Lessons from Savonarola on Theocracy

“Salem” is not a Tuscany city. The truth bomb was dropped by our friends at National Catholic Reporter — or the Fishwrap as it is known in orthodox circles.

The author was making a point (about what else?) Christian nationalism. He believes Giorgia Meloni’s conservative crusade will fail because her people are not interested in culture wars. She “preaches about God, and family, and she is not married to her husband for many years. Other leaders of the right in Italy are also in the same or worse situation. They support cultural Catholics, but they have no interest whatsoever in Catholic moralization campaigns. Nobody would be happy if Ms. Meloni had her way. Not even Ms. Meloni.

It’s likely true. However, I think that Fishwrap sells the Italians short. Salem might not be in Tuscany but Florence is. For four glorious years, Salem, the capital of the Renaissance, was ruled over by Fra Girolamo Savonarola, a theocrat.

Savonarola is known for his “bonfire to the vanities”, where his followers set up obscene books, paintings, and other objects. We don’t teach historical facts anymore so that reference is likely lost on most Americans. The exception is Assassin’s Creed II players, where the friar appears as a minor antagonist –a squeaky-voiced fanatic who uses alien mind control technology to enthrall Florentine citizens.

Assassin’s Creed‘s makers, as well as the Fishwrap editors, believe that men would never agree to submit to democracy. Massachusetts is the exception. This is quite funny. It’s also true that when Savonarola arrived from Romagna, Florence scorned his arrival. But they quickly changed their minds. Michael de la Bedoyere (Savonarola’s biographer) says that he was able to change their minds quickly.

They tried to laugh at the strange, intoxicated, God-fearing friar at first. He had lamented their vices, and the worldliness under which they were subject to tyranny. Their mockery turned to fear, and then they fell in love with the foreigner who had touched their weakest spots. Savonarola spoke with a divine tongue and not with a human voice.

Rodrigo Borgia (also known as Pope Alexander VI) did not agree with this opinion. He tried to silence Savonarola at first by making him a cardinal. The friar declined. He asked for a red hat. Alexander was able to give him that. In 1497, he excommunicated Savonarola. He ordered Fra Girolamo to be tortured and hanged from the burning gallows one year later.

His remarkable life ended with martyrdom. In his death, Savonarola’s devotion spread across Christendom. Martin Luther called him the first founder of the Reformation. Philip Neri named him the founder of Counter-Reformation. His legacy is closer to our time and has been championed, among others, by George Eliot (or Orestes Brownson), John Henry Newman, George Eliot, and G. K. Chesterton.

His greatest sermon, the one he preached following Alexander’s bull-of-excommunication, is what made Fra Girolamo so beloved by so many generations and so hated by ours. He asked Florence’s people to support him in it. He promised them both “Godly living” and “good government”. We don’t have much of either of these things anymore.

But I doubt we will ever forget the “meddlesome friar.” He is one of those unique figures whose works and life are relevant to every age. He has been claimed by Catholics and Protestants, liberals and conservatives, and even Marxists. We need to learn more about Savonarola and his life.

Italy’s 15 th century saw the birth of some of the greatest poets, painters, and sculptors in history. It also housed a variety of small oligarchies that were all horribly corrupt. Florence was second only to Rome in terms of worst. The Medici was the name given to the oligarchs in Florence. They were known as Borgia in Rome.

This age has a long history of depravity. Around 1494, the first case of syphilis was reported in Naples. The sex is mild, however. While the plutocrats hoarded power and wealth, lawlessness reigned on the streets. Juan Borgia, the son of Pope Alexander, entered the ghettos in Rome on June 15, 1497, to search for a “date”. His body was pulled out of the Tiber two days later. One boatman said that he saw five men dump the corpse in the river. Why didn’t he report the crime? Because he had seen at least 100 corpses dumped into the river. Nobody seemed to care.

This decadence was almost entirely funded by the exploitation of Italy’s lower classes. This was the first time in modern Europe’s history that Christians started to practice interest lending or usury. Usury is a sin within the Catholic Church as it allows men to make money, but not work for it. Usury is also bad economics because it allows the wealthy to get richer while making the poor poorer. The most powerful usurers, such as the Medici, used their wealth in Italy to rule the city-states.

