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institution of free government. It was this genuine-
sympathy for liberty, this ardour for political freedom,
which attracted towards him many who were indifferent
to, or only secondarily affected by, his zeal for ecclesiasti-
cal reformation. For there were not a few in Florence,
even when the Medici ascendancy was at its height,
who still continued to cherish the hope that the ancient
liberties of Florence might one day be restored to her.
However much the despotism of the Medici can be ex-
plained and in a sense justified by the conditions from
which it had arisen, yet to idealists it was a despotism


still and, as such, a thing to be eradicated and utterly
destroyed. There were others, who, while not averse
from despotism if exercised by themselves or by their
party, were hostile to the particular despotism of the
Medici. The common people, who scarcely realized
that they were subjects, and who were therefore untouched
by the modern spirit of loyalty, were likely to be attracted
by any movement in the direction of democracy and to
rally to the cry of free government. Thus when Savona-
rola held up the ideal of free government before the
people and denounced the tyranny of a one-man govern-
ment his voice was not that of one crying in the
wilderness. He spoke to many sympathetic ears and
awoke memories which had not wholly faded from the
minds of men. The death of Lorenzo and the accession
of Piero to Lorenzo's place of power gave emphasis to
the Friar's words. The rule of Piero was an object lesson
in what gov'ernment ought not to be, and every month of
it gave more concrete force to sentiments which in the
lifetime of Lorenzo had been abstract and academic.
When Piero fell from power some attempt to restore a
republic in P'lorence was inevitable, and when the crisis
came it was natural that the Florentines should turn to
their foremost man and look to Savonarola for political
guidance. Owing to the position which he had acquired
his advice would then be listened to with all the respect
which was due to him as a man, and also with the awe
and reverence derived from the conviction that his recom-
mendations came through him from Heaven itself, whose
chosen instrument and mouthpiece he claimed, and was
held, to be.


1494 — TO 30 November


" TCCCE gladius Domini super terrain cito et velociter!'
"^^ In 1494 the " Gladius Domini'' the Sword of the
Lord, fell upon Italy. It took the shape of Charles VIII
of France. With the advent of the French, Italian liberty
and independence took wings and vanished away and for
three hundred years Italy became in turn the battle-field,
the spoil and the plaything of the stranger.

The appearance of Charles in Italy at the head of his
armies gave to Savonarola convincing proof that his
prophecies and denunciations were of Divine inspiration,
for were they not now being fulfilled to the letter and in
full measure? Here was the new Cyrus whose coming
he had foretold ! Here was the scourge which was to
chastise and then to renovate a guilty Church !

It is difficult to fix the precise date when Savonarola first
began to proclaim that anew Cyrus was coming from the
mountains whom none could resist, for God would be his
leader and guide. Cinozzi states that it was in 1494,
"when all the world was at peace," that Savonarola pro-
claimed this message from the pulpit of S. Lorenzo.
Filipepi declares that it was in the lifetime of Lorenzo
dei Medici, that is before the spring of 1492, that Savona-
rola preached the coming of a new Cyrus. Savonarola



himself says after the Advent sermons of 1492. Cinozzi's
statement, short as it is, contains two such glaring inac-
curacies as to minor points of fact, that it is impossible
to accept its main contention with confidence. Savonarola
did not preach in S. Lorenzo in 1494, nor can the moment
when Charles, after long preparation, was on the point of
crossing the Alps be described as a time when all the
world was at peace. Filipepi, writing after the event,
probably confuses the general prediction contained in
the "Gladius Domini " sermon of 1492 with the particular
assertions as to the new Cyrus. Savonarolist biographers,
always in search for the miraculous, would naturally and
in good faith seek to identify the particular with the
general, to make accomplished facts square with their
hero's foreknowledge. But if it be true that Savonarola's
first references to the new Cyrus were in 1494 — and that
is probably the truth — we are not in need of miracle or
prophecy to account for them. All the world knew in
1494 that the invasion of Italy by Charles would certainly
happen. It was easy for Savonarola, with his dramatic
faculty and power of poetic hyperbole, to draw on his-
torical analogy and to coin an arresting phrase.

