Savonarola : Unsuccessful Reforms – Beacon Lights of History, Volume VI : Renaissance and Reformation by John Lord

Beacon Lights of History, Volume VI : Renaissance and Reformation by John Lord

Beacon Lights of History, Volume VI : Renaissance and Reformation

Dante : Rise of Modern Poetry
Geoffrey Chaucer : English Life in the Fourteenth Century
Christopher Columbus : Maritime Discoveries
Savonarola : Unsuccessful Reforms
Michael Angelo : The Revival of Art
Martin Luther : The Protestant Reformation
Thomas Cranmer : The English Reformation
Ignatius Loyola : Rise and Influence of the Jesuits
John Calvin : Protestant Theology
Lord Bacon : The New Philosophy
Galileo : Astronomical Discoveries

Beacon Lights of History, Volume VI : Renaissance and Reformation
John Lord

Topics Covered
The age of Savonarola
Revival of Classic Literature
Ecclesiastical corruptions
Religious apathy; awakened intelligence; infidel spirit
Youth of Savonarola
His piety
Begins to preach
His success at Florence
Peculiarities of his eloquence
Death of Lorenzo de’ Medici
Savonarola as a political leader
Denunciation of tyranny
His influence in giving a constitution to the Florentines
Difficulties of Constitution-making
His method of teaching political science
Peculiarities of the new Rule
Its great wisdom
Savonarola as reformer
As moralist
Terrible denunciation of sin in high places
A prophet of woe
Contrast between Savonarola and Luther
The sermons of Savonarola
His marvellous eloquence
Its peculiarities
The enemies of Savonarola
Savonarola persecuted
His appeal to Europe
The people desert him
Months of torment
His martyrdom
His character
His posthumous influence

Savonarola : Unsuccessful Reforms

A.D. 1452-1498.

This lecture is intended to set forth a memorable movement in the Roman Catholic Church,–a reformation of morals, preceding the greater movement of Luther to produce a reformation of both morals and doctrines. As the representative of this movement I take Savonarola, concerning whom much has of late been written; more, I think, because he was a Florentine in a remarkable age,–the age of artists and of reviving literature,–than because he was a martyr, battling with evils which no one man was capable of removing. His life was more a protest than a victory. He was an unsuccessful reformer, and yet he prepared the way for that religious revival which afterward took place in the Catholic Church itself. His spirit was not revolutionary, like that of the Saxon monk, and yet it was progressive. His soul was in active sympathy with every emancipating idea of his age. He was the incarnation of a fervid, living, active piety amid forms and formulas, a fearless exposer of all shams, an uncompromising enemy to the blended atheism and idolatry of his ungodly age. He was the contemporary of political, worldly, warlike, unscrupulous popes, disgraced by nepotism and personal vices,–men who aimed to extend not a spiritual but temporal dominion, and who scandalized the highest position in the Christian world, as attested by all reliable historians, whether Catholic or Protestant. However infallible the Catholic Church claims to be, it has never been denied that some of her highest dignitaries have been subject to grave reproaches, both in their character and their influence. Such men were Sixtus IV., Julius II., and Alexander VI.,–able, probably, for it is very seldom that the popes have not been distinguished for something, but men, nevertheless, who were a disgrace to the superb position they had succeeded in reaching.

The great feature of that age was the revival of classical learning and artistic triumphs in sculpture, painting, and architecture, blended with infidel levity and social corruptions, so that it is both interesting and hideous. It is interesting for its triumphs of genius, its dispersion of the shadows of the Middle Ages, the commencement of great enterprises and of a marked refinement of manners and tastes; it is hideous for its venalities, its murders, its debaucheries, its unblushing wickedness, and its disgraceful levities, when God and duty and self-restraint were alike ignored. Cruel tyrants reigned in cities, and rapacious priests fattened on the credulity of the people. Think of monks itinerating Europe to sell indulgences for sin; of monasteries and convents filled, not with sublime enthusiasts as in earlier times, but with gluttons and sensualists, living in concubinage and greedy of the very things which primitive monasticism denounced and abhorred! Think of boys elevated to episcopal thrones, and the sons of popes made cardinals and princes! Think of churches desecrated by spectacles which were demoralizing, and a worship of saints and images which had become idolatrous,–a degrading superstition among the people, an infidel apathy among the higher classes: not infidel speculations, for these were reserved for more enlightened times, but an indifference to what is ennobling, to all vital religion, worthy of the Sophists in the time of Socrates!

It was in this age of religious apathy and scandalous vices, yet of awakening intelligence and artistic glories, when the greatest enthusiasm was manifested for the revived literature and sculptured marbles of classic Greece and Rome, that Savonarola appeared in Florence as a reformer and preacher and statesman, near the close of the fifteenth century, when Columbus was seeking a western passage to India; when Michael Angelo was moulding the “Battle of Hercules with the Centaurs;” when Ficino was teaching the philosophy of Plato; when Alexander VI. was making princes of his natural children; when Bramante was making plans for a new St. Peter’s; when Cardinal Bembo was writing Latin essays; when Lorenzo de’ Medici was the flattered patron of both scholars and artists, and the city over which he ruled with so much magnificence was the most attractive place in Europe, next to that other city on the banks of the Tiber, whose wonders and glories have never been exhausted, and will probably survive the revolutions of unknown empires.

