Decades after St. Bernardino di Siena opened the practice of burning “temptation-inducing” items to turn Catholic adherents back toward the faith, parishioners of Friar Girolamo Savonarola launched one of the largest bonfires of the vanities on February 7, 1497. Set in the capital of the Italian Renaissance, Florence, historians wonder to this day what priceless works of art or literature may have been destroyed as “frivolous, sinful pursuits.”
Throughout the 1400s, the cities of Europe engaged in a slow process of awakening from the Middle Ages. New ideas blossomed all over the continent, led predominantly by Italian scholars interested in ancient Latin works and artists experimenting with more realistic styles of painting and drawing. Fueled by investment from the Medici family, and particularly patriarch Lorenzo, the best painters and sculptors in Italy received commissions that brought them to Florence. (It certainly helped that Leonardo da Vinci, Sandro Botticelli and Michaelangelo Buonarroti were all born nearby.)
The development of new schools of thought, such as humanism, and advancements in printing technology opened the Roman Catholic Church to critique it had never experienced before. Determined to keep Christianity at the center of the average person’s life, a number of priests delivered sermons denouncing the new “distractions” that encouraged sin.
Franciscan missionary Bernardino gained a reputation for particularly anger-filled calls to shed these “heresies” while traveling through the Italian countryside for more than three decades until his death in 1444. His sermons often ended with piles of cosmetics, evening gowns and books burning where he preached in city squares, “bonfires of the vanities” to purify the hearts of his listeners.
Over the next five decades, these items remained the target of ascetic preachers as a cause for the calamities facing the Church, such as the advance of Ottoman armies into Europe from Mehmed II’s seizure of Constantinople in 1453. Caught up in religious fervor, crowds burned almost anything they could get their hands on — Botticelli is even said to have tossed his own works based on Greek mythology into the flames as a symbol of his dedication.
In the early 1480s, Savonarola arrived in Florence at the height of Lorenzo’s power. Angered by what he perceived as the Church falling away, he made copious notes in his journals regarding reasons Catholics deserved to punished. After three to four years speaking in various parishes about the need for his fellow believers to repent and turn back to piety, Savonarola returned to Florence in the spring of 1490.
Stationed once again at the Convent of San Marco, the Dominican friar unleashed pointed criticisms of the power brokers in Florence, creating apocalyptic visions built on the tortures earned for their sins. Decrying the wealthy for ignoring the poor and sick, he soon turned his ire on the clergy. To Savonarola, they above all should have done more to redress such inequality. Instead, they were motivated by the lavish lifestyle afforded to bishops and cardinals.
When King Charles VIII of France attacked Italy in 1494, many of his followers took it as confirmation the end was truly at hand. Buoyed by growing support, Savonarola gained wider political influence as the decade moved on. New statutes defining appropriate clothing for men and women were created, as well as prohibitions against homosexuality, drunkenness and “moral transgressions” as determined by him and his supporters. Bonfires of the vanities became more common, usually after a procession through the city during which the crowd would sing righteous hymns composed as a counterbalance to the scandalous tunes sung when the now-dead Lorenzo ruled the city.
On February 7, 1497, it seemed as if all was going according to plan. As part of the Mardi Gras festival leading into the Lenten season, Savonarola’s followers torched thousands of masterpieces of art and literature in the streets of Florence, ridding themselves of the temptation to have their attention drawn toward such idols before the holiest season in the Catholic faith.
In Rome, Pope Alexander VI was furious. Stinging from the Florentine refusal to participate in the wars against Charles, he placed blame on Savonarola and engaged in a lengthy correspondence with the popular friar. Banned from preaching by Alexander himself at some point in late 1495, Savonarola had re-entered the spotlight as his influence waned. The February 7th bonfire was the last straw. Three months later, Alexander excommunicated Savonarola and ordered the Florentines to throw him out of the city or face punishment by the Church.
Following intense discussion by officials about his fate, Savonarola withdrew from public appearances in March 1498 and composed his most famous work, The Triumph of the Cross. In May, after a contentious debate with Franciscan priests about his claims, Savonarola and two fellow friars were arrested and tortured to extract confessions of heresy. Hanged in the main square of Florence on May 23, 1498, his remains were burned — much like the books and paintings he detested so much.
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