Part One: And Jewish Abravanel
Damien F. Mackey
Savonarola bears some uncanny likenesses to the Jewish Abravanel,
both of these also sharing similarities with the ancient Jewish prophet Jeremiah.
Such can be the similarities in these cases that it would almost seem as if the biblical prophet Jeremiah (c. 600 BC) has been ghostly projected to the 1400’s AD in the form of the generic Jeremiah-like Jew, “Don Isaac ben Judah Abravanel”, who in turn can remind one of the Italian, Savonarola (1452-1498 AD).
The prophet Jeremiah appears not to have received a full martyrdom (despite the tradition that he was murdered – stoned to death, or poisoned), though he did suffer beating, imprisonment and near death in a cistern. The sorely-tried Jeremiah did experience many ‘martyrdoms’, however, and The Jerome Biblical Commentary (19:98) actually designates the substantial block of Jeremiah 36:1-45:5, as the “Martyrdom of Jeremiah”.
Savonarola was, for his part “a martyr of preaching”.
The name Girolamo (Savonarola) is just the Italianised version of Jerome, which is like Jeremiah. He, in fact, is often called Jerome Savonarola.
Now, Savonarola is thought to have had a Jewish contemporary, Abravanel, whose name has some similarity to the Italian name of Savonarola. The full name of this very Jeremiah-like Jew was “Don Isaac ben Judah Abravanel”.
A Jeremiah Type
The fiery Renaissance preacher, a Dominican friar, Fra Girolamo, pronouncing doom upon Florence, is a Jeremiah type, ‘coming in the spirit of Jeremiah’.
Commentators have readily noticed this. One has only to read, for instance, Savonarola’s purely Jeremian words (as taken from Jonathan Kirsch’s A History of the End of the World, Harper, 2006, p. 98):
I have sometimes thought, as I came down from the pulpit, that it would be better if I talked no more and preached no more about these things – better to give up and leave it all to God …. But whenever I went up into the pulpit again, I was unable to contain myself. To speak the Lord’s words has been for me a burning fire within my bones and my heart. It was unbearable. I could not speak. I was on fire. I was alight with the spirit of the Lord.
The prophet Jeremiah had sais almost identically (Jeremiah 20:9): “If I say, ‘I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,’ then within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot’.”
Just as striking are T. Cheyne’s comparisons between Jeremiah and Savonarola, in whom, he writes, “several of the old Hebrew prophets seemed united” (Jeremiah: His Life and Times, Google Books, pp. 203-205, emphasis added):
PER CRUCEM AD LUCEM
… I would rather compare Jeremiah with one who was mighty both in words and in deeds (Acts vii. 22), and whom a sympathetic poetess has painted perhaps more truly than her sister-artist in prose.’
Need I mention his name?
“This was he, Savonarola, who, while Peter sank With his whole boat-load, cried courageously, ‘Wake, Christ; wake, Christ!’ Who also by a princely deathbed cried, ‘Loose Florence, or God will not loose thy soul!’ Then fell back the Magnificent and died Beneath the star-look shooting from the cowl, Which turned to wormwood-bitterness the wide Deep sea of his ambitions”.
I admit that Jeremiah had not the hopefulness described in the opening lines; Jerusalem was a less promising field of work than, with all its faults, Florence was in the age of Lorenzo. But do not the closing lines give almost a reflexion of Jeremiah’s attitude towards Jehoiakim [king of Jerusalem]? Savonarola had, I suppose, a richer nature than Jeremiah. In him several of the old Hebrew prophets seemed united. He had the scathing indignation of Amos, and the versatility of Isaiah, as well as the tenderness of Jeremiah. He differs most from the latter in two respects in his emphatic reassertion of the principle of theocratic legislation, and in his ultra-supernaturalistic theory of prophecy, which disturbed the simplicity of his faith in his own inspiration. Again and again, however, in his latter days, his preaching reminds us of Jeremiah’s. “Your sins,” he cries to the Florentines, “make me a prophet. . . . And if ye will not hear my words, I say unto you that I will be the prophet Jeremiah, who foretold the destruction of Jerusalem, and bewailed it when destroyed.” Like Jeremiah, he had many a sore inward struggle; “an inward fire,” he says, “consumeth my bones (comp. Jer. xx. 9), and compelleth me to speak.” Like Jeremiah, he was no respecter of persons; he fought bravely, and outwardly at least was defeated. Like Jeremiah, he foresaw the end of the struggle. “If you ask me in general” so he said, shortly before he was burned at the stake, in the convent-church of St. Mark’s “as to the issue of this struggle, I reply, Victory. If you ask me in a particular sense, I reply, Death. For the master who wields the hammer, when he has used it, throws it away. So He did with Jeremiah, whom He caused to be stoned at the end of his ministry. But Rome will not put out this fire, and if this be put out, God will light another, and indeed it is already lighted everywhere, only they perceive it not.”
It was winter both in Jeremiah’s time and in Savonarola’s. Which was the more favoured of these two heralds of spring? I think, Jeremiah, because his prophecy of spring was fulfilled, after a brief interval, to his own people. ….
[End of quote]
And indeed there does seem to be a distinct Jewish-Israelitish connection with Savonarola (who some even suspect was Jewish). It is with his Jewish contemporary, Abravanel, who can be somewhat like a ghostly projection of the real Jeremiah. Thus Benzion Netanyahu asks (in Don Isaac Abravanel: Statesman and Philosopher?, Cornell University Press, 5th edition, 1998, as quoted by Mor Altshuler at Haaretz.com Wed, January 19, 2011 Shvat 14, 5771. Emphasis added):
How did [Abravanel] this Jewish version of Savonarola, the fundamentalist monk who prophesied the fall of corrupt Rome-Babylonia, come up with the format for a democratic, constitutional Jewish state hundreds of years before one was established? Netanyahu believes he took his cue from the Venetian republic, which had democratic components not often seen in those days. Perhaps throwing off the yoke of this world made it easier for him to offer Europe in general, and the Jews in particular, an improved model of government that would only come into being centuries later. ….
