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life, and his profound knowledge of the Scriptures, that
he was appointed to the office of " lector," or reader in
Holy Scripture, to the convent, and he was also chosen
as Lent preacher in S. Lorenzo for 1482.

Thus the future was before him promising a life of
useful labour, and of unhistoric quietude. No signs were
yet apparent of the storms and tumults which were to
beset him ; the record of failure and disappointment, of
ecstasy and giddy notoriety, of solid power, of woful
overthrow, had not yet been opened. Before passing
away from these restful days of peace and sympathetic
endeavour, we may pause a moment to obtain a nearer
view of Savonarola, and of the quiet solitudes in which
he lived at S. Marco.

The appearance of Savonarola has been described in
much detail by contemporaries, and several contemporary
portraits are extant, one if not two of which is by Fra
Bartolommeo. He is almost always represented with
his head enveloped in the cowl and his features appear in

^'a:';/. y. »^ r'^^r'/- 'r:/yifrQfmi

In the Museum of S. Marco, Florence


profile. The line of the nose is a regular curve ; the nose
itself, as well as the lips, full and fleshy, suggesting a dis-
position naturally sensuous. The brow is low, and, as
far as can be seen beneath the cowl, is not indicative of
high qualities of mental power. The cheeks are sunken
and the cheek-bones strongly pronounced, the effect of
fasts and vigils. From the general appearance of the
face we might judge that with freedom from care and
with good living it would have become puffy and gross.
The chin seems to recede until we realize that this effect
is due to the thick and protruding lips above it. There
is nothing of beauty about the face except the deep-set
and far-gazing eyes which contain a world of care within
their yearning steadfast gaze. It is upon his eyes that
those who have left descriptions of him especially dwell.
" Gli occhi," says Burlammacchi, " erano risplendenti e
di color celeste come quelle che da filosophi son chiamati
glaud, circondati intorno di rossi e lunghi peli." Fra
Benedetto, one of Savonarola's brethren of S. Marco, in
" Cedrus Libani,'' thus describes his appearance : —

Era parvo di corpo ma ben sano :

Era di membri a modo delicato

Che quasi relucca sua santa mano.
Hare sempre, e non gia mai turbato;

Di squardo destro e penetrante e bello ;

Deir occhio sufformato, oscuro e grato,
Densa di barba e d'oscuro capello ;

La bocca svelta e la faccia distesa ;

Arcato il naso aliquanto aveva quello.

The thick heavy eyebrows emphasized the flashing of
the "occhi glauci " beneath them, which "sometimes
gave forth red flashes". The eyes indeed redeem the
face from what may almost be called grossness and
vulgarity. If upon a first inspection the appearance
of Savonarola is disappointing, yet the more we are


familiar with it, the more it succeeds in impressing us by
virtue of the mingled energy and restraint which are
marked upon it. " Though his countenance had no
beauty of line," says Villari, "it expressed a severe
nobility of character" — a verdict upon which as a whole
we may agree.

The old convent of S. Marco had fallen into disrepair,
and the handful of Silvestrine monks who inhabited it in
the early years of the fifteenth century were not a credit
to their order. Cosimo dei Medici, shortly after his re-
turn from banishment in 1434, was induced to make
S. Marco an object of his munificence and care. Though
profoundly convinced that a State could not be governed
by paternosters, Cosimo was himself very far from being
insensible to the influences of religion or from being in-
different to the value of religion in the organization of the
State. He was moreover persuaded that by spending
money profusely in the service and for the glory of God
he could thereby expiate many sins of which he was
personally conscious, and secure a continuance of Divine
favours. However great his expenditure on churches,
shrines or convents, he never found, he said, that God
was his debtor. He caused S. Marco to be restored by
the famous architect, Michelozzo Michelozzi, and secured
it for the Dominicans of Fiesole who were attached
to the Lombard Congregation of the Order. Nor was he
content that the structure should be raised and adorned
by the genius of one of the greatest architects of the day.
The walls within were decorated with frescoes from the
brush of the saintly Fra Angelico, who now, with his
brethren from Fiesole, found in S. Marco a home. There
may still be seen on chapter house, refectory and cell the
most moving incidents of the life of Christ, the Nativity,
the Presentation, the Transfiguration, and chief of all, the

