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the end was the main object : the means used in achieving
it were of quite secondary importance. There thus arose
in Italy a different standard of morality from that which
was understood and aimed at in England or in France.
The familiar commonplaces of the Ten Commandments f
seemed antiquated and out of date to a people who prided |
themselves on their intellectual superiority. A new Deca- 1
logue, which enjoined success at all costs, came to supplant
the inconvenient restrictions enjoined against murder, lust,
and fraud. In Italy men lived too near the Church, were
too familiar with the proceedings of its dignitaries and
representatives, to be impressed with those simple feel-
ings of awe and reverence which continued to animate
foreigners even in the worst days of Papal degradation.
The morals of the Italian clergy were, as a whole, little
fitted to elevate the moral tone of the Italian people.
Nor did the cult of antiquity tend to draw men strongly
to the exercise of Stoic virtues. The classic writings
appealed, not to a sense of morals, but to a sense of
refinement, of humane and highly civilized life. The
great Pagans of old seemed to be a standing proof to ,
the virtuosi of Italy that Christianity was not essential
in the scheme of things, but that a full satisfaction of
the human mind could be found in a curious blend of
Paganism combined with outward conformity to the re-
quirements of ecclesiasticism.

Thus it must not be supposed that there was any open
breach between Renaissance, Humanism and the pro-
fession of orthodoxy. While scholars rendered heart
service to Plato, they continued to render lip service


to Christianity and its external symbols. Perhaps the
moral degradation of Italy was enhanced by this very
fact, for a vein of more or less unconscious hyprocrisy
was intermingled with the Italian character and served
to intensify its corruption.

Yet there were some, and these among the greatest of
the scholars of Renaissance Italy, who recognized Chris-
tianity as an evolution from Paganism, a natural and neces-
sary development in the march of human progress, but at
the same time they recognized the many abuses which had
intermingled with its practice. The hope that inspired
them was to find a form of faith in which the highest
ideals of Pagan antiquity might be incorporated with the
highest ideals of the modern world, the teaching of Plato
with the teaching of Christ. In Florence a Platonic
academy for the study and discussion of Plato's philosophy
had been set up under the patronage of Cosimo de'
Medici, and from it there emanated the mystical and
fantastic speculations of Gemisthos Plethon, Marsilio
Plcino, and Pico della Mirandola, which aimed at effect-
ing a reconciliation between Plato and Christianity.
Such speculations were in themselves a proof of the
yearnings for better things which men of the highest and
most cultivated minds experienced, and when Savonarola
appeared with his practical and loftly ideals of moral
reform and a regenerated Christianity, some of the Pla-
tonists seemed to see in him the reconciliation which they
sought between their own conceptions and the prevailing
conditions; they hailed him with enthusiasm, and en-
listed beneath his banner.

The career of Savonarola reveals him in the threefold
character of politician, mystic, and reformer. It has been
the aim of this introduction to illustrate, from the
conditions prevalent in Italy, the need for such a man.

/;/ the Vjffzi\ Florfnce. Painter unkiio-ivn



GIROLAMO SAVONAROLA was bom at Ferrara
on 2 1 September, 1452. He was of an old
Paduan stock, but his grandfather, Michele, had been
called to the Court of the Estes at Ferrara in 1440, where
he soon was appointed physician to the ducal family.
It was Michele's youngest son, Nicolo, who was the
father of Girolamo Savonarola. Of his parents, how-
ever, but little is known. From letters written to his
mother, Elena Buonaccorsi, it has been inferred that
her influence was powerful in moulding his character,
but the chief responsibility for his education seems to
have rested upon his grandfather, Michele. As a boy,
Savonarola was of a melancholy and retiring disposition,
utterly untouched by and unsympathetic to the brilliant
life of festival, ceremony and pageant which surrounded
him, and after one visit to the Court he was resolute in
his determination never to visit it again. There is a
legend which may be based on fact, that the pangs of
unrequited love helped to intensify his aversion from
the world, but the story that he offered his hand to
Laodamia Strozzi, and was rejected by her, must be
received with caution. Solitary, brooding, and devoted
to philosophical and theological studies, his own asser-
tion made in later years that he had never experienced
the wish to marry may contain the truth. Before he



