BOOKS: by Michael Daniel (reviewer)News Weekly
SCOURGE AND FIRE: Savonarola and Renaissance Italy, by Lauro Martines
, October 14, 2006
Savonarola's effectSCOURGE AND FIRE:
Savonarola and Renaissance Italy
by Lauro Martines,
London: Jonathan Cape
Rec. Price: $65.00Defender of Christianity, precursor of the Protestant reformation or heretical nuisance? Renowned Renaissance historian Lauro Martines examines the career of this controversial and enigmatic figure, particularly in relation to the historical context.
Savonarola's early life is examined briefly. Born in 1452 in Ferrara, he joined the Dominican order in 1475, being sent to Florence in 1482. Ironically, he was mocked for being a poor preacher and it was only upon his return in 1490 that he emerged to prominence, receiving the support of Lorenzo de Medici.
Savonarola soon became actively involved in the political life of the city. He viewed Charles VIII of France's invasion of Italy, the overthrow of the Medici dynasty and re-establishment of a republican government as the work of God, with leading republican figures seeking his advice. At the same time, Savonarola called for renewal of faith, preaching in particular against clerical laxity and against the moral corruption of Pope Alexander VI. One of the more unusual aspects of this moral crusade was the "bonfire of the vanities": objects believed to be sinful or frivolous were gathered up and burnt in a public place. Savonarola also claimed to have received visions and saw his role as being prophetic. Savonarola's political position and his attacks on Alexander VI aroused the ire of the pope who responded by excommunicating Savonarola, an excommunication which Savonarola observed for a period of time before ignoring.
Alexander VI also applied considerable pressure upon the government of Florence who supported Savonarola until 1498. Being found guilty of heresy, he and two fellow friars were burnt at the stake on 23 May, 1498.
The chief strength of this work is that Savonarola is examined in the context of the historical background, which Martines argues is crucial to understanding his rise and fall. Martines also examines the problem of historical sources, namely the lack of contemporary unbiased accounts. Whilst it seems that there was insufficient evidence to condemn Savonarola of heresy, it is difficult to interpret him as a martyr-like figure, particularly when, in an attempt to avoid further mistreatment and save his life, under torture he recanted some of his positions: for example, his claim that he had received divine messages. Similarly, to interpret Savonarola as a forerunner to the Protestant Reformation is hard to sustain as unlike other figures often identified as forerunners, Savonarola vehemently defended integral Catholic doctrines.