Savonarola - The Rise and Fall of a Renaissance Prophet

December 1, 2012

Savonarola - The Rise and Fall of a Renaissance Prophet was published in November 2011 by Yale University Press, authored by distinguished historian Professor Donald Weinstein. It is a commendable work, formed in eloquently written and universally approachable language. Its fluid presentation and detailed notes section  make it appealing to both general and specialist readers alike. At its core is a critical evaluation of the archival evidence pertaining to the Dominican friar, whose fiery words seemed to have plunged Florence into division and chaos, and for a time drove the most prominent members of the Medici family from the city.

The chapters are titled by theme, describing the stages in Savonarola's career, arranged chronologically. Thankfully, there are no voluminous footnotes, so often seen in scholarly publications based on archival records. Instead, superscripted text leads to an extensive notes section at the end of the book, which clarifies archival sources and points of evidence. There are occasional pages displaying black and white images, providing both well known and more esoteric examples of woodcuts, medals and other images created during this tumultuous period. These objects are described in the text in concise detail, their relevance to the events of the era outlined clearly, and without the effuse hyperbole sometime present in art historical accounts. It was refreshing to see these objects and images used in this manner, adding a visual and physical dimension to time and place described.

A striking example of this is the bronze medal commissioned by the Florentine ruling body (the Signoria) honoring Savonarola after his excommunication in May 1497. This was made at a time when relations between Florence and Rome were strained, and with French King Charles VIII reportedly preparing to return to Italy. The medal depicts Savonarola with the accompanying inscription "The Very Learned Girolamo Savonarola of the Order of Preachers." The reverse shows a hand grasping a dagger, looming over a city, generally interpreted to represent Rome. The inscription on this side ominously reads "The sword of the Lord over the earth swiftly and soon." As Weinstein clarifies, the medal seemed "untimely, if not an act of outright defiance." Ultimately, it represented the Florentine ruling body's support of the Friar at that point in time. In the context of Weinstein's trail through archival records, it was a refreshing use of a different form of evidence to illustrate the tensions of the period.

Tantalising glimpses
The chapters presented by Weinstein are precisely related and thematically cohesive. Beginning with Savonarola's origins and moral philosophy, we follow his journey from Ferrara to Florence with a sense of dread and deep curiosity. Reading excerpts from the primary sources that reveal these facts to us directly is a liberating dimension to the account presented by Weinstein. In the course of this historical narrative, the author makes small detours, exploring details that arguably could have been omitted, yet provide tantalising glimpses of people and events long hidden from popular accounts. One such example is the tale of Suor (Sister) Maddalena, a nun at Santa Maria di Casignano in the Arno Valley. Suor Maddalena's own visions - which included predicting the downfall of Piero de' Medici - had allowed her to develop a following of her own. She claimed to have had a vision that would expose Savonarola and his visions as a fraud. In February 1497 she proposed a meeting so that they could compare visions and decide on an appropriate course of action. 

Savonarola's response to the proposal was dismissive. He wrote,
There are some women prophetesses who would like to write books and prophecies; but this is foolish, laughable... these prophetesses are simple, but there are other wicked prophetesses who go from house to house all day saying 'Dont believe those things [that I say]'
Not swayed by Savonarola's refusal, Maddalena persisted, writing to the Signoria requesting a meeting. She was eventually brought into the city and held consultations with ambassadors from Milan, Ferrara and France. At this point, Savonarola was less in favour with Florentine officials, but was able to convince a group known as The Eight of Security to exile the prophetesses back to Casignano, where she was to be kept in cloistered seclusion and forbidden to write anything further against Savonarola. This fascinating detour arguably demonstrates that Savonarola was less concerned with exploring the plausibility of divine revelation, than in relinquishing his influence on government and church affairs in Florence.

Evaluation of evidence
One of the challenges involved when creating a historical narrative is to assess any problems in evidence, especially for primary sources that are related to controversial circumstances where the agenda of powerful entities such as the Church are involved. Consideration of bias and coercion forming these accounts must be made accordingly. In Savonarola studies, the most contentious records are those from the time after which Savonarola had been arrested and placed on trial. It is known that he was subjected to physical torture at this time, and hence his written accounts are approached with an appropriate degree of caution to understand the impact of these events on his words, offset against other records of these events.

It should be noted that two civic commissions (processi) were undertaken by local officials in Florence, though no judgement was announced after these. The stage was set for the third processo, to be conducted by Church inquisitors sent by Borgia Pope Alexander VI in May 1498.

