Heroes of Modern Europe - Alice Birkhead

Savonarola—the Prior of San Marco

Long before Lorenzo's death, Girolamo Savonarola had made the corruption of Florence the subject of sermons which drew vast crowds to San Marco. The city might pride herself on splendid buildings decorated by the greatest of Italian painters; she might rouse envy in the foreign princes who were weary of listening to the praises of Lorenzo; but the preacher lamented the sins of Florentines as one of old had lamented the wickedness of Nineveh, and prophesied her downfall if the pagan lust for enjoyment did not yield to the sternest Christianity.

Savonarola had witnessed many scenes which showed the real attitude of the Pope toward religion. He had been born at Ferrara, where the extravagant and sumptuous court had extended a flattering welcome to Pius IV as he passed from town to town to preach a Crusade against the Turks. The Pope was sheltered by a golden canopy and greeted by sweet music, and statues of heathen gods were placed on the river-banks as an honour to the Vicar of Christ!

Savonarola shrank from court-life and the patronage of Borsi, the reigning Marquis of Ferrara. That prince, famed for his banquets, his falcons, and his robes of gold brocade, would have appointed him the court physician it he would have agreed to study medicine. The study of the Scriptures appealed more to the recluse, whose only recreation was to play the lute and write verses of a haunting melancholy.

Against the wishes of his family Savonarola entered the Order of Saint Dominic. He gave up the world for a life of the hardest service in the monastery by day, and took his rest upon a coarse sack at night. He was conscious of a secret wish for pre-eminence, no doubt, even when he took the lowest place and put on the shabbiest clothing.

The avarice of Pope Sextus roused the monk to burning indignation. The new Pope lavished gifts on his own family, who squandered on luxury of every kind the money that should have relieved the poor. The Church seemed to have entered zealously into that contest for wealth and power which was devastating all the free states of Italy.

Savonarola had come from his monastery at Bologna to the Convent of San Marco when he first lifted up his voice in denunciation. He was not well received because he used the Bible—distrusted by the Florentines, who expressed doubts of the correctness of its Latin! Pico della Mirandola, the brilliant young scholar, was attracted, however, by the friar's eloquence. A close friendship was formed between these two men, whose appearance was as much in contrast as their characters.

Savonarola was dark in complexion, with thick lips and an aquiline nose—only the flashing grey eyes set under overhanging brows redeemed his face from harshness. Mirandola, on the other hand, was gifted with remarkable personal beauty. Long fair curls hung to his shoulders and surrounded a face that was both gentle and gracious. He had an extraordinary knowledge of languages and a wonderful memory.

Fastidious Florentines were converted to Mirandola's strange taste in sermons, so that the convent garden with its rose-trees became the haunt of an ever-increasing crowd, eager to hear doctrines which were new enough to tickle their palates pleasantly. On the 1st of August 1489, the friar consented to preach in the Convent Church to the Dominican brothers and the laymen who continued to assemble in the cloisters. He took a passage of Revelations for his text. "Three things he suggested to the people. That the Church of God required renewal, and that immediately; second, that all Italy should be chastised; third, that this should come to pass soon." This was the first of Savonarola's prophecies, and caused great excitement among the Florentines who heard it.

At Siena, the preacher pronounced sentence on the Church, which was now under the rule of Innocent IV, a pope more openly depraved than any of his predecessors. Through Lombardy the echo of that sermon sounded and the name of Girolamo Savonarola. The monk was banished, and only recalled to Florence by the favour of Lorenzo dei Medici, who was undisturbed by a series of sermons against tyranny.

Savonarola was elected Prior of San Marco in July 1491, but he refused to pay his respects to Lorenzo as the patron of the convent. "Who elected me to be Prior—God or Lorenzo?" he asked sternly when the elder Dominicans entreated him to perform this duty. "God," was the answer they were compelled to make. They were sadly disappointed when the new Prior decided, "Then I will thank my Lord God, not mortal man."

In the Lent season of this same year Savonarola preached for the first time in the cathedral or Duomo of Florence. "The people got up in the middle of the night to get places for the sermon, and came to the door of the cathedral, waiting outside till it should be opened, making no account of any inconvenience, neither of the cold nor the wind, nor of standing in the winter with their feet on the marble; and among them were young and old, women and children of every sort, who came with such jubilee and rejoicing that it was bewildering to hear them, going to the sermon as to a wedding. . . . And though many thousand people were thus collected together no sound was to be heard, not even a 'hush,' until the arrival of the children, who sang hymns with so much sweetness that heaven seemed to have opened."

The Magnificent often came to San Marco, piqued by the indifference of the Prior and interested in the personality of the man who had succeeded in impressing cultured Florentines by simple language. He gave gold pieces lavishly to the convent, but the gold was always sent to the good people of St Martin, who ministered to the needs of those who were too proud to acknowledge their decaying fortunes. "The silver and copper are enough for us," were the words that met the remonstrances of the other brethren. "We do not want so much money." No wonder that Lorenzo remembered the invincible honesty of this Prior when he was convinced of the hollowness of the life he had led among a court of flatterers!