Savonarola From the statue by E. Pazzi, Uffizi Gallery, Florence

Savonarola From the statue by E. Pazzi, Uffizi Gallery, Florence

But Savonarola was not a native of Florence. He was born in the year 1452 at Ferrara, belonged to a good family, and received an expensive education, being destined to the profession of medicine. He was a sad, solitary, pensive, but precocious young man, whose youth was marked by an unfortunate attachment to a haughty Florentine girl. He did not cherish her memory and dedicate to her a life-labor, like Dante, but became very dejected and very pious. His piety assumed, of course, the ascetic type, for there was scarcely any other in that age, and he entered a Dominican convent, as Luther, a few years later, entered an Augustinian. But he was not an original genius, or a bold and independent thinker like Luther, so he was not emancipated from the ideas of his age. How few men can go counter to prevailing ideas! It takes a prodigious genius, and a fearless, inquiring mind, to break away from their bondage. Abraham could renounce the idolatries which surrounded him, when called by a supernatural voice; Paul could give up the Phariseeism which-reigned in the Jewish schools and synagogues, when stricken blind by the hand of God; Luther could break away from monastic rules and papal denunciation, when taught by the Bible the true ground of justification,–but Savonarola could not. He pursued the path to heaven in the beaten track, after the fashion of Jerome and Bernard and Thomas Aquinas, after the style of the Middle Ages, and was sincere, devout, and lofty, like the saints of the fifth century, and read his Bible as they did, and essayed a high religious life; but he was stern, gloomy, and austere, emaciated by fasts and self-denial. He had, however, those passive virtues which Mediaeval piety ever enjoined,–yea, which Christ himself preached upon the Mount, and which Protestantism, in the arrogance of reason, is in danger of losing sight of,–humility, submission, and contempt of material gains. He won the admiration of his superiors for his attainments and his piety, being equally versed in Aristotle and the Holy Scriptures. He delighted most in the Old Testament heroes and prophets, and caught their sternness and invective.

He was not so much interested in dogmas as he was in morals. He had not, indeed, a turn of mind for theology, like Anselm and Calvin; but he took a practical view of the evils of society. At thirty years of age he began to preach in Ferrara and Florence, but was not very successful. His sermons at first created but little interest, and he sometimes preached to as few as twenty-five people. Probably he was too rough and vehement to suit the fastidious ears of the most refined city in Italy. People will not ordinarily bear uncouthness from preachers, however gifted, until they have earned a reputation; they prefer pretty and polished young men with nothing but platitudes or extravagances to utter. Savonarola seems to have been discouraged and humiliated at his failure, and was sent to preach to the rustic villagers, amid the mountains near Sienna. Among these people he probably felt more at home; and he gave vent to the fire within him and electrified all who heard him, winning even the admiration of the celebrated Prince of Mirandola. From this time his fame spread rapidly, he was recalled to Florence, 1490, and his great career commenced. In the following year such crowds pressed to hear him that the church of St. Mark, connected with the Dominican convent to which he was attached, could not contain the people, and he repaired to the cathedral. And even that spacious church was filled with eager listeners,–more moved than delighted. So great was his popularity, that his influence correspondingly increased and he was chosen prior of his famous convent.

He now wielded power as well as influence, and became the most marked man of the city. He was not only the most eloquent preacher in Italy, probably in the world, but his eloquence was marked by boldness, earnestness, almost fierceness. Like an ancient prophet, he was terrible in his denunciation of vices. He spared no one, and he feared no one. He resembled Chrysostom at Constantinople, when he denounced the vanity of Eudoxia and the venality of Eutropius. Lorenzo de’ Medici, the absolute lord of Florence, sent for him, and expostulated and remonstrated with the unsparing preacher,–all to no effect. And when the usurper of his country’s liberties was dying, the preacher was again sent for, this time to grant an absolution. But Savonarola would grant no absolution unless Lorenzo would restore the liberties which he and his family had taken away. The dying tyrant was not prepared to accede to so haughty a demand, and, collecting his strength, rolled over on his bed without saying a word, and the austere monk wended his way back to his convent, unmolested and determined.

Savonarola Preaching in Denunciation of Luxury, Vice and Corruption in Florence. End of XV Century. After painting (1879) by Ludwig Von Langenmantel

Savonarola Preaching in Denunciation of Luxury, Vice and Corruption in Florence. End of XV Century. After painting (1879) by Ludwig Von Langenmantel

The premature death of this magnificent prince made a great sensation throughout Italy, and produced a change in the politics of Florence, for the people began to see their political degradation. The popular discontents were increased when his successor, Pietro, proved himself incapable and tyrannical, abandoned himself to orgies, and insulted the leading citizens by an overwhelming pride. Savonarola took the side of the people, and fanned the discontents. He became the recognized leader of opposition to the Medici, and virtually ruled the city.

The Prior of St. Mark now appeared in a double light,–as a political leader and as a popular preacher. Let us first consider him in his secular aspect, as a revolutionist and statesman,–for the admirable constitution he had a principal hand in framing entitles him to the dignity of statesman rather than politician. If his cause had not been good, and if he had not appealed to both enlightened and patriotic sentiments, he would have been a demagogue; for a demagogue and a mere politician are synonymous, and a clerical demagogue is hideous.

