Not the man for it

John Bossy

  • Scourge and Fire: Savonarola and Renaissance Italy by Lauro Martines
    Cape, 368 pp, £20.00, March 2006, ISBN 0 224 07252 8
  • The Burning of the Vanities: Savonarola and the Borgia Pope by Desmond Seward
    Sutton, 320 pp, £20.00, March 2006, ISBN 0 7509 2981 2

Once I rebuked for bad taste a friend who described Savonarola, at his execution, as ‘serving as the pièce de résistance of a public bonfire’. Actually his taste was better than mine: I had ignorantly supposed that the friar had been burned alive, whereas he had been hanged first and his dead body then burned in what was indeed a public bonfire. His soul had gone aloft, as even his enemy Pope Alexander VI had conceded by sending him a plenary indulgence, but his body was not down below, since the Florentine authorities had taken steps to see that not even what might possibly be his ashes were left lying around for his dévots or dévotes to take home and put in a vase on the mantelpiece. They dumped them all in the Arno.

The four-year reign in Florence of someone resembling an ayatollah could seem a surprise: this is a city that we are encouraged to think of as a fountainhead of modernity. To Lauro Martines, who has seen Renaissance Italy as a spring of democratic authenticity diverted by wealth, aristocracy and a corrupt or bigoted Church into a stream of false consciousness and reaction, Savonarola has been something to keep fairly quiet about. It was clearly quite a problem to fit into his scheme a person who was both a religious zealot and a prophet of civic republicanism. Burckhardt, no democrat, could dismiss him as a beast of small brain and over-large soul. Not Martines, who has now given us his Savonarola in a substantial book.

The usual features of the friar’s career are of course all here: his resort to prophecy as a way of boosting his lift-off as a preacher; his triumph with the descent of the French into Italy and the overthrow of the Medici regime; his commendation of republican morality and moral republicanism; his pious youths knocking on doors to check out what ungodliness might be going on inside; his transmutation of the feast of Carnival, with its ritual manifestation and destruction of the sins of the flesh, into a Lenten moment, like Aubrey Beardsley’s deathbed, for the burning of dirty pictures; his campaign against sodomy, properly though a little timidly construed by Martines as anal intercourse with persons of either sex; the grand anticlimax of his sensible but unpopular cancellation of a competitive ordeal by fire between his adjutant Fra Domenico and a Franciscan challenger; his own arrest, torture and execution by an alliance of his Florentine enemies and the pope. As victim, Savonarola has figured as a martyr for Italian liberty with his fellow Dominican Giordano Bruno, who actually was burned alive a century later. Had they had the chance, they might well have burned each other: which, I had better add since I have offered a fragile defence of Bruno’s execution, is no excuse for the action of the pope in either case.

Martines’s strategy for solving his dilemma about Savonarola is to claim for him two projects, both of which he takes to be evidently worthy: the ‘renewal’ of the Church, and the erection of civic authorities responsible to the popolo. We might think his use of the term ‘renewal’ a genuflection to the Second Vatican Council but, as renovatio, it was what Savonarola used himself. What Martines means is that the Church should have pulled itself together and got rid of corruption – that is, of financial and family motivation in the hierarchy, of compromises with power. Fair enough, but for at least two reasons Savonarola was not the man for it. He had no understanding of what was respectable in the popular Catholicism of his time; and his idea of renovatio was both too scary and too imprecise to make a constructive impact. As a preacher in a competitive profession, he gives the impression of looking for something to grab an audience which would have been more edified by something less melodramatic. His two worthiest predecessors in 15th-century Italy did not seek to be so sensational: the Franciscan Bernardino of Siena had evoked the traditional virtue of peacemaking in a population given to feud; the Dominican Giovanni Dominici had sought to promote the piety of the household. Others, notably the Franciscans, had gone further, in doing their best to persuade the people to blame all their troubles on the Jews. Savonarola was somewhere between the two: in his prophecies of doom for the corruption of the world he had been outdone by a couple of Franciscans, who had been invited to leave the city. Where he outdid everybody was in his claim to be receiving messages direct from God, and hence to be able to predict precise coming events.

