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Lessons in Theocracy from Savonarola

The reform of Florence is at once a model and a cautionary tale for Christian radicals today.

Savonarola Preaches In Florence
Girolamo Savonarola (1452-1498) preaching to a crowd in Florence. (Kean Collection/Getty Images)

“Salem is a city in Massachusetts, not Tuscany." That truth-bomb was dropped a couple of week ago by our friends at the National Catholic Reporter—or the Fishwrap, as it’s known in orthodox circles.

The author was making a point about (what else?) Christian nationalism. He thinks Giorgia Meloni’s conservative crusade is doomed to fail because her people have no appetite for culture wars. She “preaches about God and family, but she is not married to the man she has been living with for many years. Other leaders of the right in Italy are in the exact same situation or worse. They campaign to cultural Catholics but have no interest in Catholic moralization campaigns." If Ms. Meloni really got her way, nobody would be happy—including Ms. Meloni.

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That’s probably true. But I still think the Fishwrap is selling the Italians short. Salem may not be a city in Tuscany, but Florence is. And for four glorious years, that city—the capital of the Renaissance; the home of Dante, da Vinci, and Machiavelli—was ruled by a theocrat named Fra Girolamo Savonarola.

Savonarola’s name is synonymous with his “bonfire of the vanities”: those great pyres upon which his followers piled obscene books and paintings. But because we don’t teach history anymore, even that reference is probably lost on most Americans. The exception would be players of Assassin’s Creed II, in which the friar appears as a minor antagonist—a squeaky-voiced fanatic who uses alien mind-control technology to enthrall the Florentine people.

The makers of Assassin’s Creed, like the editors of the Fishwrap, assume that men could never willingly submit to a theocracy. (The exception, apparently, is Massachusetts. Which is hilarious.) And it’s also true that, when Savonarola first arrived from Romagna, the citizens of Florence scorned him. Yet he quickly changed their minds. According to Savonarola’s biographer Michael de la Bedoyere,

At first, they had tried to laugh at this odd, ugly, God-intoxicated friar who had railed at their vices and the worldliness of the tyranny to which they submitted. But their mockery had turned into fear and from fear to love, as the foreigner had touched them at their weakest spot. Savonarola had spoken, not with a human tongue, but with a divine one.

This opinion was not shared by Rodrigo Borgia, also known as Pope Alexander VI. At first, he tried to silence Savonarola by making him a cardinal. But the friar refused.  “A red hat?” he replied; “I want a hat of blood." And that’s just what Alexander gave to him. He excommunicated Savonarola in 1497. A year later, he ordered that Fra Girolamo be tortured and hanged from a burning gallows. 

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Yet martyrdom was the perfect end to his astonishing life. In death, devotion to Savonarola spread throughout Christendom. Martin Luther hailed him as a founder of the Reformation; Philip Neri hailed him as a founder of the Counter-Reformation. Closer to our own time, his legacy has been championed by John Henry Newman, George Eliot, Orestes Brownson, and G. K. Chesterton, to name just a few.

The reason Fra Girolamo was admired by so many generations, and so despised by our own, can be found in his greatest sermon: the one he preached after receiving Alexander’s bull of excommunication. In it, he asked the people of Florence to stand by him. In exchange, he promised them two things: “Godly living and good government." These days, we haven’t much taste for either.

Yet I don’t think we’ll ever be able to completely forget this “meddlesome friar." He’s one of those singular figures whose life and works are startingly relevant to each successive age. Catholics and Protestants, conservatives and liberals, even Marxists have tried to claim him as one of their own. To understand why, we need to know more about Savonarola’s life and times. 

Italy in the 15th century gave birth to some of history’s greatest poets, painters, sculptors, and philosophers. It was also home to a mishmash of little oligarchies, each one of them unspeakably corrupt. Florence was the worst—second only, perhaps, to Rome. In Florence, the oligarchs went by the name of Medici. In Rome, they were called Borgia.

The depravity of this age is well documented. The first known outbreak of syphilis began in Naples around the year 1494. But the sex stuff is comparatively mild. For while those plutocrats pooled hoarded wealth and power, lawlessness reigned in the streets. On June 15, 1497, Pope Alexander’s son Juan Borgia went into the ghettos of Rome looking for a “date." Two days later, his body was dredged out of the Tiber. A boatman admitted to seeing five men dump the corpse into the river. Why hadn’t he reported the crime? Because he’d seen at least a hundred corpses dumped in the river. Nobody ever seemed to care. 

And this decadence was funded almost exclusively by exploiting Italy's lower classes. It was the first instance in the history of modern Europe when Christians began to practice usury, or lending for interest. Usury is a sin in the Catholic Church because it allows men to make money without working for it. It’s also just bad economics, because it allows the rich to become richer by making the poor poorer. And the most effective usurers, like the Medici, used their wealth to dominate the Italian city-states. 

