In 1489 and 1490 he [Girolamo Savonarola] began the years of his establishment in Florence. People thronged to hear him. His name was on the city’s lips. About 1491 he was made prior of his convent and proceeded to require of its inmates a stricter life, effecting a wholesome internal reform. Two great controversies shaped the last seven or eight years of his life. One was with Lorenzo de Medici—the Magnificent—who represented to him the world; the other was with Alexander VI—the Borgia pope—who represented the devil. And there were plenty of dissolute young nobility to represent the flesh. Lorenzo sought to win over to himself the popular friar by blandishments and praise. For the Medici even to take notice of the monk was condescension. But the temporal power and the luxuriant culture of the fine banker and patron were alien to the monk’s independence; he remained unmoved. Rebuffed and offended, Lorenzo was yet honest enough, when he sensed that his own soul was soon to take its journey of accounting, to call for Savonarola, with whom he had never before spoken face to face. Although reminded that his own regular confessor was nearby, Lorenzo replied, “I know of no honest friar save this one.”
The prior of St. Mark’s, coming to his bedside, declared three conditions on which he would give the Magnificent his final blessing: first, that he declare a strong faith in God’s mercy; second, that he return any ill-gotten gains; and third, that he restore to the people of Florence their liberties. To the first, Lorenzo readily gave consent and to the second, he gave haltingly. But to the third, he made no reply, turned away, and in a few hours was dead. It was 1492.
The death of Lorenzo brought his ill-favored son, Piero, to the leadership of the family. This fact contributed to Savonarola’s fortunes. Piero was weak and insolent and lacked the charm and diplomacy of his late father, vacillating in decisions and alienating friends. In 1494 there came into Italy the scourge of the north, King Charles VIII of France. Conquering and pillaging, his presence seemed to lend substance to the Dominican friar’s claim that Florence was about to be chastised by God for her sins. He had declared that this chastisement would come speedily and that the city would be restored. Piero surrendered too much of wealth and land to the French invader in his interest of peace. The price was too great for the Florentines to approve. Their antagonism to this weak son of so magnificent a father had already grown. They would tolerate no more and expelled the Medici from their midst in a bloodless revolt.
Savonarola now ascended to the moral leadership of the city. He was approaching the height of his influence. He interceded with the French invader, gained a lessening of the terms of peace, encouraged the king to be on his way, and warned him against going back on his word. Savonarola now found himself the leader of the city, responsible for building up what had been torn down. Having been a Florentine for more than a decade, and having the public ear, the reformer was the logical leader. He possessed qualities needful in such a crisis: farsightedness, levelheadedness, honesty, conviction, common sense, and “a disinterested zeal for principle.” He played the largest role in framing the republican government, modeled after Venice, in which various city councils were to do the actual ruling. He took no office himself, but made Jesus Christ, God Himself, King of Florence. He pleaded for moral regeneration and the removal of public and private vices. He called upon the people of all classes to repent and do works of righteousness, generosity, and social reformation. A transformation, soon found to be only temporary, followed.
The second controversy of his last years was Savonarola’s conflict with Pope Alexander VI. Words are somehow inadequate to convey fully the baseness of this character—this occupant of the falsely-supposed throne of Peter. There is perhaps no better description of this pope than the words of the commission he appointed to examine and bring charges against Savonarola. Their words describing the monk are utterly false; the same words, if applied to Alexander, would have been singularly appropriate: “That iniquitous monster, call him man or friar we cannot, a mass of the most abominable wickedness.” The catalog of Alexander’s sin is full. Within its pages are found bribery, lewdness, incontinence, fornication, lechery, nepotism, simony, debauchery, inordinate ambition, perfidy, gross obscenity, blasphemy, robbery, concubinage, and murder. He shrank from no evil to achieve his ends. He held nothing sacred, although he occupied the “most sacred seat.” Surely the pontificate of Alexander VI alone is one of the clearest arguments against the divine origin of the papal institution. As another has asked, “Would God commit His church for twelve years to such a monster?” With such a man, the preacher of righteousness was now in contest. Enemies of Savonarola reported to the pope the tenor of the friar’s sermons attacking and condemning unholy priests. The pope invited him to Rome for discussion; the friar demurred, protesting his need to direct affairs in his own city.
