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been able to refrain from exaggerating them, from con-
veying the impression that subjective fancies were objec-
tive realities. Now, when all have forsaken him, he flies to
his one remaining refug© with the single prayer, "Cancel,
O Lord, all my sins. . . . Create in me a clean heart,
O God, and renew a right spirit within me."

When the long agony of waiting was at last ended and
the sentence was pronounced upon him Savonarola pre-
pared himself to die. He obtained permission for a last
interview with his two fellow-prisoners, Fra Domenico
and Fra Silvestro, when he fortified them by his words
and presence to endure the fate before them with com-
posure. Then, having confessed himself to a Benedictine
friar, he passed the night of 22 May in tranquil re-


pose and devotion. In the early morning of the 23rd
he administered the Sacrament to himself and to his two
companions. This done he quietly awaited the summons
of the Signory.

Meanwhile preparations for the execution had been
hurried on in the Piazza facing the Palazzo Vecchio. A
platform had been constructed connected with the Palazzo
and running out for some distance into the square, ter-
minating in a projecting half-circle, on which a scaffold,
surrounded by combustibles, had been erected. The
friars were to be hanged and their bodies consumed by
fire. On the steps of the Palazzo three tribunals were
set apart for the three separate sets of officials who presided
over the proceedings. In one the Bishop of Vaison was
to perform the ceremony of degradation and of stripping
the prisoners of their ecclesiastical habits : in the next
sat the two Papal Commissioners : in the third the chief
magistrates of the city. It was about half-past nine in
the morning when the friars were conducted from their
cells to the steps of the palace, where they were unfrocked.
As his friar's gown was stripped from him Savonarola
cried, " Holy gown, thou wert granted to me by God's
grace, and I have ever kept thee unstained. Now I for-
sake thee not, but am bereft of thee." Barefoot and
bound they then advanced to the Bishop's tribunal,
where they were again habited and again degraded. The
Bishop forgetful of the formula, cried out, " I separate
thee from the Church militant and triumphant". " Mili-
tant," quickly rejoined Savonarola, "not triumphant, for
that rests not with you." The Papal Commissioners then
declared the prisoners guilty of heresy and schism, but
offered to them absolution for their sins, an offer which
was reverently accepted. Finally the Eight took a last
vote upon the sentence to be inflicted. It was unani-


mously confirmed, though one member was significantly-
absent, and under the sanction of their secular authority
that sentence was immediately carried out.

The first to mount the scaffold was Fra Silvestro ; then
Fra Domenico's turn came. Sav-onarola was the last to tra-
verse the narrow platform to be hanged in chains between
his two brethren. Men said the scaffold was like a cross,
and the analogy of the Crucifixion could scarcely fail to
suggest itself to the minds of some. Each of the friars
went to his doom with splendid composure and with the
light of Heaven radiating in his eyes. No word escaped
their lips ; no miracle was vouchsafed to snatch them
from the jaws of destruction. The last hopes of their
devoted followers died away as they realized that there
would be no answer to the taunting cry, " O prophet,
now is the time for a miracle. Prophet ! save thyself".

The piled-up faggots blazed ; the rising flames caught
the chained and forlorn figures of the victims ; and soon
the slow waters of Arno were bearing to the sea a hand-
ful of ashes and a few charred bones, the only remnants
of the mortal framework of Fra Girolamo Savonarola.

Arno gentil ! da poi che fusti adorno
Delle sante relique de' Profeti ...
Benedetto sia tu che rlceve&ti

Quel che sprezzorno gh uomini indiscreti.



IT is a truism to say that men and opinions must be
judged in relation to their environment. But, though
a truism, the proposition can scarcely be enforced too fre-
quently or too insistently, for the temptation to judge the
past in the light of the present is for most of us well-nigh
irresistible. We have some instinctive understanding of the
present in which we live ; we can have, when all is done,
but a vague comprehension of conditions which are be-
hind us, removed by the far distance from the range of
our experience. Our judgment of men, of institutions,
and of opinions is coloured by our sympathies, which can
never be entirely abstract, but must take their shades
from the movement of life around us. To form an ab-
solutely just estimate of any man is impossible, for no
man is fully known even to himself. It is not only in
the light of what Savonarola did, and wrote, and aspired
to do that he is to be judged, but with allowance made
for all the unrealized possibilities, undefined yearnings
and infinite aspirations of an ardent and spiritual nature.
Scorned and rejected of men, he could go to meet his
death in the conviction that he was about to appear
before the judgment bar of One who knew all —

All, I could never be,
All, men ignored in me,
This I was worth to God.


