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Girolamo Savonarola online

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was not officially bound to secrecy ; but the whole point
of the story makes it clear that Savonarola supposed he
was hearing a confession with a view to granting absolu-
tion. Therefore it is most unlikely that he revealed to
anyone what took place.

When we turn to the conditions themselves they are
such as Savonarola might well have put forward, but the
last one was of so vague and impalpable a character that
Lorenzo's alleged attitude towards it is highly improbable.
He might well have agreed to restore liberty to Florence,
seeing that on his deathbed he was powerless to affect
Florentine liberty in any way whatever. It was not
within his capacity to change the conditions of the State
and the spirit of the people. The Medicean despotism
was not the work of Lorenzo, but the outcome of circum-
stances, and as such Savonarola's third condition was
meaningless and futile. If Lorenzo could consent to the
restoration of his ill-gotten gains, which involved a definite
and material restoration, he is scarcely likely to have had
scruples about anything so immaterial and so indefinite
as the restoration of liberty to Florence.

There is so much picturesqueness about the story that
people will always cling to it as being true. The proba-
bilities seem to point to its being apocryphal. Even if
false it has a value, for it throws light upon the double
position which Savonarola was now generally recognized
to have taken up. He is represented at Lorenzo's bed-



side as the priest and politician — the preacher of a lively
faith in God, but at the same time the restorer of liberty
to the State.

Note. — It is unnecessary, in a life of Savonarola, to enter more fully
than I have done into the authenticity of this deathbed story. It concerns
the character of Lorenzo more than that of Savonarola. I have therefore
discussed it in detail in my " Lorenzo the Magnificent," pp. 349-55.

The point, there relegated to a footnote, that Lorenzo's remains rested
for a time at S. Marco, Savonarola's convent, previous to their interment
in S. Lorenzo, is a strong one against the truth of the story as told by
Savonarolist chroniclers. Savonarola would scarcely have received into
his own convent the corpse of a man whom, as he lay dying, he had
refused to absolve.

There is a passage in Savonarola's Tractate on the Regiment and
Government of Florence which may or may not contain a veiled allusion
to the episode. He there draws a picture of a tyrant, obviously modelled
upon Lorenzo, and says : " The tyrant goes to church, gives alms, builds
temples and chapels. He holds converse with religious persons, and even
makes confession to a man ivho is truly religious to appear to be absolved,
but he ruins religion by usurping benefices ..." etc.

The Tractate was written probably in 1495, some years certainly after
Lorenzo's death. The passage cited may have no particular application.
It certainly affords no additional weight of evidence in favour of the
popular story, but rather tells against it. But I should think it probable
that when writing this passage, Savonarola had in his mind his summons
to Lorenzo's deathbed, and thus distantly alludes to what took place
between him and Lorenzo on that occasion.



THE year 1492 which saw the death of Lorenzo de'
Medici saw also the death of Pope Innocent VIII,
and the accession of Alexander VI to the Papal Chair.
At the moment therefore when in Florence a great
Churchman was beginning to awaken all Italy to a sense
of sin and was calling her to repentance there was elected
at Rome a Pope who in his own person was the frank and
cynical abnegation of all the spiritual pretensions of the
Papacy. He owed his election to flagrant simony and
unblushing bribery. The claims of the cardinals to have
acted in their selection of Alexander under the direct in-
fluence of the Holy Spirit may have been well or ill
founded. Such claims are at once too conventional and
too mysterious to allow of any practical test. It is cer-
tain that political and pecuniary influences were also at
work, and that the head of a Church which had so often
denounced simony secured his position by simony of the
most outrageous character.

The schemes of Alexander, which were to use the
Papacy as a means to aggrandize his own family, de-
rived material assistance from the death of Lorenzo de'
Medici. Lorenzo for many years had been the greatest
among the statesmen of Italy, and by his steady adhesion
to the principle of a balance of power among the Italian
States he had proved an obstacle to the ambition of others



while gratifying his own. Already he had come into
collision with Pope Sixtus IV in consequence of that
Pontiff's plans of family aggrandizement, and though he
had cultivated good relations with Innocent VIII, and had
secured a footing in the Conclave by obtaining a cardinal's
hat for his son, yet there can be no doubt that Alexander
would have found in Lorenzo a resolute political opponent.
The election of Alexander and the death of Lorenzo were
therefore events which both pointed in the same direction,
to a more resolute and unscrupulous assertion by the
Papacy of personal and secular aims, to a less effective
resistance to such aims on the part of the Italian States.

