up in pohtical intrigues and party wire-
pulling in order to influence the elections to the various
offices in Florence, On the supposition of such intrigues
it was not difficult to formulate a charge of treason to the

Questions were directed to discover whether the Friars
were mixed up with any proposal to subvert the existing
Government, and to set up Francesco Valori, or some
other, as life-Gonfalonier. Any such design might be
construed as treason to the Constitution.

Such treason, if it existed, would be the more dangerous
in proportion as Savonarola had been able to persuade
the people that he was no ordinary man, but one directly
inspired and commissioned by God to accomplish the
will of God in Florence. If such pretensions were an
imposture no punishment could be too severe for the
impostor who had used them to secure his own ends.
Savonarola, therefore, was strictly questioned as to his
prophetic claims and pretensions to be the recipient of
Divine revelations, and thus a matter which at first sight
seems to come under ecclesiastical cognizance alone fell
naturally within the sphere of civil investigation.

The common law of Florence forbade any unauthorized
communications with external authorities. But a petition
to the Pope had been drawn up and signed, though not
sent, by many of the most prominent citizens in favour
of Savonarola. These citizens had been guilty of an
offence against the law in signing such a document, and
if the petition was instigated from S. Marco and by
Savonarola he was especially guilty in the matter.


And lastly, there were the letters which he had written,
and which he proposed to send, to the European sove-
reigns urging the summoning of a General Council.
These letters brought him within the cognizance of the
law which forbade such communications, and also within
the grasp of the ecclesiastical law which, in view of the
danger of schism, had prohibited by the Bull of " Exe-
crabilis" any unauthorized appeal to a General Council.

Such being the charges, it may be admitted that the
case as a whole was fairly well met by the appointment
of a civil commission to conduct it, supplemented by a
further trial before two Papal Commissioners appointed to
investigate Savonarola's conduct in relation to ecclesias-
tical offences. The offences alleged against Savonarola
brought him within the range of a secular court of inquiry,
even though among those offences there were some which
seem to be quite outside the cognizance of the civil
power. It is to be noted that he was not in the first
instance tried and condemned for disobedience to the
Papal commands nor for preaching heretical doctrine.
He was tried and condemned by a secular court on
secular grounds. It was not until two separate and
exhaustive examinations had been held by civil com-
missioners by whom his fate was already decided, that
commissioners specially appointed by the Pope for the
purpose were sent to conduct a third independent and
ecclesiastical investigation, which resulted in the verdict
that Savonarola was guilty of heresy, schism, and dis-
obedience to Papal authority, in addition to those crimes
against the State on which sentence had already been

So far we have been concerned merely with the nature
of the charges which were formulated against the friars.
This is a matter totally distinct from the question of their


innocence or guilt ; and when in the conduct of a trial it
is found necessary to resort to illegal shifts in selecting
the tribunal (for four of the original commissioners were
removed to make way for more pronounced opponents of
the Piagnone party), to the application of torture and
to the falsification of the depositions which have been
thus secured, the presumption is in favour of the innocence
of the accused.

Yet before venturing to pronounce the whole proceed-
ings illegal, abominable, and unjust, it is necessary to
take into account the methods of judicial procedure which
prevailed at the time, methods by no means so shocking
to the sense of justice which then existed as to our own.
It is true, for example, that the cognizance of criminal
offences in Florence was reserved to the Board of Eight,
and hence the trial of Savonarola by a special commission
was contrary to the Constitution, yet in the case of Ber-
nardo del Nero a mixed commission had been set up to
conduct his trial. This precedent was now followed, or
at any rate the precedent afforded a colourable excuse
for the procedure which was adopted. We in our day
attribute no value to confessions extracted under torture,
yet Savonarola was neither the first nor the last political
prisoner to whom torture was applied, and he had himself
from the pulpit recommended its application. Torture
was an almost invariable concomitant of the criminal
procedure of the times. The deliberate falsification of
the evidence obtained argues a weak case, and yet men
of high reputation attested Savonarola's confession, and
Torriano, the chief Papal Commissioner, was Master-
General of Savonarola's own order, had shown himself
zealous in forwarding Savonarola's schemes of conventual
reform, and had appointed Savonarola Vicar of the Tus-
can Congregation. The standards of to-day differ so