The French invasion of 1494 was an event of such
momentous importance to Italy, to Florence, to the
Medici House, and to Savonarola that it would be strange
had it failed powerfully to affect the imagination of men.
To Italy it meant the earthquake and the whirlwind,
coming as it seemed from the clear sky. The old land-
marks of the past were swept away and all things ceased
to be as they had been. Florence found herself in the
throes of a revolution from which dates the extinction of
her ancient glories ; the House of Medici fell from the
place of power which it had held for sixty years, and
Savonarola was left, ostensibly to guide the tempest and


direct the storm, but in fact to be its sport and plaything
until the moment when it caught him up and overwhelmed
him. The quest of Charles VIII in search of a Nea-
politan crown marks nothing less than the break-up of
the mediaeval world.

In the introductory chapter I have already briefly al-
luded to the condition of the kingdom of Naples in the
fifteenth century, and have shown the direct claims to the
crown of Naples which Louis XI of France was able to
transmit to his son, Charles VIII. Louis himself had
neither the time nor the inclination to vindicate these
claims, but Charles, from the moment that he was old
enough to assume the government in France, was desir-
ous of obtaining the glory and profit of military opera-
tions upon a grand scale, and saw the advantage of
distracting in a foreign country the turbulent energies of
the French nobility. But it is doubtful if Charles's Italian
ambitions would ever have passed from dreams into re-
alities had it not been for the stimulus applied from Italy
itself. The devastation of Italy at the hands of the
foreigner must be laid at the door of the Italian states-
men who deliberately invited the foreigner to invade
their land. Intent upon their own interests and intrigues
they cared nothing for Italy. The French claims upon
Naples were a convenient weapon which might be used
against Naples by her rivals should occasion arise, and
no scruples of principle or patriotism weighed for a mo-
ment against the immediate advantage to be secured
from foreign intervention. The consequences which were
likely to follow were either ignored or not appreciated.
"The statesmen of Italy," says Dr. Creighton, "were
accustomed to play a game of ceaseless check and counter-
check till they lost all sense of the reality of political
forces. They had used the threat of French invasion as


a weapon in extremities till they had forgotten its actual
meaning. . . . Italy was devoid of national feeling, and
its statesmen, in spite of their boasted astuteness, knew
nothing of the real forces which lay beyond the borders
of Italy. The substitution of cleverness for principle
was Italy's ruin."

In the prevailing indifference to any large policy
founded on principle, it remained for accident to deter-
mine who should be the first individually to translate
threats into action and invite the French into the country.
The death of Ferrante, King of Naples, in January, 1494,
after a reign of thirty-five years, was an accident which
brought the French claims upon Naples into greater pro-
minence at a particular time ; the personal situation of
Ludovico Sforza at Milan at the same moment was the
accident which caused him to look to a French invasion
as a means of throwing Italy into a state of confusion
from which he could derive immediate advantage to

Ludovico Sforza, II Moro, as he is called perhaps from
the mulberry-tree upon his escutcheon, had succeeded, a
few years after the assassination of Galeazzo Maria Sforza
in 1476, in securing to himself the government of Milan
as the representative of his youthful nephew, Giovanni
Galeazzo, son of the murdered duke. This position
Ludovico was anxious to retain notwithstanding the fact
that his nephew had now grown to manhood. Giovanni,
though in 1494 he was 27 years of age, was kept as
much as possible in the background, and his palace was
little more than a prison. But as long as his nephew
lived Ludovico's position was only that of a usurper
in Milan, and the rights of Giovanni could be forcibly
used against Ludovico by any Italian statesmen to whom
his policy was obnoxious. In 1494 Naples had taken


up a position of active hostility to Ludovico and was
openly championing the cause of Giovanni whose wife,
Isabella, was a grand-daughter of Ferrante, a daughter
of Ferrante's heir, Alphonso II. To use the French
claims on Naples as a means to relieve the pressure of
Naples upon himself was a simple and obvious device.
An invitation to invade Italy in prosecution of those
claims was sent by Ludovico to Charles VIII. The in-
vitation was powerfully backed by Cardinal Rovere, who
was animated by a strong hatred of Alexander VI and
by an equally strong hope that Charles' expedition would
result in Alexander's deposition from the Papal throne,
F"lorence was bound to France by ancient ties of alliance.
Venice "was coldly cautious". The persuasion which
was brought to bear upon Charles accorded with his own
ambition. The Italian invasion was decided upon, and
on 8 September, 1494, the French victory at Rapallo an-
nounced to the world that a French descent upon Italy
had passed from the world of dreams into the world of

