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through affliction to bring the afflicted soul to Himself.
Consolation for earthly troubles is only to be found in the
contemplation of Christ's love, for the more this soul of
ours is bound to the things of earth, so much the more
is it far away from its eternal goal. Life here is nothing
except as a preparation for the life which is to come.

The letter as a whole abounds in that asceticism which
was so much in Savonarola's character, and it serves to
amplify his dictum : " My brethren, for what do we live
here save to learn to die a good death? " In the midst
of his consolations to his mother he abruptly breaks off
to address his sisters, Beatrice and Chiara. Let them
not waste their time in thoughts of marriage and of worldly
happiness. St. Paul spoke truly when he declared that
whoever marries does not sin, but lays up for himself
tribulation, " and you have an example of this in your
own mother. He who does not marry takes the better
course." The fervour of their brother's exhortations,
and the fact that they were not infrequently repeated,

1 Viile, Sermon, " Utqtiid Dens rcpulisti,''^ Advent, 1493.


lead us to suppose that Beatrice and Chiara did not see
things quite in Savonarola's light. From his prayers to
them to leave aside all vanities, to care nothing about
company, to desire neither to see nor to be seen, not to
go among men, but to be wholly given up to Christ it
would appear that his sisters were thoroughly natural and
very human girls. If the younger Pico's story be true
that his uncle Giovanni offered Savonarola 400 scudi to
dower his sisters, and that he refused it, it is improb-
able that they regarded their brother as one who had
done them a service.

The exhortation closes with a moving picture of the
recent death of a young cantatrice in Florence. " She
was the darling of the whole city by reason of the sweet-
ness of her voice which surpassed all the great singers.
She died in great anguish carrying with her the punish-
ment of her sins. Had she followed the path which at
one time I wished to show her, perchance she would not
have come to such a pass. What delight do all her
charms afford her now ? Where now are the melodies,
the delicate foods in which once she rejoiced? The
things of this world are fleeting like the wind. This life
which we live here is but a brief passage either to the
joys of Paradise, or to the pains of Hell. There life will
be unending. How then can any one hesitate? Yet
men are blind, intent on building where they cannot pos-
sess. Every one speaks well of a life of rectitude and
praises virtue, but only a few follow it, though in this
world nothing but sorrow is to be found." ^

In i486 Savonarola for a time severed his connexion
with S. Marco in order to undertake a prolonged mission

^ Marchese in " Archivio Storico Italiano " dates this letter 5 Nov., 1495.
Villari and Casanova have secured the true date, 5 Dec, 1485, from a
photograph of the original letter which is still extant in England.


among the Lombard towns. Apart from his visit to
Brescia, to which reference has already been made, there
is no detailed record of these apostolic wanderings. He
is indeed almost lost to us for two or three years. It
may be inferred, from a letter written to his mother in
January, 1490, that Brescia was his head quarters during
this period (1486-90), for he speaks of the difficulty he
had experienced in getting letters through from Brescia
to Ferrara. From the same source we learn that he had
been commanded to preach the Lent course of 1490 at
Genoa, and it was when at Pavia, on his way to Genoa,
that the letter to his mother was written. Genoa there-
fore may confidently be assigned as one of the scenes of
his labours, and it may be true, as Father Lucas asserts
that he preached at Pavia, though from his own words it
is clear that in 1490 he was only passing through Pavia
on his way to Genoa. It was probably on the conclusion
of his labours there that he returned to P"lorencc, and re-
sumed his position of lector in S. Marco.