was 20 he had gained a profound knowledge of the
Scriptures, as well as of the scholastic systems which
constituted the chief educational training of the times,
and he had assimilated the knowledge thus acquired by
the thoroughness of his method and by deep and close
meditation. Even at this early age, however, his outlook
upon life was not narrowed and limited by the mere
pedantry of scholarship or the subtleties of Biblical inter-
pretation. With the weapons of the schoolmen and
critics he was as well furnished as any, but he carried
his eyes beyond his books to the world in which he lived
and to the signs of the times, and expressed the feeling
which the existing conditions of society aroused in him
in a poem, written in 1472, entitled "■ De Ridud Mundi".
In this poem he is filled with the sense of wickedness
abounding. "I see the world upside down, and virtue
and good customs sapped to their foundations. That
man is happy who lives by rapine and feeds himself
upon the blood of others ; that soul is beautiful and
gentle which by force and fraud acquires most. He who
despises heaven and Christ, and ever seeks to trample
others under foot, he will win honour from the world.
. . . Rome lies prostrate, men and women compete to
inflict wounds upon her. . . . The days of piety and
purity have passed away." This poem, composed at the
age of 20, before he had devoted himself to the re-
ligious life, strikes the keynote of Savonarola's future.
In the days of his power as in the days of his youth it
was the clear recognition of the enormous wickedness
which prevailed around him which gave a tongue to his
denunciations, a clarion call to his exhortations to re-
pentance. The poem marks also that sense of the
punishments and woes which must inevitably fall upon
Italy as a consequence of its abandonment which the


poet never ceased to feel and to express until the judg-
ments he had foreseen began indeed to descend upon the
land. It is not uncommon to find a youth of even less
than 20 years of age who is "tormented by divine
things," who has the deepest, most bitter consciousness
of sin, the most earnest desire to escape from it and
from all the temptations afforded by a thoughtless and
giddy world ; but it is rare to find one who, in addition
to all this, possesses a comprehensive view of the condi-
tions of his times, and a prescience of the results which
must follow from the conditions. " I believe, O King
of Heaven," he says in the "■ De Ruina Mundi" "that
thou dost delay thy chastisements only to punish the
more severely those who are most guilty." This may
be a mere common-place of poetic rhetoric, or may
be the inspiration of prophecy working in Savonarola's
soul. It is at any rate significant that the imminence of
coming doom continued to be the burden of his cry
throughout his life.

Thus filled with disgust for the wickedness of the world
and disenchanted as to its illusions, it was natural that
his thoughts should turn to a monastic life in which, he
might suppose, peace, contentment, and spiritual satis-
faction were to be found. The project was one which he
scarcely dared to entertain in view of the certain opposi-
tion of his family, yet it engrossed his mind, and refused
to be dismissed. The months passed by and no decision
was taken till, in 1474, from a project it became a resolve.
Influenced by a sermon preached by an Augustinian friar
at Faenza, Savonarola made his final choice and deter-
mined in due season to assume the cowl. The pains he
would endure and those which he would inflict by separa-
tion were so keenly realized that months elapsed before
he could brace himself to his resolve. At last, on 23


April, 1475, according to his biographer, Fra Benedetto,
he took his lute and struck its strings to such plaintive
chords and sang so sad an air, that his mother cried,
" Alas, my son, this is a sign of our separation ". But he
with bowed head dared not raise his e}'es to hers, but
continued to strike the strings with trembling fingers.

On the next day all Ferrara was given up to festivity
in honour of St. George. Savonarola was left at home
in solitude. He seized the opportunity to steal away
from his father's house, making for Bologna, where he
applied to be admitted as a novice into the convent of
S. Domenico. He was at once accepted, and soon ga\'e
evidence that it was not for the purpose of securing a
learned leisure that he had adopted the monastic life,
but that he might cleanse himself of sin by prayer and
fasting and by the chastening influences of self-denial
and austerities. But first he must explain himself to
those whom he loved at home.

