The Ordeal of Girolamo Savonarola in the Piazza Signoria, Unknown Artist
housands gathered in Florence’s main city square to witness the execution of three friars on the morning of 22nd May 1498. As these men of the Dominican order at San Marco took their final steps towards the scaffold in front of an immense crowd, the humble apothecary, Luca Landucci, stood ready to record in his diary:
“Fra Silvestro, who was hung to the post and one arm of the cross…suffered for some time…The second was Fra Domenico of Pescia, who also kept saying “Jesu”; and the third was the Frate called the heretic, who did not speak aloud, but to himself, and so he was hung.”
Anonymous, Hanging of Girolamo Savonarola, 1650
Landucci stood amongst the crowd disillusioned, neither supporting those within who clamoured for the friars’ demise, nor entirely convinced of the three men’s innocence. The apothecary instead wrote that he stood “utterly dumbfounded” and “grieved” at the swift turn of events that had brought this macabre spectacle to fruition, a string of episodes that included a siege and shootout at the San Marco convent. While others no doubt cheered at the occasion’s finality, Landucci made a melancholic note on the infernal fallout as “naked swords” were drawn “all over the city” and “Hell seemed open”. The currency of social designation was suddenly rendered baseless by vigilante mobs who murdered and pillaged in select houses of the elite, while other few “good men”, as Landucci called them, waded into the Arno to collect what they could of the friars’ ashes discarded therein by the city’s authorities. This at a time when the onset of the Italian Wars in 1494 had fostered fear and anxiety toward foreign invasion, political instability and the wrath of God, creating a vicious and fast-moving situation.
Fra Bartolomeo, Portrait of Girolamo Savonarola, c.1498
The Frate to whom Landucci refers, named Girolamo Savonarola, was the principal agent in several years of acute religious and political crisis in Florence. Between 1494 and his death in 1498, this individual of marginal origins rode a wave of popular support into a position some have equated to as the symbolic and even practical head of the Florentine government. His politics addressed the common person in a period where histories have presented political ideology as the sole preserve of the elite. The intensity of division the friar provoked, however, has reverberated down the centuries, both in public memory, where he has been considered as either an enemy or champion of Italian liberty, immortalised in statues in Florence and in his hometown of Ferrara but repeatedly refused beatification. Within historiography, Savonarola has figured no less as a saint, a hero, or even more recently in historian Franco Cordero’s words, as a ‘terrorist’ (as printed in Lauro Martines’ Fire in the City: Savonarola and the Struggle for the Soul of Renaissance Florence). Named by some to have been among the greatest founders of republics, to have sowed the roots of modern democracy, and garnered the expression of public opinion before it was necessary for political campaigns. the friar was also, according to Martines, nearly the world’s first ‘terrorist’ attack bomb-plot victim.
Girolamo Savonarola was a preacher by trade provoked into following a spiritual life by his disdain for what he perceived as a morally bankrupt Renaissance world. Despite his religious l credentials, however, Savonarola’s reformatory campaign in Florentine government presented a politically practical core, albeit wrapped in Christian terminology. Savonarola’s rise to prominence offers a unique perspective on politics of the Renaissance period following the exile of the Medici in 1494.
Savonarola’s campaign was imbued with an acutely popular character. It included his conception of the Great Council to legislate for the newly established Florentine Republic (perhaps the most representative administration of the European early-modern period with 3,000 eligible participants) and an immense base of popular support garnered through expert oratorical deliveries. His message spoke specifically to those oft-overlooked, “youths and women” he exclaimed, “I will put in your hands some arguments to defend yourselves”. Calling on his followers to “return to war”, his prophecies presented attractive opportunities within traditions that placed the common people at the forefront of innovation and responsibility.