Though the power of Lorenzo in Florence was un-
official and ill-defined he had secured a sufficiently firm
hold upon it to enable him to transmit it to his son Piero.
Piero had few of his father's qualities. He was a big,
strong, handsome man devoted to all forms of physical
exercise, but slenderly endowed with political capacity
and bent much more upon enjoyment than upon state-
craft. He had little intellectual sympathy with his
Florentine subjects and was careless of those political
arts by which his family had built up and maintained its
position. Without the qualifications to fit him to be the
first man in a nominally free State Piero was set upon
obtaining from the Florentines full and ample recognition
of his position as their prince. Weak, indolent and head-
strong, he was not fitted to guide the fortunes of his house
at a period of crisis : he imagined that he could trust to
force to maintain a position which had been built up on
craft, subtlety and profound knowledge of men.

Meanwhile in Florence itself the influence of Savona-
rola was continually increasing, and before the end of
1492 he had gained for himself a position of prominence
as a public man in Florence. This year is a turning-


point in Savonarola's life, for it marks the transition from
monk to statesman. His sermons now become more than
ever infused with that electric force which was to set
the whole city in vibration. His message becomes
more direct, his visions take on an irresistible poetic
fervour, his prophecies are more precise, instant and
imperative. Two sermons in 1492 are of special import
for Savonarola as marking a crisis in his own spiritual
development and in his career as a dominating figure in
Florence, He had been selected to preach the Lent
sermons that year in S. Lorenzo, and it was probably
with Lorenzo dei Medici's sanction and approval that the
choice of a preacher for what was in a special sense his
own Church had been made. Ten days after Lorenzo's
death, on 19 April, the eve of Holy Friday, Savonarola's
exaltation was crowned by a vision of which he subse-
quently related the full details in his " Compendium Re-
velationuni ". " While preaching I beheld two crosses,
the one a black one in the midst of Rome. Its head
touched the sky, its arms extended over all the earth, and
above it was written Crux ircB Dei — The cross of the
wrath of God. And as I saw it, suddenly I beheld
tumult in the elements. Clouds flew through the air ;
winds, bolts, and lightnings whirled ; hail, fire and swords
rained down, and a great multitude of people were
stricken, so that few remained on earth. After that there
came ' un tempo molto sereno e chiaro ' — a sky all clear
and serene — and I saw, of the same size as the first,
another cross of gold over Jerusalem, so resplendent that
it lit up all the world, and made all things to flower and
rejoice. And above that was written ' Crux misericordice
Dei' — The Cross of the mercy of God. And I saw all
generations of men and women from all parts of the world
come and adore and embrace it."


The impression, great as it was, produced by this ser-
mon was eclipsed by that created by what may be called
the " Gladius Domini" sermon of the same year. "It
was," he says again in " Compendium Revelationuvi,"
" in 1492, the night before the last sermon I preached that
Advent, that I saw in the Heavens a hand with a sword,
and above it was written Gladius Domini super terrani
cito et velociter} And above the hand was written Vera
et justa sunt Judicia Dotninir And it seemed that the
arm of the hand proceeded from three faces bathed in one
common radiance, and the first said Iniquitas sanctuarii mei
clamat ad me de terra? The second cried : Visitabo ergo
in virga iniquitates eorum, et in verberibus peccata eoi'um}
The third said : Misericordiam mearji non dispergam ab eo,
neque nocebo in veritate mea, et miserebor pauperi et inopi}
Once more the three voices in turn uttered words of menace
and of mercy, and " then there came a great sound over
all the earth of all the three voices together, and they
cried, — Hear all ye dwellers on the earth ; Thus saith the
Lord : I the Lord speak in My holy zeal, Behold the
days shall come when I will unsheath My sword upon you.
Turn ye therefore to Me before the cup of My anger is
filled full." And then there seemed to appear to him a
vision of the whole world, and the angels came down
from Heaven to earth, clothed all in white with multi-
tudes of white stoles upon their shoulders, and red crosses
in their hands. And they went about the earth proffering

^ The sword of the Lord upon the earth soon and swiftly.