Just at the time when the French were beginning to
pour into Italy, Savonarola resumed a course of sermons
on the book of Genesis on which he had been engaged
during the previous Lent. He had treated exhaustively
the subject of Noah's Ark. On Easter Day of 1494 he
had rhetorically reconstructed the fabric and invited all
to enter in. Resuming in September he passed from the
Ark to the Deluge which overwhelmed a sinful world,
and on the 21st his text was '^ Ecce ego adducam aquas
super terram " (Behold, I will pour forth the waters upon
the earth). The choice of the text, the voice, the gesture
with which it was delivered corresponded with the emo-
tions of the congregation. The floodgates of Italy were
unloosed ; the land was being overrun by barbarians as


by a deluge. Here, in visible form, in the person of the
French King, was that scourge of God whose advent
Savonarola had so often foretold. Men looked upon it
as the result of Divine interposition that the preacher had
reached, in his course of sermons, that particular text at
that particular time. Savonarola himself declared that
there was something strange and indeed miraculous in
the fact that he had been impelled, almost against his
will, to linger so long upon the earlier chapters "so that
I could never reach the chapter on the flood until these
tribulations had already begun." Already, he tells us,
he had foretold — though the prediction cannot be verified
in his sermons which are extant — that there would come
over the Alps one who, like another Cyrus, would vindi-
cate the cause of God in Italy, that the fortresses of Italy
would be no barrier to his advance, and that the Floren-
tines, especially those who at the time ruled the city,
would attach themselves to a policy contrary to their
interests and would ally themselves to a cause which was
about to be overthrown. The verification of these pre-
dictions was now at hand. "Behold," he cried, "the
sword has descended, the scourge has fallen, the prophecies
are being fulfilled ; behold it is the Lord who is leading
on these armies."

The coincidence between Charles's descent into Italy
and Savonarola's sermon on the Deluge admits of an in-
pretation which is independent of prophecy or miracle.
The French invasion had been planned many months
before it began and Charles's ambassadors had visited
Florence to secure support there more than a month be-
fore the King crossed the Alps. Savonarola's sermon
was a dramatic effect which exactly harmonized with ex-
isting knowledge and an existing state of feeling. None
the less is it easy to see how all the circumstances would


tend to increase the Friar's conviction that his words and
actions were prompted by a power outside himself which
could come only from God.^ Alone among his contem-
poraries he had read the signs of the times and had
consistently foretold that God's wrath was kindled against
Italy and that an instrument of God's vengeance was at
hand. He could scarcely fail to see in Charles VIII the
vindication of his foresight, the visible evidence of the
truth of those " conclusions " which he had so many
times asserted. Hence for Savonarola it followed that
resistance to Charles was resistance to God's divinely
chosen agent. Charles had a mission from on high to
regenerate Italy. Let him fulfil it. Should he fail in
fulfilling it, then God, in His own good time, would call
the defaulter to account.

It was thus that Savonarola identified himself politically
with a policy of alliance between France and Florence, a
policy to which he steadfastly adhered. Gigli e Gigli.
The lilies of Florence were to match the lilies of France.

1 The following time-table of Charles VIII's movements is the best
commentary on the prevalent notion that Savonarola owed his fore-
knowledge of the French invasion to miraculous revelation.

1492. Passim. Charles negotiates with Henry VII of England, the

Emperor, and Ferdinand of Spain with a view to securing a
free hand for his Italian projects.

1493. Charles assumes the title of King of Sicily and Jerusalem : an

indirect assertion of his Neapolitan claims.

1494. January — or perhaps February. The Neapolitan ambassadors

dismissed from the French Court.

March 6. Charles at Lyons superintending the mobilization of
his forces. Two embassies from Florence had already been
received by Charles (" De Commines," Bk. vii. c. 6).

May. First contingents cross the Alps.

August. Charles, with the main body, crosses the Alps.

