The Original Bonfire of the Vanities

On 7 February 1497, the Piagnoni of Florence set sin ablaze in the original ‘bonfire of the vanities’

‘Girolamo Savonarola Preaching Against Prodigality’ by Ludwig von Langenmantel, 1879. St Bonaventure University. Public Domain.

‘Piagnoni’, they were called: ‘weepers’. They were gangs of boys and young men – mostly middle class – who patrolled the streets of Florence in the 1490s, shouting abuse at the visibly impious: drunks, gamblers, women. They were called ‘pinzocheroni’, too: bigots. They, like the city, were under the sway of Girolamo Savonarola, a Dominican friar who believed he was the voice of God.

Carnival in Florence was a time of wantonness and riot; under Savonarola it became an orderly ritual of destruction, culminating on 7 February 1497 with what is remembered as the bonfire of the vanities.

Piagnoni went door to door demanding the surrender of sinful objects. One witness listed what they took: ‘lascivious pictures … women’s hats, mirrors, wigs, dolls, perfumes, pictures in intarsia, sculptures, cupids, playing cards, dice boards, chess pieces, lutes and other musical instruments, books of diverse poets.’

Everything was brought to the Piazza della Signoria, where a great tiered wooden edifice had been built, somewhat like a pyramid, filled with brushwood and broom. At the structure’s apex stood a statue of Satan; demons circled its base.

The goods were heaped on the pyre. Trumpets sounded, then torches lit the fire. ‘With the greatest of happiness they burned everything’, an eyewitness said. It was, in its own way, a carnival too.