Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library


Donald Weinstein
Copyright Date: 2011
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 352
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    Girolamo Savonarola, the fifteenth-century doom-saying friar, embraced the revolution of the Florentine republic and prophesied that it would become the center of a New Age of Christian renewal and world domination. This new biography, the culmination of many decades of study, presents an original interpretation of Savonarola's prophetic career and a highly nuanced assessment of his vision and motivations.

    Weinstein sorts out the multiple strands that connect Savonarola to his time and place, following him from his youthful rejection of a world he regarded as corrupt, to his engagement with that world to save it from itself, to his shattering confession-an admission that he had invented his prophesies and faked his visions. Was his confession sincere? A forgery circulated by his inquisitors? Or an attempt to escape bone-breaking torture? Weinstein offers a highly innovative analysis of the testimony to provide the first truly satisfying account of Savonarola and his fate as a failed prophet.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-17848-7
    Subjects: History, Religion

Table of Contents

Export Selected Citations Export to NoodleTools Export to RefWorks Export to EasyBib Export a RIS file (For EndNote, ProCite, Reference Manager, Zotero, Mendeley...) Export a Text file (For BibTex)
  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. A Note on Usages
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. Prologue
    (pp. 1-6)

    On the morning of May 23, 1498, Girolamo Savonarola and two fellow Dominican friars, Domenico da Pescia and Silvestro Maruffi, were hanged and burned in the main square of Florence, the city they had hailed as the New Jerusalem (see Fig. 1). Relentless interrogation and bone-breaking torture had wrung incriminating admissions from each of them, most devastatingly from Savonarola, the triumvirate’s leader. In a written statement read by an official to a perplexed and uneasy public, fra Girolamo declared that his prophecies of Florentine glory and Christian renewal were bogus, inspired not by God but by his own ambition for...

  6. CHAPTER 1 The Making of a Moralist
    (pp. 7-15)

    The man hanged and burned as a false prophet in Florence in 1498 was born in Ferrara on September 21, 1452, and christened Girolamo Maria Francesco Matteo Savonarola. He was the third of the seven children of Niccolò Savonarola and Elena Bonacossi. Niccolò and his four brothers had moved to Ferrara from Padua in 1440 when their father, Michele, accepted an invitation to become court physician to Niccolò d’Este. Although most of the Savonarola men were merchants, physicians, lawyers, and clerics, the family had a slender connection to old Paduan aristocracy through Antonio Savonarola, a military captain in the thirteenth-century...

  7. CHAPTER 2 The Making of a Preacher
    (pp. 16-27)

    The genius of the Dominican Order lay in its potent fusion ofvita contemplativa and vita activa, thought and action.¹ The friars lived under a modified form of the Augustinian Rule, taking the triple vow of poverty, chastity, and obedience and following a daily liturgical round of prayer and choir song, but unlike most monks they did not support themselves by the labor of their hands or shut themselves inside cloister walls. Their main mission, as their official title, Order of Friars Preachers, indicates, was to go forth into the world to preach.

    In 1203 the Castilian canon regular Dominic...

  8. CHAPTER 3 The Making of a Prophet
    (pp. 28-41)

    The friars of San Marco, went the cliché, ate the bread of the Medici. Vespasiano da Bisticci, the Florentine book dealer-biographer, wrote that Cosimo’s patronage of San Marco began with a midlife crisis of conscience. When Cosimo asked his friend Pope Eugenius IV how he might earn God’s pardon for his sins and still keep his worldly possessions the pontiff replied that he should spend 10,000 florins on alterations to the Convent of San Marco, transferred by papal decree to the Dominicans of the Observance in 1436.¹ Cosimo agreed, and after the first building project was completed Eugenius duly issued...

  9. CHAPTER 4 Florence and the Medici
    (pp. 42-53)

    Afifteenth-century traveler entered Florence through one of its massive gates, made his way through noisy, malodorous streets walled in by multistoried houses with overhanging roofs and teeming with people of every class and calling: gentlemen in doublet and hose, silk-gowned ladies with retinues of servants and exotic slaves, long-robed, sandaled clerics, grimy laborers, beggars, hawkers, cutpurses, flesh peddlers, and gangs of rowdy youths. Passing shops, street corner tabernacles, churches, and formal residential doorways, he soon neared the city’s monumental center. In just twenty or thirty minutes the visitor would have retraced in the city’s dense fabric more than two centuries...