This is the Italy in which Savonarola appeared on September 21, 1452. He was expected to follow in the footsteps of his grandfather, who served as court physician for the House of Este. But in 1475, at the age of twenty-two, Girolamo dropped out of medical school to join the Dominican order. Though undoubtedly a humanist himself, he was deeply disturbed by how quickly humanism was displacing Christianity. Explaining his career change in a letter to his grandfather, he wrote:

With all our knowledge of science we are on the road to Hell, and with all our wisdom we have fallen into folly. Can you not see that the world is full of filth? Let us flee from Sodom and Gomorrah, let us flee from Pharaoh and from Egypt.

Fra Girolamo slowly earned a reputation as a great preacher. One of his earliest and most faithful disciples was Pico della Mirandola, considered by many to be the greatest humanist of the Renaissance. In 1490, Pico convinced Lorenzo de Medici (“the Magnificent”) to request that Savonarola be transferred to the Convent of San Marco in Florence. 

Lorenzo came to regret that decision. In 1489, Savonarola began to prophesy. A great cataclysm would befall Italy, he warned. A new Cyrus would come to punish God’s people, and in particular the Medici. “Reflect carefully, those of you who are rich,” he thundered, “for your punishment will come. Not Florence shall be the name of this city: it will be called but a den of thieves, of vice, of blood." 

The people laughed. The Medici raged. And yet, like the rest of Florence, they couldn’t quite bring themselves to ignore him. 

Under his leadership, the Dominicans of San Marco grew from fifty to two hundred and fifty. Many of the new recruits were drawn from the Tuscan nobility. His regime was austere; he placed a strong emphasis on fasting, manual labor, and constant study. But the men there were joyful, prayerful, and tremendously proud of their chief. San Marco became the hub of Christian humanism.

In 1492, Lorenzo was on his deathbed. Surrounded by toadies—including not a few priests—he had only one request: he wanted Savonarola to hear his last confession. His courtiers balked, but they had no choice. The friar was duly summoned. Lorenzo asked what he could do, in those last hours, to save his soul. Savonarola’s answer was quite simple: he had to give back the money he stole from the people. But like the rich young man of the Gospels, this was one thing Lorenzo could not do. Even though he no longer had any conceivable use for his money, he refused to give it up. Savonarola denied him absolution, and Lorenzo died in his sins. 

Then, in 1499, Savonarola’s prophecy came to pass. King Charles VIII of France began marching toward Florence. Lorenzo’s son Piero (“the Unfortunate”) immediately surrendered. He sent Charles massive bribes from the public coffers and delivered key fortifications in exchange for his own personal safety. Outraged, the people of Florence revolted. They ousted the Medici and begged Savonarola to deliver them. He agreed, on one condition: 

Confess that it is God who sends them. He leads their armies and He is their general. Realize this and do penance, showing yourselves wise in the expectation of God’s help in these troubles.... Give up your sin which is the cause of this evil and you will be cured.

At the behest of Signoria (a kind of city council), Savonarola met with King Charles. The friar hailed him as “God’s scourge” and thanked him for liberating Florence from the Medici. He hoped that France would perform the same kindness for all of Italy. But he also warned Charles that, if his presence in Tuscany became the “occasion for fresh sin,” the consequences would be dire. “If wickedness should by your means be increased,” said the friar, “know that the power given to you from on high will be shattered." Duly flattered (and probably a little frightened), Charles left Florence to “liberate” Rome. 

Savonarola had not only foreseen this trial, but he had delivered them from it. In their gratitude, the people of Florence proclaimed Savonarola their new ruler.

The principles by which Savonarola ruled Florence were simple. He taught that Florence had been so easily overrun because Florentines were too addicted to their creature-comforts. Their softness and sensuality had sapped them of all their strength. They wouldn’t have resisted the French even if they could have. Piero was simply a typical Florentine, a self-serving pleasure-seeker. The only difference is that he had the means to sell out his neighbors to save his own hide. The rest of them would have done the same, given the chance. Usurers and patriots are never found in the same city. Or, in Savonarola’s words, 

Where there is no charity, there is no love between the citizens. Where there is no obedience, citizens are divided—good counsel cannot exist among disunion. Such government grows feeble and weak. Voluptuousness, moreover, causes men to become effeminate, weakening them still more. Thus it is that wealth is spent through vice.... Good men flee from such a city, for they see the evil towards which it is heading, while murderers and bad men rush to belong to it. 

“Four hundred years of further political experience have not disproved Savonarola’s thesis,” Bedoyere observes. 

In his first sermon as ruler, Fra Girolamo insisted the Signoria pass laws outlawing sodomy (a vice for which Florence was notorious) and ensuring that women dressed modestly. Licentious and heretical priests must be barred from office. The size of marriage dowries for tradesmen and craftsmen must be strictly limited.   

Amazingly for his time, he demanded a system of progressive taxation. “Let such charges on a man’s property be reasonable so that the charge may not be heavier than the incoming wealth. Similarly with duties, let them be reasonably calculated in light of what is owed both to the State and to the individual.”   

