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Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The Bonfire of the Vanities

Statue of Girolamo Savonarola in his birthplace of Ferrare, Italy.
Photo courtesy of ho visto nina volare/Wikipedia.

Yes, Tom Wolfe wrote a book of that title in 1987 about ambition, greed, politics, racism, and social class in 1980s New York.  Influenced by an event in 1497, the vanities of New York society as characterized by Wolfe sound vaguely like those of 15th century Florence.  William Makepeace Thackeray wrote Vanity Fair in 1847, which takes place in a town called Vanity, representing the sinful attachment to worldly things.  The term is from Ecclesiastes, which has the phrase "vanity of vanities, all is vanity".

A "bonfire of the vanities" was a common occurrence to outdoor sermons in the first half of the 14th century - San Bernardino di Siena, a Franciscan missionary, encouraged people to burn their objects of temptation.  These tempting objects included books, artworks, gambling tables, cards, manuscripts of secular music, fine clothing, cosmetics, mirrors, and fancy furnishings.

Bernardino di Siena organizing a bonfire of the vanities.
Relief by Agostino di Duccio for the Oratorio di San Bernardio in Perugia.
Photo courtesy of Givanni Dall'Orto/Wikipedia.

But the most famous "bonfire of the vanities" was that held by Girolamo Savonarola in Florence, Italy, in 1498.  He was a Dominican friar who preached against the wealth of the Renaissance and its patrons, such as the Medici family. His apocalyptic sermons were hugely popular.  He lambasted the institutions of the Church, but not its basic tenents.

Savonarola wrote a poem at the age of 20 he called De Ruina Mundi (on the Downfall of the World), revealing his preoccupation with living a chaste and pure life.  Three years later he wrote another poem, De Ruina Ecclesiae (on the Downfall of the Church) which showed his contempt for the Roman Curia (the administrative apparatus of the Holy See and the central governing body of the Catholic Church) and claimed it was "a false, proud, archaic wench".

Bronze medal of Savonarola of Florentine workmanship.
The hand with dagger emerging from the clouds refers to
one of his prophesies.  Image courtesy of artfund.org.

He preached against the wealth of the Renaissance, and of the ruling upper classes, particularly the Medici family.  In 1494 the Medicis were overthrown, and Savonarola emerged as a leader of Florence.  He urged the Florentines to rid themselves of the sins that their luxuries signified, and many people did so voluntarily.  He persuaded artists to burn their own works, and some poets decided that they would no longer write in verse as their lines were impure.  On February 7, 1497 he held THE bonfire of the vanities.  Afterwards there was rioting, and Pope Alexander VI (aka Rodrigo Borgia, who was closely tied to the Medicis) excommunicated Savonarola.

From Beze's Les vrais portraits des homes illustres,
published in Geneva in 1481.  Image courtesy www.sciencephoto.com.

In the meantime, the people of Florence followed this charismatic crusader, who was said to have fallen in rapturous, ecstatic trances when preaching, bringing his audience to passionate tears.  He had a gang of young followers who roamed the streets, attempting to enforce a dress code, stoning and beating prostitutes, and trashing bars and clubs.

Savonarola's cell in San Marco, Florence.
Image courtesy TheBoxagon/Wikipedia.

He made many predictions, some which came true.  There were bad decisions made, and though it was through no fault of his, the city came to starvation.  Pope Alexander VI threatened to cut off all religious functions.  The Pope had bided his time, correctly guessing that the people would soon turn against Savonarola. Almost a year after he was excommunicated, Savonarola was charged with heresy, sedition, uttering prophecies, and "religious errors" by the Pope.  He and two of his closest associates were tortured to no avail.

Image from Giovo's Elogia vivorum literis published in Basel in 1577.
Image courtesy www.sciencephoto.com.

On May 23, 1498, the three were executed on the Piazza della Signoria, at the same place where he had held his bonfire, and in the same way he had ordered executions during his short rule.  They were hung, and then burned.  Their remains were stirred and burned again and again to insure that there would be no relics for followers.  The final ashes were thrown into the Arno.

Painting by an anonymous artist from 1498 of the executions.
Image courtesy of the Museo di San Marco.

Savonarola was not against books and arts per se; he saw them as symptoms of sin, and the way to deal with these symptoms was to destroy them.  His religious fervor and call to a purer life left him with many admirers.  Erasmus, the Dutch humanist, theologian, and Catholic priest, refused to become a Protestant after reading Savonarola's works, so the story goes.  Ironically, he is considered to be a forefather of the Reformation because of his anti-papacy stance.  Martin Luther was said to be inspired by him.

Plaque commemorating the spot of the execution in the Piazza della Signoria.
Image courtesy of Greg O'Beirne/Wikipedia.

Those of us who are book lovers view the destruction of books as a heinous crime, and this alone brings his reputation disfavor.  Not to mention the works of art that were destroyed that the world will never know.  Yet he was responding to a time when the balance of power was with the wealthy ruling classes and the unrest was already simmering among the common people.  He was in the right place at the right time, yet ultimately the wrong place at the wrong time.


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