Beneath the canopy of ongoing pamphlet wars, the aforementioned diarist Landucci notes popular expressions in examples such as the graffiti on the doors of the church of Santa Croce and Orto San Michele, which called for attacks on “certain bigots”. On the other side of the divide in January 1495, two “peasants” were hung for attempting to orchestrate a Medici return. Such popular engagement provoked the government to forbid “people to argue about the government, or the king, or the monks…”. Savonarola’s bands of youthful devotees, children and teenagers, were compelled to rip away women’s finery, demolish gambling tables and rout taverns – under Savonarola’s tutelage children and youths held new agency over their elders. Some made public demonstration of their opposition to the friar’s campaign, however, by throwing “dead cats and dirt” upon Savonarola’s Bonfires of the Vanities, while others would later organise a derogatory procession replete with giant mock effigies of the friar and his accomplices.
In fact, the provocation of this campaign inspired a spectrum of new coalitions. Bands of youths committed to opposing Savonarolan regulations in favour of more permissive lifestyles (known as compagnacci – the rude) roamed the streets looking to disrupt the work of Savonarola’s followers, even attacking “some of the partisans of the Frate” on occasion in the city’s cathedral. The adoption of pro-Savonarolan, -Medici, -French or -Republican allegiances divided people under the names of Savonarolan Piagnone (weepers), Medicean Bigi (greys) or anti-Savonarolan Arrabbiati (enraged), among others.
Under Savonarola’s tutelage children and youths held new agency over their elders.
Within the newly established Great Council, too, unlikely alliances formed alongside renewed hostilities in the hustle of vote-winning and legislation. The potential for individual political fluidity within these years has recently been highlighted as one of the period’s most unique aspects. Indeed, some have drawn the conclusion that observation of such practice inspired Niccolò Machiavelli’s infamous realpolitik manifesto, to be written shortly after these events.
Ultimately, however, the friar’s campaign failed. Savonarola was unable to back his campaign’s prophetic claims and eventually aroused the ire of the Church and a newly-elected and largely hostile government in Florence. Savonarola’s popular backing soon dissipated, and his influence sunk under the shifting waves of the Italian Wars.
However, Landucci wrote that Savonarola had been able to provoke even those “without political or party passions”. Like a thunderclap, the Savonarolan phenomenon exposed the cracks in an early-modern society traditionally presented as being divided by clearly demarcated social and political categories. Novel political identities multiplied and were sustained well into succeeding centuries. That moment also reflects a new, Machiavellian consideration of political culture, the reality of which subverted the rules-of-play established by older humanist ideals that emphasised virtuous and sincere politicking.
On one occasion Landucci surmised the political divisions playfully, as “Some wished it boiled, others roast”. With the promise of a new Republic dashed however, he was left feeling that “everything was exactly contrary” to his dreams. Many could be as heartbroken as the humble apothecary at their failure to force political change, and some could use the situation to make most of new opportunities. Such a focus on those one the side-lines or within the crowds during history’s great events offers a tantalising glimpse into the diversity of engagement within early-modern politics.
L. Martines., Fire in the City: Savonarola and the Struggle for the Soul of Renaissance Florence (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006)
D. Weinstein, Savonarola: The Rise and Fall of a Renaissance Prophet (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2011)
Weinstein, D., ‘Hagiography, Demonology, Biography: Savonarola Studies Today’, The Journal of Modern History, 63:3 (September 1991) pp.483-503
Polizzotto, L., The Elect Nation: The Savonarolan Movement in Florence, 1494-1545 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994)
Brown, A., Medicean and Savonarolan Florence: The Interplay of Politics, Humanism, and Religion (Turnhout: Brepols, 2011)
Najemy, J., A History of Florence: 1200-1575 (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2008)
 L. Landucci, A Florentine Diary from 1450-1516, [trans.] A. De Rosen-Jervis, (London: Oxford University Press, 1927), p.143
 A. Brown, ‘Partiti, correnti, o coalizioni: Un contributto al dibattito’, in A. Fontes, J. L. Fourness, M. Plaisance (eds.), Savonarole: Enjeux, débats, questions, (Paris, 1997), pp.59-79
Joe Tryner is a first-year PhD student funded by the White Rose College of the Arts and Humanities (WRoCAH) at The University of Sheffield. Joe’s research focuses on the experience of familial and social relations during the period of Republican and Medici political unrest of late-fifteenth and early sixteenth-century Florence.