Death in Florence
Death In Florence: The Medici, Savonarola and the Battle for the Soul of the Renaissance City
Jonathan Cape 428pp £20
ISBN 978 0 224 08978 4
It is April 1492. In his villa at Careggi, north of Florence, Lorenzo de’ Medici lies dying. In the city itself two caged lions have mauled one another to death and a thunderbolt has destroyed the lantern on top of the recently erected dome of the cathedral. Moved by these portents, Lorenzo invites Fra Girolamo Savonarola to his bedside, but the Dominican firebrand, when he finally appears, is far from disposed to comfort the stricken tyrant. Instead he questions him as to his belief in the one true God, orders him to renounce his ill-gotten wealth, ‘restoring what has wrongfully been taken’, and demands that Florence’s Medici rulers give back to its people their ancient republican liberties.
The real confrontation here, Paul Strathern suggests, wasn’t simply a trial of moral strength between a worldly opportunist with a taste for poetry and fine women and a religious zealot on a mission to turn Europe’s most prosperous and pleasure-loving city into the capital of God’s kingdom on earth. At stake was the survival of the Italian Renaissance itself, in terms of its legacy to civilised humanity. In lurid and menacing sermons preached among various Florentine congregations, Savonarola had already flung down a resounding spiritual challenge to progressive materialism in the form of what Strathern calls ‘a quasi-benign but corrupt capitalist system run by the leader of a family of powerful bankers’.
If Lorenzo, who died the day after his encounter with the little hook-nosed Dominican, had left a suitably ruthless successor, would Savonarola have been more than a minor irritant for Renaissance Florentines? As it was, Piero de’ Medici, the son to whom he entrusted power, proved his father’s diametric opposite. Where Lorenzo was subtle and statesmanlike in dealings with fellow rulers, Piero showed so little finesse that Medicean rule swiftly collapsed and Tuscany was devastated by the invading army of Charles VIII of France. When Piero fled to Rome, following abortive negotiations with Charles, Savonarola’s chance for an experiment in theocracy was not to be missed.
Strathern’s deft outline of Fra Girolamo’s career, from his days as a bookish novice among the Dominicans of Ferrara and as a lecturer in the Florentine friary of San Marco to an ultimate incarnation as his adopted city’s spiritual dictator, emphasises underlying contradictions within the restless soul. With the Medici out of Florence, Savonarola sought to fashion a perfect democracy, its key decisions made by a 500-strong Grand Council. Inevitable problems arose, however, when the popular fiat failed to mirror that sacred destiny foretold in Fra Girolamo’s prophecies, visions and sermons.
Puritanism triumphant reached its apogee in the notorious ‘Bonfire Of The Vanities’ ending the 1497 carnival season, on which jewellery, mirrors and wigs were burned alongside works by Ovid, Boccaccio and Petrarch. By now, however, Savonarola’s God was ready to abandon him. The machinations of a furious Pope Alexander VI, whom he had consistently scourged for corruption, together with Florentine resentment at his authoritarian intransigence, doomed the friar to torture, a show trial and a grisly combination of hanging and burning.
Strathern’s account of one of the more bizarre moments of Renaissance history is exemplary, both in its close engagement with the sources and in the consistently lucid narrative he shapes from them. Underlining the intellectual sophistication of Savonarola’s outlook, he is rightly anxious for us not to see Fra Girolamo as a crude evangelical bible-basher. The whole episode nevertheless holds a sinister mirror to our own age, when a closer embrace of various kinds of ideology, religious or political, seems to offer simple answers to increasingly complex global problems. We should recall the wise words of the French poet Remy de Gourmont: ‘When morality throws its weight around, disgusting things start happening.’
Jonathan Keates is the author of The Siege of Venice (Chatto & Windus, 2005).
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