Girolamo Savonarola (1452-1498) was a very interesting figure in the history of Florence. He was a Dominican Friar and an extremely persuasive speaker. He was very much against the Renaissance and its ideas. His persuasive anti-Renaissance preaching influenced important people, including Pico della Mirandola, Michelangelo, and the painter Botticelli who decided to devote his skills to religious art after hearing Savonarola. Savonarola was also a critic of the Medici family (a politically powerful family that basically ruled Florence).
With Florence’s mixed up political system, Savonarola actually came into power after Pietro de Medici was chased out. He then proceeded to establish a dictatorship of virtue. People were forced to be virtuous, and to obey innumerable strict laws. Renaissance art had trended towards the representation of stories in classical mythology. This “pagan art” was destroyed under Savonarola, along with any items of luxury. An interesting point is that much of this destruction was voluntary by the people. They were so mesmerized by Savonarola’s preaching that they burned their art and luxurious goods themselves in events called “the bonfires of the vanities”. Groups of young men were set about the city to make sure that everyone was acting virtuously, and severe penalties were established for minor offenses.
Savonarola had also been denouncing the immoral behavior of Pope Alexander VI, of which he at first had taken little notice, but began to grow concerned when these denunciations started going too far. Savonarola had made prophecies, of which some came true and some did not. He was called to Rome to justify his prophecies as divinely inspired, which he refused to do. He was then told to stop his public preaching, which he again refused to do, bringing down the sanction of excommunication from the Pope in 1497. Savonarola called for a council to depose Alexander VI, but this was not met with enthusiasm among the population. Still fresh in their minds was the disastrous fiasco of the Great Western Schism (1378-1415), in which the Church split in two with two Popes, one in Rome and one in Avignon. The population had also grown tired of Savonarola’s dictatorship, and the initial enthusiasm with which his speeches were met was fading. The Pope had also threatened interdict (restriction on the use of some sacraments over a geographical area) on Florence if Savanarola was not handed over. A rival Franciscan Friar remembered that Savonarola had claimed that he would go through the ordeal by fire to prove what he said was divinely inspired, and told him to prove himself by it. Savonarola refused this challenge.
The San Marcos monastery was invaded by a mob, and Savonarola, along with two fellow Friars, was imprisoned. Under torture, he confessed to making up his prophesies and visions. On May 23, 1498, Savonarola was accused of being a heretic and a schismatic, and was hanged and burned. This little episode in Florentine history was not of great significance, but is of interest as an historical and political anomaly.