- Ferrara 1452 - Florence 1498
- Ferrara; Bologna, Genoa, Brescia, Ferrara; Florence
- Biographical information:
Gerolamo was born in Ferrara on 21 September 1452 to Niccolò Savonarola and Elena Bonaccorsi from Mantua. His early education took place under his uncle Michele, a physician and lecturer at the University of Padua, who later passed into the service of Ercole I d’Este. From medicine, Savonarola moved on to study literature, philosophy and religion. He fell in love with Laudomia, the illegitimate daughter of Roberto Strozzi who was resident in Ferrara at the time; he asked for her hand but was rejected.
He vowed himself to celibacy and, profoundly disgusted by the rampant moral decadence and the corruption of the clergy, he resolved to become a “physician of souls” (as he was later to declare), and in 1475 he entered the Dominican order of San Domenico in Bologna. His first texts, the De ruina mundi and the De ruina ecclesiae, reflect Gerolamo’s entrenched opposition to ethical and religious decline, and his desire to restore to the clergy its original role as a simple mediator between God and the human sinner. In September 1476 he became sub-deacon and in the following March deacon. He began to study theology, first at the Studio Generale in Bologna and later at the University of Ferrara. In 1483, at the request of Lorenzo il Magnifico, the Lombardy chapter of the Dominican order gathered in Reggio Emilia sent him in the capacity of teacher of theology to the convent of San Marco in Florence, which was under the patronage of the Medici. The Ferrara friar was greatly appreciated by his fellow brothers as an interpreter and exegetist of the Holy Scriptures. His first sermons, on the contrary, focused on ascetic topics addressed in Apocalyptic tones, met with little success. Despite this, from 1484 he persevered in his intention to predict the punishment that would be wreaked on the Church and the consequent necessity for a profound reform.
However, given the fact that his sermons failed to make an impression on the populace, in 1487 Savonarola left Florence to pursue his activity as a preacher in the north of Italy, in particular in Bologna, Ferrara, Brescia and Genoa. In 1490, at the behest of Lorenzo il Magnifico de’ Medici, Pico della Mirandola invited him to return to Florence, where he commenced a series of sermons on the Apocalypse, and the people thronged to hear him. His preaching became increasingly zealous, assuming visionary and threatening accents. His attacks on corrupt clergy and politicians were explicit and marked. Despite this, Savonarola’s audience - which included influential figures of Florentine culture - continued to grow, so that he had to hold his sermons in Santa Maria Novella and even in the Duomo.
In 1491 the Dominicans of San Marco elected him prior. Savonarola obtained the separation of the convent from the Lombard congregation, which enabled him to freely launch a reform of the community of which he was leader. Savonarola’s idea was that the community of San Marco would become a symbolic starting point for the spiritual renewal of the whole of Florence. At this stage he had not yet entered into open conflict with the power of the Medici Signoria, even after the death of Lorenzo il Magnifico (1492). On the contrary, in 1493 he obtained the support of Piero de’ Medici, known as “il Fatuo” or the Unlucky, to found a new Tuscan congregation, of which the friar became vicar.
Despite this, he continued to underscore the accusatory and prophetic tone of his public sermons. As a result of his gifts of dialectic and oratory, with the passage of time Savonarola became a moral, religious and political figurehead, as the political situation in Florence began to precipitate. The disastrous entry into Italy of Charles VIII, King of France, and the resulting loss of Pisa and the various Tuscan fortresses appeared to the Florentines as the materialisation of the Apocalyptic times so balefully foretold in the prophecies of the friar. Fuelled by the words of Savonarola, in November 1494 the Florentines revolted and drove out the Medici, setting up a Republican government and Gerolamo presented himself before the French monarch as the ambassador of the Florentine people. Urged on by this consensus, Savonarola believed that he could transform Florence into the city elected by God, the new Jerusalem, taking the lead in the renewal of the whole of Christendom. He personally monitored the institutional reforms that were adopted at the time, starting from the Grand Council that had its premises in the new hall built in Palazzo Vecchio by Cronaca at the order of Savonarola himself.
The intransigent sermons of Fra’ Gerolamo managed to set the new Florence against the corrupt Rome of Pope Alexander VI. Initially the Pope summoned Savonarola to an audience in Rome, where he forbade him to continue with his preaching, but the friar disobeyed the order (1495). Consequently, two years later he was excommunicated by the Pope who accused him of heresy. The city too was placed under an interdict, and immediately split into factions: the followers of the friar, known as the “piagnoni”, the “arrabbiati”, consisting of the city oligarchy, and the “compagnacci” who were opposed to the moral rigour. From outside the city the supporters of the Medici, the “palleschi”, also fomented the discontent of the Florentines and the resentment of the Pope. In 1498 Savonarola was requested by the Republic to suspend his preaching; the Franciscans challenged him by inviting him to address the trial by fire; finally the populace attacked San Marco and the guards of Palazzo Vecchio arrested Savonarola along with two of his closest followers. After interrogation, torture and no less than three trials, on 22 May he was condemned to death by a tribunal of the Florentine Republic, with the support of two papal delegates. On the following day the three friars, after having been divested of their office, were hanged and burned at the stake in Piazza della Signoria. Savonarola’s ashes were scattered in the Arno.
The spiritual, political and cultural legacy of Gerolamo Savonarola was extremely important and continued to have significant repercussions for a number of decades. The friar was also the author of numerous works, frequently accompanied by woodcut illustrations: Compendium logicum (1491); Compendio delle rivelazioni (1495); Dialogo della verità profetica (1497); Epistola della sana e spirituale lezione (1497); Trattato circa il reggimento e governo della città di Firenze (1498); Trionfo della Croce. His masterpiece remains the Sermons, gathered into collections and printed posthumously at different times.
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