The Prior's warnings were heard in Florence with an uneasy feeling that their fulfilment might be nearer after Lorenzo died and was succeeded by his son. Piero dei Medici sent the preacher away from the city, for he knew that men whispered among themselves that the Dominican had foretold truly the death of Innocent and the parlous state of Florence under the new Pope, Alexander VI (Alexander Borgia). He did not like the predictions of evil for his own house of Medici, which had now wielded supreme power in Florence for over sixty years. It would go hardly with him if the people were to rise against the tyranny his fathers had established.

Piero's downfall was hastened by the news that a French army had crossed the Alps under Charles VIII of France, who intended to take Naples. This invasion of Italy terrified the Florentines, for they had become unwarlike since they gave themselves up to luxury and pleasure. They dreaded the arrival of the French troops, which were famous throughout Europe. On these Charles relied to intimidate the citizens of the rich states he visited on his way to enforce a claim transmitted to him through Charles of Anjou. Piero de Medici made concessions to the invader without the knowledge of the people. The Florentines rebelled against the admission of soldiers within their walls as soon as the advance guard arrived to mark with chalk the houses they would choose for their quarters. There were frantic cries of "Abbasso le palle," "Down with the balls," in allusion to the three balls on the Medici coat of arms. Piero himself was disowned and driven from the city.

All the enemies of the Medici were recalled, and the populace entreated Savonarola to return and protect them in their hour of peril. They had heard him foretell the coming of one who should punish the wicked and purge Italy of her sins. Now their belief in the Prior's utterances was confirmed. They hastened to greet him as the saviour of their city.

Savonarola went on an embassy to Charles' camp and made better terms than the Florentines had expected. Nevertheless, they had to endure the procession of French troops through their town, and found it difficult to get rid of Charles VIII, whose cupidity was aroused when he beheld the wealth of Florence. There was tumult in the streets, where soldiers brawled with citizens and enraged their hosts by insults. The Italian blood was greatly roused when the invading monarch threatened "to sound his trumpets" if his demands were not granted. "Then we will ring our bells," a bold citizen replied. The French King knew how quickly the town could change to a stronghold of barricaded streets if such an alarm were given, and wisely refrained from further provocation. He passed on his way after "looting" the palace in which he had been lodged. The Medicean treasures were the trophies of his visit.

In spite of himself, the monk had to turn politician after the French army had gone southward. He was said to have saved the State, and was implored to assume control now that the tyranny was at an end. There was a vision before him of Florence as a free Republic in the truest sense. He took up his work gladly for the cause of liberty. The Parliamento, a foolish assembly of the people which was summoned hastily to do the will of any faction that could overawe it, was replaced by the Great Council formed on a Venetian model. In this sat the benefiziati—those who had held some civic office, and the immediate descendants of officials. Florence was not to have a really democratic government.

After the cares of government, Savonarola felt weary in mind and body; he had never failed to preach incessantly in the cathedral, where he expounded his schemes for reform without abandoning his work as prophet. He broke down, but again took up his burden bravely. Florence was a changed city under his rule. Women clothed themselves in the simplest garb and forsook such vanities as wigs and rouge-pots. Bankers, repenting of greed, hastened to restore the wealth they had wrongly appropriated. Tradesmen read their Bibles in their shops in the intervals of business, and were no longer to be found rioting in the streets. The Florentine youths, once mischievous to the last degree, attended the friar daily, and actually gave up their stone-throwing. "Piagnoni" (Snivellers) was the name given to these enthusiasts, for the godly were not without opponents.

Savonarola had to meet the danger of an attempt to restore the authority of Piero dei Medici. He mustered eleven thousand men and boys, when a report came that the tyrant had sought the help of Charles VIII against Florence. The Pope, also, wished to restore Piero for his own ends. In haste the citizens barred their gates and then assembled in the cathedral to hearken to their leader.

Savonarola passed a stern resolution that any man should be put to death who endeavoured to destroy the hard-won freedom of his city. "One must treat these men," he declared, "as the Romans treated those who sought the recall of Tarquinius." His fiery spirit inflamed the Florentines with such zeal that they offered four thousand gold florins for the head of Piero dei Medici.

The attempt to force the gates of Florence proved a failure. Piero had to fly to Rome and the Prior's enemies were obliged to seek a fresh excuse for attacking his position. The Pope was persuaded to send for him that he might answer a charge of disseminating false doctrines. The preacher defended himself vigorously, and seemed to satisfy Alexander Borgia, whose aim was to crush a reformer of the Catholic Church likely to attack his evil practices. He was, however, forbidden to preach, and had to be silent at the time when Florence held her carnival.