Savonarola began his political career with terrible denunciations, from his cathedral pulpit, of the political evils of his day, not merely in Florence but throughout Italy. He detested tyrants and usurpers, and sought to conserve such liberties as the Florentines had once enjoyed. He was not only the preacher, he was also the patriot. Things temporal were mixed up with things spiritual in his discourses. In his detestation of the tyranny of the Medici, and his zeal to recover for the Florentines their lost liberties, he even hailed the French armies of Charles VIII. as deliverers, although they had crossed the Alps to invade and conquer Italy. If the gates of Florence were open to them, they would expel the Medici. So he stimulated the people to league with foreign enemies in order to recover their liberties. This would have been high treason in Richelieu’s time,–as when the Huguenots encouraged the invasion of the English on the soil of France. Savonarola was a zealot, and carried the same spirit into politics that he did into religion,–such as when he made a bonfire of what he called vanities. He had an end to carry: he would use any means. There is apt to be a spirit of Jesuitism in all men consumed with zeal, determined on success. To the eye of the Florentine reformer, the expulsion of the Medici seemed the supremest necessity; and if it could be done in no other way than by opening the gates of his city to the French invaders, he would open the gates. Whatever he commanded from the pulpit was done by the people, for he seemed to have supreme control over them, gained by his eloquence as a preacher. But he did not abuse his power. When the Medici were expelled, he prevented violence; blood did not flow in the streets; order and law were preserved. The people looked up to him as their leader, temporal as well as spiritual. So he assembled them in the great hall of the city, where they formally held a parlemento, and reinstated the ancient magistrates. But these were men without experience. They had no capacity to govern, and they were selected without wisdom on the part of the people. The people, in fact, had not the ability to select their best and wisest men for rulers. That is an evil inherent in all popular governments. Does San Francisco or New York send its greatest men to Congress? Do not our cities elect such rulers as the demagogues point out? Do not the few rule, even in a Congregational church? If some commanding genius, unscrupulous or wise or eloquent or full of tricks, controls elections with us, much more easily could such a man as Savonarola rule in Florence, where there were no political organizations, no caucuses, no wirepullers, no other man of commanding ability. The only opinion-maker was this preacher, who indicated the general policy to be pursued. He left elections to the people; and when these proved a failure, a new constitution became a necessity. But where were the men capable of framing a constitution for the republic? Two generations of political slavery had destroyed political experience. The citizens were as incapable of framing a new constitution as the legislators of France after they had decimated the nobility, confiscated the Church lands, and cut off the head of the king. The lawyers disputed in the town hall, but accomplished nothing.

Their science amounted only to an analysis of human passion. All wanted a government entirely free from tyranny; all expected impossibilities. Some were in favor of a Venetian aristocracy, and others of a pure democracy; yet none would yield to compromise, without which no permanent political institution can ever be framed. How could the inexperienced citizens of Florence comprehend the complicated relations of governments? To make a constitution that the world respects requires the highest maturity of human wisdom. It is the supremest labor of great men. It took the ablest man ever born among the Jews to give to them a national polity. The Roman constitution was the fruit of five hundred years’ experience. Our constitution was made by the wisest, most dignified, most enlightened body of statesmen that this country has yet seen, and even they could not have made it without great mutual concessions. No one man could have made a constitution, however great his talents and experience,–not even a Jefferson or a Hamilton,–which the nation would have accepted. It would have been as full of defects as the legislation of Solon or Lycurgus or the Abbé Sieyès. But one man gave a constitution to the Florentines, which they not only accepted, but which has been generally admired for its wisdom; and that man was our Dominican monk. The hand he had in shaping that constitution not only proved him to have been a man of great wisdom, but entitled him to the gratitude of his countrymen as a benefactor. He saw the vanity of political science as it then existed, the incapacity of popular leaders, and the sadness of a people drifting into anarchy and confusion; and, strong in his own will and his sense of right, he rose superior to himself, and directed the stormy elements of passion and fear. And this he did by his sermons from the pulpit,–for he did not descend, in person, into the stormy arena of contending passions and interests. He did not himself attend the deliberations in the town hall; he was too wise and dignified a man for that. But he preached those principles and measures which he wished to see adopted; and so great was the reverence for him that the people listened to his instructions, and afterward deliberated and acted among themselves. He did not write out a code, but he told the people what they should put into it. He was the animating genius of the city; his voice was obeyed. He unfolded the theory that the government of one man, in their circumstances, would become tyrannical; and he taught the doctrine, then new, that the people were the only source of power,–that they alone had the right to elect their magistrates. He therefore recommended a general government, which should include all citizens who had intelligence, experience, and position,–not all the people, but such as had been magistrates, or their fathers before them. Accordingly, a grand council was formed of three thousand citizens, out of a population of ninety thousand who had reached the age of twenty-nine. These three thousand citizens were divided into three equal bodies, each of which should constitute a council for six months and no meeting was legal unless two-thirds of the members were present. This grand council appointed the magistrates. But another council was also recommended and adopted, of only eighty citizens not under forty years of age,–picked men, to be changed every six months, whom the magistrates were bound to consult weekly, and to whom was confided the appointment of some of the higher officers of the State, like ambassadors to neighboring States. All laws proposed by the magistrates, or seigniory, had to be ratified by this higher and selecter council. The higher council was a sort of Senate, the lower council were more like Representatives. But there was no universal suffrage. The clerical legislator knew well enough that only the better and more intelligent part of the people were fit to vote, even in the election of magistrates. He seems to have foreseen the fatal rock on which all popular institutions are in danger of being wrecked,–that no government is safe and respected when the people who make it are ignorant and lawless. So the constitution which Savonarola gave was neither aristocratic nor democratic. It resembled that of Venice more than that of Athens, that of England more than that of the United States. Strictly universal suffrage is a Utopian dream wherever a majority of the people are wicked and degraded. Sooner or later it threatens to plunge any nation, as nations now are, into a whirlpool of dangers, even if Divine Providence may not permit a nation to be stranded and wrecked altogether. In the politics of Savonarola we see great wisdom, and yet great sympathy for freedom. He would give the people all that they were fit for. He would make all offices elective, but only by the suffrages of the better part of the people.