And, of course, Savonarola demanded that Florentines quash “the gnawing worm of usury.” In its place, he formed a cooperative lending society called the Monte di Pieta, or Mount of Piety—a sort of credit union, but one geared toward helping the poor.

The friar also demanded reforms to the city’s constitution to prevent oligarchy from ever returning to Florence. He formed a new legislative body, the Great Council, which would rule as a democracy rather than a dictatorship. The Great Council would be formed of both seasoned aristocrats and elected members of the lower classes.

Finally, Savonarola declared a general amnesty for all those who had served the Medici. “Courage now,” he told the people. “We are making a start. Today, the principle of the good life begins! But first you must make up your minds to...let everything of the past be canceled out. So I tell you, and so I command you in the name of God.” 

Then, of course, there were the book-burnings.

Popular narratives about the “bonfire of the vanities” are always exactly the same. Savonarola ordered his disciples—particularly young men—to break into people’s houses, carry off all paintings and books, and burn them. The streets of Florence were lit almost nightly by these great monuments to religious fanaticism. There’s an obligatory reference to the Gestapo, and the case is closed.

Like everything we know about history, that’s almost exactly wrong.

Every year, during the week before Ash Wednesday, many Italian cities hold a carnivale. The people are given one last chance to get drunk and carouse before the beginning of Lent. (Carnival played a goodish role in the syphilis pandemic of 1494, particularly among the LGBT community.) 

Once he took power, Fra Girolamo issued a challenge to the Florentine people. In lieu of drunken carousing, he urged them to destroy any lewd clothing, literature, or art they kept in their homes. 

This was no great loss. The thing to bear in mind about the Renaissance is this: those masterpieces of Giotto and Raphael were the exception, not the rule. Like every period in history, there were a handful of geniuses and a whole lot of hacks.

So, for instance, well-to-do Italians would hang erotic paintings in their bedrooms to…erm, stimulate lust. Even the Met admits that Savonarola was right to say that Italians had “near their beds and lettucci images of naked men and women doing indecent things.” What Savonarola rejected was not the presence of nudes in art. It was porn.

And what’s crucial is that Savonarola never required anyone to commit their belongings to the bonfires. He couldn’t: he never held public office. His leadership was purely symbolic. Nevertheless, his pleas were so effective that hundreds of Florentines answered his call, including many of her artists. Michelangelo and Botticelli were both supporters of Savonarola. (Some modern historians claim the latter was “forced” to burn his less tasteful works. In fact, Botticelli was so devastated by Savonarola’s death that he quit painting altogether.)

Savonarola’s detractors claim the friar simply had a priggish dislike for boobies and wieners in art. That’s absurd. True, we have no idea what paintings Botticelli destroyed. But we know he kept the Birth of Venus. Michelangelo never disowned his David. In fact, he painted the Sistine Chapel under the friar’s influence. 

Honestly, there are few people who know less about art or history than an art historian. Tune them out. Let Savonarola speak for himself. It’s easy to see how a true artist might not only agree with his sermons, but draw inspiration from them. For instance:

Beauty is transfiguration, it is light. Essential beauty, in its perfection, must therefore be looked for beyond the sphere of visible objects.... The more creatures approach and participate in the beauty of God, the more are they themselves beautiful, just as the beauty of the body is in proportion to the beauty of the soul. For, if you were to take two women of this audience, equally beautiful in body, it would be the holier one that would excite the most admiration amongst the beholders, and the palm would assuredly be given to her even by worldly men.

Fra Girolamo believed that good art should be celebrated, bad art should not, and pornography should be destroyed, because it debases the beauty of the human form.

This is Savonarola’s legacy. He was the greatest curator of Renaissance art, ever.

What makes Savonarola unique among history’s theocrats is that he never sought out the job. He wasn’t angling for regime change. He only wanted to save souls.

At the height of his power, Savonarola had placed over the Palazzo della Signoria the inscription Jesus Christus Populi Florentini Rex. And the Florentine people cheered. But Christianity must be embraced as a religion before it can be accepted as a political ideology. The citizens of Florence were all for theocracy but, in their hearts, they remained unconverted. So the reign of “Jesus Christ, King of the People of Florence” died with our good friar.

Savonarola’s life should serve as an inspiration to the “illiberal right”—be they Catholic integralists, Christian nationalists, or national conservatives. But it’s also a cautionary tale. 

America in the twenty-first century looks an awful lot like Italy in the fifteenth. We need a Christian government now more than ever. But that’s exactly why we won’t get one—or, if we do, it will be as fleeting as Florence’s. Because Christian government will never be accepted by a non-Christian people. Or, as St. Augustine put it, “Christ is our Liberator insofar as He is our Savior." 

No salvation, no liberation. That’s the deal. Anyway, it’s something to bear in mind.

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