  10. CHAPTER 5 The Magnificent Lorenzo
    (pp. 54-63)

    Cosimo died in 1464, hailed asPater Patriae, Father of His Country and defender of its liberty.¹ Although his operatives expected a smooth transition of power to his son Piero, they were caught off guard by a group of citizens “who were having second thoughts about how this land is to be governed.”² Two years of ineffectual wrangling over control of offices and the expensive alliance with Milan induced a group of 400 citizens led by the patrician Luca Pitti to swear an oath to uphold republican freedoms. Amid rumors of an anti-Medici conspiracy, Pitti insisted that a Parlamento be...

  11. CHAPTER 6 Bologna to Florence
    (pp. 64-74)

    When Savonarola looked back over his prophetic apostolate, each phase seemed to flow smoothly into the next to form a coherent whole, its central meaning his God-appointed mission to Florence. Yet his actual progress was more complicated. During the time he was struggling to improve his preaching skills, and even as he was taking his first apocalyptic soundings, he was expecting to return to Bologna to resume his preparations for an academic post. When he left Florence in 1487 it was not, as some of his myth-making hagiographers had it, because his prophecies had angered Lorenzo de’ Medici. Neither Lorenzo...

  12. CHAPTER 7 Lo, the Sword of God!
    (pp. 75-93)

    Plodding the dusty mountain road to Florence in the heat of early summer, fra Girolamo stopped, exhausted, at the Apennine town of Pianoro. There an angel in the form of a man helped him to rest and refreshment, then accompanied him on his journey. At Florence’s San Gallo Gate the mysterious stranger left him with this charge: “Do what God has sent you to Florence to do.” (Pseudo-Burlamacchi said he heard this story from Savonarola’s devoted colleague fra Bartolomeo da Faenza who said he had it from fra Girolamo himself.)¹

    After his arrival, in May or June of 1490, Savonarola...

  13. CHAPTER 8 The New Cyrus
    (pp. 94-104)

    On October 13, 1492, a Genoese sea captain named Cristoforo Colombo, sailing under the royal flag of Spain, reached the Western Hemisphere, soon to be called the New World. His countrymen, preoccupied with events closer to home, scarcely noticed.¹ The deaths of Lorenzo de’ Medici the previous April and of Pope Innocent VIII in July, followed in August by the notoriously corrupt election of Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia as Pope Alexander VI, were being seen as auguries of evil times. Whether those evils would be self-inflicted or come from abroad was a matter of opinion, depending upon one’s location on the...

  14. Illustrations
    (pp. None)
  15. CHAPTER 9 Liberty!
    (pp. 105-114)

    Arevenge-minded French king poised with a fearsome army on the border of Tuscany was final proof to the Florentines of Piero de’ Medici’s disastrous leadership. Piero had disappointed both the ottimati, who had expected to recover some of their power after Lorenzo’s death, and the popolo, who had vainly hoped for relief from oppressive taxes. The more his senior advisors urged him to restore the vita civile (for many of them a euphemism for oligarchic rule), the more Piero relied on career bureaucrats—notaries and career officials, many from the provinces. These functionaries were sneered at by aristocrats and common...

  16. CHAPTER 10 The Ark and the Flood
    (pp. 115-131)

    The Flood reached the city the following day, November 17, about five in the evening. French infantrymen with lance and shield came first, then crossbowmen, pikemen, sappers, mounted crossbowmen, archers, richly costumed and decorated men at arms, and still more archers. Then, in full armor, the king himself, lance on hip and canopy overhead—the pose and symbols of a conqueror. At the San Frediano Gate Charles and his barons were greeted by Florentine dignitaries and prominent citizens, dressed sumptuously “in the French manner.” Welcoming speeches were delivered and acknowledged. Although the main French force had gone ahead to Siena,...

  17. CHAPTER 11 Toward the New Jerusalem
    (pp. 132-147)

    On November 9 rival ottimati had put their differences aside to join in revolt against the feckless tyranny of Piero de’ Medici. They had soon divided over the question of how the freed republic was to be governed. Those determined to preserve the hereditary prerogatives of their class rallied behind Piero Capponi, chief spokesman for a government of notables (governo stretto). Others from equally prominent families, including Paolantonio Soderini, Giovambattista Ridolfi, and Piero Guicciardini, variously inspired by republican idealism, religious excitement, and political expediency, decided the time had come for a more extensive distribution of power (governo largo). Joining forces...

