Savonarola: Biography & Overview

Instructor: Erica Cummings

Erica teaches college Humanities, Literature, and Writing classes and has a Master's degree in Humanities.

Savonarola was a controversial yet passionate figure in Renaissance Florence. Read this lesson to learn more about what he accomplished in his relatively short lifetime.

What was Savonarola?

Preacher. Reformer. Martyr. Throughout his lifetime (1452-1498), Girolamo Savonarola would perform these roles and more in Renaissance Florence. His passion and ambition were undeniable, even if he became a controversial figure.

Savonarola envisioned a church free from corruption and a society free from immorality, and he worked tirelessly to enact religious, social, and political reforms in Florence. He would become both loved and hated for these reforms, and scholars still debate whether his reforms were a benefit or a hindrance to Florentine society.

Painting of Savonarola
Painting of Savonarola

The Preacher

Savonarola was born in Ferrara, Italy, in 1452, and he initially studied medicine as several of his family members had done. However, even as a very young man, Savonarola had always been preoccupied with the moral state of Renaissance, Italy. Therefore, in 1475, he abandoned his medical studies in order to join the Dominican order in San Domenico in hopes of strengthening his own faith and learning how to reform society.

Savonarola immersed himself in studying the Bible and the Christian theologian, Aquinas. During this time, he developed a disgust for corruption in the Church, a distrust of the Medici family (who ruled Florence at the time), and a repugnance to societal immorality. But he was not completely disheartened; he believed that moral reforms could restore Florence to an idealistic, godly society.

With this passion, Savonarola became a teacher and preacher at a convent in Florence. Though some people thought Savonarola was too brash, he gained quite a following in the 1480s and the 1490s. He chastised the rich for exploiting the poor, and he criticized many political and religious leaders for their corruption. He also argued that material possessions and sexual immorality would keep someone from a fruitful relationship with God. Savonarola warned that this cumulative corruption and immorality would destroy the church and could even bring about the apocalypse. The only way to avoid God's wrath, according to Savonarola, was austerity, penitence, and religious devotion.

Furthermore, Savonarola prophesied that a ruler would soon invade, giving Florence a chance to reset itself. Many believed that prophesy was fulfilled when the French king Charles VIII did in fact invade Italy in 1494. The Medici rulers of Florence seemed inept in dealing with Charles VIII, so they were hence driven out of Florence. The departure of the Medici from Florence and the arrival of Charles VIII seemed, to Savonarola, the opportune time to enact the reforms he had been preaching.

Painting of Savonarola Preaching
Painting of Savonarola Preaching

The Reformer

After the Medici left, many reformers, including Savonarola, created a new kind of government in Florence. With Savonarola's guidance, Florence established a theocratic democracy designed to expunge all social and political immorality. Savonarola was not technically a political leader, but many of these reforms were passed with his support.

A new constitution enabled more people to partake in government. In addition, several laws were passed that punished immodesty, sodomy, adultery, drunkenness, and other social vices. Savonarola even organized a group of his followers to patrol the streets and enforce these morality laws.

Savonarola prophesied that this political and spiritual reformation could make Florence into a thriving, godly city, as long as the people did not return to their wicked ways. His message contained both apocalyptic warnings against vices and positive messages of hope. He was compelling to say the least, and he developed a strong group of followers known as the piagnoni.

Savonarola's sermons in the 1490s were so powerful that he convinced many people to burn some of their material possessions--like fancy clothing, jewelry, and even playing cards!--in what came to be known as the bonfires of the vanities. Some scholars argue that Savonarola compelled people to burn secular paintings and books, but it is unclear how many works of art were actually burned.

The Martyr

Like most popular figures, Savonarola gained enemies even while his popularity with the public was growing. First of all, Church leadership, including the Pope himself, did not appreciate Savonarola's constant (and often warranted) criticism. Pope Alexander VI tried to bribe Savonarola into silence, and he even forbade Savonarola from preaching. Savonarola, of course, would not be silenced for long, and in 1497, he was accused of heresy and finally excommunicated from the Church.

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