Sept. 5. Charles reaches Turin.

Sept. 8. French victory at Rapallo.

Sept. 9. Charles at Asti, laid up with smallpox.

Sept. 21. Savonarola's Sermon — •' Ecce ego adducam ".


But such a policy was scarcely to be reconciled with an
Italian spirit of patriotism, and was one which would
inevitably bring both Florence and Savonarola into con-
flict with those statesmen who saw the salvation of Italy
in the expulsion of the foreigner from her soil. Here is
the clue to Savonarola's subsequent career and eventual
overthrow. It was not because he was a moral reformer
that he was destroyed by a worldly and profligate Pope,
but because as a Florentine politician he directed the
policy of the State into a channel which crossed the views
and interests of those who for the moment, however un-
worthily, represented the idea of patriotism among the

Charles VIII met with little opposition as he advanced
into the country. The ease with which all obstacles
melted away before him seemed almost to justify Savona-
rola's belief that the French were under the immediate
protection of Providence. An undertaking which was
beset with difficulties and possibilities of disaster at every
turn resolved itself into a triumphal march. As the King
approached Florence the city became more and more
alarmed. For Piero de' Medici, just before Charles set
out from France, had deliberately dissociated himself
from the traditional policy of Florence, which was one of
friendship to France, and had ostentatiously allied himself
to the cause of Naples which Charles was coming to
overthrow. At length Piero discovered that he had at-
tached himself and the fortunes of his house to a losing
cause. Incapable of any exhibition of strength and
vigour he at last determined to abandon Naples and throw
himself upon Charles's generosity. An agreement was
made by which Piero consented to hand over to the
French King the principal Florentine fortresses, and to
lend him a large sum of money (26 October). The terms


were a disgrace to Piero and were bitterly resented by
Florence. The Signory and the chief citizens met in
consultation on 4 November and determined to send
an embassy to Charles. Among the ambassadors was
Piero Capponi, whose words at the conference had
been of evil augury for the Medici. " It is time," he
said, " to have done with the government of children
and to regain our liberty." Another ambassador was

The selection of Savonarola in full Pratica for this
high office affords a startling proof of the position of
political as well as religious influence to which he had
now attained. However much his predictions are capable
of a natural explanation there can be no doubt that to
many of his contemporaries there seemed to be behind
him some supernatural force which enabled him to see
where other men were blind. His appointment as am-
bassador no doubt followed largely from the effect which
he had produced by his . great sermon of 2 1 September,
but throughout the crisis he continued regularly to preach,
and his eloquence reached a climax in the sermon on
Penitence of i November. The Duomo, we may be
sure, was packed with an agitated crowd, for the forces
of Charles were before the Florentine fortress of Sarzana,
Piero dei Medici, was in the French camp and only five
days before he had signed away great slices of Florentine
territory in the hope thereby of making his peace with
Charles. It was All Saints' Day, a Saturday morning,
and Savonarola had come prepared to continue his course
of sermons on Haggai. He had proposed to himself to
speak to those who had already entered into the Ark of
the good life {neW Area del ben vivere) but on entering the
pulpit he announced that he had been enjoined to speak
of penitence instead. " Indeed I will not preach to you


at all this morning, but we will talk together and call
every one to penitence. Poenitentiam agite appropinqua-
bit regnum Coelorufu. ' By the waters of Babylon there we
sat down and wept.' O Florence, sit down beside the
rivers of thy sins ! Make a river of tears to wash them
away ; remember thy heavenly country whence thy soul
has come ; seek with penitence to return to it. Your
sins are the cause of the tribulations which are coming
upon you. God sends them, God is at the head of these
armies and leads them on. And since I have told you
many times before that tribulation would come, that God
would send it to cleanse His Church, therefore henceforth
you ought to believe me now that you see the effect.
Your wickedness, O Italy, O Rome, O Florence, your
impieties, your fornications, your cruelty, your wicked-
ness cause this tribulation to come. Behold the cause !
There is but one remedy — Penitence — Agite poenitentiam.
" Again, O Florence, it is your ingratitude. O ungrate-
ful Florence ! God has spoken to you and you have not
been willing to hear Him. If the Turks had heard what
you have heard they would have repented of their sins.
O Florence, the Lord has spoken to you in many ways.
If God had not illuminated me, you would not have been
illuminated, and you have been illuminated more than
any other place. Do you not remember, Florence, how,
not many years ago, you stood towards the things of
God and of the Faith? were you not in many things
practically a heretic? Do you not know that I have
made you, so to speak, touch the Faith with your hand ?
You stood there with your extrinsic ceremonies, and
seemed to be holy. God showed you how mistaken you
were, and that ceremonies, without purity of heart, are
worth nothing at all. The Christian life consists in
other things than ceremonies.