Savonarolist biographers such as Pico and Burlamacchi
have given currency to the story that Savonarola was re-
called to Florence by Lorenzo dei Medici acting under the
impulse of his friend Pico della Mirandola. They associate
Pico's action, however, with the impression made upon
him by Savonarola at Reggio seven years before, and
thus they render the story suspicious. Moreover earlier
and strictly comtemporary biographers, such as Cinozzi
and Filipepi, entirely ignore this story, Cinozzi indeed
expressly stating that Savonarola's return to Florence
was the consequence of the great desire of the brethren at
S. Marco to have him with them again, while Savonarola
himself in " Compendium Revelationum " confirms this
statement when he says, " God brought me to Florence
by commission of my superiors in 1489" [1490]. Per-


haps the matter is scarcely worth the controversy which
has arisen around it, except in so far as it affects the larger
question of the credibility of Savonarolist apologists. The
point is one of picturesqueness and dramatic effect rather
than of historical importance. The precise influences
which led to Savonarola's recall have little bearing on his
work or character. But there would be a certain pictu-
resque irony in the fact, if it were true, that the man who
was to stand before Florence as the foremost antagonist
of the Medicean system should have been invited thither
by the greatest representative of the House of Medici. It
is unfortunate that so many of the dramatic stories of
history, devised after the event, have to be received by
the judicious with considerable caution and reserve.

On his return to S. Marco Savonarola at once resumed
his old position of instructor, and in the summer of 1490
began a course of readings on the Apocalypse in the
Convent garden. The theme was the same as that
which had made so strong an impression on the people
of Brescia four years before. Though subdued to the
tone of his surroundings there was doubtless the same
passionate earnestness, the same conviction of the judg-
ments which await on sin. The little audience of Friars
" beneath the damask rose-tree " began to be increased
by laymen from outside. It was after the discourse of
Sunday, 18 July, that he was exhorted by his friends to
preach in the church of the Convent in order that a
wider public might profit by his sermons. " Pray," he
said, " till next Sunday." When it arrived he announced
that on the following Sunday he v/ould expound and
preach in the church, " and I shall preach for more than
eight years, and so indeed it came to pass ".^

' Burlamacchi. The statement must be received with caution. For
Savonarola did not preach " for more than eight years," but for less than


The sermons begun in S. Marco on i August, 1490,
were continued throughout the year, and in all of them
it was his chief concern to insist upon the truth of
his three propositions. He denounced the sins of Italy
and the corruption of the Church, and prophesied that
God would quickly send a great scourge upon the guilty
land. He varied his denunciations by glowing exhorta-
tions to repentance, while he certainly created upon his
hearers the impression that he derived his foreknowledge
of future events from a special divine revelation. To his
original predictions he now, according to Cinozzi, added
yet another, that the infidels would be converted, and
from this time he constantly asserted that the conversion
of the heathen would take place immediately, by which,
as he explained, he meant within the lifetime of some
of those to whom he was speaking. From the first his
sermons and prophetic utterances met with a mixed re-
ception in Florence. While he gathered round him a
large body of enthusiastic supporters, the number of
those who disliked his style and prophetical pretensions
must also have been considerable. Other Friars, at Sta.
Croce or Santo Spirito, also had their devoted followers,
and it was not merely professional jealousy but sin-
cere conviction which caused many Franciscans and
Augustinians to take an attitude of strong opposition to
Savonarola's claims. But to him opposition, from what-
ever quarter, seemed to be evidence of that very perver-

eight years. i August, 1490-18 March, 1498. But in "Compendium
Revelafionum " Savonarola himself mistakes the date, and says he began
to preach in 1489, and other authorities, Cinozzi, FiHpepi, say the same.
We may suspect that Burlamacchi, with the false date before him, made
the prediction harmonize with it. If so, the only authority on which the
prediction rests loses most of its value. Savonarola in his confession cor-
rects his own error, and dates his preaching at S. Marco from i August,
1490. That this is the true date is obvious. It is proved, among other
things, by the fact that in 1490 i August fell on a Sunday, but not in 1489.


