Girolamo Savonarola

Girolamo Savonarola

Fra Girolamo Savonarola was one of the great reformers of the Catholic Church in the years before the Protestant Reformation. He counted many of Florence's intellectuals among his colleagues and friends and his charismatic preaching attracted large crowds of women admirers. He was widely read around Europe, including by Martin Luther (book printing became widespread in the 1490's), and it is simplistic to write him off as a fundamentalist radical.

Nonetheless, his followers were known by their enemies as the Piagnoni ("Weepers" or "Wailers") for good reason - their exaggerated insistence on the imminent arrival of the Apocalypse. Early on his career he wrote:

The reason why I entered into a religious order is this: first, the great misery of the world, the wickedness of men, the rapes, the adulteries, the thefts, the pride, the idolatry, the vile curses, for the world has come to such a state that one can on longer find anyone who does good; so much so that many times every day I would sing this verse with tears in my eyes: Alas, flee from cruel lands, flee from the shores of the greedy. I did this because I could not stand the great wickedness of the blind people of Italy, especially when I saw that virtue had been completely cast down and vice raised up.

The portrait of Savonarola up top is by Fra Bartolomeo. Painted around 1498, the year he was martyred, it is now in the Museo Nazionale di San Marco in Florence. Bartolomeo was much influenced by Savonarola and it is said that some of his paintings were burnt in the Bonfire of the Vanities the year before.

A statue of Savonarola in his home town of Ferrara. Photo: Nina Volare

Many working people backed Savonarola because of his creation of the Great Council of the Florentine Republic, a democratic assembly that stood in marked contrast with the corrupt court of the Borgia pope, Alexander VI. On the other hand, when he started on sodomites and Jews, immodest clothing and immodest art, then the pendulum began to swing the other way.