Biography of Girolamo Savonarola

Girolamo Savonarola
Fra Bartolomeo/Wikimedia Commons

Savonarola was an Italian friar, preacher and religious reformer of the late fifteenth century. Thanks to his struggle against what he considered a corruption of Catholicism infesting Florence, and his refusal to bow to a Borgia Pope he considered much the same, he was burnt, but not after ruling Florence in a remarkable four years of Republican and moral reform.

Early Years

Savonarola was born in Ferrara on September 21st, 1452. His grandfather – a mildly famous moralist and trusted physician - educated him, and the boy studied medicine. However, in 1475 he entered the Dominican Friars in Bologna and began to teach and study scripture. Why exactly we don’t know, but a rejection over love and a spiritual depression are popular theories; his family objected. He took up a position in Florence – home of the Renaissance - in 1482. At this stage he wasn’t a successful speaker – he asked the guidance of famed humanist and rhetorician Garzon, but was rudely rejected – and remained bitterly disaffected at the world, even the Dominicans, but soon developed what would make him famous: prophecy. The people of Florence had turned away from his vocal shortcomings until he bought an apocalyptic, prophetic heart to his sermons.

In 1487 he returned to Bologna for assessment, failed to be selected for academic life, perhaps after disagreeing with his tutor, and from after that, he toured until ​Lorenzo de Medici secured his return to Florence. Lorenzo was turning to philosophy and theology to stave off a darkening mood, illness, and loss of loved ones, and he wanted a famed preacher to balance the hostile views of the Pope to Florence. Lorenzo was advised by the theologian and preacher Pico, who had met Savonarola and wanted to learn from him.​

Savonarola becomes the Voice of Florence

In 1491 Girolamo Savonarola became Prior of the Dominican House of S. Marco in Florence (set up by Cosimo de Medici and reliant on family money). His speech-making had developed, and thanks to a powerful charisma, a good way with words, and a very effective grasp of how to manipulate his audience, Savonarola became very popular very quickly. He was a reformer, a man who saw many things wrong with both Florence and the church, and he spelled this out in his sermons, calling for reform, attacking humanism, renaissance paganism, ‘bad’ rulers like the Medici; those who watched were often deeply moved.

Savonarola didn’t stop at just pointing out what he considered faults: he was the latest in a line of Florentine would be prophets, and he claimed Florence would fall to soldiers and their rulers were it not better led. His sermons on the apocalypse were hugely popular. The exact relation of Savonarola and Florence – whether its history affected his character more or less than his demagoguery affected the citizens – has been much debated, and the situation was more nuanced than just a man of words whipping people up: Savonarola had been deeply critical of Florence’s Medici rulers, but Lorenzo de Medici may have still called for Savonarola as the former was dying; the latter was there, but might have gone of his own accord. Savonarola was drawing huge crowds, and attendance at other preachers was falling.

Savonarola becomes Master of Florence

Lorenzo de Medici died two years before he, and his fellow rulers in Italy, faced a major threat: a French invasion which seemed on the verge of great conquests. Instead of Lorenzo, Florence had Piero de Medici, but he failed to react well enough (or even competently) to keep power; suddenly Florence had a gap at the top of its government. And at this very moment, Savonarola’s prophecies seemed to be coming true: he and the Florentine people felt he had been right, as a French army threatened a slaughter, and he accepted the citizen’s request to head a delegation to negotiate with France.

Suddenly he had become a leading rebel, and when he helped a Florentine agreement with France that saw a peaceful occupation and the army left, he was a hero. While Savonarola never held any office himself beyond that of his religious career, from 1494 to 1498 he was the de facto ruler of Florence: again and again, the city responded to what Savonarola preached, including creating a new government structure. Savonarola now offered more than the apocalypse, preaching hope and success for those who listened and reformed, but that if Florence faltered things would get dire.

Savonarola did not waste this power. He began a reform designed to make Florence more Republican, rewriting the constitution with places like Venice in the forefront of his mind. But Savonarola also saw a chance to reform the morals of Florence, and he preached against all manner of vices, from drinking, gambling, to types of sex and singing he didn’t like. He encouraged ‘Burning of the Vanities’, where items deemed inappropriate to a Christian republic were destroyed on mighty pyres, such as lewd artworks. The works of the humanists fell victim to this – although not in as great quantities as later remembered - not because Savonarola was against books or scholarship, but because of their influences from the ‘pagan’ past. Ultimately, Savonarola wanted Florence to become a true city of god, the heart of the church and Italy. He organized Florence’s children into a new unit that would report and fight against vice; some locals complained that Florence was in the grip of children. Savonarola insisted that Italy would be scourged, the papacy would be rebuilt, and the weapon would be France, and he kept allied to the French king when pragmatism suggested a turn to the Pope and the Holy League.

The Fall of Savonarola

Savonarola’s rule was divisive, and an opposition formed because Savonarola’s increasingly extreme position only increased people’s alienation. Savonarola was attacked by more than enemies within Florence: Pope Alexander VI, perhaps better known as Rodrigo Borgia, had been trying to unite Italy against the French, and excommunicated Savonarola for continuing to support the French and not obeying him; meanwhile, France made peace, abandoning Florence and leaving Savonarola embarrassed.

Alexander had tried to trap Savonarola in 1495, inviting him to Rome for a personal audience, but Savonarola had quickly realized and refused. Letters and orders flowed back and forth between Savonarola and the Pope, the former always refusing to bow. The Pope may have even offered to make Savonarola a Cardinal if he’d fall into line. After the excommunication, the Pope said the only way to lift it was for Savonarola to submit and Florence to join his sponsored League. Finally, Savonarola’s supporters grew too thin, the electorate too against him, the excommunication too much, an interdict in Florence threatened, and another faction got into power. The trigger point was a proposed trial by fire proposed by a rival preacher which, while Savonarola’s supporters technically won (rain stopped the fire), it had introduced enough doubt for his enemies to arrest him and his supporters, torture him, condemn him, and then publically hang and burn him in Florenco’s Piazza della Signoria.

His reputation has endured thanks to a group of passionate supporters who remain, five hundred years later, convinced of his Catholic belief and martyrdom, and wish for him to be a saint. We don’t know whether Savonarola was a clever schemer who saw the power of apocalyptic visions or an ill man who experienced hallucinations and used them effectively.

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Wilde, Robert. "Biography of Girolamo Savonarola." ThoughtCo, Oct. 2, 2021, Wilde, Robert. (2021, October 2). Biography of Girolamo Savonarola. Retrieved from Wilde, Robert. "Biography of Girolamo Savonarola." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 26, 2023).