And in the spirit of this conviction he could die with for-
titude, and with steadfast confidence in his record as in-
scribed in the book of Life, however the record might
inscribe itself in the pages of history.

The interest which attaches to Savonarola is largely
personal, for in him we have the somewhat rare spectacle
of a whole State, intensely self-conscious and jealously pa-
triotic, swayed for some years by the influence of an obscure
stranger. Such an individual sway could have been
exercised only by a man who reflected in a remarkable
degree the spirit of the age in which he lived and the
aspirations of the State which he controlled. At every
point Savonarola was in touch with life around him, and
in his little " world of man " he represents the complex
and contradictory forces of the Renaissance which were
operating in his day. If at any time it is idle to look for
rigid consistency and precise conformity to pattern in
the lives of men, how much more impossible is it to dis-
cover these in the men who lived " in that world of
incongruous feeling which we call the Renaissance". The
age of Savonarola was a period when everything was in
solution. The past and the future were in conflict and
the issue seemed to be in doubt The Middle Ages still
exercised control over the minds of men, but the fascina-
tions of a half-discovered world of new experience, which
lay dimly before their gaze, were acting as a solvent
upon established systems. Neither in the past nor in
the future was there yet any sure foothold. It was an
age of unstable balance in government, religion, specula-
tion, and conduct. Priding themselves upon their in-
tellectual emancipation, the nien of the Renaissance epoch
were none the less steeped in occultism and superstition.
The nietal was boiling in the cauldron ; the time for the
casting of the statue had not ) et arrived. The celestial


visions and angelic promptings of Savonarola found their
counterpart in the Neo-Platonic doctrine of Ficino and
Poliziano ; the philosophy of the schools jostled the in-
ductive philosophy soon to be justified in Galileo and
perfected by Bacon ; the revival of learning itself, so
fraught with the possibilities of progress and emancipation,
tended to harden into a mere fashionable cult, and be-
came so wedded to imitation that originality and initiative
were held as something like treason to scholarship.

Judged in relation to a society thus situated in a state
of flux and transition, Savonarola's position as a dreamer
of dreams becomes intelligible ; indeed the more closely
his life is studied in the light of his environment the
higher he stands as an exponent of much which was best
in his age, as, in some particulars at any rate, a pioneer
of modern thought. In his system of philosophy, and
in his attitude towards classical learning, he is akin to
Bacon and Erasmus in many of his conclusions, founded
though those conclusions were largely upon scholastic
systems. In this respect he is a link between the mediaeval
and the rpodern world. But an examination of his general
position towards the Renaissance leads to the conviction
that he was neither much behind his age nor much in
advance of it, faithfully reflecting its higher aspirations,
not wholly untouched by its base alloy, yet resolutely
bent upon claiming for purity of life, for the beauty of
holiness, and for an animating faith in Christianity an
assured place in the Renaissance scheme of things.

The revival of classical learning in Italy in the fifteenth
century had given fresh vigour and a new trend to philo-
sophical speculations. The schoolmen had based them-
selves upon Aristotle as understood through the medium
of Arabian commentators, and upon the basis of his
principles, as then understood, a vast and complicated


system of philosophy had been elaborated which repre-
sented the quintessence of mediaeval thought distilled
from the ingenuity of the learned and the speculations of
rival thinkers. Now it had become possible to read Aris-
totle in the original, and, in the new light thus thrown upon
his teaching, and in the advancing freedom of the human
mind, the scholastic philosophy was seen to be out of
harmony with the spirit which the classical revival had

Scholars from the East found their way into Italy im-
bued not only with Aristotle but with Plato, and the
whole teaching of Plato was recovered in the fifteenth
century for the modern world. The passion for Pagan
writers and for Pagan ideas was stimulated by the appar-
ent conflict between Aristotelian and Platonic concep-
tions. Platonists and Aristotelians occupied rival camps
and hurled voluminous treatises and much invective at one
another, but both parties equally professed allegiance to
the Church, and were, at least in theory, orthodox sup-
porters of a Christian philosophy which had little in
common with either. New knowledge had to be brought
into relation with mediaeval dogma.

