On March 27, 2013, in the northern Italian city of Ferrara, Patrizia Moretti stepped out into the public square near her office building, unfurled a poster-sized portrait of her dead son Federico Aldrovandi, and showed it to the crowd of protesters. The photograph was so unpleasant that some of the protesters doubted its authenticity and called it a fraud. Taken moments after his violent death, it showed the battered face of Aldrovandi, blood pooling behind his head. The 18-year-old was killed by four policemen in 2005. They were found guilty of using excessive force and were sentenced to almost four years each in prison. Yet a complicated appeals and pardon process means that the officers are unlikely to spend more than a few months behind bars, and none of the four have even lost their jobs.1 Some have even claimed that the judicial process was obstructed by the police department.
The protest in March was actually organized by a local branch of a police union in Ferrara, whose members were angry at the court’s decision to punish their colleagues and frustrated at Moretti’s decision to speak truth to power, so they gathered in the public square outside of her place of employment. They had not counted on her coming outside to show the photograph.
Covered widely in the Italian media, the death of Federico Aldrovandi raised many questions, problems that the people of Italy have struggled with for centuries. Why are the rich and powerful protected while the powerless and impoverished are denied justice? Why must those with weapons succeed and the unarmed always fail? What are the consequences for pushing free speech to the limits? Will there ever be a solution to the scourge of institutionalized corruption? What images are immoral and should be censored, removed from public display? And who in Italy holds the ultimate truth?
Italian politicians and high-ranking police officials roundly condemned the protest,2 but were just as quick to criticize the location of the rally, which many believe was part of a plan to intimidate Moretti at her work. The choice of that particular square was indeed a fascinating one, and not only for the reason many have already expressed. The name of the square where the protest took place was Ferrara’s Piazza Savonarola, named after the city’s most famous resident, the fifteenth-century apocalyptic preacher and martyred Reformer, Girolamo Savonarola.
Today Savonarola’s name is synonymous with religious fanaticism and the Bonfire of the Vanities—one of the darkest chapters for many scholars of art history—when under Savonarola’s direction the people of Florence burned great works of Renaissance art and other treasures because of their supposed corrupting influences. But Savonarola was much more than a destroyer of fine art. The Dominican monk, who was born in Ferrara in 1452, was also a tireless advocate against corruption, a democratic reformer in the refined city of Florence, an advocate for the impoverished and helpless, and a believer in absolutes who refused to be silenced, knowing that his controversial sermons would cost him his life.
Savonarola preached against the corruption and wickedness of Pope Alexander VI (Rodrigo Borgia) and also against the secular excesses of Renaissance Florence, making many enemies in the process, including the infamous Medici family, whose wealth had bankrolled so many of the great artists of the time. During the period when the head of the Medici family and ruler of Florence, Lorenzo the Magnificent, was allowing for some of the greatest artistic and cultural progress that Europe had seen since antiquity, Savonarola and his acolytes threatened to plunge Florence and much of Italy back into the Dark Ages it had emerged from. Those Florentine infernos also consumed a great deal of gambling paraphernalia, makeup, carnival masks, and jewelry, but most famously included works of the Renaissance master Sandro Botticelli, who painted the seminude mythological masterpiece The Birth of Venus, which survives today very much unburned in Florence’s Uffizi art gallery. Savonarola preached against the nudity and pagan themes circulating the art world in Florence at the time; and while we have no way of knowing how many great paintings were destroyed by Savonarola’s followers (the amount is believed to be negligible),3 it’s enough for the priest to be almost universally hated in contemporary academic circles.
Following the death of Lorenzo Medici and the overthrow in 1494 of his ruling family by the king of France, Charles VIII, a new period began when “Florence had no master other than Savonarola’s terrible voice.”4 The Dominican monk attempted to turn the city into a fundamentalist, religious state, with some writers, such as John L. Allen, Jr., of the National Catholic Reporter, comparing his rule to Afghanistan under the Taliban.5 During his brief rule in Florence, Savonarola persecuted and rounded up homosexuals and prostitutes, preaching against the immoral wickedness of both, and he used torture to punish blasphemers and sexual deviants. For these reasons many consider him among the great villains of history. In April, Canadian newspaper columnist Charles Jeanes, writing for The Castlegar Source, placed Savonarola alongside “Trotsky, Stalin, Hitler, Mao, and Robespierre—political powers who have ruled us in various times and places [that] have been occasionally possessed of a ruthless self-righteousness that justified in their minds the exercise of extreme force to engineer human behavior by terror.”6
But the fiery preacher and Christian ascetic was also a pioneering political and religious figure in European history, and while some consider him a political ancestor of some of the twentieth century’s most vile dictators, others hold Savonarola in much, much higher regard.
