Savonarola, Girolamo

   Dominican friar, a na-tive of Ferrara but best known as the spellbinding preacher who af-ter the expulsion of the Medici from Florence in 1494 dominated the city's political life in order to impose political, religious, and moral re-form. He entered the Dominican order at Bologna in 1475 after an ed-ucation that included humanistic studies and the study of medicine. He studied theology until 1482, when he began his preaching career at the Florentine convent of San Marco, at first with little success. Re-called to Bologna in 1487 to direct the education of the order's novices, he matured into a compelling preacher. From about 1485, his sermons began warning of impending doom because of God's wrath over the worldliness of the church and the sins of the people.
   In 1490 Lorenzo de'Medici requested the order to send Savonarola back to Florence. His preaching became more and more sensational and ominous, and his enthusiastic hearers included many of the leading Medicean intellectuals, including Marsilio Ficino, Giovanni Pico della Mirándola, Angelo Poliziano, and the artists Sandro Bot-ticelli and Michelangelo. Although he remained close to the Medici and attended Lorenzo on his deathbed in 1492, his sermons de-nounced tyranny and social injustice, and increasingly they claimed direct divine inspiration. Elected prior of the friary of San Marco, Savonarola imposed strict observance of the Dominican rule. Recruits flocked into the monastery. His dire prophecies became more specific, warning of an avenging leader who would conquer Italy.
   The French invasion of Italy in 1494 seemed to be the fulfillment of his prophecies, and after the expulsion of Piero de'Medici and the Medicean political faction, Savonarola's sermons demanded reforms far more radical than those proposed by the patricians who had suc-ceeded the Medici in power. Florence was destined to be the New Jerusalem that would lead the world through the age of Antichrist and into an age of Christian perfection and peace. He appealed directly to the people for support against reluctant politicians, staging mass demonstrations at which "vanities," including lewd books and pic-tures, immodest clothing and cosmetics of women, playing cards, and dice were publicly burned.
   The foreign policy that Savonarola supported was contrary to the interests of Pope Alexander VI, who in 1497 excommunicated him and all who supported him or heard him preach. The pope also im-posed economic penalties that harmed the city's trade, thus encour-aging Savonarola's Florentine opponents, who had never ceased de-nouncing him as a false prophet and a threat to social order. His decision to execute several patricians who had conspired to restore the Medici to power harmed his popularity, since the accused were executed without any right of appeal. Savonarola's fall from power, brought about by collaboration between the pope and the local oppo-sition, was rapid. An attempt by one of the Dominicans in April 1498 to demonstrate Savonarola's divine inspiration by undergoing ordeal by fire was a fiasco that undermined popular support. The city's armed guard arrested Savonarola and two other friars. Under torture, the friars confessed that Savonarola's prophecies were false. When Savonarola then attempted to recant his own confession, he and his two fellow friars were convicted of heresy and on 23 May 1498 hanged and burned. The execution left power in the hands of patrician families who pursued a far more cautious program of anti-Medicean political re-form. After a brief period of persecution, Savonarola's populist sup-porters, the Piagnoni, hailed him as a martyred saint. Despite his ex-ecution as a heretic, his sermons and other writings were repeatedly published in Italian and translated into other languages. The reputa-tion of Savonarola as an inspired prophet remained strong among the poor of Florence and many other Italian communities for several decades, and during the last desperate uprising of the Florentines against Medici rule in 1527-1530, Piagnone preachers participated actively, proclaiming Christ king of the city and once again demand-ing the moral purification of society.

Historical Dictionary of Renaissance. . 2004.

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