[End of quote]
Netanyahu has even more to say about Savonarola as a veritable mirror-image of Abravanel. According to Todd Endelman (Comparing Jewish Societies, p. 85, n. 36, emphasis added:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Isaac_Abrabanel”): “Netanyahu notes the parallels between the prophecies of Savonarola and Abravanel. Often the only substantial difference is that one [Savonarola] is referring to the Florentines and Florence, while the other [Abravanel] is referring to the Jews and Jerusalem”.
Abravanel, then, is the prophet to the Jews, whilst Savonarola is a prophet to the Florentines. Hence Abravanel is the more accurate version of Jeremiah than is Savonarola because he, like Jeremiah, was an Israelite preaching to the Jews, and he was not physically martyred; whereas with Savonarola, a Catholic, he preached largely to the Catholics of Florence, with his life terminating in a real martyrdom.
But it is remarkable how closely the names accord: ‘Savonarola’ and ‘Abravanel’ (whose variants are Abrabanel, Abarbanel, Barbonel). He was a “Portuguese Jewish statesman, philosopher, Bible commentator, and financier of Lisbon and Venice” – belonging to a famous family of the time that claimed to trace its roots back to King David of the tribe of Judah.
The name ‘Isaac ben Judah Abravanel’ reads like (to me) a kind of generic Hebrew name, with the latter part, Abravanel, comprising Ab (father) Rabban (priest) and El (God). It may even be some sort of a title, since he is “commonly referred to as The Abarbanel”.
By de-Italianising the name, ‘Savonarola’, converting the ‘v’ to a ‘b’ and the ‘arola’ ending to a more Hebrew ‘arel’, we get Sabonarel, somewhat like Barbonel (Abravanel).
Due to lack of available data on the Jews of this time, a researcher such as Benzion Netanyahu has to attempt to tie together various disparate threads. Altshuler (op. cit.) tells of the difficulties here, where “Netanyahu takes advantage of the fact that he is a biographer, and hence endowed with hindsight”:
…. Jewish historical research is short on biographies despite their importance for understanding the spirit of the times, possibly because shifting attention from a person’s work to his private life was perceived as presumptuous in Jewish tradition. Source material from which one can assemble a solid picture of the lives of great Jews is rare. Benzion Netanyahu grappled with this paucity of Jewish sources by plumbing the archives of the European monarchies under which Abravanel lived, from documents on the Inquisition to the correspondence of Christian scholars. The outcome is a comprehensive, two-part biography divided into sections on Abravanel’s life with the expulsion of the Jews from Spain and the annihilation of Jewish life in the Iberian Peninsula, and the evolution of Abravanel’s thinking. Combining these elements in one book allows Netanyahu to examine the relationship between the events of the time and Abravanel’s spiritual outlook. The conclusion he comes to is that Abravanel, in the face of this cruel and senseless expulsion, began to despair whether the world would ever operate in a logical and just manner. This despair led him to give up his rationalist approach to history and to base his political theories on messianic theocracy, launching the age of Jewish messianism and heralding European utopianism. Useless fire and brimstone. In the same way that Don Isaac Abravanel was an admirer of Maimonides, but had no qualms about exposing flaws in his thinking, Netanyahu lauds Abravanel’s greatness but is not afraid to point out his weaknesses. As a leader of Spanish Jewry, he failed in his primary mission: alerting the Jews to the fact that expulsion was imminent and that a safe haven should be sought elsewhere, perhaps in the Ottoman Empire, which Abravanel, as a diplomat, knew was more tolerant. Abravanel’s nonchalance proved tragic. ….
[End of quote]
The key phrase in the above is (I think) “the evolution of Abravanel’s thinking”.
Of Jeremiah it could largely be said, as Netanyahu writes of Abravanel, that he, “in the face of this cruel and senseless [he did warn of it, though] expulsion, began to despair whether the world would ever operate in a logical and just manner. This despair led him to give up his rationalist approach to history and to base his political theories on messianic theocracy, launching the age of Jewish messianism and heralding European [read Jewish] utopianism”. This could be considered an ‘evolution’ of Jeremiah’s thinking.
Abravanel also suffered a tri-part loss like the prophet Job (op. cit.):
…. Don Isaac Abravanel was born in 1437 to a wealthy and influential Jewish family in Spain that traced its ancestry back to King David. ….
…. [Abravanel] lost everything he had three times in a row − once when he fled to Portugal after his father converted to Christianity and the family went bankrupt; a second time in 1482, when he was accused of participating in a conspiracy of Portuguese nobles seeking to overthrow Juan II and was forced to take refuge in Spain; and a third time, in 1492, when the Jews were expelled from Spain.
The prophet Job, too, like Abravanel, had famously suffered three catastrophic losses ‘in a row’ (Job 1:13-19).
…. Thanks to his diplomatic and financial skills, [Abravanel] managed to recover each time. Latin, Portuguese, Castilian and Hebrew − he spoke them all fluently. He was a Jewish scholar, an expert in philosophy, including the works of Aristotle and the Arab philosophers Ibn Rushd and Ibn Sina − and knowledgeable in the sciences of his time − magic, medicine and astrology. His biblical exegesis put him on par with Rashi and the Ramban. His ability to spot contradictions in the writings of Maimonides led Rabbi Samuel David Luzzatto (Shadal) to describe him as the conqueror of the Jewish Aristotelians. As the author of a messianist trilogy, the historian Zeev Aescoly called him “the greatest codifier of messianism in his day”. If there was any Jew toward the end of the medieval period and the beginning of the modern period who deserved a royal title, it was Don Isaac Abravanel. ….