In S.Marco. Floroue


Crucifixion. One fresco shows two solitary figures — the
Saviour dying upon the Cross and S. Dominic kneeling
at its foot in an ecstasy of adoring woe; in another,
Angelico's great Crucifixion, we have the exaltation of
the monastic orders and of S. Dominic, the subtle re-
cognition of the bounty of the Medici in the portraiture
of the Medicean saints, and that deathless group of
apostles and holy women who stand or kneel in agonies of
lamentation around the feet of the central figure. We
can picture Savonarola standing before these frescoes and
feeling within himself all that passion of tears and
emotion which Fra Angelico has poured forth upon the
convent walls. He too had felt with S. Dominic, had
suffered with Mary, had knelt in adoration with St.
Jerome, had turned away with averted eyes, with St.
Damien, from the sight of a scorned and crucified Re-
deemer, All that was most fervent in the piety of
Angelico, all that was most poignant in the grief he re-
presented, all that was most consolatory in the life which
Christ lived on earth for men, struck from those walls
upon the heart of Girolamo Savonarola, and awoke re-
sponsive chords of devotion and of love.

The generosity of Cosimo went beyond the restored
structure, the frescoes, and the pleasant garden which lay
within the cloisters. He presented to the convent a
library, unique in its day, containing a selection from the
splendid collection of manuscripts which at great cost he
had got together. Thus S. Marco was equipped to be
not only a retreat for piety and a shrine of art, but also
a centre of learning, a resort of scholars, and a sanctuary
in which the chief literary treasures of antiquity found
a secure and honourable resting-place. Everything at
S. Marco combined to stimulate the energies and quicken
the feeling of saint, scholar, or artist.


Here Savonarola remained for a few years till he was
again sent forth into the world. His novitiate was
scarcely yet completed : as a preacher he was still un-
practised, and indeed unacceptable : he was scarcely yet
assured of his own mission. Little could he have dreamed
in his quiet retirement that he was destined to be known
throughout Italy as the greatest preacher of his age, and
that within the space of a few years he would be the
master not only of S. Marco but of Florence itself



IT has been seen that in 1482 Savonarola had been
appointed by his superiors to preach the Lent course
of sermons in S. Lorenzo. His previous experiences in
the pulpit can have done little to reassure him. The
sermons which he had preached at Ferrara had neither
satisfied himself nor attracted a considerable congregation.
There he was, it is true, in his own country, where a
prophet is without honour, but there were substantial
reasons, other than the fact that his hearers had known
him from boyhood, to explain his failure. He was un-
practised in the arts of preaching, and the message which
he desired to bring was not as yet either clearly or
forcibly defined in his own mind. His soul burned
within him, but he was not yet articulate. He was dimly
conscious of a mission, but without the certainty which
would enable him to express it. He denounced the sins
of Italy, and told of judgments to come, but the convic-
tion of a Divine prophetic inspiration, which was ulti-
mately to overpower all deficiencies of voice and bearing,
was not yet established. He may therefore well have
regarded as an ordeal the prospect before him at S.
Lorenzo. He was to preach to a Florentine audience
in a city which was the heart and centre of Renaissance
culture. Florence was too busy with art, with classical
literature, with philosophy, and the pursuit of commerce



to care about the impetuous denunciations of an obscure
and alien Friar. Judging everything from an artistic
standpoint, Florence required from her preachers learning,
style, taste, suavity, tact. The people who resorted to
the Churches were critics and dilettanti, rather than men
and women overwhelmed by the sense of sin and the
need for forgiveness. The popular preacher of the day
was an Augustinian monk, Fra Mariano, whose discourses
at Santo Spirito gave the greatest satisfaction to the best
judges. Fra Mariano is known to us chiefly through
Savonarolist chroniclers, and it is probable that at their
hands he has met with less than his deserts. He com-
mitted the unpardonable sin of opposing Savonarola, and
thereby proclaimed himself a bad man, who came natur-
ally and inevitably to a bad end. But the testimony of
Ficino and Foliziano bears witness to Fra Mariano as a
man of high culture, and that testimony is unconsciously
supported by hostile chroniclers. Both Filipepi and
Cinozzi connect his death with the loss by shipwreck of
a case of valuable books. He was certainly not a re-
vivalist and had little sympathy with revivalist methods.
If Savonarola in the Duomo was bold in the assertion of
his prophetic inspiration, Fra Mariano at Sta. Croce was
equally bold in his repudiation of such claims as being
unscriptural. But even in the height of their pulpit an-
tagonism exchanges of courtesies passed between the rival
rViars, who after all do not respectively represent the
final principles of good and evil, but only differing points
of view. The preaching and Society of Fra Mariano were
specially acceptable to Lorenzo dei Medici, who built a
Convent for his Order beyond the Porta S. Gallo where
the Augustinian was installed almost as Court preacher to
the Medici House. Savonarola, with his harsh voice, rough
manner, and uncouth gestures stood little chance in Flor-


