Book Review: Apologetic Writings
by Girolamo Savonarola
translated by M. Michele Mulcahey
I Tatti Renaissance Library
Harvard University Press, 2015
One of the newest entries in the marvelous I Tatti Renaissance Library is the chronicle of a very bad three years; it’s a volume called Apologetic Writings by the insane Renaissance Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola, translated and introduced by the intriguingly-named M. Michele Mulcahey, who rounds off his prefatory remarks with the endearing line, “I would also be remiss not to thank my cat, Luca, whose Latin, I sometimes suspect, is better than mine.”
Little Luca could know all the Latin in the world and still not understand Savonarola, and this pretty blue I Tatti volume, despite giving readers more of the man’s prose than any previous English-language volume, still doesn’t crack the riddle of the lunatic friar who defied precisely the wrong pope.
Savonarola was born, to the city’s eternal shame, in Ferrara in 1452. His grandfather was the court physician to Niccolo d’Este, the curiously sensitive and beloved lord of Ferrara, and from this it might be presumed that young Girolamo would enter into some lucrative profession and rise high in the councils of his home. But no – at age twenty-three, he broke with family custom and tradition, went to Bologna, and became a Dominican friar. He studied and taught for a few years, and in 1482 he actually gave a series of sermons in Florence, the city where he would later meet his destiny. The sermons weren’t a success, mainly because their preacher had a barking Northern accent and no hint of the quality the aborning Renaissance would term sprezzatura. He was duly rotated back to Bologna, and by the time he returned to Florence – in 1490 at the urging of Lorenzo de’ Medici (who himself was being urged by that humanist popinjay, Count Giovanni Pico della Mirandola) – three things had changed about Savonarola: he’d smoothed out his accent, he’d gained formidable speaking prowess, and he’d lost his mind. Anyone who’s familiar with the career of American Pentecostal preacher Jimmy Swaggart will be able to attest that this is a very effective trifecta.
Pico had assured Lorenzo that this was a magnificent figure, someone whose eloquence would do credit to Florence and whose stage presence would really pack ’em in at Lorenzo’s pet Dominican convent, San Marco. And at first, everything went perfectly: Savonarola’s sermons became so popular that in 1491 their venue was changed to nothing less than Florence’s great Duomo, where capacity crowds thronged to listen to the fiery little preacher rail against corrupt churchmen and the lax morals of the age. San Marco quickly voted Savonarola its prior, and he instantly set about doing what every maniac does when he’s given power: legislating morality.
At first it was confined to the inmates of San Marco, but Savonarola had an odd charisma; not only did record numbers of initiates come flocking to take orders, but record numbers of listeners flocked to hear his increasingly splenetic sermons against all the day’s evils. Unfortunately for Lorenzo, it didn’t take long for this hound of God to start biting the hand that fed him – to the frisson of guilty conscience that his audiences could feel every time he lashed into their lavish living, there now was added the scandalous Schadenfreude of hearing his ever more plain-spoken attacks on the Medici themselves.
Lorenzo was first amused, then baffled, then aggrieved (and Pico became very good at the fine courtly art of Changing the Subject). In his peremptory, clueless way, he sensed something was amiss over at the convent, and he tried to fix things in the only way he knew how: he sent bags of money. And Savonarola committed the gravest sin in the Florentine world: he haughtily refused to be bought.
The stage was set for a truly epic confrontation, but it never happened. Instead, Lorenzo died in 1492, and his son and successor, Piero, a good-natured but flighty teen idol with bee-sting lips and perfect hair, was no match for the public juggernaut Savonarola had become, what with his preaching and his prophesying and his now-continuous hints that the Lord had assigned him the role of avenging angel not just for the Medici but for the Papacy as well. And his warnings of God’s impending wrath on the city were helped along considerably when King Charles VIII of France marched into Italy at the head of an enormous army, intent on Sicily but more than willing to bag Florence en route.
The city elders (having given Piero the boot) sent a deposition to meet with Charles, and the mad friar was part of that team. He hailed Charles as everything short of a new Messiah, and it worked: the Valois boob was soon doing whatever Savonarola told him, and that included marching his troops out of Florence in only a few days, as peacefully and amicably as they’d marched in. The Florentines were ecstatic in their gratitude, and from 1494 until 1497, Florence – the glory of humanism, the seat of the new learning – became a theocracy every bit as dank and repressive as anything the radical Muslim world can show today. Bands of Savonarola’s young followers, called fanciulli, accosted people in the streets for having hair that was too long or dress-hems that were too short, and they beat down the doors of private homes to conduct sanctimonious searches for “immorality,” and, most infamously of all, they built towering “bonfires of the vanities,” on which they hurled every “questionable” book and painting and sculpture and script and musical score they could steal. We’ll never know how much of the artistic patrimony of centuries these little fanatics turned to ashes, but we know what the Florentines knew: the name of the man in charge.