Thus it was the dream of Gemisthos Plethon, the
founder of the Florentine Academy, to reconcile in one
harmonious whole the Pagan and the Christian philosophi-
cal systems. By an ingenious process of subtraction and
adaptation he eventually evolved a compromise, in which
Olympus and the Pagan gods figure strangely side b)'
side with the doctrine of redemption and the sacramental
mysteries. The work of Gemisthos was continued in
Florence by Marsilio Ficino, who, basing himself on
Plato's recognition of a conscious governing principle in
the operations of Nature, was enabled to find in Plato an
idea of God, and of God's workings in Nature, to some


extent in harnnony with the teaching of the Church and
the conclusions of Christian philosophy.

Amid the dialectical exercises and intellectual strivings
of the Neo-Platonist philosophers Savonarola moved as
an expert. He had in his youth grounded himself in the
Aristotelian philosophy of the schools and in the " Sum-
ma" of St. Thomas Aquinas, and when teacher of the
novices at S. Marco it was a part of his duty to instruct
them in scholastic lore. The depth of his learning is
attested alike by his enemies, his friends, and impartial
historians such as Guicciardini. Moreover the philo-
sophical treatises from his own pen which are extant are
themselves a sufficient proof of the wide range of his
studies, and of his grasp upon the principles of mediaeval
philosophy. But they are also an indication of the in-
fluence which the speculations of the Platonists of the
Academy exercised upon his mind. Believing that the ul-
timate goal of man is what he calls beatitude, he shows
that beatitude consists in the pure vision of the Divine ;
but that which is invisible and beyond the sphere of
human perceptions can be attained only by proceeding
from facts which are known and sensations with which we
are familiar to an intellectual analysis of those facts, and
so " we can penetrate to the substance of natural things,
and, after considering these, attain to a knowledge of
invisible things".

Thus Savonarola, though saturated in Aristotelian
scholasticism, was not in bondage to mediaeval philo-
sophy. It is no evidence of his antagonism to Renais-
sance ideas that he had profoundly studied and thoroughly
grasped the principles of a philosophy which the Renais-
sance claimed to have superseded. He was not thereby
rendered incapable, but more capable, of comprehending
the speculations of his own day and of weighing their

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real value, though in his heart of hearts he despised all
philosophical systems which claiiped to stand as substi-
tutes for a living faith in Christ, and was prepared to
use philosophy only so far as it served to further an
intellectual acceptance of the Gospel message. There
were tirnes when the pretensions of Paganism to supplant
Christ roused him to exuberance of language and charac-
teristic exaggeration. " Plato, Aristotle, and the other
philosophers are fast in Hell." " Any old woman knows
more about Faith than Plato," " The only good which
Plato and Aristotle ever did was to provide arguments
which can be turned against heretics." But rhetoric
addressed to a popular congregation was not always an
index of his own inmost rnind. The devotion of many of
the leading Neo-Platonists to Savonarola is evidence
that they recognized in him one whose solution of the
problems which perplexed them was in harmony with
their own. Far from finding in him an enemy to en-
lightened thought, such men as Pico della Mirandola
recognized in him one who could sympathize and under-
stand, one whose animating principle of life was the same
as theirs, a passionate attachment to abstract truth and
a genuine desire to ascertain it.

Nor was Savonarola behind his times in the study of
classical literature. It was Virgil who sounded for him
the call to quit the world and devote himself to its regen-
eration. But just as in philosophy he saw the absurdities
involved in the pretensions of the philosophers to har-
monize and assimilate systems which were essentially
irreconcilable, so he looked with contempt on those
"classicists" who were as hide-bound to the classics as
the mediaeval scholars to the schoolmen.