sity which he denounced as part of the guilt which God
was about to punish. As he became more and more
persuaded that " it is not I who preach, but God who
speaks through me," he naturally became more and more
convinced that to criticize and oppose him was to criticize
and oppose God. This sounds like egotism gone mad, but
exactly in proportion as he was sincere it was impossible
for him to think otherwise. He could honestly repudiate
all personal feelings when to his opponents he might
seem to be wholly swayed by such feelings. Doubtless he
regarded himself as merely a poor worm, a mannikin, the
meanest of mankind mysteriously appointed to be the
mouthpiece of the Divine Will. But there is perhaps some
excuse for those who regarded him as a pretentious and
arrogant impostor who found his own advantage in trad-
ing upon the superstitious credulity of flatterers and de-
votees. When he declared that he " must be the hailstorm
which will bruise the heads of those who will not get
under cover," the statement could be construed as only
another way of saying that he proposed to pursue with
his denunciations all who did not agree with him. The
student of human nature can have no difficulty in under-
standing how it was that the relations between the
partisans and opponents of Savonarola would speedily
become strained, at last perhaps to a point when the
strain would be no longer tolerable. If that point should
ever be reached there would be no alternative but a final
trial of strength between the parties in which the weaker
would go to the wall.

It is from Savonarola's own record that we learn that
divisions and dissensions speedily arose as a consequence
of his sermons. " Seeing," he says in " Compendium
Revelatiomim" "the contradiction and division which I
aroused, I was many times, like a coward, minded to


preach other things than these, but I could not do so ;
everything else which I read or studied came to nought."
He seems, however, to have made a serious effort to re-
frain from prophetic utterances, presumably as a conse-
quence of the discords which they produced. For it is
in this connexion that he gives us one of the most in-
teresting of his autobiographical notices. " I remember,"
he says, " the first Lent that I preached in Florence in
1490 [he means 1491] having prepared my sermon for
the second Sunday from such material, I determined to
leave it, and to preach no more on such matters. God
is my witness that all that Saturday, and all night I sat
up even till Sunday morning, and could turn to nothing
else, so much was every step closed to me, and all
other teaching but that. That morning, being much
fatigued by my long vigil, I heard a voice say to me :
' Fool, do you not see that the Will of God is that you
should preach in that manner.' Accordingly that morning
I [)reached a tremendous sermon [spai-entosa predtcaiione]y

But though from the first there were those who cavilled
and disapproved, the tide of popular favour soon began
to run strongly with Savonarola. His congregation
could scarcely be contained within the limits of S. Marco,
and after the Advent course of 1490, it was felt that for
the Lent sermons of 1491 a larger church was necessary.
The preacher accordingly removed from S. Marco, to the
Cathedral Church, or Duomo, of Florence, its pulpit
becoming from this moment the principal scene of his
labours, until circumstances compelled him seven years
later to return to S. Marco a few weeks before his arrest
and condemnation.

The Duomo now becomes the stage on which the whole
tragic drama of Savonarola works itself out. It is a
drama set throughout in an atmosphere of passionate


intensity. We see the prophet rising on the wings of
ecstasy to proclaim the coming woe. The drama deepens
as the predicted scourge begins to fall. The conviction of
this supernatural inspiration carries everything before it,
and the prophet becomes the divine lawgiver to the city.
He ventures further forth upon the stormy sea of politics,
and seeks to support his credit by giving still greater pre-
cision to his prophecies. The result is to arouse political
adversaries, and to impair popular confidence in himself.
He is caught up in a sea of troubles, but his passionate
protesting eloquence never ceases to ring out from the
pulpit beneath the mighty dome, until at last he is borne
down by the weight of the forces he had roused against
himself, and his voice is heard no more.

The expectation of a largely increased congregation
was more than fulfilled when the pulpit of S. Marco was
exchanged for that of the Duomo. Not only the substance
of his preaching, but the personality of the man himself
fascinated even those whom he repelled. To his followers
his appeal was irresistible, but many who were not his
followers, or who were so only for a time, felt the charm of
a new spirit of enthusiasm and passionate intensity. For in
the pulpit this plain insignificant figure became transformed.
From an ^^ agnellino pieno di huinilta e carital^ he seemed
to assume a "stature greater than his own, to exhibit an
unconquerable and virile spirit, purged of every earthly
consideration or respect, fearless of any living man, after
the manner of the ancient prophets, apostles and martyrs ".

