Book Review: Death in Florence
by Paul Strathern
Pegasus Books, 2015
The story of at the heart of Death in Florence, the new book by Paul Strathern (whose previous book, The Venetians, had a great deal of lively stuff to recommend it), is a pyrotechnic clash of egomaniacs at the end of the fifteenth century in Florence. The city at the end of the 1400s was under the unofficial but ironclad rule of Lorenzo “The Magnificent” de’ Medici, and its church pulpits were increasingly resounding with the fiery sermons of scratchy-voiced Dominican friar named Savonarola, who preached against Papal corruption but also against, among other things, the worldly luxuries and humanist sponsorships. Death in Florence strikes a knowing note right from the start about this clash of wills; “Lorenzo recognized Savonarola for what he was,” as Strathern pithily puts it, “just as Savonarola did Lorenzo.”
And Lorenzo wasn’t the only enemy Savonarola was making with his calls for frothing asceticism. As Strathern melodramatically puts it:
News of Savonarola’s sermons had angered rulers throughout Italy. They would never have allowed a priest to preach such inflammatory sermons within their own states, and knew that the very airing of such views could only lead to trouble amongst their own citizens. This subversive priest had to be stopped.
Death in Florence actually tips off its old-fashioned penchant for melodrama right there in its title, and as in his earlier books, Strathern here tends to lay it on with a shovel. A good case in point is the highly charged scene in which a dying Lorenzo summons Savonarola to his deathbed and begs him to throw his support behind Lorenzo’s son Piero and the friar agreed. “Yet why should Savonarola agree to support the continuance of Medici rule,” Strathern asks, “when his preachings had been so opposed to it?” The answer? Power, mixed with a Savonarolan pinch of barking insanity:
This was the first clear inclination of Savonarola’s conscious ruthlessness in his pursuit of his theological ambitions. It is possible to view this as unscrupulous, hypocritical or simply pragmatic. Previously Savonarola’s will to impose himself, and his theological vision, on the people of Florence had not strayed from the path of determined righteousness – at least not in his own eyes, and not in any conscious form. Even so, this ruthlessness had certainly expressed itself in an unconscious form. Savonarola was not aware of what drove him to his prophetic visions; he neither questioned them, nor their motive. Here there was no unscrupulousness, no hypocrisy he believed in what he experienced in his mind and saw before his mind’s eye. There seems little doubt that he did indeed ‘see’ his visions, and was utterly sure of their ‘prophecies’. Convinced that they were not his doing, he felt that they came from outside him, and they came with such force – so where else could they have come from, but from God?
After the death of Lorenzo, Savonarola disastrously begins taking a more active role in the actual civic governance of Florence, which puts him in conflict with some of the very dangerous powers amassing around the city. Pope Alexander VI, against whose supposed decadences the friar had railed on many occasions, reached the end of his patience when he came to believe that Savonarola had prevented Florence from joining the Pope’s league of states arranged against the depravations of King Charles of France. The Pope orders Savonarola to stay silent, one of the many things the friar was incapable of doing, and a clash seems inevitable. Strathern paints the mood:
All the indications were that the city was shaping up for a fateful contest, which would have a decisive outcome. And when that day arrived, no one wanted to be on the losing side – Florence being notorious for its violent and vengeful behaviour following the settlement of major political disputes. There was a general air of foreboding about the city, as many sensed what might be in store.
The end of the story is of course well known: Savonarola is arrested, tortured, and finally hanged and burned to death in the Piazza della Signoria in 1498, marking not just the end of his disastrous experiment with theocratic rule but also, as Strathern nicely observes, the end of the Middle Ages in Florence. It’s a familiar story, one that’s been told many times before, but Strathern grounds it in extensive research and tells it with an energy and enthusiasm that’s impossible to resist. He has a knack for investing historical narratives with that kind of energy, and that knack is making each of his new books more satisfying than the one before it.