But the Prior of St. Mark did not confine himself to constitutional questions and issues alone. He would remove all political abuses; he would tax property, and put an end to forced loans and arbitrary imposts; he would bring about a general pacification, and grant a general amnesty for political offences; he would guard against the extortions of the rich, and the usury of the Jews, who lent money at thirty-three per cent, with compound interest; he secured the establishment of a bank for charitable loans; he sought to make the people good citizens, and to advance their temporal as well as spiritual interests. All his reforms, political or social, were advocated, however, from the pulpit; so that he was doubtless a political priest. We, in this country and in these times, have no very great liking to this union of spiritual and temporal authority: we would separate and divide this authority. Protestants would make the functions of the ruler and the priest forever distinct. But at that time the popes themselves were secular rulers, as well as spiritual dignitaries. All bishops and abbots had the charge of political interests. Courts of law were presided over by priests. Priests were ambassadors to foreign powers; they were ministers of kings; they had the control of innumerable secular affairs, now intrusted to laymen. So their interference with politics did not shock the people of Florence, or the opinions of the age. It was indeed imperatively called for, since the clergy were the most learned and influential men of those times, even in affairs of state. I doubt if the Catholic Church has ever abrogated or ignored her old right to meddle in the politics of a state or nation. I do not know, but apprehend, that the Catholic clergy even in this country take it upon themselves to instruct the people in their political duties. No enlightened Protestant congregation would endure this interference. No Protestant minister dares ever to discuss direct political issues from the pulpit, except perhaps on Thanksgiving Day, or in some rare exigency in public affairs. Still less would he venture to tell his parishioners how they should vote in town-meetings. In imitation of ancient saints and apostles, he is wisely constrained from interference in secular and political affairs. But in the Middle Ages, and the Catholic Church, the priest could be political in his preaching, since many of his duties were secular. Savonarola usurped no prerogatives. He refrained from meeting men in secular vocations. Even in his politics he confined himself to his sphere in the pulpit. He did not attend the public debates; he simply preached. He ruled by wisdom, eloquence, and sanctity; and as he was an oracle, his utterances became a law.

But while he instructed the people in political duties, he paid far more attention to public morals. He would break up luxury, extravagance, ostentatious living, unseemly dresses in the house of God. He was the foe of all levities, all frivolities, all insidious pleasures. Bad men found no favor in his eyes, and he exposed their hypocrisies and crimes. He denounced sin, in high places and low. He did not confine himself to the sins of his own people alone, but censured those of princes and of other cities. He embraced all Italy in his glance. He invoked the Lord to take the Church out of the hands of the Devil, to pour out his wrath on guilty cities. He throws down a gauntlet of defiance to all corrupt potentates; he predicts the near approach of calamities; he foretells the certainty of divine judgment upon all sin; he clothes himself with the thunders of the Jewish prophets; he seems to invoke woe, desolation, and destruction. He ascribes the very invasion of the French to the justice of retribution. “Thy crimes, O Florence! thy crimes, O Rome! thy crimes, O Italy! are the causes of these chastisements.” And so terrible are his denunciations that the whole city quakes with fear. Mirandola relates that as Savonarola’s voice sounded like a clap of thunder in the cathedral, packed to its utmost capacity with the trembling people, a cold shiver ran through all his bones and the hairs of his head stood on end. “O Rome!” exclaimed the preacher, “thou shalt be put to the sword, since thou wilt not be converted. O Italy! confusion upon confusion shall overtake thee; the confusion of war shall follow thy sins, and famine and pestilence shall follow after war.” Then he denounces Rome: “O harlot Church! thou hast made thy deformity apparent to all the world; thou hast multiplied thy fornications in Italy, in France, in Spain, in every country. Behold, saith the Lord, I will stretch forth my hand upon thee; I will deliver thee into the hands of those that hate thee.” The burden of his soul is sin,–sin everywhere, even in the bosom of the Church,–and the necessity of repentance, of turning to the Lord. He is more than an Elijah,–he is a John the Baptist His sermons are chiefly drawn from the Old Testament, especially from the prophets in their denunciation of woes; like them, he is stern, awful, sublime. He does not attack the polity or the constitution of the Church, but its corruptions. He does not call the Pope a usurper, a fraud, an impostor; he does not attack the office; but if the Pope is a bad man he denounces his crimes. He is still the Dominican monk, owning his allegiance, but demanding the reformation of the head of the Church, to whom God has given the keys of Saint Peter. Neither does he meddle with the doctrines of the Church; he does not take much interest in dogmas. He is not a theologian, but he would change the habits and manners of the people of Florence. He would urge throughout Italy a reformation of morals. He sees only the degeneracy in life; he threatens eternal penalties if sin be persisted in. He alarms the fears of the people, so that women part with their ornaments, dress with more simplicity, and walk more demurely; licentious young men become modest and devout; instead of the songs of the carnival, religious hymns are sung; tradesmen forsake their shops for the churches; alms are more freely given; great scholars become monks; even children bring their offerings to the Church; a pyramid of “vanities” is burned on the public square.

And no wonder. A man had appeared at a great crisis in wickedness, and yet while the people were still susceptible of grand sentiments; and this man–venerated, austere, impassioned, like an ancient prophet, like one risen from the dead–denounces woes with such awful tones, such majestic fervor, such terrible emphasis, as to break through all apathy, all delusions, and fill the people with remorse, astonish them by his revelations, and make them really feel that the supernal powers, armed with the terrors of Omnipotence, would hurl them into hell unless they repented.