'^True and just are the Judgments of the Lord.

2 The iniquity of my sanctuary cries to me from the ground.

^Therefore will I visit their iniquities with a rod, and their sins with

'^ I will not make my mercy to depart from him, nor in my truth will I
hurt him, and I will take pity on the poor man and needy.


to every one a white stole and a cross. Some accepted
and were clothed therein. Some would not accept, but
hindered not others who would : some would not accept
nor would they permit others to do so. Those were the
lukewarm and the wise of this world. Then the hand
turned the sword again towards the earth, and suddenly
it appeared as if once more all the air grew dark, and
swords and hail rained down, with loud thunder and
thunderbolts and lightnings. And there was in the
land pestilence and famine and great tribulation. And
the angels went up and down among the people, giving
to those who wore the white garment and bore the cross
to drink of a clear wine ; and they drank and cried " How
sweet to our lips are Thy words, O Lord ". And the
dregs which were at the bottom of the chalice were of-
fered to the others but they would not drink. And yet
they seemed as if they wished to be converted to peni-
tence, but could not, for they cried out "Why hast Thou
forgotten us, O Lord ". And they wished to raise their
eyes and look on God, but it was not permitted to them,
being weighed down with tribulation so that they were like
to drunken men, and it seemed as though their hearts came
forth from their breasts, and they went about seeking the
pleasures of this world, but could find them not. And
then again the three voices cried out once more in unison
their last appeal and warning, and the vision vanished away
but for a last voice " which said to me, My son, if sinners
had eyes to see they would see how heavy and how hard
is this pestilence and this sharp sword ".

Of all Savonarola's sermons I should place the " Gladius
Domini " among the most important. For himself cer-
tainly it marked an epoch. We find him constantly
referring to it in subsequent discourses, and declaring that
the prophecy of a coming sword was a direct revelation


from God. " It was not I but God who foretold it ; " he
insisted in his great sermon on Penitence of i iNovember,
1494, "now it is coming and has come." Again in his
third sermon on the Psahns on 13 January of the follow-
ing year he reiterates his assertion that "it was not I but
God who spoke these things," and he expounds the full
meaning of the vision. The sword is that of the King of
P'rance. The angels with red crosses, white stoles and
the chalice are the preachers who foretold the coming
scourge : the stole is purification, the chalice the pas-
sion. " Repent, O Florence, while yet there is time.
Clothe thyself in the white garments of purification.
Wait no longer, for there may be no further time for

Savonarola's early predictions had assumed the form
of vague and general propositions. Now, in 1492, they
are taking on definiteness and precision. The Sword of
the Lord is stretched forth over the land. Divine venge-
ance will fall cito et velociter.

And yet no reader to-day, can fail to find in these \
visions of the Cross, the Sword, the Angels and the
Crosses, the inspiration of the poet rather than the predic-
tions of the prophet. They are an Apocalyptic ecstasy born
of a poet's imagination: they are a poet's vision which sees
a glory where the eyes of common men see nothing but
a fact. But the vulgar, whose sense even of the spiritual
can only find expression in forms of gross materialism,
must needs translate the hyperbole of a rhapsodist into
the vaticinations of a diviner, and the dreamer of dreams
becomes a miracle-man in spite of himself

It was then at the moment when, by the death of Lorenzo,
Florence was left without a leader that Savonarola began
to occupy a leading place in the eyes of the P'lorentine
people. He claimed to be the mouthpiece of God, and


there was in him that Divine power which induced many
to beheve him. He claimed to be equally the messenger
of the Most High when he inveighed against tyrants and
when he urged the Florentines to repentance. To him
men would naturally turn in any time of crisis in order
to obtain 'inspired direction, whether they might be
moved to effect a moral reformation or to re-establish
the Constitution, or to remodel the policy of the State.

