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mechanism of those parts of the treatise which are in dia-
logue might lead to the impression that he was merely
enforcing his teaching by means of an allegory. The
companions of his journey. Faith, Prayer and Penitence,
the disputation with the Tempter and the interview with
the Virgin recall passages from the " Pilgrim's Progress ".
Against this theory, however, there is the distinct declara-
tion that this vision was actually vouchsafed to Savona-
rola " on the Octave of the Feast of the Annunciation ".
Moreover this particular vision formed the material of
one of the Friar's sermons preached in the Duomo on I
April, 1495, when it was certainly his intention that it
should be accepted in a literal and not in a metaphorical
or allegorical sense. His letters and sermons abound in


passages in which he declares Florence to be under the
peculiar protection of Heaven. Not only his predictions
but his whole subsequent policy in Florence were based
upon the disclosures contained in the " Compendium ".
The treatise itself was ostensibly written in order to prevent
" the mysteries of God from being held up to ridicule,"
and because " my words have often been misreported and
misinterpreted ", We are therefore justified in regarding
the " Compendium Revelationuni " as being a revelation of
Savonarola's real self. Can we, on the strength of it, ac-
cept his claims? Is such an exclusive interest in Flor-
ence to the detriment of the rest of Italy conceivable on
the part of the Virgin ? is it to be imagined that she
would have confided to Savonarola or to any one her
views about the future of Pisa and the French alliance ?
To the present century the " Compendium," regarded as
anything else but a poetic rhapsody, would seem blasphe-
mous rather than appealing.

But it is easy to understand its effects at the time of
its production and the strength of its appeal to the
Florentine imagination. The age was credulous. The
mysticism in the air was due as much to the new Platonic
philosophy as to a survival from the Middle Ages. It is
small wonder that the Plorentines should have waxed
enthusiastic over their prophet when he mingled with his
denunciations so much that was flattering to an imagina-
tive and self-conscious people.

Savonarola based his confidence in his predictions upon
the fact that they were fulfilled. Many of them, un-
doubtedly, were fulfilled, but their fulfilment can be ac-
counted for partly by the vagueness of the terms in which
they were announced, and partly by reason of the keen
political foresight which he undoubtedly possessed. He
was a man of great powers and great acuteness, and could


look beyond the present to the consequences which would
follow from the conditions of the present. But he was
not infallible. One of his most precise prophecies was
that the Turks would be converted within the lifetime of
many who were living in his day. The Virgin is made
to allude directly to this consummation in the " Compen-
dium Revelationum ". But the Turks have not even yet
been converted.

When, therefore, we consider Savonarola's claims as a
prophet, they must be regarded from two points of view :
from the point of view of their genuineness in the abstract,
and from the point of view of their effect upon those to
whom they were immediately addressed. As serious
claims to the possession of mystical and supernatural
powers they may be dismissed ; in their relation to the
position and influence of Savonarola in Florence they
may be looked upon as constituting the foundation of
his reputation. Nor in this connexion must we ignore
the methods by which these supernatural powers were
announced. His powers as a preacher are of scarcely
less importance than his claims as a prophet.

The testimony of contemporaries is unanimous as to
the effects produced by Savonarola's sermons, but from
the examples which have come down to us it is not
altogether easy to account for the extraordinary influence
which they exercised on those who heard them. Where
the preacher was not denunciatory he was expository,
and one might almost conclude that the impression pro-
duced by the denunciations must have been neutralized
by the prolixity of the expositions. The divisions and
subdivisions of the main theme were often carried to
extravagant lengths ; the digressions were so numerous
and so lengthy that the thread of the discourse was apt
to be lost ; the voice of the preacher was harsh and dis-