On 25 April, the day after his secret departure, he
wrote a letter to his father which is characteristic of his
mode both of thought and expression. He cannot doubt,
he says, that his father has grieved over his departure,
the more so as it was secret. But he may rest assured
that his son's determination was not the result of some
boyish impulse. Let him be judged, not in the light of
passion, as women judge, but in the light of reason ; it
will then be for his father to say if he could have acted
otherwise. Of his reasons the first is the great wretched-
ness of the world and the iniquity of men, so that there
is no longer anyone that doeth good. " And so many
a time in tears I sang to myself this verse ^ Heu fuge
crudeles terras, fuge littus avarum ' ; for I was unable
any longer to endure the evil doing of the blinded people
of Italy, the more so as I saw virtue faint and brought
to shame, while vice is exalted." And so he prayed



Messer Jesu Christo to raise him up out of that slough.
The way has been shown him, and he must walk therein.
Is it not right that he should fly from the filth and ini-
quity of this wretched world in order to live as a rational
being and not as an animal among pigs?^

" O dearest Father, you have more reason to thank
God than to complain. For God has given you a son,
and preserved him for twenty-two years, and has deemed
him worthy to become His militant knight. Do you not
think it a great grace to have a son who is a cavalier of
Jesus Christ? Moreover your undoubted love for me
affords additional reason why you should rejoice ; for
seeing that I am made up of two parts, soul and body, it
would be to disparage your love for me to suppose that
you loved my body more than my soul. It is my soul
that you love more than anything else in me. Anything
therefore which favourably affects the welfare of my soul
must be to you a cause of rejoicing.

It is however natural for the flesh to grieve. But men
of wisdom and magnanimity, such as you are, know how
to temper grief by reason. Do you imagine it was not
great grief to me to leave you ? Never since I was born
have I experienced greater sorrow or affliction of mind,
for I must abandon my own flesh and blood, and go
among unknown people to make my body a sacrifice to
Jesus Christ, and to sell my own will into the hands of
those whom I have never known. Herein lies the ex-
planation of that part of my conduct which I know has
specially pained you, that I should have departed
secretly as if in flight from you. Such was the grief
and passion within my heart at the thought of parting,
that had I given utterance to them I think my heart
would have cracked, and my intention would have been

Hn his sermons Savonarola constantly inveighs against ^' La vita da


hindered. Do not therefore, by your sorrow, add to
my own ; not that I grieve for what I have done, for I
would not undo it if thereby I might become a greater
man than was Caesar. But I too am made of flesh and
blood as you are, and as the human senses are repugnant
to reason so must I fight cruelly \crndelmente\ to prevent
the Devil from leaping on to my shoulders. But these
days, in which the pain is fresh, will quickly pass, and
then I trust that we shall both of us find consolation, in
this world by grace, and in the world to come by glory.
I pray you, comfort my mother \coi)ie virile], and I be-
seech her to join you in giving me your blessing. I re-
commend to you also my brothers and sisters, especially
Alberto : make him acquire knowledge, for it will be a
great burden and sin if he is allowed to waste his time."
The note of human anguish which is struck here, in
almost the first of Savonarola's published utterances, is
the same note on which his public utterances close. In
his last sermon he refers to the persecutions in store for
him which as a man he could not fail to fear. For it is,
he says, in accordance with the '^ parte sensitiva" of man
that he should be saddened by afflictions. Even Christ
Himself, though He was God, yet, as a man, was sad.
" My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death."
Human nature will not ^ be denied in any man, nor
" without purpose has God given any natural inclination
to man ". Savonarola from first to last was one who felt
keenly ; more keenly perhaps than most men, for in him
the '^ parte sensitiva" was more than commonly active.
The essential humanity of the man throughout brings
him into touch with us, however lofty the heights of
transcendental ecstasy to which he aspired, and we are
the better able to appreciate his endurance from a know-

1 «' TrUimphns Crucis," Bk. II, Ch. i.


ledge of the school of suffering in which he learned how
to endure.

