The Fiery Friar From Ferrara
On May 23rd 1498, Girolamo Savonarola, the prior of the Dominican convent of San Marco, and two of his fellow monks, Domenico Buonvicini and Silvestro Maruffi, were burnt at the stake in Piazza della Signoria, in Florence. A circular granite plaque marks the spot where the execution took place.
Girolamo Savonarola (1452-98), who hailed from the northern city of Ferrara, became the prior of the convent of San Marco in 1491, at the request of Lorenzo de’ Medici. The Dominicans are known as the Order of the Preachers and in Savonarola they had one of their most effective orators. For four years the monk, through the sheer, spell-binding force of his sermons, exercised a powerful hold on the minds and spirits of the Florentine people.
He castigated them for their loose morals and irreligious behaviour, reminding them that the ultimate penalty for their sins was eternal damnation: ‘Repent, O Florence, repent while there is still time. Clothe thyself in the white garments of purification….Behold. The sword has descended. The scourge has fallen. The prophecies are being fulfilled.’
The great humanist scholar, Pico della Mirandola (1463-94), claimed that he could feel the hairs rise on the back of his neck when listening to one of his sermons. Savonarola’s effect on a large section of the population was, indeed, dramatic and an envoy from Mantua reported home that the Florentines ‘were wholly given up to piety’. This, needless to say, was an exaggeration, for opinion in the city was sharply divided. Savonarola’s supporters called themselves the friars, but were referred to derisively by their opponents, as the ‘snivellers’ and the ‘prayer mumblers’.
Savonarola’s greatest opponent was Pope Alexander VI (r. 1492-1503), a member of the infamous Borgia family. The pope was a worldly man, who openly indulged his own pleasures. The absolute antithesis of the ascetic monk, it was only a matter of time before he engineered the downfall and execution of the man he described as a ‘pestilential heretic’.
A statue of Savonarola (c.1875), the work of the sculptor Enrico Pazzi (1818-99), stands in the piazza which bears his name.