But what we also find is that Abravanel’s writings also greatly influenced Christians [certainly the case with the biblical prophet Jeremiah]. Wikipedia again:
…. Christian scholars appreciated the convenience of Abravanel’s commentaries, and often used them when preparing their own exegetical writing. This may have had something to do with Abravanel’s openness towards the Christian religion, since he worked closely with Messianic ideas found within Judaism. Because of this, Abravanel’s works were translated and distributed within the world of Christian scholarship.
His exegetical writings are set against a richly-conceived backdrop of the Jewish historical and sociocultural experience, and it is often implied that his exegesis was sculpted with the purpose of giving hope to the Jews of Spain that the arrival of the Messiah was imminent in their days. This idea distinguished him from many other philosophers of the age, who did not rely as heavily on Messianic concepts. Due to the overall excellence and exhaustiveness of Abrabanel’s exegetical literature, he was looked to as a beacon for later Christian scholarship, which often included the tasks of translating and condensing his works. ….
[End of quote]
…. Many of the Jews of Spain fled to Portugal, falling into a trap: Juan II closed the borders and forced them to convert. Others were herded onto ships bound for the Mediterranean. Plague epidemics broke out on the overcrowded vessels, which were then refused entry to the ports of Italy. Only in Genoa were the passengers allowed to disembark for a short time, on a dock surrounded by water on three sides. “One might have mistaken them for ghosts”, an eyewitness wrote. “So emaciated they were, so funereal, their eyes sunken in their sockets. They could be taken for dead, if not for the fact that they were still able to move”.
Cf. Lamentations 2:10: “The elders of daughter Zion sit on the ground in silence; they have thrown dust on their heads and put on sackcloth; the young girls of Jerusalem have bowed their heads to the ground”.
2:11-12: “Infants and babies faint on the streets of the city. They cry to their mother, ‘Where is bread and wine?’ As they faint like the wounded in the streets of the city, as their life is poured out on their mothers’ bosom”.
4:7, 8: “Her princes …. Now their visage is blacker than soot; they are not recognized in the streets. Their skin has shriveled on their bones; it has become as dry as wood”.
[Altshuler]: …. By the summer of 1492, in less than three months, the Jews of Spain, whose cultural achievements had been a beacon to the Jewish world for hundreds of years, were wiped out. ….
Netanyahu tells of Abravanel in words that could, in the main, be re-directed back to Jeremiah, but with one needing to replace all of the modern European history references now with ancient Jewish history and the Chaldeans. Thus the invader from across the Alps, Charles VIII of France takes the place of Nebuchednezzar the Chaldean invading from the north; Lorenzo ‘the Magnificent’ reminds (as according to Cheyne above) of king Jehoiakim of Jerusalem. Allow me to supply the parallels, of Abravanel, with both Jeremiah and with Savonarola:
…. Jews dwell securely in all the countries of Spain, feasting on delicacies in peace and tranquility.
(Jeremiah 6:14): “They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying “Peace, peace”, when there is no peace”.
…. The alarm should have sounded with the onset of the pogroms of 1391, which was followed by waves of forced conversion and reached a peak when the Inquisition was established, 11 years before the final expulsion edict. Despite centuries of oppression, the Jews of Spain dismissed the dangers and became hooked on the illusion that the pogroms were a lightening rod that would divert the hatred toward the converts and away from the Jews. ….
(Jeremiah 7:4): “Do not trust in the deceptive words: “This is the Temple of the Lord, the Temple of the Lord, the Temple of the Lord”.
…. It is an intriguing tale about a man who soars high and falls low, who watches helplessly as ships [in Jeremiah’s case, probably carts] laden with Jews sail [roll] off to their deaths, and who hobnobs with princes and dukes in the palaces of Naples and Venice.
Jeremiah mixed with high and low alike.
…. The drama reaches a pinnacle in the final chapters: Abravanel, shattered and depressed by his people’s fate, disgusted with the vanities and temptations of this world, consolidates a pessimistic view of the world as Sodom and Gomorrah, fated to be destroyed in an apocalyptic war.
Cf. Savonarola: “After Charles VIII of France [cf. Nebuchednezzar II the Chaldean] invaded Florence [Jerusalem] in 1494, the ruling Medici were overthrown and Savonarola [like Jeremiah] emerged as the new leader of the city, combining in himself the role of secular leader and priest. He set up a republic in Florence. Characterizing it as a “Christian and religious Republic,” one of its first acts was to make sodomy, previously punishable by fine, into a capital offence. Homosexuality had previously been tolerated in the city, and many homosexuals from the elite now chose to leave Florence. ….
(Jeremiah 23:14): “… the prophets of Jerusalem … all of them have become like Sodom to me, and its inhabitants like Gomorrah”.
(Lamentations 4:6): “For the chastisement of my people has been greater than Sodom”.
…. His belief in the end of history is supported by intricate eschatological calculations proving that sometime between 1501 and 1513, salvation will arrive: An end-of-days war between Christians and Muslims will destroy evil Rome; from beyond the Sambatyon [akin to the Euphrates] River a Jewish army of the Ten Tribes will arise and take revenge on the enemies of Israel; the dead will return to life, and the Messiah, now revealed, will lead the last revolution − the revolution of the Kingdom of Heaven. ….