In the chapter introducing the commissions Weinstein addresses previous evaluations of the transcripts, describing different authors' interpretations and the potential for bias. This remarkable section is an exemplary description of a critical approach to evidence. Weinstein's summary of this process is typically concise:
All of the above conclusions have a common problem: they tend to confirm their author's biases...Savonarola admirers are confident that torture and notarial interpolations produced false confessions; Savonarola critics and denigrators accept the record as perhaps flawed, but confirming his guilt. Such deductive reasoning is difficult, perhaps impossible, to avoid, since we are all prone to be influenced by what we already believe, especially in a case such as this where the objective evidence is weak and the presumption of bias on the part of the authorities strong.
Navigating the legacy
In attempting to relate a historical narrative through primary sources, the voice of the author sometimes can seem distant, or to fade in and out at opportune moments. Weinstein manages to insert an impression of his guiding hand throughout the chapters, often in demonstrations of critical appraisal of the evidence presented. However, it is in the final Afterwords section where Weinstein neatly ties together the many threads of the previous chapters and leaves an indelible impression of Savonarola and his impact in an historiographical sense. From Italian authors such as Machiavelli and Guicciardini, to George Eliot, Weinstein relates how Savonarola continues to captivate scholars and readers.

Perhaps Weinstein's clearest statement on how to understand Savonarola as a man and a historical figure is saved for the very last line of the Afterwords
The challenge is to integrate - as he himself never ceased trying to do - the irascible puritan at war with his world, the charismatic preacher who, as Machiavelli would have it, adapted "his lies" to the times, the ascetic contemplative enraptured by divine love, and the militant herald of a new age.
Many thanks to Yale University Press and Inbooks for the review copy

3PP is pleased to present an interview with the author, Professor Donald Weinstein from the University of Arizona. Many thanks to the Professor for his time, and to the numerous 3PP readers who wrote requesting this addition and offering questions.

3PP Considering the great volume of scholarly writing on Savonarola, your 2011 title reads as refreshing and new. What were your primary aims in writing this account?

DW My main aim was to explain why and how Savonarola became a prophet. Savonarola himself seems to have believed that God revealed to him the glorious future in which the world would become Christian and Florence would be its first city. My aim, by contrast, was to show that Savonarola came to his sense of his prophetic mission by stages in response to a succession of personal and historical crises. I follow him on his journey from troubled youth to charismatic leader. I regard him as a member of the generation of Italians who saw their long-standing political freedoms first betrayed by native despots, then crushed by foreign invaders and who felt abandoned by a Church corrupted by greed and ambition. And I emphasize the decisive importance to Savonarola of being sent to Florence, capitol of the Renaissance, just before the city’s revolt against the Medici family. How all these crises induced Savonarola to abandon his initial impulse to reject the world and to embrace his mature vocation to change it is the story I wanted to tell.

3PP How do you judge the reliability of primary and secondary accounts of the topic or individual you are investigating?

DW There is a whole Savonarola industry of scholarship and much of it is very good on specific aspects of his life and thought. The problem is how to interpret individual findings and assemble them into a convincing whole in order to understand the man. Some earlier biographers tended to see him as a saint and martyr, others condemn him as a demagogue, faker or heretic. I try to avoid such judgments and treat him as a man trying to make sense of his life and the world in the terms of the culture which formed him.

3PP Did Savonarola have a tangible influence on the Reformation in Europe?

DW Since the sixteenth century Savonarola’s relation to the Reformation has been a matter of controversy. Luther claimed him as a forerunner and some Catholics condemned him for the same reason. There are two parts to the question:
 a. Did Savonarola set an example for Luther and other Protestants as a critic of the failings of the Church? To this the answer is definitely yes, but so did a lot of other Catholic preachers–moral criticism was their job.

b. Did Savonarola have revolutionary ideas about fundamental beliefs, such as the powers and functions of priests, the body of Christ in communion, the achievement of salvation, the nature of grace and the freedom of the will?

Some modern scholars have argued that he did, so that he was truly a Protestant forerunner. My own view is that while Savonarola sounds radical in attributing more to divine grace and faith than to human will and feared that ritual and ceremony were substituting for individual spirituality, he never really departed from Catholic doctrine or doubted that the Church of St. Peter was Christ’s church.

3PP The brief mention of Savonarola's female rival, Suor Maddelena was fascinating. When did you first encounter the account of this intriguing woman? Do we know any more about her?

DW The prophetess Suor Maddalena and her criticism of Savonarola is mentioned in chronicles of the time. Readers of Italian can look into Piero Parenti’s Storia fiorentina, available in a fine modern edition by Andrea Matucci, and she is mentioned in Luca Landucci’s Florentine Diary, the English translation by Alice De Rosen Jervis. But neither will tell you much more than does my brief mention in Savonarola The Rise and Fall of a Renaissance Prophet. If there is more in archival records I haven’t found it. I would make two points, however. One, that there were numerous women who claimed or were recognized to have ‘the gift of prophecy’ as an attribute of their holy lives. Two, that such women were often exploited –not always successfully– by rulers and others who thought they could enhance their own authority through them. On holy women related to the Savonarola movement, there is much more in Lorenzo Polizzotto’s The Elect Nation as well as his articles, and in Tamar Herzig’s Savonarola’s Women: Vision and Reform in Renaissance Italy.