ence against such a competitor. Fourteen years later, he
referred, in his twenty-first sermon, on Amos, preached in
the Duomo in March, 1496, to his first public appearances
in a Florentine pulpit. "You have known me," he said,
" in past times : you have known that I was not fit for this
enterprise, that I did not know how to move a hen, and
yet to-day all Italy is moved by my preaching." Cinozzi,
in less emphatic language, confirms his master's estimate
of his own powers at this time. " His gestures and
pronunciation pleased none, so that scarcely twenty-five
women and children remained to hear him. He was so
discouraged that he seriously thought of abandoning
altogether the work of preaching, and he returned to
Lombardy." The last statement, however, is misleading,
for though he left Florence for Brescia in i486, yet,
with brief intervals of absence, he remained for nearly
four years after his course in S. Lorenzo at S. Marco.
There, in spite of his failure outside, he continued to
arouse the greatest enthusiasm among the little band
of brethren and students gathered around him, and he
must have continued to command the full confidence of
his superiors, if, in 1482, he was sent to represent his
Convent at the Chapter of the Lombard Dominicans held
in that year at Reggio, Doubts have been suggested as
to this incident in Savonarola's life, for his biographers
have asserted that on this occasion he so impressed Pico
della Mirandola by his eloquence and abilities that " being
unable to live without him," Pico persuaded his friend
Lorenzo dei Medici, to invite the Friar to Florence. But
in 1482 Savonarola was already domiciled in Florence,
quite independently of any exertions on his behalf on
the part of either Pico or Lorenzo. It is indeed obvious
that his biographers refer to his permanent establishment
in Florence which dates from 1489. It is highly im-


probable therefore that the effects produced on Pico by
Savonarola in 1482 should not have secured a definite
result until seven years later. The researches of Gherardi,
however, have established the fact that the Chapter did
actually meet at Reggio in 1482, and though we may
dismiss the story of Pico and Lorenzo, there is yet no
reason to doubt that both Pico and Savonarola were
present on that occasion, and the intimacy between them
may have dated from their meeting there. At Reggio
Savonarola seems to have given a foretaste of his extra-
ordinary powers. The conviction of a special inspiration
was now beginning to work within him. From this
time he began to have greater confidence in himself and
in his mission. He returned to Florence, quieted in spirit,
and resumed his duties as lector at S. Marco.

Of his life during the next two years (1482-84) little
is known except that he was from time to time sent out
on missionary expeditions to preach in various towns of
Tuscany and Lombardy. According to Villari, though
he does not quote his authority, this was the period when
Savonarola first began to see visions and to be convinced
of a definite Divine inspiration directing his labours.
Reasons, derived from Savonarola's own words, have
already been given which have led me to assign a con-
siderably earlier date to the beginnings of his own belief
in himself as being gifted with a prophetic foreknowledge
of the future. But it may well be that at this time he
saw, as it seemed to him, the heavens opened and heard
a voice which bade him proclaim aloud the calamities
which were about to fall upon the Church. It is certain
that he in no way relaxed, either at S. Marco or upon
his wanderings, the austerities which he had long been
accustomed to practise. With a temperament highly
nervous and finely strung, with a body emaciated by long


