Oct 29, 2007

Book Review: Savonarola and Florence - Prophecy and Patriotism in the Renaissance

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Girolamo Savonarola, also known as Jerome Savonarola or Hieronymus Savonarola, an Italian Dominican priest and leader of Florence from 1494 until his execution in 1498 Weinstein, Donald
Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1970


Girolamo Savonarola, Italian Dominican priest and leader of Florence from 1494 until his execution in 1498

Weinstein’s book examines the life and significance of Girolamo Savonarola, a Dominican priest who led a short-lived Florentine political and religious revolution in 1494 after the Medicean exile. Weinstein attempted “to treat Savonarola in rational-historical terms,” unlike many of his historiographical predecessors. Jacob Burckhardt, for example, made the following assessment of the preacher from Ferrara:
A more childish method of reasoning cannot be imagined. The simple reflection that the newborn antiquity and the boundless enlargement of human thought and knowledge which was due to it, might give splendid confirmation to a religion able to adapt itself thereto, seems never even to have occurred to the good man. He wanted to forbid what he could not deal with by any other means. In fact, he was anything but liberal, and was ready, for example, to send the astrologers to the same stake at which he afterwards himself died.
This view of Savonarola as a medieval reactionary to the Renaissance is contrasted by biographers such as Pasquale Villari and Joseph Schnitzer, characterized by Weinstein as the “New Piagnoni”. This school of historiographical interpretation (Weinstein refers to its adherents as “Savonarola cultists”) tended to view the preacher as a saint and a prophet, and religious zealotry takes precedence over critical historical examination, according to the author.

Weinstein first described the setting of Savonarola’s rise, which took place in the context of what he termed the “myth of Florence,” which was the idea held by many Florentines that the commune was a city of destiny, favored by God, that was both the offspring and heir to the Rome of antiquity. While not necessarily an advocate of this sense of destino di Firenze, Savonarola reached the height of his popularity just as the myth was in jeopardy, as the armies of Charles VIII threatened Florence. According to Weinstein, people turned to Savonarola “in this time of deep trouble…to hear more of what God had in store for them.” The author traced the evolution of Savonarola’s message, which changed from one of repentance and atonement to one of full-blown millenarianism. Savonarola, at the time of Medicean exile, preached that Florence could become the New Jerusalem if only the populace would embrace Christ’s teachings. If the Florentines continued their morally bankrupt ways, then God would use Charles VIII as gladius Dei (“the sword of God”) to exact his vengeance for the wickedness of Florence. Weinstein also traced the development of the Savonarolan prophecy that the French king was also the Second Charlemagne, who would renew the Church, free Europe from the forces of Islam, and convert pagans and Muslims to Christianity as part of the Biblical end times.

Charles VIII, called the Affable, who was King of France from 1483 to his death in 1498Charles VIII, called the Affable, who was King of France from 1483 to his death in 1498

The section entitled “Savonarola and the Laurentians” examines the relationship between the ostensibly scholastic monk and the neo-Platonic, Hermetica-fixated humanists in the circle of Lorenzo de’ Medici. Weinstein debunked the misconception that Savonarola somehow converted Giovanni Pico della Mirandola to religious orthodoxy, pointing out that evidence of Pico’s increasing devotion to a life of religious austerity and penance clearly preceded Savonarola’s arrival in Venice. In addition, Weinstein attributed the attraction of the Florentine humanists to Savonarola’s message as much to the turbulence of the times as to the preacher’s prophetic or oratorical skills. Weinstein also examined the role that Savonarola’s message was tempered and shaped by the humanists, as well as the commonalities between their respective visions; these were chiefly a conviction in Florentine destiny, a mutual aspiration for religious renovatio, and the shared millenialist belief that the Christian world was entering a new age.

Finally, Weinstein considered the Ferraran’s role in the formation of the new Florentine government and challenged some of the major historiographical conclusions about Savonarola. Unlike popular misconception, Savonarola was no radical demagogue with visions of proto-democracy; likewise, he was no unwitting dupe of the ottomati who preached what he was told. Instead, argued Weinstein, Savonarola espoused a conservative political approach with fairly modest changes to the Florentine republic while agitating for a vaguely defined monarchy headed by Christ. Good government would lead to better morals, and the improved morality of the Florentines would lead to divine blessings that would raise Florence up as a shining beacon for Europe and the world to emulate. Savonarola’s greatest impact on daily life during the theorepublic was in the realm of morals, as games of chance were shut down, elegantly dressed women were publicly admonished by Savonarolan street morality patrols, and a steady message of repentance and piety was preached from the pulpits.

The book presents a thoughtful evaluation of Fra Savonarola; there is ample documentation for Weinstein’s claims, including a wealth of Savonarola’s personal papers. Like a good detective, Weinstein disproved many of the traditional historiographical through careful examination of known facts and exegetical reading of the written sources. The author successfully achieved his goal of a rational and historical interpretation of the life and influence of Savonarola.

1 comment:

Anastasia F-B said...

Hello, Doctor Mike!

I've not long finished reading Donald Weinstein's recently published Savonarola: the Rise and Fall of a Renaissance Prophet. Before writing my own reviews I thought I would scout around to see what others thought. In the process I stumbled across your interesting blog. Anyway, from one history fan to another, well done!