So did Savonarola foresee a New Jerusalem?: The reward for the self-sacrifice of the Florentines, he promised, would be the elevation of the city of Florence to the stature of the New Jerusalem, a model of Christian purity and the capital of the millennial kingdom.
And Jeremiah?: (Jeremiah 31:31): “The days are surely coming says the Lord, when I will make a New Covenant with the House of Israel and the house of Judah”. (38, 40): “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when the city [of Jerusalem] shall be rebuilt … sacred to the Lord. It shall never again be uprooted or overthrown”
…. This era of geographical exploration and the sense of space conjured up by the New World, which contrasted starkly with the gloomy prospects of the Jews, prompted Abravanel to fantasize about a mythical solution for his persecuted people. In this Jewish theocracy that he predicted would arise at any moment, he envisioned a humane and democratic government in which everyone would have the right to vote; in which the judges would be chosen by the people rather than the king; in which officials would serve the public, not their superiors.
(Jeremiah 33:14-15): “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfil the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land”.
One has to ask why God would so favour the city of Florence of all places, so as to make of it a ‘New Jerusalem’. Jerusalem renewed, yes. Or Rome, the eternal city. These two holy cities. But Florence?
Like Jeremiah, Savonarola was a rather reluctant prophet.
He burned to engage in the work of saving souls, yet shrank for some years from entering on the priestly office. This might be ascribed to his sense of its responsibility and of the high qualifications which it demanded. No preparatory studies, no Church ceremonial, neither Pope nor prelate, he boldly averred, could make a man a priest; personal holiness, in his judgment ….
(Jeremiah 1:6): “Then I said, ‘Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a [Hebrew na’ar, usually translated as] ‘boy’.”.
As a result, Savonarola is always cast as being lambasted for being “ungainly, as well as being a poor orator”. But it was Jeremiah’s actual words that were ridiculed, with his listeners mocking his mantra: ‘Terror on every side’.
Jeremiah also, like Savonarola, had a disdain for both priests and prophets. And so did Abravanel (though supposedly of the Catholic clergy). Thus Netanayahu (Don Isaac Abravanel … p. 323):
An echo of Savonarola’s campaign against official Rome may be heard in the following statement of Abravanel: “All the priests of Rome and her Bishops pursue avarice and bribery and are not concerned with their religion, for the sign of heresy is upon their forehead”. (Salvations, p. 3, 4a).
Now this is again an entirely Jeremian image in relation to Unfaithful Israel (Jeremiah 3:3). “You have the forehead of a whore, you refuse to be ashamed” (the image taken up again later by St. John in Revelation 17:5).
Indeed, Savonarola called the Vatican “…. a house of prostitution where harlots sit upon the throne of Solomon and signal to passersby: whoever can pay enters and does what he wishes”.
But Jeremiah was, like Savonarola, virtually the only good man left, so he had to be chosen. “Search …. If you can find one person who acts justly and seeks truth …” (Jeremiah 5:1).
Savonarola is supposed to have claimed: “It is not the cowl that makes the monk – being not only the highest qualification for that office, but one indispensable and essential”.
This qualification he is thought to have possessed in a pre-eminent degree. In no Church has there been many men so holy. Fra Sebastiano da Brescia, a very devout Dominican, who was vicar of the congregation of Lombardy, and for a long time his confessor, declared his belief that Savonarola had never committed – what he calls – a mortal sin, and bears the highest possible testimony to the purity of his life. …. Perhaps his reluctance arose also from the degraded position into which those who filled it had brought the sacred office. So openly abandoned to vice were most of them at that time, that he was in the habit of saying, “If you wish your son to be a wicked man, make him a priest !” ….
Savonarola, like Jeremiah, would suffer greatly for this: “Little did this gentle spirit, lover of peace as of purity, dream, as he entered the gates of the monastery, of a day when he would exclaim with Jeremiah, “Woe is me, my mother, that thou hast borne me a man of strife, a man of contention to the whole earth!” [a reference to Jeremiah 15:10]. But so it turned out”.
One could do worse than to view, in a Jeremian context, the apocalyptical warnings of Abravanel and Savonarola and their denunciations of the rulers and the clergy.
Savonarola’s stance against morally corrupt clergy was initially manifested in his poem on the destruction of the world entitled De Ruina Mundi (On the Downfall of the World), written at the age of 20. It was at this stage that he also began to develop his expression of moral conscience, and in 1475 his poem De Ruina Ecclesiae (On the Downfall of the Church) displayed his contempt for the Roman Curia by terming it ‘a false, proud archaic wench’.
Cf. Jeremiah’s references to Jerusalem and Israel as ‘playing the harlot’ (2:20; 3:1, 6, 8).
Finally in 1482 the Order dispatched him to Florence, the ‘city of his destiny’. He made no impression on Florence in the 1480s [supposedly because he was not a good orator], and his departure in 1487 went unnoticed. He returned to Bologna where he became ‘master of studies’.
Savonarola returned to Florence in 1490 at the behest of Count Pico della Mirandola. There he began to preach passionately about the Last Days ….
(Jeremiah 23:20): “The anger of the Lord will not turn back until he has executed and accomplished the intents of his mind. In the latter days you will understand it clearly”.
Part Two: Candidate for Sainthood?
Savonarola a most controversial holy man.
Jesuits and Dominicans square off anew over Savonarola
BY JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
More than 500 years after being burned at the stake as a heretic, Dominican Friar Girolamo Savonarola — preacher of fiery apocalyptic sermons, de facto ruler of Florence and today a candidate for sainthood — can still stir deep passions.
A public tiff in Italy between members of the Dominicans and the Jesuits over the campaign to canonize Savonarola is the latest proof of his enduring power to divide.
