Me­dieval spir­i­tual leader who came to a grisly end

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD - Bruce Holsinger teaches English and me­dieval stud­ies at the Univer­sity of Vir­ginia. His latest novel, “The In­ven­tion of Fire,” was pub­lished this year. RE­VIEW BY BRUCE HOLSINGER

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.

2010 PHOTO SCALA, FLORENCE; ITAL­IAN MIN­ISTRY OF CUL­TURAL HER­ITAGE AND AC­TIV­I­TIES AND TOURISM

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

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.