cordant and the accepted rules of eloquence were studiously
ignored. His strength lay in his minute and profound
knowledge of the Scriptures, at that time so much a
sealed book both to priests and laity. The wealth of his
illustrations drawn from the sacred writers was inexhaust-
ible. But in his dealing with the text he showed all the
subtlety and dexterity of the schoolmen, and his discourses
exhibit a strange mixture of St. Thomas Aquinas and
latter-day rev'ivalism. Accepting the theory of manifold
senses contained in each text of the Bible, Savonarola
could juggle with Scripture as a conjurer juggles with
his apparatus, but just at the moment when he seemed
in danger of wearying his hearers by scholastic refine-
ments which were tedious and out of date, some startling
parallel, some overwhelming appeal, some impassioned
denunciation would take them by storm ; they would
rise with the preacher upon the wings of ecstasy or sink
down crushed beneath the weight of coming doom, just as
an instrument is responsive to the touch of a master hand.
The same sort of phenomena followed the preaching
of Savonarola as followed that of Wesley, Whitfield and
other revivalists. There was the sense among his hearers
of being individually addressed with the individual effects
of swoons, tears, hysteria or indifference, according to the
temperament or self-discipline of each, and when the fiery
and dramatic imagination of the orator conjured up some
vision which seemed to pass in visible shape before his
eyes — the Cross of God's anger in dim and threatening
outline suspended amid the shadows of the Dome, or the
Cross of God's mercy illuminating the building — few
failed to catch the contagion of his enthusiasm or to be
impressed with the reality of things unseen. But if there
was much in Savonarola's preaching which was sensa-
tional, sensationalism was only a part of his power and


by no means the whole of it. No impression of him
could be more false than that of a shallow hot-gospeller.
He was a man of deep and wide learning. As a philo-
sopher he was a ixiatch for the best of the brilliant Pla-
tonists who surrounded Lorenzo in the academy ; as a
scholar he was well versed in the classical masterpieces,
and as a humanist he was capable of appreciating them
as literature. The whole man was made manifest in his
sermons, and his appeal was as often to the intellect as
to the emotions of his audience.

Moreover, he stands out in his sermons as being emin-
ently practical, using a shrewd knowledge of men and of
the world to enforce definite lessons of virtue and good
living. Indeed, it was mainly from the pulpit that he
carried on his work of moral reform. To him preaching
was not an end in itself, but simply an instrument by
means of which practical and salutary ends might be

As a moral reformer it was Savonarola's aim to expose
and as far as possible eradicate the specific vices which
flourished in his day. He lashed unsparingly, and in no
uncertain terms, the gross immoralities which corrupted
the life of the city of Florence and of all Italy. He in-
augurated a crusade against gambling, he denounced the
prevailing luxury as being the handmaid of vice and
idleness, he urged the duty of charity for the relief of the
necessities of the poor, not so much by promiscuous alms-
giving as by providing employment for those who were
needy and out of work. He called upon the Church to
reform itself in its head and members, inveighing against
simony, against the luxury and worldliness of the hier-
archy, the ignorance and evil lives of the inferior clergy.
His exhortations were enforced by such vivid delineations
of the Divine chastisement which would surely follow if


his appeals were neglected that many were terrorized into
reform rather than convinced of sin and guided by con-
viction to repentance. The sensational element in his
sermons had its counterpart in many sensational conver-
sions, from which little was to be expected in the way of
permanence or depth.

It has indeed been questioned if Savonarola's work
produced any lasting result even in Florence. There can
be little doubt that zeal sometimes outran discretion, that
the methods of the Friar's agitation against wickedness
were in some cases questionable, and that his movement
as a whole left the frailty of human nature too much out
of consideration, and that thus only an artificial and skin-
deep effect was produced which was in its nature transi-
tory. All this must be admitted, and yet it is possible
to believe that lasting influences followed in many cases.
We know that Michelangelo carried to his tomb the re-
membrance of Fra Hieronymo deeply graven on his
heart, and Michelangelo survived him nearly seventy
years. We know how deeply and permanently Botticelli
was affected by Savonarola. Is it not reasonable to suppose
that if among the world's great men of that age there
were some who were enduringly influenced by Savona-
rola's work, there were among the unhistoric multitude
not a few who were similarly affected ? In this connexion
it is important to notice the special effort made by Sa-
vonarola to attach the children of the city to him and to
work through them. The uses to which he put them are
open to criticism, but the influence which he gained over
them is beyond question. These children formed the
men and women of the succeeding generation, and it may
be confidently asserted that many among them helped to
perpetuate the Savonarola tradition and to hold aloft the
ideals of their master.