Despite having called the church of his day a “harlot” and a “monster of abomination” — and despite charges of having administered a fundamentalist theocracy in Florence, Italy, analogous to Afghanistan under the Taliban — Savonarola seems a serious candidate for a halo.
Last year  Cardinal Silvano Piovanelli of Florence convened a historical commission in conjunction with the 500th anniversary of Savonarola’s death. Italian media accounts suggest the commission is likely to issue a positive report, which could clear the way for an investigation by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints.
This past summer L’Osservatore Romano, the official newspaper of the Vatican, paid tribute to Savonarola. The paper called him “a tireless preacher for moral reform of civil society.”
But Savonarola still has influential detractors — the most visible of whom happen to be Jesuits, the old rivals of the monk’s Dominican order.
An editorial in the 1999 New Year issue of the influential Jesuit journal La Civiltà Cattolica said that “an indiscriminate revisionist spirit” was at work in the effort to rehabilitate the controversial monk.
He was a “contradictory man who inspired opposing passions,” the magazine said. He was capable of “deceit.” It is “probably impossible to give a definitive opinion” about him, the article concluded — strongly hinting that the requisite certainty of Savonarola’s holiness could not be found.
In an interview with an English journalist, Jesuit Fr. Ferdinando Castelli, a writer for La Civiltà Cattolica, was more direct. “He rebelled against ecclesiastical authority,” he said of Savonarola. “We do not believe that he was a religious man worthy of sanctification,” Castelli told London’s Daily Telegraph on Jan. 7.
Meanwhile the Italian newspaper La Stampa quoted a Dominican member of the historical commission in Florence on Jan. 2 as saying that it might be the Jesuits who are “deceived.”
“Savonarola was not a heretic but was burnt for his obstinate fidelity to the gospel,” Fr. Tito Centi said. “He stood against the atrocious agents of Alexander VI, who inflicted every type of persecution on the friar in order to remove him, even unto death.”
“The Jesuits have been anti-Savonarola from the foundations of their order,” Centi said, referring to Ignatius of Loyola’s insistence that Savonarola’s works be burned. Ignatius saw Savonarola as an enemy of the papacy.
The work of the historical commission to date has shown that “the old suspicions of the Jesuits are totally unfounded,” Centi told La Stampa. “These charges repeated over the centuries can be discounted, though they are disagreeable because they come from brothers in the faith.”
Centi’s criticism was echoed by Professor Claudio Leonardi, a Florentine advocate of Savonarola, who also spoke to the Daily Telegraph. “Whoever wrote the [La Civiltà Cattolica] article … has never read the works of Savonarola and was influenced more by subjective considerations than historic reality,” he said.
Such divided opinions reflect the complexities of Savonarola’s life and legacy. From 1494-1498, Savonarola’s followers controlled Florence after they chased out the successor to Lorenzo (de Medici) the Magnificent. During those four years the city was rocked by running clashes between the pro- and anti-Savonarola factions.
Savonarola captured hearts as a preacher. His powerful apocalyptic visions warned that God would soon scour the world and that Florence, God’s chosen city, had better be ready. Contemporaries speak of the spellbinding power of these sermons; Savonarola’s followers were called piagnoni, or weepers, because he so often moved them to tears.
As evidence of his powerful charisma, Savonarola managed to convince the highly humanistic Florentines to surrender their mirrors, dice, cards, cosmetics and nude paintings and burn them all in the Piazza di Signoria in a towering bonfire of the vanities. He also demanded repression of homosexuals. It is these aspects of his reign that have led to comparisons with the Taliban or to Iran under the ayatollahs.
But Savonarola was also an early democrat, pushing for the creation of a citizen’s council that would form city policy.
He was also a friend to the poor. Under Savonarola, the city created a building society that offered loans at rates well below what was demanded by Florence’s private bankers — 5 to 7 percent, as opposed to the 32.5 percent that had been standard practice under the de Medicis. One of the charges that led to Savonarola’s downfall was that he impoverished the city by refusing to ever turn away a beggar.
He also patronized the famous painters of his day. Michelangelo would later say that when he painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, it was the sermons of Savonarola he heard in his mind.
Savanarola was a fierce critic of ecclesiastical corruption, and this is perhaps the most contested aspect of his legacy for those proposing to canonize him. He referred to Alexander VI as a “broken tool,” accusing the pope of practicing simony and of dubious personal morality. He defied the pope by aligning Florence with the French king, Charles, rather than the “Holy Alliance” of Italian city-states championed by Alexander. Toward the end, Savonarola called for a church council that would depose Alexander.
There was never serious question about Savonarola’s doctrine — his chief theological work, The Triumph of the Cross, is widely viewed as orthodox. In 1558, Pope Paul IV — who had served in the court of Alexander VI — said that Savonarola was not a heretic. The question for examiners today is not doctrinal but disciplinary: whether Savonarola defied the authority of the pope in impermissible fashion.
In English the name of Savonarola may be synonymous with religious fanaticism, but many Italians, and Florentines in particular, have a different image.
In an age of corruption, Savonarola represented honest government, making him something of a patron for the current Italian drive to break the grip of cronyism and political patronage that has long dominated their politics.
In a move laden with symbolism, prosecutor Gherardo Colombo took part in a ceremony in Florence on May 23, 1998, marking the anniversary of Savonarola’s death. Colombo is a key figure in Italy’s “clean hands” anti-graft campaign.
Popular with reformers
Savonarola also defended rule by the people against the feudal dynasties and papal politics that for centuries impeded Italian nationalism. As an ecclesial dissenter, Savonarola is popular among today’s Catholics who believe the church could stand some reform.
