Medieval spiritual leader who came to a grisly end
Girolamo Savonarola, the great Dominican preacher of the 15th century and the scourge of the early modern papacy, has endured a mixed reputation over the years since his torture, condemnation and public execution by ecclesiastical and civil authorities in 1498. Machiavelli held him in contempt, viewing him as an ill-prepared prophet entering the public arena unarmed and vulnerable to his myriad foes. Michelangelo, by contrast, could still hear the friar’s preaching as a “living voice ringing out in his mind” some 60 years after Savonarola’s death. Tom Wolfe titled “Bonfire of the Vanities” after the friar’s famous sponsorship of the public burning of books, secular art and other sin-inducing objects in 1497. The most fascinating literary depiction of the Italian friar comes in George Eliot’s historical novel “Romola” (1863). There, Savonarola figures as a charismatic source of inspiration for Eliot’s heroine, who seeks to emulate his stubborn virtue in the face of personal and social calamity.
Like “Romola,” Paul Strathern’s “Death in Florence” begins with the demise not of Savonarola but of his illustrious contemporary Lorenzo de Medici (the Magnificent), who died the same year Christopher Columbus sailed for the Indies. Though the sobriquet Il Magnifico was a commonplace courtesy title, as Strathern explains, in Lorenzo’s case it seems to have stuck, a fitting distinction for an eminent and epochal figure in the history of Florentine politics.
Yet soon after Lorenzo’s death, the Medici fortunes took a turn for the worse. When a French army under Charles VIII swept through Italy, Savonarola acted as agent and spokesman for the beleaguered city, successfully negotiating for its people and buildings to be spared. The Medici weren’t so lucky. The ruling family (including Piero the Unfortunate, Lorenzo’s son) went into exile, and a putative republic was restored in its place. For several years thereafter Savonarola became the de facto leader of Florence, overseeing a kind of virtuous revolution, rooting out vice and corruption with an apocalyptic fervor and a fanaticism that Strathern follows other scholars in comparing to the cultural effects of Stalinism and Maoism.
The narrative unfolds in roughly chronological order. The book’s organization into 25 relatively brief chapters allows the story of Savonarola and the Medici to be told in short bursts of intrigue and with plenty of suspense.
What stands out as much as anything here is the spark and quality of Strathern’s writing, its wonderful ability to combine the sweep of history with the intensely personal. A typical example, from the opening of Chapter 12, recounts Savonarola’s preaching in the Duomo as the French army approaches: “In their hour of need, the people of Florence turned to Savonarola, who rose to the occasion by delivering a sermon in the cathedral on 21 September 1494, which besides being the feast of St. Matthew also happened to be his birthday.”
In a single sentence, Strathern captures the broad currents of civic history, the magnetic presence of a remarkable individual, and the specificity of a liturgical and biographical occasion. Such sprezzatura is characteristic of Strathern’s vivid and engaging style throughout the book, which is characterized by an easy facility with narrative and an eye for the telling historical detail— as in his account of Savonarola’s execution along with two of his Dominican brothers, with some members of the crowd even “tossing little packets of gunpowder into the conflagration, causing small explosions and cascades of sparks.”
Less compelling is the book’s reliance on a tired narrative of historical change, an epochal struggle pitting an unquestioning medieval religiosity against the forward-thinking secularism of the Renaissance. “During the medieval era, the world and our life within it had been regarded as a mere preparation for the eternal life of the hereafter,” Strathern writes. A blithe generalization, ignoring the vibrantly secular sensibilities of the troubadours, Marie deFrance, Geoffrey Chaucer, Giovanni Boccaccio and many other writers of the Middle Ages. This bias leads to some uncharacteristically infelicitous sentences and more than a few tautologies: “Instead of the essentially spiritual outlook of medievalism, the new humanism regarded life and the world from a more human perspective.”
Yet the story actually told in “Death in Florence” is much more nuanced. Though Strathern’s Savonarola is “essentially medieval in outlook,” the friar’s career was an ambivalent meeting ground of past and present, traditional and modern, reformist and revolutionary. A similar perspective has been advanced by Donald Weinstein in his definitive biography of Savonarola, published in 2011— a book that doesn’t appear in Strathern’s bibliography and that the author seems not to have consulted.
Also surprising are the author’s repeated references (several dozen of them) to Savonarola, the main subject of his book, as a monk rather than a friar. Sounds pedantic, but to anyone who knows a bit of church history, the conflation represents a basic category error, akin to a constitutional historian confusing an article with an amendment: an understandable mistake, perhaps, unless you happen to be writing a book about the Constitution. The distinction between monks and friars, between a cloistered life of prayer and an active life of public engagement, goes to the heart of the revolutionary program Savonarola advocated throughout the final years of his remarkable life.
Nevertheless, “Death in Florence” is an engrossing narrative of power, corruption and civic life, a vivid portrait of a city in crisis and the spiritual leader who embodied its aspirations and flaws.
Girolamo Savonarola, in a contemporary portrait by his friend Fra Bartolomeo.
DEATH IN FLORENCE The Medici, Savonarola, and the Battle for the Soul of a Renaissance City By Paul Strathern Pegasus. 428 pp. $29.95