vigils and severe fasts, it was natural that Savonarola, his
mind filled with the denunciations of the prophets of old,
and with the apocalyptic mysteries of St. John the Divine,
should pass sometimes into the region of hallucinations
and should conjure up from a brain overwrought by
study and physical privations ecstatic visions which took
the shape of his own latest thoughts. Nor was it reckoned
strange in those days that men should receive a direct
revelation from on high. It was as much an age of
mysticism as an age of criticism and enlightenment.
Even Ficino believed himself to have been the recipient
of supernatural communications, and was profoundly
convinced that it is the stars above us which govern our
conditions. There were those indeed who foresaw the
coming of Savonarola himself from the conjunction of
the stars. II Tizio, a Sienese priest, and a contemporary,
relates in his " Storia di Siena " that the mathematicians,
from the conjunction of the two superiors, which took
place in 1484 " in Scorpionis Sijnulacro" had often fore-
told the appearance of a minor prophet as soon as the
conjunction should be minor. This prophet would be
one who would leave his own country, would preach for
nineteen years ; would wear white garments ; would in-
stitute a new religion ; would have no fears of either pain
or death. " Many other things also, from the conjunction
of the superiors in Scorpio, did the mathematicians pre-
dict concerning him : so that many, adhering to their
reasoning and authority, thought that he would prove to
be Anti-Christ, and among those who thought thus was
Cristoforo Landino. But the pseudo-Anti-Christ is a
major prophet arising out of the changing conjunction of
triplicitas in the first step of Aries, while we are talking
of a minor conjunction in the sign of Scorpio." When
the most brilliant intellects of a brilliant intellectual age


were swayed by such astrological jargon as this, there
can be no excess of credulity in lesser minds which need
surprise us. Without at present expressing any judgment
as to the actual value to be attached to Savonarola's
claims to be directly inspired by revelations from heaven,
it may be well to take note of his neuropathic disposition,
of his manner of life which was so favourable to neurotic
development, and to the general atmosphere of quackery
and superstition by which he was surrounded.

It must be admitted that no man of the time — not
Lorenzo dei Medici, nor Guicciardini — rose superior to
astrological superstitions more triumphantly than did
Savonarola himself. His denunciations of the astrologers
are scattered broadcast throughout his sermons. But
these denunciations are in themselves evidence of the
credulity of the age, and it was only in a credulous age
that a Savonarola was possible.

Among the missionary expeditions he was called upon
to undertake by far the most important was his visit in
1484, or early in the following year, to S. Gemignano,
that township of many towers which lies about twenty
miles to the south-west of Florence. It was here that the
sense of his mission, and of a Divine inspiration to pro-
claim it, broke upon him in full force. Preaching there
upon his usual text, the depravity of the age and the
corruption of the Church, he uttered for the first time his
three prophetic propositions : that the Church shall be
scourged ; afterwards it shall be regenerated ; and these
things shall quickly come to pass. These conclusions from
this time forth constituted the burden of his message to
Italy, and in after days he announced them as being
directly revealed to him by God.^ It becomes interesting

' Vide, Thirteenth Sermon on Haggai, 14 Dec, 1494 ; Third Sermon
on Psalms, 13 Jan., 1495 ; and the final Sermon, 18 March, 1498.


therefore to trace the genesis of these conclusions, and
the actual sources from which they were drawn.

According to Savonarola's own testimony, and that of
his biographer, the younger Pico della Mirandola, he was
not originally indebted to revelation for these proposi-
tions, but deduced them naturally from his study of the
Scriptures. There he found, says Mirandola, " that the
majesty of Divine Justice required that terrible penalties
should fall on wicked men, especially on those who,
being placed in authority, corrupt the people by their
bad example, . . . and he found that from the very
beginning of things we have a record of a series of
wonderful and mysterious judgments whereby the loving
clemency and the terrible Justice of God are alike made

Savonarola himself, in his " Compendimn Revela-
tionum " is explicit as to the sources of his conclusions.
Referring to the sermons which he preached in Florence
in the course of 1490, he says that, in particular, he
enforced his three conclusions — " These I always en-
deavoured to prove by probable reasons, and figures from
Scripture, and other similitudes or parables founded on
what is at present visible in the Church ; not asserting
that I had these things through any other means than
these reasonings, since men did not then seem to me dis-
posed to believe. In following years I went farther, and
seeing a better disposition in men, I sometimes brought
forward some visions, not however saying that they were
visions, but putting them forward by way of parables."
From this I think we may infer that Savonarola himself
was from the first convinced that he had "these things"
by direct supernatural revelation, though they were cap-
able of being deduced, without supernatural agency, by
a thinking man from Scripture and from the prevailing con-


ditions. Any use which he originally made of the visions
vouchsafed to him was to introduce them by way of
parables and similitudes in support of his assertions.