No man in Europe at the time had a more lively and impressive sense of the necessity of a general reformation than the monk of St. Mark; but it was a reform in morals, not of doctrine. He saw the evils of the day–yea, of the Church itself–with perfect clearness, and demanded redress. He is as sad in view of these acknowledged evils as Jeremiah was in view of the apostasy of the Jews; he is as austere in his own life as Elijah or John the Baptist was. He would not abolish monastic institutions, but he would reform the lives of the monks,–cure them of gluttony and sensuality, not shut up their monasteries. He would not rebel against the authority of the Pope, for even Savonarola supposed that prelate to be the successor of Saint Peter; but he would prevent the Pope’s nepotism and luxury and worldly spirit,–make him once more a true “servant of the servants of God,” even when clothed with the insignia of universal authority. He would not give up auricular confession, or masses for the dead, or prayers to the Virgin Mary, for these were indorsed by venerated ages; but he would rebuke a priest if found in unseemly places. Whatever was a sin, when measured by the laws of immutable morality, he would denounce, whoever was guilty of it; whatever would elevate the public morals he would advocate, whoever opposed. His morality was measured by the declaration of Christ and the Apostles, not by the standard of a corrupt age. He revered the Scriptures, and incessantly pondered them, and exalted their authority, holding them to be the ultimate rule of holy living, the everlasting handbook of travellers to the heavenly Jerusalem. In all respects he was a good man,–a beautiful type of Christian piety, with fewer faults than Luther or Calvin had, and as great an enemy as they to corruptions in State and Church, which he denounced even more fiercely and passionately. Not even Erasmus pointed out the vices of the day with more freedom or earnestness. He covered up nothing; he shut his eyes to nothing.

The difference between Savonarola and Luther was that the Saxon reformer attacked the root of the corruption; not merely outward and tangible and patent sins which everybody knew, but also and more earnestly those false principles of theology and morals which sustained them, and which logically pushed out would necessarily have produced them. For instance, he not merely attacked indulgences, then a crying evil, as peddled by Tetzel and others like him, and all to get money to support the temporal power of the popes or build St. Peter’s church; but he would show that penance, on which indulgences are based, is antagonistic to the doctrine which Paul so forcibly expounded respecting the forgiveness of sins and the grounds of justification. And Luther saw that all the evils which good men lamented would continue so long as the false principles from which they logically sprung were the creed of the Church. So he directed his giant energies to reform doctrines rather than morals. His great idea of justification could be defended only by an appeal to the Scriptures, not to the authority of councils and learned men. So he made the Scriptures the sole source of theological doctrine. Savonarola also accepted the Scriptures, but Luther would put them in the hands of everybody, of peasants even,–and thus instituted private judgment, which is the basal pillar of Protestantism. The Catholic theologians never recognized this right in the sense that Luther understood it, and to which he was pushed by inexorable logic. The Church was to remain the interpreter of the doctrinal and disputed points of the Scriptures.

Savonarola was a churchman. He was not a fearless theological doctor, going wherever logic and the Bible carried him. Hence, he did not stimulate thought and inquiry as Luther did, nor inaugurate a great revolutionary movement, which would gradually undermine papal authority and many institutions which the Catholic Church indorsed. Had he been a great genius, with his progressive proclivities, he might have headed a rebellion against papal authority, which upheld doctrines that logically supported the very evils he denounced. But he was contented to lop off branches; he did not dig up the roots. Luther went to the roots, as Calvin did; as Saint Augustine would have done had there been a necessity in his day, for the theology of Saint Augustine and Calvin is essentially the same. It was from Saint Augustine that Calvin drew his inspiration next after Saint Paul. But Savonarola cared very little for the discussion of doctrines; he probably hated all theological speculations, all metaphysical divinity. Yet there is a closer resemblance between doctrines and morals than most people are aware of. As a man thinketh, so is he. Hence, the reforms of Savonarola were temporary, and were not widely extended; for he did not kindle the intelligence of the age, as did Luther and those associated with him. There can be no great and lasting reform without an appeal to reason, without the assistance of logic, without conviction. The house that had been swept and garnished was re-entered by devils, and the last state was worse than the first. To have effected a radical and lasting reform, Savonarola should have gone deeper. He should have exposed the foundations on which the superstructure of sin was built; he should have undermined them, and appealed to the reason of the world. He did no such thing. He simply rebuked the evils, which must needs be, so long as the root of them is left untouched. And so long as his influence remained, so long as his voice was listened to, he was mighty in the reforms at which he aimed,–a reformation of the morals of those to whom he preached. But when his voice was hushed, the evils he detested returned, since he had not created those convictions which bind men together in association; he had not fanned that spirit of inquiry which is hostile to ecclesiastical despotism, and which, logically projected, would subvert the papal throne. The reformation of Luther was a grand protest against spiritual tyranny. It not only aimed at a purer life, but it opposed the bondage of the Middle Ages, and all the superstitions and puerilities and fables which were born and nurtured in that dark and gloomy period and to which the clergy clung as a means of power or wealth. Luther called out the intellect of Germany, exalted liberty of conscience, and appealed to the dignity of reason. He showed the necessity of learning, in order to unravel and explain the truths of revelation. He made piety more exalted by giving it an intelligent stimulus. He looked to the future rather than the past. He would make use, in his interpretation of the Bible, of all that literature, science, and art could contribute. Hence his writings had a wider influence than could be produced by the fascination of personal eloquence, on which Savonarola relied, but which Luther made only accessory.