The growing importance of the Friar in Florence de-
pended, as has been seen, on causes which were at once
political and religious. But the primary foundation on
which all his influence rested was his claim to definite
prophetic powers, to a genuine insight into what the
future would bring forth. He persuaded himself, and he
was able to persuade others, that he was no ordinary
man, nor even a man gifted with extraordinary but yet
human capacity to read the signs of the times. However
much we may see in him the qualities of an inspired poet,
it was not as a poet, but as an inspired prophet, that he
imposed himself upon the imagination of the Florentine
people. His denunciations, promises, recommendations
and injunctions were not of him but of God speaking
through him, and thus they assumed the character of a
Divine revelation which it was treason against God to
ignore or to deny. It may be well therefore at once to
examine these pretensions, to discover on what grounds
they were based, and how far Savonarola was himself
sincere in his own belief in the supernatural origin of the
forces by which he was impelled.

No critical determination upon claims to prophetic
powers is likely to command universal assent, for the
judgment of the critic must inevitably be governed by his
own individual temperament and training. Argument
about the supernatural is not likely to be decisive and is


seldom profitable. But we possess the materials which
enable us fairly accurately to estimate Savonarola's own
point of view, and to trace the growth and development
in him of the prophetic impulse. For with Savonarola
the habit of visions and celestial manifestations seems to
have been decidedly a growth, becoming stronger in itself
and exercising a stronger influence upon his work as his
career advanced. He began by being careful to put for-
ward for his prophecies no claim to a supernatural origin,
declaring that they were legitimate deductions drawn
from the study of the Scriptures and from the signs of
the times. It is true that in his " Compendium " he explains
the reasons which induced him at the beginning to be
thus guarded as to the nature and sources of his predic-
tions. It was not because he was himself in any doubt
that he was the recipient of a direct revelation from
God, but because a prudent reserve seemed to be enjoined
in the words of Christ. " Give not that which is holy to
the dogs," and because he saw that his hearers were not
yet rightly disposed for the reception of this secret. But
his own confident persuasion was at all times strong and
unshaken, and as the sense of his mission became more
pressing, and as his hearers became more attuned to the
message with which he was entrusted, the need for re-
ticence and reserve diminished. The work which he had
to do was clear before him. In the prosecution of that
work was he justified in neglecting to use the instrument
which God had put into his hands ? In himself there was
the conviction of a Divine revelation. In his hearers there
was the disposition to accept him as inspired and to
credit him with mysterious and almost miraculous powers.
It was natural therefore that in due time Savonarola
should openly declare himself as directly inspired from
heaven, and should attribute his prophecies to those


sources from which from the first he was convinced he
drew them.

With a view to regularizing and explaining these mys-
teries he composed two treatises, the " Compendium Reve-
lationum " to which I have already made considerable
reference, and the " Dyalogus de Veritate Prophetica ". In
these he discusses in the abstract the question of the
possession of prophetic powers, and also gives many de-
finite and concrete examples of the manner in which such
powers had been conferred upon himself The " Com-
pendium " is especially remarkable for the precise grasp
which it displays of the many objections which may be
urged against claims to prophetic inspiration. Savona-
rola marshals them in order and shows much ingenuity
by the way in which he dismisses each objection in turn.
There is scarcely an argument which can be advanced
against his claims which he does not forestall and for
which he has not got an answer. The " Compendizwi," m
fact, is a philosophic treatise put together partly in the
form of Socratic dialogue. The personages are Savona-
rola, the Tempter and the Virgin Mary. The work falls
roughly into three parts : first, a general vindication of
his claims to prophetic powers ; secondly, the argument
with the Tempter ; and thirdly, the interview with the
Virgin Mary. The general idea which binds the last two
parts together is to be found in Savonarola's determina-
tion to go on an embassy to the Virgin, taking with him
as companions Faith, Simplicity, Prayer and Patience.
On his way the devil, under a hermit's disguise, meets
him, and a conversation takes place upon the general
question of supernatural revelations. The Tempter
having been discomfited and his identity revealed, the
Friar makes his way to the court of Heaven, and his dia-
logue with the Blessed Virgin completes the composition.