  18. CHAPTER 12 The Virgin and the Republic of Virtue
    (pp. 148-163)

    Savonarola’s call to pray to the Virgin Mary was the prelude to one of the more spectacular visionary episodes of his apostolate. On March 24, the vigil of the Feast of the Annunciation, he announced his intention to go to Mary’s heavenly throne to ask her to intercede with God on behalf of the city. The next day, Florence’s New Year, he reported that the Holy Mother had assured him (by what medium he did not explain) that she would receive him kindly.¹ He gave an account of the journey on April 1, but since we have no adequate text...

  19. CHAPTER 13 The Pope Summons
    (pp. 164-173)

    Pope Alexander VI had tolerated Savonarola’s denunciations of immorality in the church hierarchy and the Roman curia. He was even curious about the Frate’s prophecies. But the Florentines’ refusal to abandon the French alliance alerted the pope to his political influence, and he became more receptive to the warnings of Cardinal Sforza of Milan and fra Mariano da Genazzano. The Dominican was not merely annoying but dangerous.

    Savonarola tried to forestall the coming storm by writing to the pope in his own defense. His first letter, now lost, initiated an extended epistolary pas de deux. Alexander’s answering brief of July...

  20. CHAPTER 14 Obstacles to the Spirit
    (pp. 174-182)

    He comes neither to preach nor to prophesy but “to talk reasonably with the people.” Still, he begins on a combative note: he will review his troops and prepare for battle, for what is human life but battle? The true Christian must constantly fight against the obstacles to the spirit. This morning he is concerned with another kind of obstacle to the spirit, the enemy within, the grumblers, malcontents, and Arrabbiati who complain of the new popular government and want to remove him by writing to Rome. As an army must have its captain, Florence has Christ for its king,...

  21. CHAPTER 15 Mobilizing the Children
    (pp. 183-195)

    In building the New Jerusalem in Florence one of Savonarola’s greatest challenges was its children.¹ Gangs of boys (fanciulli) and young men harassed passersby, especially women, and fought pitched battles in the streets. Gang rape was not uncommon. Policing was ineffectual—poorly paid and barely professional. Fathers might deplore the rowdiness of their sons but used it when it served their purposes, as they had done in the recent anti-Medicean and anti-Jewish rioting, in which boys had played a prominent role. Savonarola charged that adult men not only exploited the violent tendencies of the city’s youth, they were agents of...

  22. CHAPTER 16 I Can’t Live without Preaching
    (pp. 196-208)

    “Well, we’re still here; we haven’t run away. By now they should be content with all the lies they’ve told. They say we’ve carried off a lot of money. Too bad for you, Florentines; you didn’t know how to catch me!”¹

    With this verbal snap of his fingers at the latest calumny in circulation, fra Girolamo resumed preaching in the Cathedral on May 8, 1496. He returned in defiance of the papal ban, though apparently with the permission of the Eight, to shore up his “brigade,” encourage his followers in their faith, and urge everyone to confess and take communion...

  23. CHAPTER 17 The Tail Acquires a Head
    (pp. 209-216)

    Whether by divine intervention or the vagaries of Tyrrhenian coastal winds, Maximilian’s landing had failed. The Florentines could breathe a little easier. But in Rome a snare was being set for the prophet himself. On November 7, just as the storms were playing havoc with the imperial fleet, Pope Alexander VI issued a breve creating a new province of reformed Roman and Tuscan Dominican convents.¹ In this new Tusco-Roman Congregation there were to be sixteen houses from Rome, Lazio, Umbria, and Tuscany. These would include San Marco of Florence, San Domenico of Fiesole, and the other convents that four years...

  24. CHAPTER 18 Burning the Vanities
    (pp. 217-225)

    Carnival was the time for shedding everyday restraints and flouting moral norms before entering the penitential season of Lent.¹ In Florence giant comic figures and elaborate floats with mythological and satirical tableaux shared the streets with masked citizens who drank, danced, cavorted, and sang licentious songs, the notoriousCanti Carnascialeschi.² Naturally fra Girolamo deplored all this: to him these were pagan antics and the quintessence of the Medici’s poisonous legacy. By substituting acts of piety, charity, and reverence, Florentines would transform Carnival into a fitting prelude to holy Lent. Carnival songs, either composed for the occasion or reworked from those...

  25. CHAPTER 19 Excommunicated!
    (pp. 226-240)

    In the Ascension Day imbroglio the Piagnoni had overreacted to a simple prank by two young mischief makers, so thought Piero Parenti. Observing that no Savonarolans had been punished for violating the law against carrying weapons in the street, Parenti concluded that they had lost none of their political power.¹ But the Piagnoni had reason to feel vulnerable. The ban on preaching deprived them of their most effective weapon; Charles VIII’s abandonment of his assigned messianic mission left them without earthly protectors; and although Savonarola himself might believe he was answerable to God alone, the order creating the Tusco-Roman Congregation...