There are even those who argue that had the Renaissance papacy been a bit more open to Savonarola’s critique, the church might have been spared the agony of the Protestant Reformation.
Whatever the case, Savonarola’s most ardent supporters seem unlikely to be discouraged by anything historical research might uncover. He was a “man of faith who loved Jesus Christ,” according to Dominican Fr. Armando Verde in the International Herald Tribune. Savonarola may have made compromises in the rough-and-tumble of Florentine politics, Verde said, “but on the ethical and spiritual level, absolutely never.”
National Catholic Reporter, January 22, 1999
Such fiery preaching was not uncommon at the time, but a series of circumstances quickly brought Savonarola great success. The first disaster to give credibility to Savonarola’s apocalyptic message was the Medici family’s weakening grip on power owing to the French-Italian wars.
In Jeremiah’s age, the troubles began firstly with the Egyptians and then the Chaldeans.
The flowering of expensive Renaissance art and culture paid for by wealthy Italian families now seemed to mock the growing misery in Italy, creating a backlash of resentment among the people.
The second disaster was the appearance of syphilis (or the “French pox”). Finally, the year 1500 was approaching, which may have brought about a mood of millennialism. In minds of many, the Last Days were impending and Savonarola was the prophet of the day. His parish church in San Marco was crowded to over-flowing during his celebration of Mass and at his sermons. Savonarola was a preacher, not a theologian. He preached that Christian life involved being good and practicing the virtues. He did not seek to create a religious group separate from the Catholic Church. Rather, he wanted to correct the transgressions of worldly popes and secularized members of the Church’s wayward Curia. Lorenzo de Medici, the previous ruler of Florence and patron of many Renaissance artists, was also a former patron of Savonarola. Eventually, Lorenzo and his son Piero de Medici became targets of Savonarola’s preaching.
[End of quote]
Now, continuing on from Part One:
Leader of Florence
In 1497, he and his followers carried out the Bonfire of the Vanities. They sent boys from door to door collecting items associated with moral laxity: mirrors, cosmetics, lewd pictures, pagan books, immoral sculptures (which he wanted to be replaced by statues of the saints and modest depictions of biblical scenes), gaming tables, chess pieces, lutes and other musical instruments, fine dresses, women’s hats, and the works of immoral and ancient poets, and burnt them all in a large pile in the Piazza della Signoria of Florence. Many fine Florentine Renaissance artworks were lost in Savonarola’s notorious bonfires — including paintings by Sandro Botticelli, which he is alleged to have thrown into the fires himself.
Cf. e.g. Jeremiah 6:27-30 (testing with fire):
‘I have made you a tester of metals among my people,
that you may know and test their ways.
They are all stubbornly rebellious,
fgoing about with slanders;
they are bronze and iron;
all of them act corruptly.
The bellows blow fiercely;
the lead is consumed by the fire;
in vain the refining goes on,
for the wicked are not removed.
Rejected silver they are called,
for the Lord has rejected them’.
Florence soon became tired of Savonarola because of the city’s continual political and economic miseries partially derived from Savonarola’s opposition to trading and making money. When a Franciscan preacher challenged him to a trial by fire in the city centre and he declined, his following began to dissipate.
During his Ascension Day sermon on May 4, 1497, bands of youths rioted, and the riot became a revolt: dancing and singing taverns reopened, and men again dared to gamble publicly.
Cf. e.g. Jeremiah 16:8-13:
‘And do not enter a house where there is feasting and sit down to eat and drink. For this is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: Before your eyes and in your days I will bring an end to the sounds of joy and gladness and to the voices of bride and bridegroom in this place. When you tell these people all this and they ask you, ‘Why has the Lord decreed such a great disaster against us? What wrong have we done? What sin have we committed against the Lord our God?’ then say to them, ‘It is because your ancestors forsook me,’ declares the Lord, ‘and followed other gods and served and worshiped them. They forsook me and did not keep my law. But you have behaved more wickedly than your ancestors. See how all of you are following the stubbornness of your evil hearts instead of obeying me. So I will throw you out of this land into a land neither you nor your ancestors have known, and there you will serve other gods day and night, for I will show you no favor.’
Excommunication and execution
On May 13, 1497, the rigorous Father Savonarola was excommunicated by Pope Alexander VI, and in 1498, Alexander demanded his arrest and execution.
Cf. e.g. Jeremiah 20:1-3:
Now Pashhur the priest, the son of Immer, who was chief officer in the house of the Lord, heard Jeremiah prophesying these things. Then Pashhur beat Jeremiah the prophet, and put him in the stocks that were in the upper Benjamin Gate of the house of the Lord. The next day, when Pashhur released Jeremiah from the stocks, Jeremiah said to him, ‘The Lord does not call your name Pashhur, but Terror on Every Side’.