Late in 1495 he was forbidden by the pope to preach; for five months he obeyed. But early in the next year he was called by the city fathers to preach the Lenten sermons. In them he lashed out once more against the sins of the pope. Alexander next offered him a cardinal’s hat in return for his silence. Savonarola not only rejected the bribe but proclaimed his own preference, not for a cardinal’s red hat, but for a hat reddened with blood. In the carnival season of 1497, popular frenzy of religious devotion was at such a pitch that, at Savonarola’s invitation, the people fed a huge bonfire in the city square with “vanities”: lewd books, obscene pictures, carnival costumes, playing cards, dice, games of chance, various trinkets, false hair, and objects of vain luxury. The huge mound was described as 60 feet high and 240 feet in circumference at its base. The burning was to the accompaniment of religious songs.
Next came excommunication of the friar in May of 1497. The council vouched for his good conduct and wrote Rome in his defense, while he retired briefly to employ his pen instead of his pulpit voice. In December he resumed preaching, with no less colorful vigor and denunciation than before. The pope threatened interdict (the suspension of the regular sacraments for the faithful), an ecclesiastical weapon to force the city leaders to bend to papal will. The city would be banned; none could trade with her; no tithe tax could be collected by the city. This touched near; it affected Florence’s purse. Consternation and frustration followed. Then came the relaxing of popular support. Having moved from doubt to fanaticism, Florence was moving from fanaticism back to doubt. Never had she become truly devout. Letters were intercepted, written by Savonarola to heads of states of Europe, calling for a convening of a general council to settle affairs of the church. This clearly aimed at a power above the head of the pope. It became more fuel for flames soon to be kindled.
The last incredible straw was a Franciscan challenge to the preacher to prove his innocence and divine commission by submitting to the medieval test of ordeal, trial by fire. A path of burning embers was prepared. A champion had to pass over the path without being burned. Controversy and dispute over procedure delayed the spectacle for which the people had gathered with intense emotion. During the delay, a sudden rainstorm extinguished the embers. The expected was denied; the people were angered and stormed St. Mark’s. Savonarola was arrested, tried, and condemned along with two other monks.
In his cell, between periods of torture, the preacher composed meditations on the penitential Psalms, in which his evangelical understanding is left without doubt. Papal commissioners had been sent to Florence charged with seeing to his death. The sentence for Savonarola and the two monks was death by hanging, followed by the burning of their bodies. At the hour of execution, the bishop pronounced, “We separate thee from the church militant and the church triumphant.” Girolamo Savonarola, preacher of righteousness, replied, “Not from the church triumphant; that is not thine to do.” Their souls were dispatched, Savonarola’s last, on May 23, 1498.
The papal triumph was apparent, but in the providence of God, it was brief. Already born, indeed in his mid-teens by that year, was one, farther to the north, who would be used of God to break the monopoly of Rome. The time was not yet ripe, the cup of iniquity was not yet full, but they were soon to be. Martin Luther, empowered by the Spirit of God, would defy pope and prelate and live to die a natural death, twenty-five years after doing so.
In the city of Worms, Germany, today, the city in which that dramatic defiance was spoken before an imperial assembly, is a quiet memory of Savonarola. Two blocks from the main business street, in an open grassy square, is an imposing Reformation monument, composed of over a dozen statues in bronze, well discolored by oxidation and the passage of time. Each of the figures played a part in the movement which culminated in that April in Worms, in 1521. At the feet of Luther, supporting and contributing, with Wycliffe and Huss as fellow pre-reformers, is Girolamo Savonarola, preacher of righteousness.
In Florence today there is no such statue. There is only a bronze plaque set in the pavement of the public square, marking the place of his burning. As another has written: “You may silence a prophet in death, but you cannot stifle the truth, or stay the day; it is of God, and must prevail.”
Dr. Panosian taught Church History at Bob Jones University for 50 years and conducted study tours of Reformation Europe. Now in retirement, he attends Faith Free Presbyterian Church in Greenville, SC, and regularly presents in churches the lives of the Reformers as “Church History in First Person.”