The largest monument to the Protestant Reformation is in the city of Worms, Germany. Erected in 1868, a statue of Martin Luther stands atop the monument, flanked by a variety of influential German scholars and princes. However, at the feet of Luther, serving as the literal and figurative foundation, sit the group of forerunners to the Protestant Reformation: Englishman John Wycliffe, who translated the Bible into English; Czech martyr and religious leader John Huss; French medieval theologian Peter Waldo, credited as the founder of the Waldensians; and the Italian monk, Girolamo Savonarola. Additionally, in Grenville Kleiser’s classic, an early-twentieth-century compilation, The World’s Great Sermons, the editor makes a strong comparison between Savonarola and yet another of the great heroes of the Puritan Reformation. The brief biographical note describes how Savonarola’s “Puritanism, his bold rebuking of vice, his defiance of every authority excepting that of his own conscience, [laid the groundwork for] the efforts made by Calvin to regenerate Geneva. Both men failed in their splendid attempts at social reformation, but both left an example of heroic although somewhat short-sighted unselfishness, which has borne fruit in history.”7
As both a significant contributor to European religious liberty, yet also a legendary fighter against personal and cultural liberty, Savonarola holds a precarious and ironic position in two different opposing groups—those in history who have added to society’s collective freedoms and those who have taken freedoms away. How can such seemingly opposing legacies be reconciled in one man? Every few years, Girolamo Savonarola is discussed in Catholic circles as a candidate for beatification and eventual sainthood, with as many vigilantly opposed to the idea as those who are in favor. Even such a complex contrast doesn’t tell the entire story given that Savonarola was also a key contributor, this time in a positive manner, to the story of Italy’s progressive democratic tradition. Despite his fierce critics, he was certainly no autocrat. Savonarola brought democracy back to the city council in Florence, restoring the city-state to its republican rule.
Roberto Ridolfi, director of the National Editions of the Works of Savonarola, explained that the democratic government introduced to Florence was “the best the city ever had. Savonarola has been accused, but unjustly, of interfering in politics. He was not ambitious or an intriguer. He wanted to found his city of God in Florence, the heart of Italy, as a well-organized Christian republic that might initiate the reform of Italy and of the church.”8
The way Savonarola went about initiating these changes was unconventional to say the least. He created and instituted in Florence what Johan Peter Kirsch would later call “a new and peculiar constitution, a kind of theocratic democracy. . . . Christ was considered the king of Florence and protector of its liberties. A great council, as the representative of all the citizens, became the governing body of the republic and the law of Christ was to be the basis of political and social life.”9
Savonarola’s decision to place Christian law at the center of political and social life was likely down to his extremely conservative upbringing and medieval theological training. In an almost anachronistic twist to his early life, Girolamo Savonarola was taught by his elderly grandfather Michael, who had been educated so many decades before, that Girolamo was in essence a theological relic of a bygone era. The younger Savonarola grew up morally dogmatic and theologically inflexible, preferring bloody flagellations and monastic seclusion to the artistic brilliance and financial splendor of an increasingly secular Renaissance Florence.
Given that he was surrounded by Italians from a new, vibrant, and radically different time than the world of the Middle Ages in which he was raised, it is understandable that Savonarola became doggedly obsessed with moral reform and fought against what he saw as pagan influences in Renaissance culture and art. He also became widely known as a great prophet, and his apocalyptic sermons, mixed with a series of accurate prophecies regarding the immediate future in Florence, saw increasingly large crowds gather to hear him speak. He predicted the successful invasion of King Charles VIII as well as the death of Lorenzo Medici, and he made great sweeping statements about the church in Rome, angering the Papacy.