Again, the sermons of the Florentine reformer do not impress us as they did those to whom they were addressed. They are not logical, nor doctrinal, nor learned,–not rich in thought, like the sermons of those divines whom the Reformation produced. They are vehement denunciations of sin; are eloquent appeals to the heart, to religious fears and hopes. He would indeed create faith in the world, not by the dissertations of Paul, but by the agonies of the dying Christ. He does not instruct; he does not reason. He is dogmatic and practical. He is too earnest to be metaphysical, or even theological. He takes it for granted that his hearers know all the truths necessary for salvation. He enforces the truths with which they are familiar, not those to be developed by reason and learning. He appeals, he urges, he threatens; he even prophesies; he dwells on divine wrath and judgment. He is an Isaiah foretelling what will happen, rather than a Peter at the Day of Pentecost.

Savonarola was transcendent in his oratorical gifts, the like of which has never before nor since been witnessed in Italy. He was a born orator; as vehement as Demosthenes, as passionate as Chrysostom, as electrical as Bernard. Nothing could withstand him; he was a torrent that bore everything before him. His voice was musical, his attitude commanding, his gestures superb. He was all alive with his subject. He was terribly in earnest, as if he believed everything he said, and that what he said were most momentous truths. He fastened his burning eyes upon his hearers, who listened with breathless attention, and inspired them with his sentiments; he made them feel that they were in the very jaws of destruction, and that there was no hope but in immediate repentance. His whole frame quivered with emotion, and he sat down utterly exhausted. His language was intense, not clothing new thoughts, but riveting old ideas,–the ideas of the Middle Ages; the fear of hell, the judgments of Almighty God. Who could resist such fiery earnestness, such a convulsed frame, such quivering tones, such burning eyes, such dreadful threatenings, such awful appeals? He was not artistic in the use of words and phrases like Bourdaloue, but he reached the conscience and the heart like Whitefield. He never sought to amuse; he would not stoop to any trifling. He told no stories; he made no witticisms; he used no tricks. He fell back on truths, no matter whether his hearers relished them or not; no matter whether they were amused or not. He was the messenger of God urging men to flee as for their lives, like Lot when he escaped from Sodom.

Savonarola’s manner was as effective as his matter. He was a kind of Peter the Hermit, preaching a crusade, arousing emotions and passions, and making everybody feel as he felt. It was life more than thought which marked his eloquence,–his voice as well as his ideas, his wonderful electricity, which every preacher must have, or he preaches to stones. It was himself, even more than his truths, which made people listen, admire, and quake. All real orators impress themselves–their own individuality–on their auditors. They are not actors, who represent other people, and whom we admire in proportion to their artistic skill in producing deception. These artists excite admiration, make us forget where we are and what we are, but kindle no permanent emotions, and teach no abiding lessons. The eloquent preacher of momentous truths and interests makes us realize them, in proportion as he feels them himself. They would fall dead upon us, if ever so grand, unless intensified by passion, fervor, sincerity, earnestness. Even a voice has power, when electrical, musical, impassioned, although it may utter platitudes. But when the impassioned voice rings with trumpet notes through a vast audience, appealing to what is dearest to the human soul, lifting the mind to the contemplation of the sublimest truths and most momentous interests, then there is real eloquence, such as is never heard in the theatre, interested as spectators may be in the triumphs of dramatic art.

But I have dwelt too long on the characteristics of that eloquence which produced such a great effect on the people of Florence in the latter part of the fifteenth century. That ardent, intense, and lofty monk, world-deep like Dante, not world-wide like Shakspeare, Who filled the cathedral church with eager listeners, was not destined to uninterrupted triumphs. His career was short; he could not even retain his influence. As the English people wearied of the yoke of a Puritan Protector, and hankered for their old pleasures, so the Florentines remembered the sports and spectacles and fêtes of the old Medicean rule. Savonarola had arrayed against himself the enemies of popular liberty, the patrons of demoralizing excitements, the partisans of the banished Medici, and even the friends and counsellors of the Pope. The dreadful denunciation of sin in high places was as offensive to the Pope as the exposure of a tyrannical usurpation was to the family of the old lords of Florence; and his enemies took counsel together, and schemed for his overthrow. If the irritating questions and mockeries of Socrates could not be endured at Athens, how could the bitter invectives and denunciations of Savonarola find favor at Florence? The fate of prophets is to be stoned. Martyrdom and persecution, in some form or other, are as inevitable to the man who sails against the stream, as a broken constitution and a diseased body are to a sensualist, a glutton, or a drunkard. Impatience under rebuke is as certain as the operation of natural law.

The bitterest and most powerful enemy of the Prior of St. Mark was the Pope himself,–Alexander VI., of the infamous family of the Borgias,–since his private vices were exposed, and by one whose order had been especially devoted to the papal empire. In the eyes of the wicked Pope, the Florentine reformer was a traitor and conspirator, disloyal and dangerous. At first he wished to silence him by soft and deceitful letters and tempting bribes, offering to him a cardinal’s hat, and inviting him to Rome. But Savonarola refused alike the bribe and the invitation. His Lenten sermons became more violent and daring. “If I have preached and written anything heretical,” said this intrepid monk, “I am willing to make a public recantation. I have always shown obedience to my church; but it is my duty to obey God rather than man.” This sounds like Luther at the Diet of Worms; but he was more defenceless than Luther, since the Saxon reformer was protected by powerful princes, and was backed by the enthusiasm of Northern Germans. Yet the Florentine preacher boldly continued his attacks on all hypocritical religion, and on the vices of Rome, not as incidental to the system, but extraneous,–the faults of a man or age. The Pope became furious, to be thus balked by a Dominican monk, and in one of the cities of Italy,–a city that had not rebelled against his authority. He complained bitterly to the Florentine ambassador, of the haughty friar who rebuked and defied him. He summoned a consistory of fourteen eminent Dominican theologians, to inquire into his conduct and opinions, and issued a brief forbidding him to preach, under penalty of excommunication. Yet Savonarola continued to preach, and more violently than ever. He renewed his charges against Rome. He even called her a harlot Church, against whom heaven and earth, angels and devils, equally brought charges. The Pope then seized the old thunderbolts of the Gregories and the Clements, and excommunicated the daring monk and preacher, and threatened the like punishment on all who should befriend him. And yet Savonarola continued to preach. All Rome and Italy talked of the audacity of the man. And it was not until Florence itself was threatened with an interdict for shielding such a man, that the magistrates of the city were compelled to forbid his preaching.

