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Girolamo Savonarola: The Renaissance Preacher Paperback – August 7, 2017
The Amazon Book Review
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'Thoroughly well researched and enthusiastically written. It is clear that Samantha Morris has great care for her subject and this is reflected in the quality of this work. A great introduction to Florentine politics in the late 15th century and the life of one of the most infamous individuals of the Renaissance'. - Katharine Fellows, St Peter's College, University of Oxford
About the Author
Samantha studied archaeology at the University of Winchester where her interest in the history of the Italian Renaissance began. Since graduating University, her interest in the Borgia family has grown to such an extent that she is always looking for new information on the subject as well as fighting against the age-old rumours that haunt them. Her first published book was Cesare Borgia in a Nutshell, a brief biography which aims to dispel the myths surrounding a key member of the Borgia family. Samantha Morris runs the popular Borgia website https://theborgiabull.com/ and would love to “see” you on her site.
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Somehow, Ms. Morris managed to pull off the unfeasible; making Savonarola something more than a burned up ( literally) two dimensional deluded Dominican. In this brief biography she covers the life of Girolamo Savonarola, a Dominican friar, with the usual background, family, youth, education, his growing piety, then follows him into Florence, a second time in 1494. Savonarola had spent time in Florence in the 1480s but his story picks up speed when he rises to the top of the anarchy in Florence in 1494 and four years later his star plummets to earth with much greater speed.
The author prudently points out a few key features of the Savonarola phenomenon. One of them, the primary feature was obvious, Fra Savonarola rode a wave, a cresting political wave of anti-Medici sentiment in Florence in 1494. A year in which the Republic, the city, which had been the dominion of the Medicis since they crushed the Pazzi conspirators in 1478, and the rest of the competition among the big families. The city when Savonarola seized the power was caught between the Borgia pope, and the French army under Charles VIII and the general political uncertainty which had kept Italy in a state of chronic anxiety at the end of the 15th century. The friar imagined himself a prophet, and envisioned, and preached and wrote sermons and letters of a vision, that he had been chosen by the Almighty to lead the people. He convinced himself he was destined to turn Florence into the City of God, pure, clean, pious. He also believed or wanted to believe that Charles VIII had been sent by God to Italy recoup the role of Cyrus the Great, the heathen Achaemenid-Persian emperor who released the Hebrews from their Babylonian captivity and restored them to their homeland two thousand years earlier. Charles VIII, Roi de France wanted to stake his claim to the Kingdom of Naples in 1494. To get to Naples, of course, the king had to work, march and negotiate his grand armee around and through the great cities and principalities of Italy which then created a series of political earthquake for the Italians. Savonarola saw the French as usurpers of the old hypocritical order of Medicis, Sforzas and, most of all the Vatican, the Borgia Pope saw Charles VIII and his unstoppable host as a mortal threat.
Savonarola, psychologically, had a few sore spots, obsessions that became open sores. He demanded asceticism and rejection of the vanities by the people of Florence in general and especially by the monks in the Dominican order, who had been living a rather luxurious life largely based on Medici generosity at the priory of San Marco. He also hated homosexuals – not just the sin, but the sinners themselves. He detested it with a classic homophobe’s passion. He may have seen too much sex among the brothers. He may have had a bad experience, or many. Who knows? Nonetheless, fanatics and prophets are made, not born. Near the end of his theocratic regime, Savonarola pressed the city government, the signoria, to make sodomy a capital crime. Before it had been at worst mocked, at best accepted, not officially condemned. The prophet friar hated the Borgias and the Church in general, as did a lot of clerics in that era, for the sins of simony or the buying and selling offices, wholesale indulgences for horrific crimes, non-stop hypocrisy, lots of whoring, and for committing all the seven deadly sins on a daily basis. In another time or place, the friar could have been a strait laced protestant, but Savonarola had too much of the old school Hebrew prophet, Elijah, in his heart. He truly believed he could lead a revolt of the righteous and build a new Jerusalem, directly, with beatings and bonfires of riches, luxuries, the vanities, and not in ninety five theses nailed to a door like Martin Luther. Fra Savonarola wanted to be the active, swinging, scourge of God.
All that duly noted, Ms. Morris, manages in her last few chapters of here book which depicted the ordeal, tortures, trial and execution of Savonarola and his two of his top co-heretics, Fra Domenico and Fra Silvestro to make the friar almost sympathetic and certainly less un-likeable. It seems the fanatic, the zealot, was not made of firmer stuff of more dedicated or more insane martyrs. The great preacher and prophet broke after two or three turns of the strappado. The device, the strappado was a vicious torturer’s tool elegant in its cheapness and simplicity; the victim’s hands are tied behind their back, like cops, today, handcuff prisoners. The poor wretch is then hoisted up few meters or so to the ceiling and dropped. When the rope stops the shoulders pops. All torturers have no souls, but the most accomplished of them do have an intuitive sense of physics and biology.
The preacher monk under such excruciating pain, did what any reasonable man or woman would do in that situation, he confessed, he rolled, he admitted all the calumnies and offenses he had ever committed against the Holy Mother Church and its high priest and prince, the corrupt and contemptible Alexander VI. Reading the last few pages of Ms. Morris’s biography of the friar who ruled Florence for barely four years, she actually evoked from of me, a Marxist Socratic cynic sceptic, a measure of pity for the homophobic, book burning, deluded monk. Perhaps that is what impressed me most about the author, she not only has a keen sense of history, but possesses that rarer quality, necessary for a good biographer or historian - and abundance of empathy and humanity. Ms. Morris painted a picture of a religious fanatic pitiable, a real three dimensional human at the end of her book and the end of his very life. It was only the breaking before his execution, his fall, and capitulation that rendered Savonarola an ugly, worn, troubled, humbled mortal. Had he not yielded to the torment, he would have died a cipher, a cryptic creature, a mad monk, nothing else.
Ms. Morris, dutifully recorded that when his inquisitors asked Savonarola why; he said vanity, pride and vanity. He claimed it was pride, not the devil, or evil, that made him rebel and preach heresy. Pride is one Catholicism’s deadly sins, along with lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath and envy. ( What makes us sinners also makes us human. ) Vanity, as some of us know, is just a widely accepted human frailty. A protective covering for our insecurities. It was appropriate the friar who preached asceticism, abstinence and discomfit and humility, that he too left this mortal coil burned to a blackened crisp, in the a great bonfire ignited, in a sense, by his own vanity and pride, synonyms for a more secular word "ego". The remains of Savonarola, ended up cast in charred pieces into the river Arne, like the thousands of dresses, wigs, paintings, and secular books he had his faithful devotees burn in other bonfires. Poetic justice? Or just , as I believe, another one of the beautiful ironies one finds scattered throughout history.
With her book Samantha Morris offers up a newer, more humanistic portrait and compassionate insights into the mad friar who ran Florence as a revolutionary prophet from 1494 to 1498. I recommend it.