materially from those of 400 years ago that we must be
cautious in applying present-day opinions to the events
of a distant past, but it is not easy to see how even to-day,
the law remaining what it was, Savonarola could be ac-
quitted on all the counts of the indictment. Certain facts,
which, technically at any rate, were treasonable, were
known to all, facts which could not be affected by any
confessions which Savonarola might make, nor by the
question whether such confessions were valid or not.
Such a fact was the intercepted letter to France, in it-
self a sufficiently damning piece de conviction. The ex-
amination of Savonarola under torture was not so much
with a view to prove his guilt, for no doubt on that point
seems to have been entertained, but to elicit as much in-
formation as possible as to the extent of his designs and
the complicity of others in them, and to assist the first
requirement of the law, that no prisoner should be ac-
counted guilty until he had confessed his crime.

The first examination of Savonarola and his associates
began on 9 April, the day of his arrest, extended
over the remaining days of Holy Week, with the excep-
tion of the loth, and was not concluded till Easter Tues-
day, 17 April. The "process," or series of confessions
which the commission obtained, was not considered al-
together satisfactory, for no sooner was the "process"
published than it was withdrawn by order. It was
doubtless owing to the unconvincing character of the
evidence obtained in the first trial that a second trial was
begun on 21 April, extending over three days, and many
more days were given to the interrogation of the various
citizens who had been arrested at the same time as the
friars, and to the determination of the punishments to
be inflicted upon them. In the meantime the guilt of
Savonarola was taken as established, and all that remained


was to come to terms with the Pope as to the place of
punishment, and as to any further investigations that
Alexander might wish to make through his own com-
missioners. It was evidently a ruling principle of the
trial that everything possible should be done to conciliate
the Pope, short of admitting his right to trench on the
authority of the Government in secular affairs. Through-
out the proceedings Praticas were continually summoned
by the Gonfalonier to assist the Signoria by their advice,
no less than five such Praticas being called between
9 and 28 April and one on 5 May. A principal
subject of debate was whether the friars were to be sur-
rendered to the Pope or not.

At last on 1 2 May the Pope agreed that the sentence
of death should be carried out at Florence, and appointed
two commissioners to conduct a third examination on
his behalf. These commissioners began their task on 20
May, and although one of them, Francesco Romolino,
Bishop of Ilerda, was a man of the worst reputation, the
other, Giovacchino Torriano, General of the Dominican
Order, was conspicuous for his high character. The
ecclesiastical trial ended on 22 May, when Savonarola
was found guilty of heresy, schism and disobedience, and
the sentence of the civil commission was confirmed. On
the following day, 23 May, the sentence was carried into

Throughout these successive examinations the services
of a notary, a certain Ser Francesco di Barone, usually
known as Ser Ceccone, were retained for the vilest pur-
poses of injustice, namely, to doctor and falsify the
depositions of the accused to their prejudice. This cir-
cumstance tends in a large measure to deprive the depo-
sitions of any historical value, and more than anything
else has created the popular impression that Savonarola


died a martyr's death, foully murdered at the hands of
unscrupulous judges, who, being unable, like Pilate, to
find any fault in this man, fabricated the charges on
which he was condemned. But in truth the question
of Savonarola's guilt does not depend primarily upon his
alleged confessions, for if we exonerate him absolutely
from the charge of imposture and of political intrigues,
there remains, as has been seen, his correspondence with
foreign princes, about which no doubt whatever existed.
The real injury which Ser Ceccone's falsifications have
done lies in the fact that the depositions of the prisoners,
except that of Fra Domenico, are almost valueless as
self-revelations. We cannot accept them as throwing
any certain light upon Savonarola's prophetic claims, nor
as any real evidence of the facts which the depositions
contain. That they were obtained under torture invali-
dates them still farther.

Yet by a comparison of the various depositions, and
in the light of external contemporary evidences, certain
inferences may be drawn which probably approximate
fairly closely to the truth. Thus the deposition of Fra Do-
menico is declared by one of his most ardent disciples to be
true in every particular ; that of Fra Silvestro to be true,
but not in every particular. If the confession of Savona-
rola be read side by side with those of his associates, it will
be found that there is substantial agreement between them
on the subject of his prophetic claims, and we can arrive
at something very like the truth as to the origin and
methods of his supposed revelations from heaven.