Noteworthy too from the first is his sense of the sins
of others. It was not with him, as with Christian in
Bunyan's immortal allegory, a sense of his own sin which
led him to flee from the wrath to come. It was the burden
of the sins of Italy, the iniquities of priests and prelates,
the blasphemies, pride, and idolatry everywhere visible
around him which lay heavy on his soul. From these
he was irresistibly impelled to fly, that he might nurture
his own virtue in solitude and seclusion. A warning
voice seemed ever to be ringing in his ears urging him
to abandon a wicked world ; but its note was not the
note of inspired denunciation sounded by some Hebrew
prophet, nor that of fervid exhortation struck by St. Paul,
but the warning came to him in the mellifluous accents
of a great Pagan singer — Heu fuge crudeles terras. Thus
Savonarola's call may be regarded as a reflection of the
intermingling of Renaissance feeling with mediaeval
asceticism which gives to his career, as to his epoch, so
much of its interest and quality.

In order to explain more fully his flight from home
and from the world Savonarola referred in his letter to
a treatise which he had left behind him — his father would
find it among his papers on the window — in which he
had set forth the reasons which had actuated him. The
tract was easily found, and was seen to be entitled ''Del
dispregio del inondo " (" Contempt of the World "). In it
he expressed much the same sentiments as are to be
found in his " De Ruina " and in his letter of farewell.
A recent critic, Father Lucas, has suggested that Savona-
rola's attitude of mind towards the conditions which
prevailed around him indicates a tendency to pessimism,
which might in turn lead to exaggeration and impru-


dence. The implication is that, if in the days of influence
and authority he inveighed against wickedness and cor-
ruption, even when seated on high upon a Pontifical
chair, this must be set down in part to a natural disposi-
tion, exhibited from youth up, to look on the dark side
of things. An abstract value attaches to this suggestion,
for an overwhelming sense of the iniquities of those
about one may generally be taken as an indication of
self-consciousness and self-esteem. But in the concrete
case of Savonarola the profligacy and immorality of the
times are attested by such undeniable evidence that his
denunciations may be attributed to clearness of vision
and a sense of truth as reasonably as to a pessimistic
disposition, while the wickedness in high places against
which he fulminated in the day of his power was
scarcely capable of being exaggerated however violent
the language used in denouncing it.

During the first year of his novitiate he composed an
ode which he called "-De Ruina Ecdesics". It may be
compared with his " De Ruind Mundi," for it was ob-
viously written under the influence of the same high-
wrought emotions which had coloured the earlier work.
In the one he had viewed the world and had seen the
ruin impending by reason of men's sins ; in the other he
viewed the Church and prophesied a like ruin by virtue
of its corruption. To the Church, under the aspect of a
pure virgin, the poet pours out his soul. He would weep
for ever over the decay of ancient virtue, over the eclipse
of truth and sound doctrine, and for the lack of saintly
doctors, priests and bishops, who of old adorned the
Church. The Holy Virgin, leads him into the cavern
where she has sought refuge from contamination since
the days when proud ambition — a false and haughty
harlot — had invaded Rome ; and when the poet cries in


exaltation, " Alas, O Lady ! may it be mine to break
these spreading wings," the Holy Virgin replies : " Weep
and be silent : so it seems best to me ".

The passage has frequently been brought forward as
evidence that Savonarola was thus early a rebel from
the Roman Church, in that he spoke of the Roman dis-
cipline as a proud harlot who had corrupted the purity
of the true Church ; but, according to his own commen-
tary upon the work, the poet did not mean that the
Church of Rome was a harlot ; the "fal/are, superba
meretrice" was the spirit of ambition which had entered
into and taken possession of the Church of Rome to the
exclusion of spirituality, sanctity, and grace. Savonarola
from first to last was a devoted son of the Roman Church,
and nothing in his work or writings can justify the opinion
that he was a Protestant reformer. From first to last
his end was reformation, not revolt. He is not to be
classed with Luther, but rather with pre-Reformation
reformers, such as Colet, More, and Erasmus.

No reader of the ^' Be Ruina Ecclesicu" feels any sense
of shock or of surprise in that the author, using his licence
as a poet, should have celebrated in verse an interview
between himself and the Virgin. As a poet it was his
function to give rein to his imagination, and the bent of
his genius set strongly towards visualized impersonation
and dramatic dialogue.'