This is Italy where Savonarola first appeared on September 21st, 1452. His grandfather served as the House of Este’s court physician. He was expected to be his successor. Girolamo, then twenty-two years old, dropped out of medical school in order to join the Dominican Order. He was undoubtedly a humanist, but he was disturbed at how rapidly humanism was replacing Christianity. He wrote to his grandfather explaining his career changes.

We are on the path to Hell with all of our science knowledge, but we have fallen into folly. Can you see the filth in the world? Let us flee Sodom and Gomorrah; let us flee Pharaoh’s Egypt.

Slowly, Fra Girolamo earned a reputation for being a great preacher. Pico Della Mirandola was one of his most loyal and earliest disciples. He is widely considered to be the greatest Renaissance humanist. Pico persuaded Lorenzo de Medici (“the Magnificent”) in 1490 to ask that Savonarola is transferred to the Convent of San Marco, Florence.

Lorenzo regretted that decision. Savonarola started to prophesy in 1489. He warned that Italy would suffer a great catastrophe. The Medici and God’s people would be punished by a new Cyrus. He thundered, “Reflect carefully, rich people,” for your punishment would come. This city will not be named Florence. It will be known as a den of thieves and vice of blood.

People laughed. The Medici raged. They couldn’t bear to ignore him, just like the rest of Florence.

The Dominicans of San Marco grew to fifty people under his leadership. Many of his new recruits came from the Tuscan nobility. His strict regime emphasized fasting, manual labor, and continuous study. The men were happy, joyful, and proud of their chief. San Marco was the center of Christian humanism.

Lorenzo died in 1492. He was surrounded by many toadies, including a few priests. His only request was that Savonarola hears his last confession. Although his courtiers refused to listen, they couldn’t resist. The friar was summoned. Lorenzo asked the friar what he could do in those final hours to save his soul. Savonarola’s simple answer was to return the money he stole. Lorenzo couldn’t do this, just like the young rich man in the Gospels. He refused to part with his money even though he had no other use for it. Lorenzo was denied absolution by Savonarola, and he died as a result.

In 1499, Savonarola fulfilled his prophecy. King Charles VIII of France marched toward Florence. Piero, Lorenzo’s “Unfortunate” son, surrendered immediately. Charles was sent massive bribes from the state coffers by Charles and he delivered important fortifications for his safety. Infuriated, the Florentine people revolted. They overthrew the Medici and begged Savonarola for their freedom. One condition was required:

Confess to God that they are sent. He is their general and He leads their armies. Recognize this and make a penance. You will be healed if you repent of your sins ….

Signoria, a type of city council, requested that Savonarola meets with King Charles. He was called “God’s scourge” by the friar who thanked him for freeing Florence from the Medici. He hoped France would show the same kindness to all of Italy. He also warned Charles about the dire consequences if he became an “occasion for new sin” in Tuscany. The friar said, “If you do evil by your means, the power that has been given to you will be destroyed.” Charles, duly humbled (and possibly a little scared), left Florence to “liberate Rome.”

Savonarola not only had foreseen the trial but had also saved them from it. The people of Florence were grateful and made Savonarola their ruler.

Savonarola’s principles of governing Florence were simple. He explained that Florence was easily overrun by Florentines who were too dependent on their creature comforts. Their softness and sensuality had robbed them of all their strength. Even if they had the chance, they wouldn’t have been able to resist the French. Piero was a typical Florentine pleasure-seeker and a typical Florentine. The only difference was that Piero had the means could sell off his neighbors to get his hide. If given the opportunity, the rest of them would have done exactly the same. You won’t find patriots and usurers in the same place. Oder, to paraphrase Savonarola, ”

There is no charity without love. Citizens will not obey if they are not obeyed. Good counsel can’t exist in a disunited society. This government is weak and feeble. In addition, voluptuousness can cause men to become emetic, which further weakens them. It is this way that wealth is made through vice …. The good men run from such a place because they see the danger it is headed, and the murderers and other bad people rush to get to it.

Bedoyere says, “Four hundred more years of political experience haven’t disproved Savonarola’s thesis.”

Fra Girolamo, his first sermon as ruler demanded that the Signoria pass laws to outlaw sodomy (a vice which Florence was famous for) and ensure modest dress for women. Licentious priests and heretical priests should be expelled from office. Tradesmen and craftsmen should have a strictly controlled amount of marriage dowries.

Amazingly, for his time, he called for progressive taxation. “Let such charges on men’s property be reasonable, so that they may not be more than the incoming wealth. Similar to duties, let them both be reasonably calculated taking into account what is owed to the State as well as to the individual.