The great orator mounted his pulpit March 18, 1498, now four hundred years ago, and took an affectionate farewell of the people whom he had led, and appealed to Christ himself as the head of the Church. It was not till the preacher was silenced by the magistrates of his own city, that he seems to have rebelled against the papal authority; and then not so much against the authority of Rome as against the wicked shepherd himself, who had usurped the fold. He now writes letters to all the prominent kings and princes of Europe, to assemble a general council; for the general council of Constance had passed a resolution that the Pope must call a general council every ten years, and that, should he neglect to assemble it, the sovereign powers of the various states and empires were themselves empowered to collect the scattered members of the universal Church, to deliberate on its affairs. In his letters to the kings of France, England, Spain, and Hungary, and the Emperor of Germany, he denounced the Pope as simoniacal, as guilty of all the vices, as a disgrace to the station which he held. These letters seem to have been directed against the man, not against the system. He aimed at the Pope’s ejectment from office, rather than at the subversion of the office itself,–another mark of the difference between Savonarola and Luther, since the latter waged an uncompromising war against Rome herself, against the whole régime and government and institutions and dogmas of the Catholic Church; and that is the reason why Catholics hate Luther so bitterly, and deny to him either virtues or graces, and represent even his deathbed as a scene of torment and despair,–an instance of that pursuing hatred which goes beyond the grave; like that of the zealots of the Revolution in France, who dug up the bones of the ancient kings from those vaults where they had reposed for centuries, and scattered their ashes to the winds.

Savonarola hoped the Christian world would come to his rescue; but his letters were intercepted, and reached the eye of Alexander VI., who now bent the whole force of the papal empire to destroy that bold reformer who had assailed his throne. And it seems that a change took place in Florence itself in popular sentiment. The Medicean party obtained the ascendency in the government. The people–the fickle people–began to desert Savonarola; and especially when he refused to undergo the ordeal of fire,–one of the relics of Mediaeval superstition,–the people felt that they had been cheated out of their amusement, for they had waited impatiently the whole day in the public square to see the spectacle. He finally consented to undergo the ordeal, provided he might carry the crucifix. To this his enemies would not consent. He then laid aside the crucifix, but insisted on entering the fire with the sacrament in his hand. His persecutors would not allow this either, and the ordeal did not take place.

At last his martyrdom approaches: he is led to prison. The magistrates of the city send to Rome for absolution for having allowed the Prior to preach. His enemies busy themselves in collecting evidence against him,–for what I know not, except that he had denounced corruption and sin, and had predicted woe. His two friends are imprisoned and interrogated with him, Fra Domenico da Pescia and Fra Silvestro Maruffi, who are willing to die for him. He and they are now subjected to most cruel tortures. As the result of bodily agony his mind begins to waver. His answers are incoherent; he implores his tormentors to end his agonies; he cries out, with a voice enough to melt a heart of stone, “Take, oh, take my life!” Yet he confessed nothing to criminate himself. What they wished him especially to confess was that he had pretended to be a prophet, since he had predicted calamities. But all men are prophets, in one sense, when they declare the certain penalties of sin, from which no one can escape, though he take the wings of the morning and fly to the uttermost parts of the sea.

Savonarola's Cell From a photograph

Savonarola’s Cell From a photograph

Savonarola thus far had remained firm, but renewed examinations and fresh tortures took place. For a whole month his torments were continuous. In one day he was drawn up by a rope fourteen times, and then suddenly dropped, until all his muscles quivered with anguish. Had he been surrounded by loving disciples, like Latimer at the burning pile, he might have summoned more strength; but alone, in a dark inquisitorial prison, subjected to increasing torture among bitter foes, he did not fully defend his visions and prophecies; and then his extorted confessions were diabolically altered. But that was all they could get out of him,–that he had prophesied. In all matters of faith he was sound. The inquisitors were obliged to bring their examination to an end. They could find no fault with him, and yet they were determined on his death. The Government of Florence consented to it and hastened it, for a Medici again held the highest office of the State.

Nothing remained to the imprisoned and tortured friar but to prepare for his execution. In his supreme trial he turned to the God in whom he believed. In the words of the dying Xavier, on the Island of Sancian, he exclaimed, In te domine speravi, non confundar in eternum. “O Lord,” he prays, “a thousand times hast thou wiped out my iniquity. I do not rely on my own justification, but on thy mercy.” His few remaining days in prison were passed in holy meditation.