He insisted on the claims of the world in which he
lived to have something to say for itself. In his opinion


it was mere pedantry and narrow-mindedness to see life
exclusively through the eyes of men who had lived under
wholly different conditions many hundreds of years ago.
There was more of the modern spirit in Savonarola, who
read the classics in the spirit of free criticism, than in
those Trissotins of the Renaissance age who would not
read the Bible for fear of spoiling their style. " There are
some," he said with truth, " who have so narrowed their
minds and fettered them with the chains of antiquity
that not only do they refuse to speak save as the
ancients, but will say nothing which has not already been
said by them. What reasoning is this? that if the
ancients spoke not thus neither will we speak thus. If no
good deed was done by the ancients must we therefore
do no good deed ? " Erasmus in his '■^Ciceronian" could
scarcely put the matter in a more common-sensible and
apposite way. It would have been well for many of the
scholars of the Renaissance if they had advanced as far
in knowledge as Savonarola, who saw that no intellectual
nor artistic achievement of value could result from slavish
imitation, and that initiative and originality could only
spring from the independent exercise of the faculties of
the mind.

It is perhaps in such views as these that we can find
a clue to Savonarola's opinions upon the character and
direction of the artistic movement of his times. By one
school he is held to have been the vindictive foe to art
and culture, by another to have been representative of
all that was best in the humanistic revival. That he was
the enemy of art the burning of the vanities is held to
be proof; that he was the friend of culture is said to be
attested by his purchase of the Medicean library for his

The evidence on the one side is unsatisfactory because


we do not know precisely what of permanent value was
burned upon the pyre of the vanities. Puritanical en-
thusiasts rejoiced to record how pictures by the first
masters, pieces of statuary, rare editions of Boccaccio
perished in the flames, and how the offer of a sum of
20,000 ducats could not redeem from destruction the
treasures which were consumed. But even the destruc-
tion of an edition of "The Decameron" does not necessarily
imply a total insensibility to the claims of art. On the
whole a study of contemporary inventories of the vanities
leads to the supposition that, while some objects of real
artistic value were consumed, Savonarola's crusade was
in the main directed against the implements of vice and

But with the evidence before us it is best to assume
that much was destroyed which the world would now be
glad to recover as being of high artistic value, and on
this assumption we may proceed to examine Savonarola's
general position towards the fine arts.

Throughout the fifteenth century the arts of sculpture
and of painting had been continually advancing in tech-
nique and were becoming more and more deeply pene-
trated, as the century advanced, by the varied influences
exercised by the age. The purely spiritual and ecclesias-
tical ideal of art had found in the fifteenth century its
greatest, and perhaps its last, representative in Fra Angel-
ico ; but the atmosphere in which he moved was charged
with forces which were driving the pursuit of art more and
more into technical and scientific channels beyond which
lay the vision of pure beauty to be attained as art's
final goal. Thus while the subject-matter of the arts
continued in the main to be drawn from sacred legend
and the Scriptures, the spirit in which artists worked
was so frankly secular that it tended to destroy any


religious or spiritual purpose which the work was nom-
inally intended to convey. Contemporary portraits in-
troduced into pictures illustrating the Nativity, studies
from the nude to secure adequate representation of the
Magdalen, the poses of a Tuscan contadina adapted to
the requirements of a Madonna, all these might serve the
purposes of beauty and yet be regarded as unsuitable for
developing the spiritual life. It is not necessarily treason
to art to object to professedly religious compositions from
which every trace of a religious purpose has been ban-
ished, nor does the pursuit of pure beauty always result
in achievements of which a moralist can approve. Sav-
onarola looked at life primarily from the point of view
of a rporal and spiritual reformer, and if he found the
pursuit of art, as practised in his day, hostile to the ends
at which he aimed, he would naturally condemn it with-
out concerning himself as to the abstract value, as works
of art, of the productions which he condemned. He was
probably actuated by no theoretical opinions upon the
province of art, but by his everyday experience of the
effects which he saw to be produced by works of a certain
character. As a practical man, when he saw an oppor-
tunity of destroying what he found to be harmful, he
used that opportunity to the utmost. It is beside the
point to indulge in sesthetic disquisitions as to whether
Savonarola ought to have regarded as injurious to morals
the works which he destroyed, whether art ought or
ought not to have a moral purpose, whether the highest
pursuit of art can be compatible with the highest aims of
Christianity. Art pursued on certain lines, and pictures
produced of a certain character, did seem to him injurious
to morals, and being persuaded of this he set his face
resolutely against such art and such pictures.

