Wednesday, September 26, 2007

The Fires of Savonarola's Florence

The ferocious energy of the Renaissance republic and its most famous preacher is expertly captured in Lauro Martines' Fire in the City. With patient understanding of his subject Martines describes to a modern audience the triumphs and travails of the Dominican monk Savonarola and the political energies which he channeled--energies which, in the end, destroyed him.

In Martines' sympathetic telling, Savonarola was a fierce patriot who in 1495 helped expel the Medici from power and strengthen the new republic formed in their wake. Though a lover of liberty, he nonetheless preached clemency for the allies of the exiled rulers when tyrant-hating vengeance waxed. He also countered oligarchic tendencies among the city's elite in favor of wider citizen participation. In foreign policy he embraced the invasion of the French King Charles VIII as the scourge of Florence's enemies and Italy's flaccid believers. He even did all this without holding formal political office.

Yet first in his priorities was church reform, universal in scope but with Florence at its center. Reform was much needed, to say the least. The Great Schism had weakened religious authority. The papacy was held by the simonious decadent Alexander VI. Bishoprics were collected like so many choice financial properties and ruled in absentia, badly.

Against this established venality the righteous Savonarola spoke. Two lines from his sermons display his driven power: "I want men to be illuminated by truth. I want to fight the whole world and win."

He had no tolerance for corrupt clerics. His early polemical poems were written long before his days in Florence. Titled De Ruina Mundi and De Ruina Ecclesiae, they will appeal to those tired of laxity in the Catholic scene who will find in Savonarola the under-represented rigorist flavor of anti-clericalism. He could be writing of present-day episcopal malfeasance when he declares:
Ah, look at that catamite and at the pimp,
Dressed in purple, frauds looked up to
By the common people and adored by the blind world.

Later he advises:
Avoid all those who put on purple.
Flee from palaces and ostentatious loggias,
Speaking to the few alone,
For you will be the enemy of all the world.

What enjoyment one finds in these passages should be tempered by the observation of Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn: "After two hundred years of cheerful and ironic anti-clericalism the Reformation came after all, and destroyed the fabric of the Church in a number of nations."

Despite all this youthful talk of contra mundum, the monk avoided exclusive elitism in his Florentine ministry. At points, his thirst for justice and freedom and his significantly genuine patriotic piety captivated a vast portion of the city. His charisma shines through his recorded sermons. In one oft-used rhetorical device he converses with a fictional interlocutor:
-Oh, friar.... they say you are a heretic.
-Throw any low insult at me, but don't call me a heretic.
-They say you're crazy.
-Oh, now there you've said something beautiful. [As sinners] we're all a bit mad.
-Ah, but you've said the Church is a whore. O father, the Holy Church? What have you said?
-You're a fool ... go and do some more studying.

The pre-lenten Florentine carnival traditionally involved deadly rock fights among youths and debauchery among their elders. The monk's famous bonfires of the vanities attempted to subvert and redirect these energies towards spiritual renewal. Savonarola, believing their elders to be incorrigible, would send out groups of teenage boys and young men to collect "vanities" from the people. These collections, with few exceptions, were entirely voluntary. The collected dirty books, games, and luxurious clothes were then set ablaze in a vivid symbol of Lenten sacrifice.(This suggests a cheerful and productive activity for modern-day parish youth groups.)

Savonarola's popularity was not total. His efforts at moral reform provoked a backlash from among its targets. Street gamblers started accosting and threatening the zealous youths who had once driven them indoors. The wealthy hated the Savonarolan fashion police who would publicly deride and humiliate luxurious dressers. But his political and ecclesiastical opponents were the most potent of the friar's adversaries.

In June of 1497 his enemies finally secured an excommunication from the papacy. For months they had reported trumped up charges of heresy and misconduct, but they also merely repeated the man's heated attacks on papal corruption. Earlier the pope had wished Savonarola to defend his positions in person. Though a worldly man, Alexander VI seemed to fear the monk really was the prophet he claimed to be. Savonarola, who needed the protection of an armed guard in his home city, feared assassination if he were to leave his home turf. In an effort to reign in the recalcitrant frair, his monastery at San Marco was ordered to submit itself to the authority of another, more diplomatic, Dominican congregation.
This order was simply ignored, and it was only a matter of time before the papacy bowed to the anti-Savonarolan factions.

Yet even the excommunication did not end Savonarola. He denied the legitimacy of the punishment on the grounds it was based on fraudulent accusations. He began preaching again with even more anti-papal vehemence.

But his position weakened. Florence feared worsening tensions with the papacy and other Italian powers and severe domestic factionalism strained political comity. Savonarola was challenged by a Franciscan opponent to undergo a trial by fire in a city square. Though one of Savonarola's disciples had accepted the challenge and a great crowd gathered and prepared the site for the event, the great test of fire never took place. This abortive trial in some minds confirmed Savonarola as a false prophet. An angry mob beseiged San Marco, captured the monk, and turned him over to hostile elements in the city government. Accused of fraud and heresy, he was tortured. Savonarola, very intolerant of pain, soon accused himself of being a megalomaniacal fraud. He abjured all his extraordinary efforts as exercises in vanity. He and two fellow monks were hanged in May of 1498, and what vanities of their bodies remained were themselves immolated by fire.

See also: Daniel Larison's review

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