My first encounter with Girolamo Savonarola’s attempt to scourge Florence of religious corruption was George Eliot’s historical novel Romola, which I read in tiny bites as a distraction from historical history during my first year of graduate school. It was lush, dramatic, and exactly what I needed as I struggled with semiotics, deconstructionism, post-colonial theory, and the Bengali alphabet. I didn’t feel any inclination to read more about Savonarola until Paul Strathern’s Death in Florence: The Medici, Savonarola, and the Battle for the Soul of a Renaissance City turned up in my books to review for Shelf Awareness for Readers. It was lush, dramatic, and filled in some major holes in my understanding of Renaissance Florence.
In the late 15th century, the Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola led a frenzied and occasionally violent campaign to return the city of Florence–and the Roman Catholic Church as a whole–to the principles of early Christianity. For three years, the self-proclaimed prophet ruled as the city’s moral dictator. His career reached its highpoint in 1497 with the Bonfire of the Vanities: the public burning of playing cards, masks, mirrors, “indecent” books and pictures, and other items the puritanical monk deemed morally questionable.
Savonarola’s brief reign is often treated as an interlude of religious fanaticism within the enlightened secularism of the Renaissance.* In Death in Florence, Strathern (author of several books dealing with Rennaisance Italy, including The Artist, The Philosopher and the Warrior) paints a more complicated picture, placing Savonarola within a broader context. He considers Medici political aspirations and financial machinations, papal corruption, the shifting political allegiances of Renaissance Italy, medieval scholasticism, Renaissance humanism and the physiology of prophetic visions.
Perhaps most interesting is Strathern’s depiction of the relationship between Savonarola and Lorenzo de Medici, a complex tangle of admiration on the part of the prince for the monk’s scholarship and piety, patronage relationships, power struggles for control of the Dominican order and secret death bed negotiations. Death in Florence is ultimately an account of two competing visions of Florentine glory–one political and one religious, both of which would help shape Europe in the coming century.
Almost enough to make me re-read Romola.
*Okay, so I know a little more than I let on. What can I say, stuff crosses my path.