In these opinions he found many advocates among


the best artists of his day. The Delia Robbia, Lorenzo
di Credi, Sandro Botticelli, the divine Michelangelo ranged
themselves under Savonarola's banner, and the best an-
swer that can be made to those who hold up Savonarola
to condemnation as a fanatical opponent of art is to be
found in the great artists of his day who were among his

But if Savonarola was hostile to certain forms of art
and to certain manifestations of the artistic spirit, he was
a warm friend to such an ideal of art as Era Angelico
interpreted upon the convent walls of S. Marco. Stim-
ulated by the immortal masterpieces of the blessed friar,
and animated by his spirit, Savonarola set up within his
convent a school of design, where the practice of the arts
was carried on by such of the inmates as were fitted to
pursue it under the superintendence of masters from
without. In short, within certain clearly defined limits,
he recognized to the fullest extent the claims of art upon
life. His limits, judged from an abstract standard of
.-esthetics, may have been narrow, and destructive of art
pursued as an end in itself, but, judged from the point of
view of a moral reformer in Renaissance Florence, his
limits are intelligible, and as a consistent man he could
scarcely have made them wider.

The purchase of the Medicean library for S. Marco
is a convincing evidence of the strong intellectual sym-
pathies of Savonarola with his own age. He not only
rendered an inestimable service to Florence by keeping
intact what remained of those treasures which Cosimo
and Lorenzo dei Medici had collected, but by making them
accessible to the public he extended their usefulness and
contributed to the cause of classical learning and literary
culture. Cavillers may take exception to his consistency,
for it may be urged that there was much in the Medicean


manuscripts which was not calculated to improve morals
or advance the spiritual life, but in Savonarola we are
concerned with a man, not with some monstrous
embodiment of all the perfections : moreover he might
legitimately distinguish between those productions of
the artists which would be accessible at all times to an
emotional and uninstructed public, and the works of
ancient writers which would be studied in seclusion by
scholars with a true feeling for the purposes of scholar-

The position which Savonarola occupied upon the
threshold of the Reformation leads naturally to the inquiry
how far he is to be looked upon as the precursor and
herald of that movement. The early reformers claimed
him as their own. Luther in his usual vigorous lan-
guage declared that Savonarola's prison meditations
showed him to have accepted the Protestant doctrine of
justification by faith alone ; and often, since Luther's
days, the revolt of Savonarola against the authority of
Alexander VI has been used as a proof that he antici-
pated the revolt of Luther against the Papacy. When,
however, we study Savonarola's life as a whole, and his
works as a whole, it will be evident that, in spite of
isolated incidents and isolated passages, his allegiance
to Catholic doctrine and to the Roman supremacy
cannot be challenged. If in his prison meditations,
when he felt himself forsaken by all, with death
immediately before him, he wrote words which seemed
to imply a denial of the value of works in the scheme
of salvation, there are passages scattered throughout
his sermons and his writings which bear conclusive
testimony to the Catholic orthodoxy of his views upon
this question. When we wish to know precisely the
position on which a man takes his stand we turn, if we


can find it, to some authoritative statement in which he
has defined his position. Such a statement is to be
found in Savonarola's " Triumph of the Cross,'' a dogmatic
treatise in which he sets forth the Christian creed as he
understood and accepted it.

Basing himself upon the philosophic principle that
we must proceed from the known to the unknown in our

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Online LibraryE. L. S. (Edward Lee Stuart) HorsburghGirolamo Savonarola → online text (page 22 of 23)