The claims put forward in the " CompendiiMi " are de-
finite and precise, Savonarola declares that he has been
commissioned by God Himself to act as God's mouthpiece
to Florence and to Italy. " The Lord has placed me here
and has said to me : ' I have placed thee as a watchman
in the centre of Italy . . . that thou mayest hear My
words and announce them'." Nor was there anything
unphilosophical in the conviction of such a Divine reve-
lation. God alone, he says, knows the future and He
may reveal it to whom He chooses. Those who are so
chosen become conscious that such a revelation has in
truth been made to them by virtue of a certain " super-
natural light" which enables the prophet to know that
what has been revealed is true and that it is of God.
This supernatural light is to the prophet what the light
of reason is to the philosopher, and by virtue of it abso-
lute conviction is acquired. The argument comes to
little more than that the prophet is sure he is divinely
inspired because he is sure that he is so. For the pro-
phet himself there can be no doubt ; for others it should
go for something that a man with an established repu-
tation for veracity should be wholly convinced of the
truth of his own assertions. He then proceeds further to
justify his claims by summarizing and refuting the argu-
ments which may be urged against them. He repudiates
the suggestion that he is a deceiver, or self-deceived by
dreams and a too lively imagination. He forestalls the
doubts of Hamlet —

. . . The spirit that I have seen
May be the devil : and the devil hath power
To assume a pleasing shape ; yea, and perhaps
Out of my weakness and my melancholy,

Abuses me to damn me.


Such misgivings he dismisses on the ground of his own
inner certainty and because all that he has foretold has
exactly come to pass. He shows that there is nothing
repugnant to experience in such revelation, for God had
spoken to St. Paul, St. Francis and many other saints,
and just as special circumstances called for the direct and
personal interposition of the Deity on those occasions and
in the times of the prophets of old, so now the times
were exceptional, seeing that the sins of Italy cried aloud
to heaven and that a state of change was imminent for
the Universal Church. He meets the suggestion that
his predictions are based upon information derived from
princes and statesmen with a contemptuous refusal to
answer so absurd a contention : " common-sense teaches
that no certain knowledge is to be had by such means ".
To many other objections he has a ready answer, and
having gained an easy victory over his interlocutor he
passes on upon his embassy to the Queen of Heaven.
Having gained an audience the Virgin addressed him in
the Tuscan language with so much elegance and pro-
priety that he was astonished. She declared that Flor-
ence by reason of its sins, and especially by reason of the
many who refused to believe Savonarola's prophecies,
had deserved evils of all kinds, but hitherto these had
been averted by the protection of the Virgin, to whom
all power had been committed. Great tribulation was in
store pending the renovation of the Church, but Florence
would suffer in a less degree than the rest of Italy. She
foretold the restoration of Pisa to Florence, a still further
extension of territory, and darkly foreshadowed an al-
liance between the lilies of Florence, " beloved of my Son
and of myself," and the lilies of France. Here the poet
and the patriot assert themselves over the advocate.
The passage is worth a full quotation. " Then she gave


me another little sphere, and I saw thereon the city of
Florence all crowned with lilies which stretched out be-
yond her battlements, beyond her walls, and the angels
upon the walls about her and around gazed upon her :
whereat I rejoicing said, ' Madonna, it seems to me that
the little lilies should join with the great ones which
have now begun to spread themselves abroad '. To this
she made no reply, but proceeded, 'My Son, if the
neighbours of Florence who rejoice over her misfortunes
knew what was to come upon themselves they would not
rejoice over the woes of another, but would pity them-
selves, for greater tribulations shall fall upon them'."
Savonarola then asked when the promises made to Flor-
ence were to be fulfilled, and the answer was " Cito et
velociter" by which he was to understand no fixed date,
but sooner rather than later.

This summary of the " Compendium, ^^ condensed as it
is, will give a better idea of the nature and influence of
Savonarola's claims as a prophet than can be gained from
a general disquisition upon the subject. The literary

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Online LibraryE. L. S. (Edward Lee Stuart) HorsburghGirolamo Savonarola → online text (page 7 of 23)