On the 7th of February 1497, an extraordinary event took place in the Piazza della Signoria,the central square in Florence, as a great pyramid of musical instruments, perfumes, mirrors, playing cards, paintings, statues and any object which the crowd considered to be examples of lewdness and vice, was set alight and burned. The Venetian Ambassador had offered 20,000 ducats for the assembled luxuries, the Florintines had responded to this offer by making an effigy of the Ambassador and sticking it on top of what history would call "The Bonfire of the Vanities"
Barely 15 months later, in the same square, in front of the same people, the instigator of the Bonfire and two of his closeset supporters would be brought out, garroted and burned, their ashes disposed off in the River Arno.
Girolamo Savonarola was born in Ferrara in 1452, schooled from an early age by his grandfather in Biblical studies, the young Girolamo could almost recite the Scriptures off by heart. As a teenager, Savonarola had witnessed the Civil War in Ferrara and the 200 leading citizens nailed to the eaves of the ducal palace by Duke Ercole I.
Convinced of the world's wickedness and a failed love affair to girl who refused to marry into his lowly family, sent Savonarola into the Dominican friary at Faenza in 1474.From Faenza he later went to Bologna where he preached for seven years until,in the summer of 1489 he was invited by Lorenzo de Medici to Florence.
Florence was unquestionably the first city of the Renaissance, but beneath the surface was a hotbed of corruption and vice. It was against this that Savonarola launched his crusade.Attacking the Florentines love of materialism, luxury and "wickedness", Savonarola's powerful oratory soon attracted a considerable following.
He attacked the Medicis "Your palaces are built with the blood of widows and orphans" and the Church "Arise O Lord and deliver your Church from the hands of tyrants,from the hands of devils,from the hands of sinful prelates"
He had successfully prophesied the deaths of Lorenzo de Medici and Pope Innocent IX in 1492 and his apocylptic sermons seemed confirmed by the French invasion of 1494.The French invasion also marked the overthrow of the Medicis in Florence and the implementation, on Savonarola's advice, of a more democratic and republican form of government.
With the support of the new Republic, Savonarola now embarked on a series of puritanical measures culminating in the Bonfire.
He had, however, made considerable enemies, the Bigi
, supporters of the old Medici regime,the Bianchi
, who objected to a monk meddling in politics, the Arrabiati,
merchants and others opposed to the republic and the Compagnacci
, young men who resented the friar's reforms and attacked his followers at every opportunity. Most importantly of all he had now made an enemy of Pope Alexander VI, whom he considered an unfit person to be head of the Church. Savonarola was excommunicated on the 18 June 1497. He remained quite until Christmas 1497, when, contrary to the Pope's ruling, he returned to preaching in his monastery at San Marco.The Florentines did not mind this but when the Pope issued an interdict against their trade, this allied with a bad winter over 1497,increasing corn prices and a failed campaign against Pisa, turned the city against Savonarola.
A farcical ordeal by fire, which petered out in procedure and heavy rain, marked the beginning of the end. The crowd now against him, the City Council ordered his arrest on Palm Sunday 1498. The inevitable torture and confession now followed until Savoranola, reduced to a pitiable wreck was tried,convicted and executed on the 23rd May 1498.
Within a few years of Savonarola's death, Martin Luther was to propose similiar views