Birthday: September 21, 1452
Died At Age: 45
Sun Sign: Virgo
Born Country: Italy
Born in: Ferrara, Italy
Famous as: Monk
father: Niccolò di Michele dalla Savonarola
mother: Elena Bonacolsi
siblings: Alberto Savonarola, Bartolomeo Savonarola, Beatrice Savonarola, Chiara Savonarola, Maurelio Savonarola, Ognibene Savonarola
Died on: May 23, 1498
place of death: Florence, Italy
City: Ferrara, Italy
education: University of Ferrara
Who was Girolamo Savonarola?
Girolamo Savonarola was an Italian preacher, reformer, and martyr from Ferrara. He was a member of the ‘Dominican Order,’ or the ‘Order of Preachers.’ He was active in Renaissance-era Florence. History remembers him as an instrumental figure who opposed dictatorship and the corrupt pastorate that was rampant at that time. Savonarola was seen as the sole leader after the downfall of the Medici in Florence. Under his leadership, a democratic republic was formed and several other reformations came into being. Savonarola was hailed when he predicted the reformation of the Church by an invader, Charles VIII of France. Savonarola even influenced Italy's new ruler, which in turn increased his power. His downfall began when he turned against the Pope, which ultimately led him to choose death.
Childhood & Early Life
Born on September 21, 1452, in Ferrara, northern Italy, Savonarola was the third of the seven children born to Niccolò di Michele and ElenaBonaccorsi (or Bonacolsi).
His grandfather, Michele Savonarola, a highly respected physician and polymath, supervised Savonarola's education.
Savonarola joined a public school after his grandfather died in 1468. In school, he was introduced to the poetry and writings of Petrarch, the father of Renaissance humanism.
Savonarola earned an arts degree from the 'University of Ferrara' and then joined a medical school. He, however, later quit his medical studies.
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Savonarola's grandfather's rigid moral and religious principles had a great impact on his formative years. Since Michele Savonarola was educated in the 14th century, Savonarola learned a lot about the medieval period from him.
He was highly moved by the teachings of Italian ‘Dominican’ friar Thomas Aquinas, which eventually made Savonarola critical of the art, poetry, and religion of the time. In 1475, after he quit medical studies, Savonarola joined the ‘Dominican Order’ in Bologna.
Some of Savonarola's early poems and other adolescent writings prove that he wanted to change the scenario of the art, poetry, and religious ideas of that period. The poems and writings also display his apprehension with the state of the Church and that of the world.
His early poems, such as 'On the Ruin of the World' (1472) and 'On the Ruin of the Church' (1475), had an apocalyptic inclination.
On April 25, 1475, Savonarola traveled to Bologna to be admitted to the 'Convent of San Domenico’ of the ‘Order of Friars Preachers.' In a letter to his father, he had mentioned his wish to become a knight of Christ.
After a year at the convent, Savonarola intended to be a priest. He eventually studied scripture, logic, Aristotelian philosophy, and Thomistic theology. He also simultaneously practiced preaching.
Savonarola then joined the theological faculty for a higher degree. In 1478, he was sent to the ‘Dominican Convent of Santa Maria degli Angeli’ in Ferrara to serve as an assistant to the master of novices.
Savonarola returned to Ferrara in 1479 and became a ‘Bible’ preacher at the ‘Convento degli Angeli.’ He simultaneously thought of venturing into religion.
In an unfinished treatise that Savonarola had left behind (later titled 'On Contempt for the World'), he encouraged readers to abandon the world of adultery, sodomy, murder, and envy.
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Time in Florence
In 1482, Savonarola became a lecturer at the 'Convent of San Marco' in Florence, where he was highly regarded for his knowledge and ideologies However, his preaching was not altogether successful. In the subsequent years, while preaching in San Gimignano in Lent, he proposed: "the church needed reforming; it would be scourged and then renewed."
Savonarola left Florence to earn his master's degree at the school of general studies in Bologna. He subsequently became an itinerant preacher and continued until Lorenzo “the Magnificent'' de' Medici (the “de facto” ruler of Florence), got him back.
Savonarola returned to Florence in 1490, where he preached against the oppressive government. Around 1493, he began to foresee that an invader was coming to reform the Church. He also envisioned the eventual fate of the ruling Medici family.
As foretold, King Charles VIII of France crossed the Alps in September 1494 and advanced toward Florence, which triggered political chaos in Italy. The rule of the Medici ended after Charles VIII invaded Italy.