Unfortunately for Savonarola, the Pope knew it too. This was Pope Alexander VI, the notorious Rodrigo Borgia, who’d been very much alarmed by the French entry into Italy and in 1495 had set up an alliance of Italian city-states called (what else?) the Holy League as a measure of territorial security. Guess who convinced the grand signories of Florence not to join the League?
The Pope’s initial move was as quiet and silky as a pawn advance on a chessboard. He sent a letter to San Marco, asking Savonarola to come to Rome and share with him these rumored prophecies he’d received from God. Savonarola, very tardily waking up to the fact that he’d been baiting a Borgia prince for the last few years, politely declined, and that’s where this I Tatti volume picks up: in very readable English (with facing-page Latin), Mulcahey gives us the fretful correspondence between the Florentine mullah and the Vicar of Christ on Earth, in which the Pope grows steadily more irritated with the prior, who in turn becomes steadily more strident in his defense of his own actions. Mulcahey tries to be sympathetic in his summaries:
And then comes the claim in which Savonarola should have found not only his best defense but his safety. He emphasizes that everything he has ever preached is to be found in the Gospels and in the teachings of the Church. Even when he foretells future events, there is nothing contrary to the faith, or contrary to good morals, or contrary to natural reason in what he says, and therefore it cannot be condemned.
But of course Savonarola’s defense is a sham on its face; it hardly matters that what he’s preaching can be found in the Gospels if he’s saying he got it straight from the Horse’s mouth – that’s a back-channel communication no self-respecting Renaissance Pope could allow, and Savonarola only made things worse by not only refusing the Papal summons but by offering that most bitter of all pills, an improving book:
I hope, however, that the time will soon come when I may be able to come to Rome with a full explanation of this apostolate of mine, as Your Holiness wishes. But if Your Holiness perhaps desires to be better informed now about the future events I have preached publicly regarding the destruction of Italy and the renewal of the Church, you can understand these things clearly from a little book that I have just sent to be printed; as soon as it has been published I shall give a copy to Your Holiness’ ambassador to send to you.
And even in the middle of making such a patronizing offer, the lunatic couldn’t help but dig his own grave a little deeper, making sure to tell the Pope that the “little book” had to be censored before it was published, since there are things God doesn’t want his friend Girolamo to share with anybody – including anybody at the Vatican:
From it you will learn most fully whatever one could hear from me. Nor have I been permitted to proclaim things other than those contained in it: I have expounded only those things that have been taught before. Those things that should be kept hidden, however, it is not right for me to reveal to any mortal.
Naturally, things got worse. The Pope thundered many bans on the prior preaching and prophesying – indeed, the bulk of this I Tatti volume is taken up with a sparkling translation of Savonarola’s Erasmian Dialogue on the Truth of Prophecy, in which he elaborately defends his right to claim a direct line to God and a direct vision of the future denied to the leader of his faith, “for one should obey God rather than men” (you can almost hear the friar’s unctuous “It’s in Acts, Your Holiness, Chapter 5, verse 29 … here, let me find it for you …”)
There was never any real doubt about who the winner of such a contest would be; the wonder of it is that it lasted as long as it did. The Pope fulminated and grumbled and even tried some ham-handed conciliation, but in 1497 he excommunicated Savonarola and threatened the rulers of Florence with all the trouble the Vatican could make if they didn’t rid him of this turbulent priest.
They did so. They arrested Savonarola, tortured him into recanting, tortured him again when he recanted his recantation, and then, in late May 1498, they pulled and kicked him into the middle of the Piazza della Signoria, stripped him, and hanged him to death over a stacked fire so hot you could toast chestnuts to it two blocks away. The ashes were scattered into the waters of the Arno.
The madness passed. The Florentines went right back to wisecracking and making money, and all those panting fanciulli hit the free weights, traded their sack-cloth for fine velvet-and-hose, and settled down with well-dowered wives and weekend catamites. The city passed out of Medici control, back into it, and then on into history, almost forgetting the insane seasons when it had been the South’s answer to Calvin’s Geneva. Today, hundreds of thousands of tourists to the Piazza every day walk right over the spot where Savonarola’s steaming-hot blood spattered on the pavement, and they give it no more thought than they do last year’s book reviews. The prophet started no schools and founded no philosophies. If he’s remembered at all today, he’s remembered as a crackpot who tried to turn back the tide of the Renaissance and drag the birthplace of the modern world back to the Dark Ages … the quintessential no-win scenario.
In a sense, this I Tatti Apologetic Writings volume is all we really have left of Girolamo Savonarola. And it’s plenty! Good riddance!