  26. CHAPTER 20 Defiance
    (pp. 241-249)

    During the plague-ridden August of 1497 the discovery of another plot to restore Piero de’ Medici added to the sense of a city under siege. As a ready weapon of political warfare the charge of conspiracy had become dulled through overuse, but this case was extraordinary in the prominence of the accused. It began with Lamberto dell’ Antella, the petty intriguer already under the ban for his contacts with Medici exiles. When Lamberto was heard to boast that he had valuable information regarding Piero, he was lured back into Florentine territory and immediately arrested. Under torture he claimed to know...

  27. CHAPTER 21 Exodus
    (pp. 250-266)

    He expounded Exodus, the story of the liberation of the Israelites from bondage in Egypt. Just as they had escaped Pharaoh’s tribulations and persecutions, so, he promised, would the Florentines, the latter-day people of God, be delivered from their enemies. They too would cross the Red Sea unharmed and Pharaoh would be unable to harm them.¹ He was Moses, not only their prophet and lawgiver, but their champion and protector as well. Pharaoh had ordered him to be silent, but to lead his people out of bondage he must preach. His Holiness, he declared, must have been misinformed, for he...

  28. CHAPTER 22 Trial by Fire
    (pp. 267-276)

    Within days of fra Girolamo’s farewell sermon, the whirlwind he had loosed reached into the convent of San Marco and pulled him back into the world. It came as a demand for a miracle. On March 25, the Franciscan Francesco di Puglia electrified his Santa Croce congregation by offering to settle the controversy over Savonarola’s excommunication with a trial by fire. He had first proposed the test the previous Lent in a sermon in Prato, but when it seemed that fra Domenico da Pescia, also preaching in Prato, would accept the challenge, fra Francesco had hurried back to Florence. With...

  29. CHAPTER 23 Despair and Hope
    (pp. 277-292)

    With Frateschi leaders too frightened to show themselves in public, Savonarola’s enemies held the field. But to do what? In a pratica of April 9 Guidantonio Vespucci and Bernardo Rucellai said the three friars should be sent to Rome for trial. Most of their colleagues strenuously disagreed: this was a matter to be dealt with at home and put behind them as speedily as possible. Too much time would be lost waiting for Rome to act. By keeping the investigation in Florence they could control it, with minimum damage to civic interests and individual reputations. As for papal permission, one...

  30. CHAPTER 24 Silence
    (pp. 293-297)

    That same night fra Girolamo was notified that he had been condemned to die. He received the news in silence, then fell on his knees to pray. Requesting a confessor, he was sent Don Alessandro, a Benedictine monk from the Badia Fiorentina. He was also attended by Jacopo Niccolini, of the Company of the Neri, the fraternity of laymen dedicated to comforting the condemned awaiting execution. Around midnight he asked to be allowed to meet with fra Silvestro and fra Domenico, who had also received their death sentences. After Niccolini had consulted with his jailors the request was granted.


  31. CHAPTER 25 Echoes
    (pp. 298-310)

    After the fire had done its work came measures to snuff out the memory of the fallen prophet. Church and state joined in meting out prison terms, banishments, and fines to the most prominent keepers of the flame, both lay and clerical. To possess Savonarola’s writings was a criminal offence. His books were to be surrendered, confiscated, destroyed. The San Marco friars were forbidden to discuss his teachings among themselves or with laymen, or even to utter the terms “Piagnone” or “Compagnaccio.” San Marco and its allied houses were enjoined from conducting services and ceremonies in memory of their three...

  32. CHAPTER 26 Afterwords
    (pp. 311-318)

    Listening to Savonarola preach during the embattled days of March 1498, Niccolò Machiavelli decided he was a crafty and dishonest opportunist (“he keeps changing with the times and coloring his lies to suit them”). Machiavelli never softened this withering appraisal and seldom mentioned Savonarola’s claim to be a prophet without a verbal wink. In hisFirst Decennaleof 1504, a verse history of Florence’s most recent decade of travail, his depiction of fra Girolamo was just this side of mockery: he was “the capon” whose voice was heard amongst a hundred roosters (galli,or Frenchmen), that “gran Savonerola” filled with...

  33. Notes
    (pp. 319-362)
  34. Selected Bibliography
    (pp. 363-368)
  35. Index
    (pp. 369-379)