Savonarola's prediction and his role in negotiating with the king and helping the king gain the support of the factions, increased his authority. Moreover, after the fall of the Medici rule, Florence had no other choice but to be influenced by Savonarola's ideas.
Even though Savonarola introduced the best democratic government that the city ever had, he was unjustly accused of interfering in politics. From his perspective, all of Savonrola's actions were directed toward establishing a well-organized Christian republic and the reformation of Italy. He thus succeeded in transforming Italy into a foretaste of paradise.
Savonarola assisted in the formation of a political party, known as the ‘Frateschi.’ According to the new constitution, the artisan class was empowered and granted every citizen the right to vote in the newly formed parliament (called the 'Consiglio Maggiore,' or the 'Great Council’).
Eventually, a 'Law of Appeal' was passed to exercise limitations on using exile and capital punishment as forms of punishment. In the wake of a new era of "universal peace," as Savonarola had declared on January 13, 1495, he preached in the Cathedral, where he discussed his prophecies about the end of the Medici era.
Based on Savonarola's vision, including his spiritual journey to the Virgin Mary in heaven, he endorsed theocracy and named Christ the “King of Florence.” He promoted his reformative ideas through sacred art and strictly opposed secular art.
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He devised new laws against sodomy, adultery, and moral misdemeanors, while his lieutenant, Fra Silvestro Maruffi, conducted patrolling to curtail immodest practices.
Conflicts with the Pope
As Savonarola's authority was at its peak, Pope Alexander VI tried to gain his confidence by presenting him a cardinal's hat. He also tolerated Savonarola's criticism against the Church for a while.
Nevertheless, the Pope was eventually enraged and accused Savonarola's malicious influence on the Florentines when they refused to join his new 'Holy League' to protest against the French ruler.
The Pope's anger worsened when Savonarola declined to appear before him in Rome. He offered ill health as an excuse and expressed his fear of being attacked. The Pope, hence, disqualified him from further preaching.
Savonarola did obey the Pope for some months. However, the fact that he had lost control over the Florentines made him go against the Pope's orders. He resumed with more violence.
Conspiracies against Him
With his sudden rise, Savonarola had attracted jealousy from various spheres. To restrict his influence, a Florentine party called the 'Arrabbiati' was established in alliance with the duke of Milan and the Pope.
The 'Arrabbiati' banned him from preaching and revolted against him on Ascension Day.
The only choice Savonarola had was to appeal to a church council, which he never did, as he wished to avoid any internal opposition in the Church. He realized his only way to escape was martyrdom.
In 1497, Pope Alexander VI barred Savonarola from preaching and threatened the Florentines who continued to follow that their act would be considered a revolt.
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Around the same period, Savonarola composed his mystic masterpiece, the 'Triumph of the Cross.'
A rival Franciscan preacher proposed Savonarola walk through fire to prove his divine endeavors. Savonarola could not refuse his confidant Fra Domenico da Pescia, who offered himself as his replacement.
On the scheduled date, people gathered to witness the miraculous event and check if God would intervene. The contest was, however, delayed for hours, and Fra Domenico, too, did not show up. Moreover, sudden rains ultimately canceled the event. People accused Savanorola of the debacle and attacked the ‘Convent of San Marco.’
Savonarola and Fra Domenico were arrested and tortured brutally. While being tortured, Savonarola confessed to fabricating his prophecies and visions.
After the religious trial, Savonarola was sentenced to be hanged and burned on May 23, 1498. Savonarola's ashes were scattered in the Arno, so that his devotees whould not find his remains.
Avoiding censorship and exile, the friars of ‘San Marco’ gave rise to the cult of "the three martyrs." He was respectfully named a ''saint.” Women were encouraged to preserve Savonarola's sermons and writings.
Unfortunately, when the Medici returned in 1512, the movement to preserve Savonarola's ideas was stopped. It was, however, revived in 1527, after the Medici family was again seized.
In Savonarola’s biography by Pasquale Villari, his opposition to the Medici dictatorship was regarded as the foundation of Italian liberty and unification. After the release of an illustration of his career by Catholic theologian and Church historian Joseph Schnitzer, the third of Savonarola's major biographies, 'Vita di Girolamo Savonarola' by Roberto Ridolfi, was published in 1952.
About 30 volumes of Savonarola's sermons and writings have been published to date. An opera titled 'Savonarola' by Charles Villiers Stanford premiered in Hamburg on April 18, 1884.
Steven Berkoff played him in the 'Showtime' series 'The Borgias,' while Iain Glen portrayed him in the 'Netflix' series 'Borgia.'