On April 8, a crowd attacked the Convent of San Marco. A bloody struggle ensued, during which several of Savonarola’s guards and religious supporters were killed. Savonarola surrendered along with Fra Domenico da Pescia and Fra Silvestro, his two closest associates. Savonarola was faced with charges such as heresy, uttering prophecies, sedition, and other crimes, called religious errors by the Borgia pope. During the next few weeks all three were tortured on the rack, the torturers sparing only Savonarola’s right arm in order that he might be able to sign his confession. All three signed confessions, Savonarola doing so sometime prior to May 8. On that day he completed a written meditation on the Miserere mei, Psalm 50, entitled Infelix ego, in which he pleaded with God for mercy for his physical weakness in confessing to crimes he believed he did not commit. On the day of his execution, May 23, 1498, he was still working on another meditation, this one on Psalm 31, entitled Tristitia obsedit me. On the day of his execution he was taken out to the Piazza della Signoria along with Fra Silvestro and Fra Domenico da Pescia. The three were ritually stripped of their clerical vestments, degraded as “heretics and schismatics”, and given over to the secular authorities to be burned. The three were hanged in chains from a single cross and an enormous fire was lit beneath them. They were thereby executed in the same place where the “Bonfire of the Vanities” had been lit, and in the same manner that Savonarola had condemned other criminals himself during his own reign in Florence. Jacopo Nardi, who recorded the incident in his Istorie della città di Firenze, wrote that his executioner lit the flame exclaiming, “The one who wanted to burn me is now himself put to the flames.” Luca Landucci, who was present, wrote in his diary that the burning took several hours, and that the remains were several times broken apart and mixed with brushwood so that not the slightest piece could be later recovered, as the ecclesiastical authorities did not want Savonarola’s followers to have any relics for a future generation of the rigorist preacher they considered a saint. The ashes of the three were afterwards thrown in the Arno beside the Ponte Vecchio.
Niccolò Machiavelli, author of The Prince, also witnessed and wrote about the execution. Subsequently, Florence was governed along more traditional republican lines, until the return of the Medici in 1512. ….
According to J. Kirsch (A History of the End of the World, Harper, 2006, pp. 166-169):
…. So it was that a sermonizer might seek to set his audience afire with terrors [cf. Jeremiah’s mantra: ‘Terror on Every Side’] and yearnings and end up in the flames of his own making. Such was the fate of a man who has been called “a martyr of prophecy,” Girolamo Savonarola (1452-1498), perhaps the single most famous (or notorious)  of the apocalyptic radicals. …. Florence was destined to be the New Jerusalem, or so Savonarola believed and preached, and he saw it as his divine mission to make it so. At a moment in history when Europe was afflicted by “presages, phantoms and astrological conjunctions of dreadful import,” as one contemporary chronicler put it, the Florentines were a ready and willing audience.”
Kirsch now proceeds to liken Savonarola to the author of the Book of Revelation, a book whose obscure “symbols” another author, Larry Richards (The Book of Revelation: https://books.google.com.au/books?id=-eKuoIruSJQC&pg=PR88&lpg=PR88&dq=p) will endeavour to interpret from the Book of Jeremiah:
Like the author of Revelation, Savonarola was a self-appointed soldier in a culture war.
The Dominican friar detested what he called “the perversities and the extreme evil of these blind peoples amongst whom virtue is reduced to zero and vice triumphs on every hand”… – that is, the worldly ways of life and art that are seen today as the glory of the Renaissance. And, just as John denounced the pleasures and treasures of Roman [sic] paganism (“Cargo of gold, silver, jewels and pearls, fine linen, purple, silk and scarlet …”) … Savonarola condemned the opulent lives of the Roman Catholic clergy. “You have been to Rome,” he declared. “Well, then, you must know something of the lives of these priests. They have courtesans, squires, horses, dogs. [Cf. e.g. Jeremiah 3:2: “You have defiled the land with your prostitution and wickedness”]. Their houses are filled with carpets, silks, perfumes, servants. Their pride fills the world. Their avarice matches their pride. All they do, they do for money.” …. [Cf. e.g. Jeremiah 48:29: “… exceeding proud … loftiness … and … arrogancy … and … pride, and … haughtiness of … heart”].
Savonarola, again like the author of Revelation, was a gifted and powerful preacher, and his sermons “ignited a fireball of religious panic that heated even the city’s most urbane minds,” according to cultural historian Robin Barnes. …. His public lectures on the book of Revelation were so popular, in fact, that he was forced to move to ever-larger quarters in order to accommodate the crowds. They took to heart his warning that the end of the world was near: “torrents of blood,” “a terrible famine,” and “a fierce pestilence” awaited the sinners. …. And they surely thrilled at the sight of a seer in action: “My reasons for announcing these scourges and calamities are founded on the Word of God,” ranted Savonarola in one of his white-hot sermons. “1 have seen a sign in the heavens. Not a cross this time, but a sword. It’s the Lord’s terrible swift sword which will strike the earth!” [Cf. e.g. Jeremiah 14:12: ‘I am going to make an end of them by the sword, famine and pestilence’]. …. [Jeremiah has many references to the sword of slaughter (2:30; 4:10; 5:12; 9:16; 12:12, etc, etc)].
Above all, Savonarola commanded his congregation to forgo the pleasures of the flesh in anticipation of the Day of Judgment. “Sodomy is Florence’s besetting sin,” declared Savonarola, who complained that “a young boy cannot walk in the streets without of falling into evil hands.”‘ …. But he was no less punishing when it came to the sexual excesses of women, real  or imagined. “Big flabby hunks of fat you are with your dyed hair, your high-rouged cheeks and eyelids smeared with charcoal,” he railed. “Your perfumes poison the air of our streets and parks. Not content with being the concubines of laymen and debauching young boys, you are running after priests and monks in order to catch them in your nets and involve them in your filthy intrigues.” [Cf. e.g. Jeremiah 4:30: “What are you doing, you devastated one? Why dress yourself in scarlet and put on jewels of gold? Why highlight your eyes with makeup? You adorn yourself in vain. Your lovers despise you; they want to kill you”].
…. And he laid the same charge against the pope and the clergy: “Come here, you blasphemy of a church!” he sermonized, making good use of the catchphrases of Revelation. “Your lust has made of you a brazenfaced whore. [Cf. e.g. Jeremiah 3:3: “… you have the brazen look of a prostitute; you refuse to blush with shame]. Worse than beasts are you, who have made yourself into an unspeakable monster!” …. ‘ ….