So, though it is obviously right to see Savonarola and Luther together, we should not then assume that we shall agree with the common opinion, shared by Martines, that if Savonarola’s renewal of the Church had come off there would have been no need for Luther. The two were oil and water. Luther detested Dominicans; he was an Augustinian, in several senses, not a Thomist; as against Savonarola in particular, he loathed anything that smacked of millenarianism or the inner light, and had a decent respect for the religious behaviour of his fellow Catholics. In politics he took the view that the powers that be were ordained of God. Pope Leo X, a Medici nephew and one of Martines’s pet abominations, hit the nail on the head when he said that the Luther case was ‘a quarrel among monks’, meaning between Dominicans and Augustinians. Much the same could be said of the Savonarola case 25 years before. The chief preacher against his bona fides was an Augustinian; the Franciscans set up the ordeal by fire to destroy him. We should not think of him as an innocent lamb in this competition, any more than in his polemics against the secular clergy (among whom we need to remember the kindly Piovano Arlotto as well as the smooth Pope Alexander VI), or in his quarrels with members of his own order – like the friars of Santa Maria Novella, who had had their noses put out of joint by his more fashionable San Marco.

One of Savonarola’s originalities was to attach his notion of renovatio, unspecific as regarded the Church, to a precise political programme, one close to Martines’s heart. Savonarola had nothing to do with the coup that overthrew the Medici in November 1494, which resulted from the arrival in the region of the French King Charles VIII with a large army and which was mounted by members of the Florentine political aristocracy: indeed, up to that time he had, as head of a convent which was a Medici foundation, naturally rather genuflected to the family. His main contribution, certainly important enough, was to help persuade the king to take his troops out of the city and go on to attack the kingdom of Naples. From then on, he devoted his gifts to the promotion of a new republican regime.

Its first action under his influence was – very properly – to try to secure peace and charity in the city by not proscribing or massacring participants or collaborators in the old regime. Its second was to erect a constitution in which the decisive authority would be wielded by a relatively broad Great Council, exclusive of the rabble and heavily representative of the C1s, whom Savonarola, like Margaret Thatcher, thought more in favour of upstanding morality than those above and below. The activity of the new government was to be directed to what, following Aristotle and his Dominican mentor Thomas Aquinas, Savonarola called the common good. The ‘common good’ is a great soundbite, and Martines holds that only the self-interested – beneficiaries of corruption and tyranny – will stand against it. I wonder. There is Isaiah Berlin’s objection that goods are incompatible, and the Thatcherite objection that it is an excuse for getting somebody else to pay for what you think you ought to have; in Savonarola’s final confessions he said it was a rationale for getting jobs for your friends and excluding your enemies. True as this may be of our present regime, it was unfair to him and had been put to him under torture, which he sympathetically said he could not bear. But sympathy here may not be our last emotion: Savonarola turned out to be a millenarian, and the pursuit of the common good turned out to mean the erection of a holy community which would attract God’s favour and bring about the triumph of Florence over its enemies like the Pisans and the Sienese, its substitution for Rome as the head of the Catholic world, the conversion of the heathen and the Second Coming of Christ. It would also bring untold wealth and prosperity to the city. This is not an aspect of Savonarola’s message that Martines makes much of; for the part between the scourge and the fire you have to go to Donald Weinstein’s Savonarola and Florence, past thirty years old and as fresh as ever.

Desmond Seward does not take Savonarola for a millenarian either, on the grounds that he was too orthodox a Catholic: when he said he would make the Florentines rich, he meant spiritually. That must be shaky, and Seward is kinder than Martines to pious anecdotes about the friar, such as his visit to Lorenzo de Medici on his deathbed. But this piety, perhaps generated by conversation with the Dominicans of Blackfriars in Oxford, does not come altogether amiss: it is helpful to have a comparison between Savonarola’s prophetic claims and what Aquinas had to say about prophecy, even if it is not very complimentary to the disciple. His Catholic orthodoxy may be defended by his solid contribution to Counter-Reformation piety, and I cannot see that Catholicity and millenarianism are incompatible. Joachim of Flora? Teilhard de Chardin? I do jib at Seward’s conclusion that ‘in many ways’ Savonarola ‘stood for Catholicism at its best’: it depends on the ways, I suppose, but he seems too much of a publicity-seeker for that. All the same, I am grateful to Seward for his relaxed narrative, his nice illustrations, his account of Savonarola’s own second coming – the Florentine republic of 1527-30 – and for letting me know, what in my ignorance I did not, that George Eliot’s Romola is a novel about him. I must go and read it.