The growing influence of Savonarola not only in
Florence but outside is attested by certain definite and
and material developments in his position which mark
the year 1493. By the end of May in that year he had
succeeded in extracting from the Pope, Alexander VI, a
Brief which secured the virtual independence of the Con-
vent of S. Marco from external control, other than that of
the General of the Dominican Order, thus gaining for
himself an authority and power of initiative largely in
excess of that which he had previously enjoyed. For, so
far, his position both at S. Marco and in Florence, had
been precarious and uncertain in that he was amenable
at any moment to the orders of his conventual chiefs, who
might see fit to remov^e him from Florence to some other
sphere of activity. He was thus very much at the mercy
not only of his own Dominican superiors but also of any
Italian or Florentine politician powerful enough to work
on those superiors for purposes of his own. Already, in
1492, we find Savonarola at Pisa preaching a course
of sermons there at the Dominican Convent of Sta.
Caterina. In 1493 he was at Bologna preaching the Lent
course in that city. On this occasion he seems to have
been absent from Florence for several weeks if not months.
It is of course quite possible that his growing reputation
as a preacher created a strong demand from many Italian
towns for his services, — indeed we know this to have
been so — and that he himself, quite voluntarily, gratified
such demands wherever he could. But if his presence at
Bologna was due to the commands of his superiors, or,
as Villari suggests, to the initiative of Piero dei Medici,
Savonarola could scarcely have failed to reflect how un-
certain his tenure at S. Marco was, and how capriciously
the whole of his great work in Florence might be brought
to an end. Whatever may have been the impelling cir-


cumstances it is certain that as early as 1492 Savonarola
contemplated the severance of S. Marco from external
control, and took active steps to secure the success of
his project.

For about forty years the position of S. Marco in the
Dominican organization had been subject not unfrequently
to changes and modifications. In the year 145 1 the
convent had been united to the " Lombard Congregation "
of Friars Preachers, and was thus placed under the control
of the Lombard Vicar of the Dominican Order. In 1469
a separation was effected, but a few years later, in 1474,
S. Marco commended itself again to the Lombard Con-
gregation and resumed its old position of dependence
and subjection. The project of bringing about another
separation and securing to his convent a position of in-
dependence was one which Savonarola seems to have
entertained almost from the moment of his election as
Prior. He deemed a separation necessary as securing
him fixity of tenure in his office, but motives relating
to conventual discipline were probably the most powerful.
For he contemplated, as a part of his scheme of reform,
a stricter rule than that which obtained elsewhere, and
he would be powerless to eftect this unless he had a free
hand to remodel the practice of S. Marco without regard
to that of other convents. It was indeed his hope that
S. Marco, when once more in a position of independence,
would become a centre round which the neighbouring
monasteries might be induced to gather ; the chief of a
group all animated alike by ideals of austerity and
sanctity of life. It would, of course, follow that, as the
leading spirit and official head of this community, the
position and authority of the Prior of S. Marco would
be materially enhanced, but there is no reason to question
the motives which actuated Savonarola in this matter, nor


to attribute to personal ambition a project entirely com-
patible with high and disinterested aims.

In pursuance of his plan he confided his schemes to the
inmates of his convent and secured their goodwill and en-
thusiasm in the cause. Prayers were offered daily during
several months for success ; a petition in favour of sepa-
ration was drafted and submitted to the Pope, and on
25 May, 1493, a special memorial was drawn up by "the
entire number of the professed members of the convent
now within its walls," in which the arguments in favour
of separation were clearly set forward. This memorial,
signed by all the brethren, attested by the public notaries
and sealed with the seal of the city of Florence, was duly
presented, though the issue was already decided before
the petition reached the Pope's hands. In it the signa-
tories declared " now the number of fathers and brothers
has so greatly increased that the convent may . . . suit-
ably be put upon a proper footing and be ruled by its
own superiors, independently of the Congregation of
Lombardy. We therefore determined to present a peti-
tion to this effect to our Lord the Pope to the end that
we might in the future live and serve God in peace and
in all love and charity."