" You cannot plead ignorance. God has revealed Him-
self to you, and has disclosed to you the future. When I
said ' Ecce gladius Domini ' you made sport of me, said
I was a fool. Now, even now, I say to you. Thus saith
the Lord — ' Turn unto Me with all your hearts, with fast-
ing, with wailing and with tears,' Turn unto the Lord
who is still waiting to receive you. Let your penitence
be true, not feigned ; let it spring not from your human
fears but from your whole heart for love of God. Other-
wise I tell you you shall be punished in soul and body
and life.

" O Churchmen ! hear my words : O priests, O prelates
of the Church of Christ, let go your benefices to which
you cannot minister ; let go your pomps, your concu-
bines, your clowns.

" O monks ! let go the superfluity of your vestments, of
your silver vessels, and all the splendours of your Badias
and your benefices. Give yourselves up to simplicity ;
work with your hands as did the monks of old. . . . And
you who have your houses full of vanities and statues
{figure) and dishonourable things — wicked books, the
Morgante, and other things against the Faith, let them
go : bring them to me that I may make a fire of them,
a sacrifice to God. . . .

" And now, four words more, and then go home.

" Vox dicentis, clam a ; the voice of one saying, Cry
aloud !

" O Italy, for thy sins adversity will come upon thee . . .

"O Florence, for thy sins adversity will come upon
thee . . .

" Vox dicentis : clama ; and what does it cry ?

"O chiericUy ckierica, O shaven crowns of the clergy!
because of you has all this tempest arisen. You are the
principal cause of these troubles. Woe ! woe ! I say, to


him who wears a shaven crown ! (a chi avra la chierica
in capo) . . .

"We celebrate to-day the festival of All Saints. I pray
you, glorious Saints, by this your holy day, make prayers
to the Lord for this people. And Thee, O Lord, who in
this holy day hast fed us with thy sweetness, Thee I
pray, through the bowels of Thy mercy, to give to this
people a true knowledge of Thee and a true repentance
for their sins, through the merits of Thy passion ; through
the merits of Thy most Holy Mother, and through the
prayers of all the Saints, the cherubim, the seraphim,
and all the angelic choir, and all the hierarchies of Thy
most holy angels and blessed spirits. And take away
from Thy people this tribulation, and sooner make me a
liar if only Thy honour be preserved O my Lord qui es
benedictus in saecula saeculorum, Amen."

The exhortations and denunciations contained in this
All Saints' Day sermon were repeated on the two follow-
ing days, Sunday and Monday, 2 and 3 November.
They were reinforced by the proclamation, apparently on
Savonarola's personal authority, of a general fast through-
out the Florentine territory which was so extensively
adopted and lasted so long that it threatened the financial
ruin of the Florentine butchers. So injurious indeed did
the access of emotional pietism during the Savonarola re-
gime prove to the butchers' trade that it became necessary
to grant to them a special remission of taxation in com-
pensation for their losses. " A Dominican Friar," writes
the Mantuan envoy to Gonzaga (17 November) "has
so terrified all the Florentines that they are wholly given
up to piety. Three days in the week they fast on bread
and water, and two more on wine and bread. All the
maidens and many of the wives have taken refuge in con-
vents so that only men and youths and old women are now


to be seen in the streets," There was a sense of unknown
and terrible calamity immediately threatening not the
State in the abstract but each individual member of it. But
to the sense of panic there was joined the conviction that by
a complete surrender to the injunctions of Savonarola
the ruin which must inevitably overtake the other Italian

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Online LibraryE. L. S. (Edward Lee Stuart) HorsburghGirolamo Savonarola → online text (page 9 of 23)