There can be no doubt that from the first his principal
attraction was the claim which he expressed or implied
to a special divine revelation. But it is a mistake to
suppose that his sermons were made up of nothing else
but prophecy, denunciation and sensationalism. He
made it a fundamental aim to expound Holy Scripture,


of every part of which he had a profound and intimate
knowledge, and he was himself conscious that in the ex-
position of Scripture his strength lay. Though himself
a philosopher and a rhetorician he trusted little to the
effects of philosophical disquisitions or of rhetorical arts.
" God is my witness," he says in his " Tn'uinp/ms Crucis"
" that many times when preaching to the people, while I
wandered amid the subtleties of philosophy, in order to
demonstrate to the proud intellects of this world the pro-
fundity of the Sacred Scriptures, I saw my hearers be-
coming less and less attentive. But suddenly, when I
reverted to the exposition of the Scriptures themselves,
I saw all eyes riveted upon me, and men hung upon
my words, fixed and intent, as if they were marble
statues." In proportion as he abandoned the technical-
ities of theology for the living Gospel, drawn from its
original source, he realized that his teaching bore its
fullest fruit in stimulating his hearers to the perfect life.
In his interpretation of Scripture he was content to rely
largely upon himself, constantly supporting himself how-
ever upon the authority of S. Thomas Aquinas and other
great scholastic Doctors, rather than upon the new
learning of the Renaissance with which he was equally
familiar. His first aim without doubt was to restore and
quicken a sense of spiritual life in the hearts of those who
heard him, and when he used his alleged gift of prophecy
or special inspiration it was only in order that the more
effectually he might attain this end.

It was not long before in Florence Savonarola became
the rage. For the Florentines were much as the Athenians
of old, ever attracted by some new thing, while the message
which Savonarola brought to them was of a character to
startle and attract. For he continually enlarged upon
the three propositions which he had first uttered at San


Gemignano, no longer concealing from his hearers that
he received them as a direct inspiration from heaven.
Nor, while inveighing against abuses and scandals in
the Church and foretelling its speedy chastisement and
regeneration, did he spare the vices of the Florentine
people. On them too the judgments of God would fall.
They had abandoned themselves to luxury, worldliness
and an easy Paganism which had nothing in common
with Christ ; they had bartered their ancient freedom for
the toys and spectacles presented to them by an autocratic
ruler. They were false alike to Christ and to liberty.

Such scarcely veiled allusions to the tyranny which
the Medici had imposed upon Florence had something in
them which doubtless added to the attractiveness of the
friar's sermons. There is always something piquant in
listening to invectives launched against the powers that
be. But Savonarola was something more than piquant.
He appealed to a definite sense of freedom which was
not yet extinct in many a Florentine heart. He set be-
fore the people an ideal to which at one time they had
been passionately attached and made them realize how
far, half unconsciously, they had lapsed from it.

Taking the general gist of Savonarola's sermons in
Florence, we are able to see how, from his first appear-
ances as a successful preacher, he combined within himself
the dual functions of political and religious reformer.
Politics and religion were with him so intermixed, the
fear of God and the love of free government were to him
so much one and the same thing, that he slipped into the
position of a Florentine politician almost without knowing
that he was anything but a reformer of morals. The
sequel was to show that this two-fold position was a fatal
one, for as a politician he was thrown not only athwart
the path of the Medici but into direct conflict with the


secular aims of Italian statesmen, men who were not likely
to hold their hands when they found themselves thwarted
by the opposition of " a chattering friar ".

When Savonarola denounced the corruption of the
Church and the enslavement of Florence he spoke of what
was plain for all men to see. It was because he made
himself an articulate voice for the secret and half-formed
thoughts of men that he sprang so rapidly to fame and
influence. Many were thinking what he had the boldness
to say. And when his words were enforced by vehement
and startling assurances of visions and celestial interviews
in which these things had been declared to him it was
small wonder that, in an age strongly tinctured with
superstitions, many should have lent a credulous ear, and
should have seen in his emaciated form, worn features and
flashing eyes a man in whom spirit had triumphed over
body, a fit intermediary between God and His neglectful