The scheme met with powerful opposition outside the
convent. The despots of various Italian States conde-
scended to intervene in a matter which seemed to them
likely to enhance Florence unduly and detract from the
reputation of the northern States. The superiors of the
Lombard Congregation were naturally against it. But
if it met with strong opposition it also secured influential
support from the Florentine magistracy and from Car-
dinal Caraffa, the Protector of the Dominican Order.
The Pope, who cared little about the merits of the case,
was much worried by the petitions and representations of


the rival parties, and seems to have been chiefly anxious
to get rid of the whole affair. The subtlety or persist-
ence of Cardinal Caraffa at length gained the day. The
Papal Brief sanctioning the separation was signed on 22
May, before the receipt of the memorial from the brethren
of S. Marco, and by it the Community of S. Marco was
entirely withdrawn from the government of the Lombard
Congregation and was placed under the immediate juris-
diction of the General of the Dominican Order.

Savonarola had thus obtained, under the authority of
a Papal Brief, the position of independent authority which
seemed to him essential to the permanence of his work
in Florence and to his schemes of conventual reform.
But the hand that gave might also be the hand to take
away The sequel will show that Savonarola's eventual
overthrow was to a large extent involved in this ap-
parently trifling matter. In any contest which might
arise between the P'riar and the Pope the independ-
ent position acquired by the former would naturally
strengthen the force of his attack. It would be equally
natural on the part of the Pope to wish to reduce the
Friar to his former situation of subordination. To yield
might mean defeat ; not to yield would be flat rebellion
against lawful and recognized authority. But for the
moment no such contest seemed likely to arise. Savona-
rola had triumphantly secured his point, and, having
secured it, set himself busily to work to reorganize his
convent in accordance with the principle which was
always near to his heart — that they who concern them-
selves with the reform of others must fit themselves, by
lives of self-sacrifice, for the great task they have under-

Having secured the independence of S. Marco and
having reformed its discipline the next step was to affili-


ate to the rule of S. Marco the neighbouring Dominican
convents. Savonarola vigorously applied all his energies
and all his influence to attain this end, but his success
was superficial rather than real. It is true that in less
than two years S. Marco had become the central unit of a
new Dominican Congregation of which in 1495 Savona-
rola was elected Vicar-General. The Dominican con-
vents at Fiesole, at Pisa, and at Prato were definitely
attached to this Congregation, while a new convent was
established at Bibbdena, and possibly the Convent of S.
Romano at Lucca was attached to the union. The at-
tempts to incorporate the Dominicans of S. Gemignano
and of Siena had to be abandoned, while the allegiance
of some of the convents actually incorporated was from
the first doubtful. In fact with the exception of S.
Domenico at Fiesole which from its situation and associa-
tions was in close sympathy with S. Marco, none of the
other affiliated convents seems to have accepted the rule
of Savonarola with any cordiality. The absorption of S.
Caterina of Pisa was effected by the simple method of
dispossessing all but four out of forty-four of the existing
brethren and filling up the vacant places with others,
chiefly Florentines, who were well affected to the new
order of things. When, however, in 1494, Pisa revolted
from Florence the Florentine Friars were in their turn
dispossessed, the ejected brethren returned, and S. Caterina
resumed its original obedience to the Lombard Congre-

At Prato the union of S. Domenico with S. Marco was
only effected in 1496 after much negotiation, the methods
adopted bearing some resemblance to those which had
been put in force at Pisa. The Pratesi brethren were
dispossessed of their convent but were established in
neighbouring premises. S. Domenico itself was handed


over to the new Congregation, and was soon colonized by
brethren from Florence for whom accommodation could
not be found at S. Marco.