“In everything am I oppressed . . . [but] no human being can drive my cause from the world” he preached in his sermon “The Ascension of Christ.” “Come to the truth,” he continued, “forsake your vice and your malice, that I may not have to tell you of your grief. I say it to you, O Italy, I say it to you, O Rome, I say it to all of you: return and do penance . . . . Wait not until the blows fall.”10
As his career progressed, he grew more and more frustrated and openly hostile toward the hypocrisy and great evil in the court of Pope Alexander VI, whose papal reign contained such an outrageous catalog of scandalous sexual sins that they continue to shock contemporary audiences on the HBO show The Borgias. So when Savonarola saw that an opportunity lay in wait for Florence, which had already surpassed Rome in many ways by the fifteenth century, a complete religious transformation for the city became his ultimate goal. Bringing a religious revolution to the city of Florence “was the object of all his actions,” Ridolfi argues. “The results Savonarola obtained were amazing: the splendid but corrupt Renaissance capital, thus miraculously transformed, seemed to a contemporary to be a foretaste of paradise.”11
Interestingly, the Florentines enjoyed greater economic freedom during the short reign of Savonarola and his forces than under the powerful banker Lorenzo Medici. His efforts appealed to the merchant class as well as the poorer, working classes. The Online Library of Liberty, a project of Liberty Fund, explains the complicated changes quite simply: “Savonarola reformed the tax base of Florence to eliminate all but a broad-based land tax. This freed the merchant class from previously high levies and reassigned the tax burden to the landowners. In order to help the poorer elements of society, a state loan office was established that offered loans at 5-7 percent, as opposed to rates of up to 30 percent charged by private lenders.”12 But as much as this new Florentine republic benefited from financial improvement, the financial elite were displeased, and the happiness of the citizenry did not last long.
Denied so many of their vices and other forms of entertainment, even the financially placated common people became resentful of Savonarola’s religious restrictions. The monk rebuked them from the same pulpit in the same sermon: “Come here and tell me: what have I done to you? . . . I have spoken the truth to you; I have warned you to choose a virtuous life . . . . But I named no one; I only blamed your vices in general. If you have sinned, be angry with yourselves, not with me. I name none of you, but if the sins I have mentioned are without question yours, then they and not I make you known.”13
But the power of the pulpit could not protect Savonarola for long. Because of his criticism of Pope Alexander VI, his compliance with French rule, and his refusal to stop preaching and cease his religious activism after a papal excommunication, Girolamo Savonarola was arrested, and executed on May 23, 1498.
He knew that resistance was pointless, as the path to martyrdom had been paved ahead of him long before. The Dominican monk from Ferrara knew that violence and power would not be able to bring about the kingdom of God on earth. He stated in his sermon on Christ’s ascension that “the whole world knows that His glory has not been spread by force and weapons, but by poor fishermen.”14 Savonarola knew that the way of God and the way of mankind were at odds with each other in Italy, and without taking up a sword there was little else that he could do in terms of forcibly changing the world in which he lived. It is believed that Niccolò Machiavelli’s adage that “all armed prophets have conquered, and all the unarmed ones have been destroyed” was referring to Girolamo Savonarola when Machiavelli wrote The Prince in 1532. However, the story of Savonarola is not a lesson in the necessity of violence for a successful revolution, but rather a lesson in the dangerous consequences of speaking truth to power.
Savonarola’s death in the public square, the Piazza della Signoria, was a deeply symbolic event. The authorities of Florence hanged and burned the monk, torching his body on a bonfire of their own, but not before the unarmed prophet could make one final gesture of liberty.
Early-twentieth-century historian Elbert Hubbard explained Savonarola’s final moments as he faced a painful death at the hands of the people who had followed him. “Scarcely had the executioner upon the platform slid down the ladders,” Hubbard wrote, “than the . . . flames shot heavenward. . . . The smoke soon covered [his body] from view. Then suddenly there came a gust of wind that parted the smoke and flames, and the staring mob” was silent.
Swinging from the gallows, now visible to the crowd, was the nearly dead monk, Girolamo Savonarola, a tortured body with a steadfast soul.
Hubbard concluded that the people “saw that the fire had burned the thongs that bound the arms of Savonarola. One hand was uplifted in blessing and benediction.”
7 Grenville Kleiser, ed., The World’s Great Sermons: Basil to Calvin (New York: Funk and Wagnalls Co., 1908), vol. 1.
9 Johan Peter Kirsch, “Girolamo Savonarola,” The Catholic Encyclopedia (New York: Robert Appleton Co., 1912), vol. 13. Avaiable online at www.newadvent.org/cathen/13490a.htm.
Author: Martin Surridge
Martin Surridge has a background in teaching English. He is an associate editor of ReligiousLiberty.TV, an independent news Web site. He writes from Calhoun, Georgia.