3PP Your style of writing is eloquent and accessible to a diverse audience. What do you recommend to student and emerging writers attempting to communicate historical details in written form?

DW Who was the famous pianist who, when asked the way to Carnegie Hall replied, “Practice! Practice! Practice!” The way to develop a good writing style is like that. Also, however, read a lot and note what pleases you in an author’s style and what turns you off. Second, write, write, write, asking yourself as you write how it will affect the reader. And ask others to read what you’ve written and tell you what they think. As a rule avoid a ‘high’ formal, pretentious or academic style on one hand and an overly familiar, informal or slangy style on the other. Aim for clarity and grace.

*Extended preview available at Google Books link
*Images of Savonarola Medal. Metropolitan Museum Website. link
nb. In the Weinstein volume the illustration lists "usually attributed to" fellow Dominican at San Marco Mattia della Robbia, whereas the Met Museum website currently lists this medal as by Niccolò Fiorentino.


Edward Goldberg said...

Thanks, Hasan! I see that I really need to push this up to the top of my "must read" list. Savonarola was clearly a complex figure (in himself and also in relation to his context). And it takes enormous care and discretion to peel away the centuries of partisan interpretation. The weighing of legal depositions "assisted" by torture is always problematic and a few years ago, the opponents of Ariel Toaff's "Pasque di Sanque" (Easters/Passovers of Blood) went berserk over his use of material of this kind. A personal curiosity of mine as a Florentine resident: Savonarola was a renowned public speaker--but did he have a Ferrarese accent?

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this review Hasan.

I absolutely agree - Professor Weinstein is a superlative communicator - his language effortless yet expressive of great volumes of detail. It is very rare to find writing of his type, let alone such a discerning approach to evidence, which you have very cogently expressed in this review.

How fortunate that 3PP and other sites now give a wider range of readers access to overviews of publications that would usually be seen only by the closed domains of academia.

Writing like Professor Weinstein's deserves a larger audience. It is perhaps amplified in this case given the recent exposure of Savonarola in popular culture - as wonderfully chronicled by Hasan in his "Borgias" reviews.

Stephanie S

Unknown said...

Cheers for the comments!

@Ed - if we don't have a record of anyone mentioning Savonarola's accent - perhaps it is possible to discern regional variances from his writings? Intriguing question!

@Stephanie - Effortless is an apt description here. Such a high quantity of information woven into an interesting narrative is simply a skill beyond many, yet Weinstein does it so well. Anyone interested in the craft of historical writing itself would benefit from taking a look at this book.


K. Bender said...

Thanks so much, Hasan. Some time ago I was interested in Savonarola to find out his relationship with Botticelli and the arts. It is said that Botticelli's brother was a follower of Savonarola and that Botticelli painted only religious subjects after Savonarola's bonfires. Does Weinstein discuss this topic? Zöllner ( 'Sandro Botticelli' Prestel, München,2009 p.132) writes that Savonarola objected vehemently to the wedding chests (cassone) adorned with tales of pagan mythology : " ...And so the newly-wed Christian woman is more informed about the infidelities of Mars...than about the famous lives of saintly women in the Bible." A reference to Botticelli's 'Venus and Mars'?

Unknown said...

Cheers Bender - you may be interested in this earlier post which looked at this very topic:

Echoes of Botticelli in Early Modern sources

It was somehow missing from the 3PP archive listing, now fixed.

kind regards

K. Bender said...

Many thanks. Yes indeed, I missed this post. Interesting!

Alberti's Window said...

Sounds like a neat book! I like history books that provide images to enhance their historical discussion.

By coincidence, I have been reading about Savonarola and Botticelli this morning. It seems like the picture of the Weinstein book cover might be based off of a portrait of Savonarola by Fra Bartolommeo (which was thought to have been painted c. 1498, yet while Savonarola was still alive). I wonder if the ascetic would have liked that he was represented in a sharp profile view and dark hood.

I know that Savonarola was opposed to pagan mythology and luxury items (i.e. "vanities"), but I would imagine that he was tolerant for other types of religious art. Does Weinstein discuss specifics regarding Savonarola's specifications (or condemnations) about art? Part of me wonders if he would have considered such a portrait of himself to be a luxury item.

Unknown said...

Hi M! I am aware some resources list it was painted while Savonarola was still alive, in the Weinstein volume it is listed as a posthumous portrait, created after his execution in May 1498.

There are descriptions of the historical aspects of Savonarola's war on images, especially the sections on Lorenzo Il Magnifico and the Bonfires.

For anyone seeking an account of artists responses to Savonarola's sermons against certain types of images, see Marcia B Hall's The Sacred Image in the Age of Art published in 2011 by Yale University Press, and also reviewed here at 3PP link


Ben J Hamilton said...

Hey thanks for the 'heads up' - I hadn't heard of this book. I've been a little cautious of the books on Savonarola that out on Amazon and other places - they didn't get great reviews.

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