The new "Tuscan Congregation of the Roman Pro-
vince of the Order of the Preachers " — to give it its full
official title — meant, therefore, so far as it was successful,
three things. It meant the extension of Florentine influ-
ence in neighbouring cities such as Pisa and Prato where
purely political considerations made such an extension
highly desirable. To Savonarola, as Vicar-General of
the new Congregation, it meant a marked accession of
authority and power, thus exposing his efforts for con-
ventual union to the suspicion that they were actuated by
motives of secular and personal ambition. But this is
not to say that political or personal motives were prim-
arily or even consciously behind the movement. There
is no reason to doubt that Savonarola was impelled by
no other declared and conscious impulse than that of
zeal for his work of reform. The union meant to him
the permanence of his own labours in Florence, and the
opportunity of enforcing, not only in Florence but be-
yond it, a stricter discipline, a deeper enthusiasm, a more
intense appreciation of il ben vivere — of the good life —
among those whose lives were professedly devoted to the
cause of righteousness.

This was essentially the burden of his plea in Advent,
1493, at the time when negotiations for the union were
in progress. His sermon " Utqnid Deus repulisti^^ is a
fiery invective against those who have corrupted the life of
the spirit in meaningless forms and empty ceremonies : —
the caitiff prelates who by their depraved works and
evil example have defaced the beauty of the primitive
Church ; the priests who wear fine tresses of hair and
fine waistcoats of silk, and seek to outdo the seculars in


their attire. "Go," he cries, "to Rome or anywhere in
Christendom. You will find prelates intent upon poetry
and oratory. You will see them with books of humanity
in their hands, and they will give you to understand that
they know how to direct souls with Virgil, Horace
and Cicero. The Church is governed by astrology.
There is not a prelate nor a dignitary who is not associ-
ated with some astrologer to assure him of the favourable
moment for action. . . . The Church to-day rejoices in
external ceremonies, in splendid vestments, in fine chal-
ices and candlesticks of silver and of gold. Never, it is
said, has divine worship been so well celebrated as now ;
never was the Church in so much honour, her prelates in
greater reputation. The prelates of old were ' prelatuzsi'
in comparison with those of to-day. Aye ! They were
indeed '■ prelatuzzi ' in that they were humble and poor men
who had not so many fat bishoprics nor so many rich
benefices as those of modern days ; nor had they so many
gold mitres and chalices, seeing that the little they had
they gave to the poor. In the primitive Church the
chalices were of wood, but the priests were golden. To-
day the prelates of the Church are of wood and the
chalices of gold. . . . One says to another, ' What think
you of this Faith of ours ? what is your opinion of it ? '
and the other replies 'You appear to me to be a fool. It
is a dream ; a thing of women and Friars.' . . . What
doest Thou then, O Lord ? Why dost Thou sleep ? Rise
up, O Lord ! Come and free Thy Church from the
hands of devils, from the hands of tyrants, from the
hands of caitiff prelates. Dost Thou not see that Thy
Church is full of animals, of wild beasts, of lions, bears,
wolves which have all together de\-oured it ? Dost Thou
not see, O Lord, our tribulation ? Hast Thou forgotten
Thy Church? Dost Thou not love it? Hast thou no


care for it ? And yet it is Thy Spouse ! Dost Thou not
recognize her? She is the same as that through which
Thou didst descend into the Virgin's womb, through
which Thou didst take on human flesh, through which
Thou didst suffer so many shames, through which Thou
wert willing to shed Thy blood upon the Cross. At
what a price hast Thou bought her, O Lord ! And there-
fore we pray Thee to come, and to come quickly, to
liberate her. Come, I say, and punish these caitiffs ;
confound them ; humble them to the dust ; and so shall
we with greater quietness be able to serve Thee."

The inv^ectives of the preacher are not, however, confined
to prelates, dignitaries and churchmen. There are others,
tyrants. Kings and Princes who have despoiled the Lord's
people. Against them also will God lift up His hand.s,
His left hand to punish them here on earth, His right
hand to punish them eternally in Hell. The corruption
which the preacher lashed was not ecclesiastical corrup-
tion only, but that which was to be found in equal degree
in the government of Kings and Princes. His work of
reform embraced the State as much as the Church, and
the reform of the State could only be accomplished by
the overthrow of tyranny, of the rule of a despot, and the

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Online LibraryE. L. S. (Edward Lee Stuart) HorsburghGirolamo Savonarola → online text (page 8 of 23)