Is it not possible that the combined forces of poetic

' For Savonarola's passion for dramatic dialogue, see not only his
" Compendium " but his " Dyalogtis de veritate prophetica," and his
sermons generally, e.g. Fifteenth Sermon on Job, 17 March, 1495 ;
Twenty-second Sermon on Exodus, 18 March, 1498 (his last sermon). He
constantly assumes an objector among his congregation, and replies from
the pulpit to the criticisms which he puts into the objector's mouth. See
Forty-eighth Sermon on Amos, 10 April, 1496 , The Ascension Day Sermon,
4 May, 1497.


imagination and dramatic faculty afford the true explana-
tion of some of those visions and celestial interviews
which at a later time appealed to Savonarola's prosaic
devotees as literal records of actual experience,? How
far does the dramatist become for the moment absorbed
in his own creations? How far does he become incap-
able of distinguishing between the workings of the actual
and the fictitious within his own mind? When, in
his " Compendium Revelatiormm" we read Savonarola's
description of his visit to the Courts of Heaven, his nar-
rative of the conversation which he there held with the
Virgin, or, as at another time, with the gatekeeper of
Paradise, or even with God Himself, we are surely not
bound to interpret the dramatic visions of a poet in the
light of the hard logic of facts. By insisting on a precise
literalism which will be satisfied with nothing less than
a blind acceptance of supernatural happenings we ignore
all that is most distinctive in the character and disposi-
tion of the man. We reduce the imaginative ecstasies
of the seer to the dull level of miracle-mongering and

For seven years (1475-81) Savonarola remained in
S. Domenico at Bologna. His zeal commended him to
his superiors, who in due time allotted to him the honour-
able duty of teaching the novices. In the fulfilment of
these duties, he seems to have exhibited the same sym-
pathy, the same magnetic power which we find so power-
ful at S, Marco at a later time. Those great gifts of
impassioned rhetoric and practical organization with
which he was endowed, had, as yet, no opportunity to
disclose themselves. As yet he dreamed not of the stage
on which he was to be called to act so great a part. But
in his quiet solitudes, unnoted and obscure, but clothed
in charity, sympathy and obedience, leading an unevent-


ful life of useful labour and silent contemplation, Savon-
arola in after days may have looked back to the seven
years spent at Bologna as the happiest and most peaceful
in his active career.

Possibly it was in the quiet retirement of his Bologna
convent that Savonarola first began to credit himself with
prophetic insight, and to regard himself as an agent,
divinely appointed for the renovation of the Church and
the chastisement of the sins of Italy. Preaching in the
Duomo of Florence on 13 January, 1495, he said,
" I want you to know that I began to foresee these
things [i.e. the renovation of the Church, and his other
conclusions] more than fifteen, perhaps twenty, years
ago. It is more than ten years since I began to preach
them." It was therefore, if his statement is accepted as
true, somewhere between 1475 and 1480 that he began
to conceive of himself as the recipient of a special in-
spiration, though he allowed many years to elapse be-
fore giving public utterance to the message which had
been entrusted to him to deliver. It is creditable to his
wisdom and powers of self-restraint that he should not
have allowed youthful enthusiasm to hurry him into
premature declarations, and should so far have distrusted
his own inexperience as to permit time to deepen im-
pressions into convictions.

The quiet retirement of Bologna was, however, but a
preparation for active employment in a wider sphere.
The Dominican Order — the Ordo Praedicatorum — was
essentially the preaching order, and in due time Savon-
arola was sent forth to preach. His first mission was
to his native town of Ferrara and to his own people.
In 1481 we find him a student at the Convent of Sta.
Maria degli Angeli in that city, where he preached a
course of sermons. He remained for some months at


Ferrara, but was chiefly conscious that there he was
a failure. His experience taught him that elsewhere,
away from his own country, he could produce infinitely
greater fruit for his own soul and for the souls of others
than was possible in Ferrara. For, as he naively tells
his mother, the people who came to hear him remem-
bered him. " Is not this, they said, that Maestro
Jeronimo who used to commit such and such sins, and
was even as we are?" and so they would not devoutly
hear his words. It was no doubt with a sense of relief
that, as a consequence of the outbreak of hostilities be-
tween Ferrara and Venice in the autumn of 1481, he
received orders to betake himself to Florence where he
was received into the Convent of S. Marco. There he
so commended himself to the brethren by his saintly

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Online LibraryE. L. S. (Edward Lee Stuart) HorsburghGirolamo Savonarola → online text (page 3 of 23)