The extraordinary change in the nature of this festival was a tribute to the influence of Savonarola. Children went about the streets, chanting hymns instead of the licentious songs which Lorenzo dei Medici had written for the purpose. They begged alms for the poor, and their only amusement was the capannucci, or Bonfire of Vanities, for which they collected the materials. Books and pictures, clothes and jewels, false hair and ointments were piled in great heaps round a kind of pyramid some sixty feet in height. Old King Carnival, in effigy, was placed at the apex of the pyramid, and the interior was filled with comestibles that would set the whole erection in a blaze as soon as a taper was applied. When the signal was given, bells pealed and trumpets sounded glad farewell to the customs of the ancient carnival. The procession set forth from San Marco on Palm Sunday (led by white-robed children with garlands on their heads), and went round the city till it came to the cathedral. "And so much joy was there in all hearts that the glory of Paradise seemed to have descended on earth and many tears of tenderness and devotion were shed." So readily did Florentines confess that the new spirit of Christianity brought more satisfaction than the noisy licence of a pagan festival.

In 1496 the Pope not only allowed Savonarola to preach, but even offered him a Cardinal's Hat on condition that he would utter no more predictions. "I want no other red hat but that of martyrdom, reddened by my own blood," was the firm response of the incorruptible preacher. He was greeted by joyful shouts when he mounted to the pulpit of the Duomo, and had reached the height of his popularity in Florence.

When a year had passed, Savonarola faced a different world, where friends were fain to conceal their devotion and enemies became loud in their constant menaces. The Arrabiati (enraged) had overcome the Piagnoni and induced the Pope to pronounce excommunication against the leader of this party. The sermons continued, the Papal decree was ignored, but a new doubt had entered the mind of Florentines. A Franciscan monk, Francesco da Puglia, had attacked the Dominican, calling him a false prophet and challenging him to prove the truth of his doctrines by the "ordeal by fire."

Savonarola hesitated to accept the challenge, knowing that he would be destroyed by it, whatever might be the actual issue. The Piagnoni showed some chagrin when he allowed a disciple, Fra Domenico, to step into his place as a proof of devotion. On all sides there were murmurs at the Prior's strange shrinking and obvious reluctance to meet with a miracle the charges of his opponents.

A great crowd assembled on the day appointed for the "ordeal" in the early spring of 1498. Balconies and roofs were black with human figures, children clung to columns and statues in order that they might not lose a glimpse of this rare spectacle. Only a few followers of Savonarola prayed and wept in the Piazza of San Marco as the chanting procession of Domenicans appeared. Fra Domenico walked last of all, arrayed in a cope of red velvet to symbolize the martyr's flames. He did not fear to prove the strength of his belief, but walked erect and bore the cross in triumph. It was the Franciscan brother whose courage failed for he had never thought, perhaps, that any man would be brave enough to reply to his awful challenge.

The crowd watched, feverishly expectant, but the hours passed and there was no sign of Francesco da Puglia. His brethren found fault with Domenico's red cope and bade him change it. They consulted, and came at last to the conclusion that their own champion had found himself unable to meet martyrdom. At length it was announced that there would be no ordeal—a thunderstorm had not caused one spectator to leave his place in the Piazza, where there should be wrought a miracle. It was clear that the Prior's enemies had sought his death, for they showed a furious passion of resentment. Even the Piagnoni were troubled by doubts of their prophet, who had refused to show his supernatural powers and silence the Franciscans. The monks were protected with difficulty from the violence of the mob as they returned in the April twilight to the Convent of San Marco.

[Illustration] from Heroes of Modern Europe by Alice Birkhead


There was the sound of vespers in the church when a noise of tramping feet was heard and the fierce cry, "To San Marco!" The monks rose from their knees to shut the doors through which assailants were fast pouring. These soldiers of the Cross fought dauntlessly with any weapon they could seize when they saw that their sacred dwelling was in danger.

Savonarola called the Dominicans round him and led them to the altar, where he knelt in prayer, commanding them to do likewise. But some of the white-robed brethren had youthful spirits and would not refrain from fighting. They rose and struggled to meet death, waving lighted torches about the heads of their assailants. A novice met naked swords with a great wooden cross he took to defend the choir from sacrilege. "Save Thy people, O God"; it was the refrain of the very psalm they had been singing. The place was dense with smoke, and the noise of the strife was deafening. A young monk died on the very altar steps, and received the last Sacrament from Fra Domenico amid this strange turmoil.

As soon as a pause came in the attack, Savonarola led the brethren to the library. He told them quietly that he was resolved to give himself up to his enemies that there might be no further bloodshed. He bade them farewell with tenderness and walked forth into the dangerous crowd about the convent. His hands were tied and he was beaten and buffeted on his way to prison. The first taste of martyrdom was bitter in his mouth, and he regretted that he had not answered the Franciscan's challenge.

The prophet was put on trial on a charge of heresy and sedition. He was tortured so cruelly that he was led to recant and to "confess," as his judges said. They had already come to a decision that he was guilty. Sentence of death was pronounced, and he mounted the scaffold on May 23rd, 1498. He looked upon the multitude gathered in the great Piazza, but he did not speak to them; he did not save himself, as some of them were hoping. It was many years before Florence paid him due honour as the founder of her liberties and the greatest of her reformers.