The corruptions which had affected the Church in its
head and its members have been referred to in general
terms in the introductory chapter. Throughout the
Renaissance period the Papacy was engaged in pursuing
purely secular objects and was without scruple in its
pursuit of them. The Pope who had most resolutely set
himself to the task of consolidating the states of the
Church and of carving out of them an Italian principality
for his own kindred was Sixtus IV (1471-84). It is not
necessary to credit Sixtus IV with all those nameless
vices and unspeakable abominations which have been
attributed to him in his own day and since. Such
charges rest upon evidence which is tainted and have
been dismissed by Creighton as " not proven ". But
whatever may have been the extent of his erudition and
even of his private virtues, there can be no doubt that,


as Pontiff, Sixtus used the Papacy to secure his private
interests, enlisting without scruple and without remorse
all the temporal and spiritual weapons at his command
in the service of ambition, intrigue and the disquietude
of Italy. With such an example before them the great
dignitaries of the Church naturally sought their own in-
terests, regardless for the most part of the spiritual obliga-
tions imposed upon them by their position. The most
astounding luxury prevailed in high places at Rome.
The most shameless effrontery was displayed in the means
used to get money. The holiest relics, the most sacred
services of religion were prostituted for the purposes of
gain. The inferior clergy were for the most part sunk in
ignorance and sloth. The monastic orders had lost their
freshness and enthusiasm ; the regular clergy were dull
and formal ; in Italy itself vice went naked and un-
ashamed. Assassination was a recognized political
weapon and a legitimate instrument of private revenge.
Abominable vices flourished unreproved. It did not
need the gift of prophecy to enable any thinking and
observant man to be assured that in the near future
reaction or revolution was inevitable.

In 1484 Pope Sixtus IV died. He was succeeded by
Giovanni Battista Cibo, who took the title of Innocent
VIII. At lirst better things were expected of the new
Pope. Savonarola looked upon his election as the result
of the direct working of the spirit of God upon the Con-
clave. But Innocent VIII soon showed himself to be
animated by much the same ambitions as his predecessor.
He looked upon the Papacy as an efficient means to
advance his personal ends, and if he was not so restless
as Sixtus nor so successful in securing his objects, this
was not due to any loftier conception of his office, but
to inferiority of character. The condition of the Church


remained unchanged under Innocent, or if there was a
change it was for the worse. Innocent VIII was still Pope
at the time when Savonarola began to preach in the
Duo mo.

The particular vices of Florence were very much those
of the rest of Italy, but there was a grace, a charm about
their exercise which made them the more insidious and
the more demoralizing. There were, in the Florentines,
many elements of greatness and nobility ; they were in-
stinct with the feeling for art, serious in their judgments,
by no means the light, frivolous, irresponsible people they
are sometimes thought to have been. But the pursuit of
commerce had made them luxurious, the greed of terri-
tory had aroused their spirit of aggrandizement. They
wanted repose within and a vigorous foreign policy with-
out вАФ conditions which are suitable to the emergence of
a dictator.

In Lorenzo de' Medici the Florentines found a despot
who satisfied their needs and corresponded to their as-
pirations. He has been described as a man who " com-
bined the selfish audacity of the condottiere prince with
the plausible hypocrisy of the cautious merchant, and had
adorned the mixture with daubs of literary and artistic
culture ". It cannot be said that this judgment of Lorenzo
by Dr. Creighton is altogether false, but it by no means
expresses all the truth, and so conveys a wrong impres-
sion of the man. He had not grasped power in Florence
by the arts of a condottiere, for he was not a man of war
nor personally skilled in military affairs. He may have
possessed the hypocrisy of a cautious merchant, but he
was anything but a cautious merchant himself He
brought the fortunes of the Medici House almost to ruin
by imprudent expenditure and indifference to business
principles ; indeed, the charge that lies heavy upon him



In the Church of S. Trinita, Florence


is that he reinforced his exhausted private purse at the ex-
pense of the public treasury. His literary and artistic
culture were something more than daubs upon a calculating
personality. We need not accept the criticism of too ardent

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Online LibraryE. L. S. (Edward Lee Stuart) HorsburghGirolamo Savonarola → online text (page 5 of 23)