Savonarola insisted that Florentines stop “the gnawing worm of usury.” He created a cooperative lending society called Monte di Pieta or Mount of Piety. This was a credit union but one that is geared toward the poor.

To prevent the oligarchy from ever returning to Florence, the friar demanded that reforms be made to the city’s constitution. The Great Council was a new legislative body that ruled as a democracy and not a dictatorship. The Great Council would include both experienced aristocrats as well as elected members from the lower classes.

Savonarola finally declared a general amnesty to all those who had served with the Medici. He said to the people, “Courage now.” “We are making progress. The principle of the good life begins today! First, you have to decide that…let all of the past be erased. “So I say, and so I command it in the name of God.”

There were also the book-burnings.

The “bonfire of vanities” mythology is always the same. Savonarola ordered his disciples–particularly young men–to break into people’s houses, carry off all paintings and books, and burn them. These great monuments of religious fanaticism lit up the streets of Florence almost every night. The case has been closed, but there is an obligatory mention of the Gestapo.

This is almost as wrong as everything we know about history.

Many Italian cities host a Carnivale every year during the week preceding Ash Wednesday. People are allowed to drink and dance before Lent begins. (Carnival played an important role in the 1494 syphilis pandemic, especially among the LGBT community.

Fra Girolamo challenged the Florentine people once he had taken power. He urged them not to indulge in drunken carousing and to throw out any lewd literature, clothing, or art that they had.

It was not a great loss. It is important to remember that the Renaissance was not the norm. The Renaissance masterpieces, Raphael and Giotto, were exceptions. There were many geniuses, but also many hacks. This is a common trait in every historical period.

For example, wealthy Italians might hang erotic pictures in their bedrooms to stimulate lust. even the Met agrees that Savonarola had a right to state that Italians were “near their beds with lettucci pictures of naked men or women doing indecent acts.” But what Savonarola denied was the existence of nudes within art. It was porn.

Importantly, Savonarola did not require anyone to donate their possessions to the bonfires. He could not: he was never elected to public office. His leadership was symbolic. His pleas proved so powerful that hundreds of Florentines responded to his appeal, including many of her artists. Both Michelangelo and Botticelli supported Savonarola. Modern historians believe that the former was forced to burn some of his less-pleasing works. This is a fabrication. Botticelli was actually so distraught by Savonarola’s death, he stopped painting altogether.

Savonarola’s critics claim that the friar had a priggish hatred for boobies and wieners in arts. That’s absurd. We don’t know what Botticelli has destroyed. We do know that he kept the Birth of Venus. Michelangelo did not abandon his David. He actually painted the Sistine Chapel with the influence of the friar.

Art historians are the best at art history and art. These are some of my favorite songs. Let Savonarola speak. It is easy to see why a true artist may not only agree with his sermons but also draw inspiration from them. Take this example:

Beauty is transfiguration. It is light. It is essential beauty that must be seen beyond the realm of visible objects ….. As the beauty of God is proportional to the beauty and beauty of the body, so are the creatures that approach it. If you took two women from this audience, each equally beautiful in body, the one with the highest admiration would win the hearts of all. The palm would also be given to her by men around the world.

Fra Girolamo believed in good art and bad art, and that pornography should not be celebrated. It degrades the beauty of the human form.

This is Savonarola’s legacy. He was the greatest Renaissance art curator the world has ever seen.

Savonarola is unique among historian’s theocrats because he never applied for the job. He didn’t seek regime change. He wanted to save souls.

Savonarola, at the height of power, had placed the Jesus Christus Populi Florentini Rex inscription above the Palazzo Della Signoria. The Florentine people cheered. However, Christianity must be accepted as a religion before it is accepted as a political ideology. Florence’s citizens were all in favor of theocracy, but they were not converted. Our good friar died along with the reign of Jesus Christ, King of Florence.

Savonarola’s story should be an example to all “illiberal rights”, whether they are Catholic integralists or Christian nationalists. It’s also a cautionary story.

America looks a lot like Italy in 15th century Italy. More than ever, we need a Christian government. We won’t have one, or if we do get one, it will be just as temporary as Florence’s. Non-Christians will not accept a Christian government. Or, to use the words of St. Augustine, “Christ is our Liberator insofar He is our Savior.”

No salvation, no liberation. This is the deal. It’s important to remember.

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