At last the officers of the papal commission arrive. The tortures are renewed, and also the examinations, with the same result. No fault could be found with his doctrines. “But a dead enemy,” said they, “fights no more.” He is condemned to execution. The messengers of death arrive at his cell, and find him on his knees. He is overpowered by his sufferings and vigils, and can with difficulty be kept from sleep. But he arouses himself, and passes the night in prayer, and administers the elements of redemption to his doomed companions, and closes with this prayer: “Lord, I know thou art that perfect Trinity,–Father, Son, and Holy Ghost; I know that thou art the eternal Word; that thou didst descend from heaven into the bosom of Mary; that thou didst ascend upon the cross to shed thy blood for our sins. I pray thee that by that blood I may have remission for my sins.” The simple faith of Paul, of Augustine, of Pascal! He then partook of the communion, and descended to the public square, while the crowd gazed silently and with trepidation, and was led with his companions to the first tribunal, where he was disrobed of his ecclesiastical dress. Then they were led to another tribunal, and delivered to the secular arm; then to another, where sentence of death was read; and then to the place of execution,–not a burning funeral pyre, but a scaffold, which mounting, composed, calm, absorbed, Savonarola submitted his neck to the hangman, in the forty-fifth year of his life: a martyr to the cause of Christ, not for an attack on the Church, or its doctrines, or its institutions, but for having denounced the corruption and vices of those who ruled it,–for having preached against sin.

Thus died one of the greatest and best men of his age, one of the truest and purest whom the Catholic Church has produced in any age. He was stern, uncompromising, austere, but a reformer and a saint; a man who was merciful and generous in the possession of power; an enlightened statesman, a sound theologian, and a fearless preacher of that righteousness which exalteth a nation. He had no vices, no striking defects. He lived according to the rules of the convent he governed with the same wisdom that he governed a city, and he died in the faith of the primitive apostles. His piety was monastic, but his spirit was progressive, sympathizing with liberty, advocating public morality. He was unselfish, disinterested, and true to his Church, his conscience, and his cause,–a noble specimen both of a man and Christian, whose deeds and example form part of the inheritance of an admiring posterity. We pity his closing days, after such a career of power and influence; but we may as well compassionate Socrates or Paul. The greatest lights of the world have gone out in martyrdom, to be extinguished, however, only for a time, and then to loom up again in another age, and burn with inextinguishable brightness to remotest generations, as examples of the power of faith and truth in this wicked and rebellious world,–a world to be finally redeemed by the labors and religion of just such men, whose days are days of sadness, protest, and suffering, and whose hours of triumph and exaltation are not like those of conquerors, nor like those whose eyes stand out with fatness, but few and far between. “I have loved righteousness, I have hated iniquity,” said the great champion of the Mediaeval Church, “and therefore I die in exile.”

In ten years after this ignominious execution, Raphael painted the martyr among the sainted doctors of the Church in the halls of the Vatican, and future popes did justice to his memory, for he inaugurated that reform movement in the Catholic Church itself which took place within fifty years after his death. In one sense he was the precursor of Loyola, of Xavier, and of Aquaviva,–those illustrious men who headed the counter-reformation; Jesuits, indeed, but ardent in piety, and enlightened by the spirit of a progressive age. “He was the first,” says Villari, “in the fifteenth century, to make men feel that a new light had awakened the human race; and thus he was a prophet of a new civilization,–the forerunner of Luther, of Bacon, of Descartes. Hence the drama of his life became, after his death, the drama of Europe. In the course of a single generation after Luther had declared his mission, the spirit of the Church of Rome underwent a change. From the halls of the Vatican to the secluded hermitages of the Apennines this revival was felt. Instead of a Borgia there reigned a Caraffa.” And it is remarkable that from the day that the counter-reformation in the Catholic Church was headed by the early Jesuits, Protestantism gained no new victories, and in two centuries so far declined in piety and zeal that the cities which witnessed the noblest triumphs of Luther and Calvin were disgraced by a boasting rationalism, to be succeeded again in our times by an arrogance of scepticism which has had no parallel since the days of Democritus and Lucretius. “It was the desire of Savonarola that reason, religion, and liberty might meet in harmonious union, but he did not think a new system of religious doctrines was necessary.”

The influence of such a man cannot pass away, and has not passed away, for it cannot be doubted that his views have been embraced by enlightened Catholics from his day to ours,–by such men as Pascal, Fénelon, and Lacordaire, and thousands like them, who prefer ritualism and auricular confession, and penance, monasticism, and an ecclesiastical monarch, and all the machinery of a complicated hierarchy, with all the evils growing out of papal domination, to rationalism, sectarian dissensions, irreverence, license, want of unity, want of government, and even dispensation from the marriage vow. Which is worse, the physical arm of the beast, or the maniac soul of a lying prophet? Which is worse, the superstition and narrowness which excludes the Bible from schools, or that unbounded toleration which smiles on those audacious infidels who cloak their cruel attacks on the faith of Christians with the name of a progressive civilization?–and so far advanced that one of these new lights, ignorant, perhaps, of everything except of the fossils and shells and bugs and gases of the hole he has bored in, assumes to know more of the mysteries of creation and the laws of the universe than Moses and David and Paul, and all the Bacons and Newtons that ever lived? Names are nothing; it is the spirit, the animus, which is everything. It is the soul which permeates a system, that I look at. It is the Devil from which I would flee, whatever be his name, and though he assume the form of an angel of light, or cunningly try to persuade me, and ingeniously argue, that there is no God. True and good Catholics and true and good Protestants have ever been united in one thing,–in this belief, that there is a God who made the heaven and the earth, and that there is a Christ who made atonement for the sins of the world. It is good morals, faith, and love to which both Catholics and Protestants are exhorted by the Apostles. When either Catholics or Protestants accept the one faith and the one Lord which Christianity alone reveals, then they equally belong to the grand army of spiritual warriors under the banner of the Cross, though they may march under different generals and in different divisions; and they will receive the same consolations in this world, and the same rewards in the world to come.


Villari’s Life of Savonarola; Biographie Universelle; Ranke’s History of the Popes. There is much in “Romola,” by George Eliot. Life of Savonarola, by the Prince of Mirandola.

Michael Angelo : The Revival of Art

Beacon Lights of History, Volume VI : Renaissance and Reformation