If then we are justified in believing that it was at S.
Gemignano that what were originally shadowy impressions
of a Divine revelation deepened into a fixed and settled
conviction that he was the recipient of such a revelation,
we can understand the effect which his sermons there
produced not only upon his hearers but upon himself.
From this time he launched forth freely into prophetic
warnings, became bolder and more precise in his state-
ment of them, and was strengthened in a belief that a
power outside himself was urging him on. The fires of
a new impulse from this moment began to burn
within him and transformed a dreaming monk into an
inspired prophet. A course of sermons which he preached
at Brescia in i486 affords striking evidence that he had
now become conscious of forces working within him which
hitherto had been absent. There he foretold desolation,
misery, and bloodshed which would overtake the City.
The fervour and passion which animated the preacher
communicated themselves to his hearers. The Brescians
seemed to see the form of one of the four and twenty
elders whom Savonarola had singled out as the herald of
their doom. The flashing eye, the tones of thunder
struck terror into their hearts. Twenty-six years later,
in 1 5 12, when Brescia opened its gates to the Venetians
in opposition to the advance of the French arms, the
French general stormed the town, took it and gave it
up to pillage. " For two days," says Creighton, " Brescia
was ravaged by the fury of a horde of brutal soldiers ;
more than 8000 were slain and many of the French
were so laden with spoil that they returned home to
enjoy it." There must have been many still alive who


saw in the sack of Brescia the fulfilment of the doom
prophesied upon it by Savonarola.

At the moment when Savonarola's spiritual life was
undergoing a crisis, the Church itself was passing through
critical times. On 12 August, 1484, Sixtus IV died.
His nephew, Girolamo Riario held the Castle of St.
Angelo. The great family of Colonna was in arms to
vindicate the wrongs it had suffered at the hands of
Sixtus. Rome was almost in a state of siege, and the
College of Cardinals was distracted by the rival pre-
tensions of the candidates for the Papal Chair. The
situation was such as to suggest the possibilities of a new
Schism. When, on 29 August, a Pope was peacefully
elected in the person of Giovanni Battista Cibo, Savona-
rola regarded the event as governed by a special inter-
position of the hand of God. In a prefatory note to his
poem, " Oratio pro Ecclesia^^ written at this time, he says
that on the death of Sixtus the Devil aroused dissensions
in the Church. But God laid to his hand ; and, peace
being made, Innocent VIII was elected, not without
wonder on the part of the sheep who were anxious as to
a Schism \no7i sine adiniratione oviiivi quae de schisniate
dubitabant\ From the fragment of the poem made
accessible by Villari and Casanova, we are able to judge
of its general tenor. He invokes *' Jesus, sweet com-
fort and highest good of every afflicted heart," to look
with eyes of perfect love upon Rome. Succour Thy
holy Roman Church which the demon is destroying.
Look with pity on the storm in which Thy Spouse is

E quanto sangue, oime ! tra noi s'aspetta,

Se la tua man pietosa,

Che di perdonar sempre si diletta

Non la riduce a quella

Pace che fu, quand' era poverella.


" That peace which she enjoyed when she was poor."
This is the burden of his song almost before his pubHc
career began ; nor in the days of his power did he ever
swerve from his conviction that the malady of the Church
was to be found in its wealth and material splendour.^

Wherever Savonarola may have gone after leaving S.
Gemignano, it is certain that he returned in due course
to Florence. For in December, 1485, he dates a letter to
his mother from Florence, in which he seeks to console
her for the death of her brother, his uncle Borso. Rather
paradoxically, as it may seem, he acknowledges the pro-
vidence of God towards his family, "for the more I pray
for its welfare, the more every day has He stricken it".
But this is only because God is gracious, and desires

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Online LibraryE. L. S. (Edward Lee Stuart) HorsburghGirolamo Savonarola → online text (page 4 of 23)