It seems that in the first instance these revelations
originated with Fra Silvestro, who was of a nervous and
excitable disposition, given to talking in his sleep, and
with a strong tendency to dreams. These dreams he
communicated to Savonarola, who encouraged him to


believe they were a revelation from God. In due time a
sort of partnership in revelations was established between
Savonarola, Domenico and Silvestro, the latter supplying
the manifestations and the other two appropriating them
and making them their own, seeing, as Fra Domenico says,
" that we three had but one heart ". On this point the
confession of Domenico alone is to be received with con-
fidence, and it is from him that we derive this idea of a
sort of common property existing in the supposed visions
of Silvestro, and in so far as the confessions of Savonarola
and Silvestro agree with that of Domenico they unques-
tionably tend to establish the truth of what he says.

But, however this may have been, there is abundant
evidence to show that the publication of this account of
the friars' revelations struck dismay into the hearts of their
followers. On all sides we hear passionate protestations
against the deceptions which had been practised upon the
credulous. Luca Landucci, the chemist, whose children
had been enrolled in Savonarola's " blessed bands " notes
in his diary that he was present when the " process " of
FraGirolamo was read in the Grand Council on 19 April,
and the feeling with which he then listened to a confession
" written with his own hand " by the man " whom we had
held as a prophet, and who confessed that he was no pro-
phet, and that he had not received from God the things
which he had preached". "I had expected to see in
Florence the new Jerusalem, from which good laws were
to come forth and the splendid example of a virtuous
life. And now I perceived the contrary, and for medicine
I took the words ' In voluntate Tua, Douiine, omnia sunt
posit a '."

Still more remarkable was the effect produced upon
the brethren of S. Marco. With one accord they for-
sook Savonarola and hastened to make their submission


to the Pope. They excused themselves for the support
which they had given to their Prior on the ground that
he had shown himself capable of deceiving men far more
practised and able than themselves : they now repudiated
him entirely. " May it be enough for your Holiness to
have seized the source of all error, Fra Girolamo : let him
suffer condign punishment if there be any fitted for such
wickedness as his, and let us, who are strayed sheep, re-
turn into the true shepherd.' The language of repudi-
ation, abasement and abject meanness could scarcely
descend lower.

The unseemly haste with which his brethren forsook
and fled from him is in striking contrast to the quiet
serenity of Savonarola himself in his prison cell in the
Alberghettino, or bell-tower of the Palace of the Signory.
In the presence of his tormentors indeed his highly sen-
sitive and over-wrought nature, his frame emaciated by
fasting and vigils, were not proof against the tortures
which he had to undergo ; but in the days of respite he
bore himself as one who had nothing to retract, to palliate,
to excuse. Though his body was lacerated and twisted
by the rope, he yet could compose himself to write
meditations on the fiftieth Psalm and on the thirtieth
Psalm, " In Thee, O Lord, have I hoped". He also wrote
" A Rule for Living a Christian Lifel^ in which once more
he laid down the principles of his faith. There is no
evidence in these prison meditations of any sense of
shame and humiliation in having been untrue to himself
and to his Divine commission, and it is certainly fair that
these, the last expositions of his doctrine, should be set
in opposition to his alleged recantations. And although
they do not provide any justification for Luther's claim
to see in Savonarola a forerunner of the Protestant faith,
they exhibit his confidence in the grace and mercy of


God, and the certainty that salvation is to be found in
the merits of Christ alone. He pictures the apparition of
Despair in all the panoply of arms : " Despair hath pitched
his camp around me and encompassed me with a strong
host. . . . My friends are arrayed under his banner and are
become my foes. All things which I see, all I hear, bear
the device of Despair." But he turns his eyes to Heaven
and beholds a radiant vision of Hope shining with
celestial splendour, and " smilingly Hope cried, O Knight
of Christ, what is thy mind in this battle? Hast thou
Faith or not ? Yes, I have faith. Then know that this
is a great gift of God, for Faith is God's gift, nor is it to
be obtained by our works lest any one should take glory
to himself"

Thus his latest living thoughts ran in the direction of
allegory and of celestial visions seen by the eye of Faith.
Perhaps such revelations were all to which he had ever
aspired, all which had ever been vouchsafed, but now in
his last hour he reduces them to their true proportions,
to a poet's dreams. In the days of his power he had not

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Online LibraryE. L. S. (Edward Lee Stuart) HorsburghGirolamo Savonarola → online text (page 21 of 23)