“Tell him,” said he to a deputation who, at the instigation of Lorenzo – determined to silence Savonarola by fair means or foul – came urging him to leave Florence, “Tell him that he is the first man in the city, and I am but a poor friar; nevertheless, it is he who has to go from hence, and I who have to stay; tell him that he should repent of his sins, for God has ordained the punishment of him and his.” So it happened, I may remark, not long afterwards when the house of the Medici fell, and the sceptre departed from their hands.
Cf. Jeremiah 21:1-8: “This is the Word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord, when King Zedekiah sent to him Pashhur son of Malchiah and the priest Zephaniah son of Maaseiah, saying, ‘Please inquire of the Lord on our behalf, for King Nebuchedrezzar of Babylon is making war against us …”.
Then Jeremiah said to them: ‘Thus you shall say to Zedekiah: Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel; I am going to turn back the weapons of war that are in your hands and with which you are fighting against the king of Babylon and against the Chaldeans who are besieging you outside the walls; and I will bring them together into the center of this city. I myself will fight against you with outstretched hand and mighty arm, in anger, in fury, and in great wrath. And I will strike down the inhabitants of this city, both human beings and animals; they shall die of a great pestilence. Afterward, says the Lord, I will give King Zedekiah of Judah, and his servants, and the people in this city – those who survive the pestilence, sword, and famine – into the hands of King Nebuchedrezzar of Babylon, into the hands of their enemies, into the hands of those who seek their lives. He shall strike them down with the edge of the sword; he shall not pity them, or spare them, or have compassion”.
Vol. 6, Chapter IX (Cont’d) – 76. Girolamo Savonarola
His message was the prophet’s cry, “Who shall abide the day of His coming and who shall stand when He appeareth?”
I could not endure any longer the wickedness of the blinded peoples of Italy. Virtue I saw despised everywhere and vices exalted and held in honor. With great warmth of heart, I made daily a short prayer to God that He might release me from this vale of tears. ‘Make known to me the way,’ I cried, ‘the way in which I should walk for I lift up my soul unto Thee,’ and God in His infinite mercy showed me the way, unworthy as I am of such distinguishing grace.
The clergy he arraigned for their greed of prebends and gold and their devotion to outer ceremonies rather than to the inner life of the soul.
[Cf. e.g. Jeremiah 22:17): “But your eyes and heart are only on your dishonest gain, for shedding innocent blood, and for practising oppression and violence”.
Portraying the insincerity of the clergy, he said: —
In these days, prelates and preachers are chained to the earth by the love of earthly things. The care of souls is no longer their concern. They are content with the receipt of revenue. The preachers preach to please princes and to be praised by them. They have done worse. They have not only destroyed the Church of God. They have built up a new Church after their own pattern. Go to Rome and see! In the mansions of the great prelates there is no concern save for poetry and the oratorical art. Go thither and see! Thou shalt find them all with the books of the humanities in their hands and telling one another that they can guide mens’ souls by means of Virgil, Horace and Cicero … The prelates of former days had fewer gold mitres and chalices and what few they possessed were broken up and given to relieve the needs of the poor. But our prelates, for the sake of obtaining chalices, will rob the poor of their sole means of support.
Jeremiah 22:13, 14, 17: “Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness, and his upper rooms by injustice; who makes his neighbours work for nothing, and does not give them their wages; who says, “I will build myself a spacious house with large upper rooms”, and who cuts out windows for it, panelling it with cedar, and painting it with vermillion … your eyes and heart are only on your dishonest gain, for shedding innocent blood, and for practising oppression and violence”.
The inscription on the heavenly sword well represents the style of Savonarola’s preaching. It was impulsive, pictorial, eruptive, startling, not judicial and instructive. And yet it made a profound impression on men of different classes. Pico della Mirandola the elder has described its marvellous effect upon himself. On one occasion, when he announced as his text Gen_6:17, “Behold I will bring the flood of waters upon the earth,” Pico said he felt a cold shudder course through him, and his hair, as it were, stand on end.
Cf. e.g. Jeremiah 47:2: “See, waters are rising out of the north and shall become an overflowing torrent; they shall overflow the land and all that fills it, the city and those who live in it”.
Savonarola’s confidence in his divine appointment to be the herald of special communications from above found expression not only from the pulpit but was set forth more calmly in two works, the Manual of Revelations, 1495, and a Dialogue concerning Truth and Prophecy, 1497. The latter tract with a number of Savonarola’s sermons were placed on the Index. In the former, the author declared that for a long time he had by divine inspiration foretold future things but, bearing in mind the Saviour’s words, “Give not that which is holy unto the dogs,” he had practised reserve in such utterances. He expressed his conception of the office committed to him, when he said, “The Lord has put me here and has said to me, ‘I have placed thee as a watchman in the centre of Italy … that thou mayest hear my words and announce them,’” Eze_3:17.
Cf. e.g. Jeremiah 1:18: “And I for my part have made you today a fortified city, an iron pillar, and a bronze wall, against the whole land – against the kings of Judah, its princes, its priests, and the people of the land”.
The question arises whether Savonarola was a genuine prophet or whether he was self-deluded, mistaking for the heated imaginations of his own religious fervor, direct communications from God. Alexander VI. made Savonarola’s “silly declaration of being a prophet” one of the charges against him.
Cf. e.g. Jeremiah 29:27: ‘So now why have you not rebuked Jeremiah … who plays the prophet for you?”
Prior to any further push for canonisation, it may be worthwhile reviewing Savonarola’s legacy regarding the Church, and the papacy, and his supposed anti-culturalism, such as “paintings by Botticelli and books by Petrarch and Boccaccio were also pitched into the flames …”.
And, indeed, much else.