How Did a Dominican Friar Convince Florentines to Burn Their Own Possessions?

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Middle Ages
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Girolamo Savonarola was a Dominican friar with extreme views. He arrived in Florence in 1490 at the request of the powerful Lorenzo de’ Medici.

Savonarola proved to be a popular preacher. He spoke against the exploitation of the poor by the rich and powerful, corruption within the clergy, and the excesses of Renaissance Italy.

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His influence grew rapidly, so much so that a political party, the Frateschi, was established to carry through his ideas. He preached that Florence was God’s chosen city and that it would grow more powerful if the population adhered to his policy of asceticism (self-discipline).

Italian Renaissance Medal of Girolamo Savonarola by Fiorentino. Electrotype, obverse.

Anything considered to be in contravention of Savonarola’s strict theology was destroyed. Secular art, jewellery, silk and even carpets were burned in ‘bonfires of the vanities’.

The bonfires

The largest of these bonfires was held on 7 February 1492. More than one thousand children scoured the city for luxuries to be burned. The items were thrown on to a huge fire while women, crowned with olive branches, danced around it.

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In addition to the bonfires, Savonarola passed laws banning sodomy and declared that anyone overweight was a sinner. Young boys patrolled the city seeking out anyone wearing immodest clothing or guilty of eating fancy foods. Artists grew too afraid to paint.

Sandro Botticelli became a follower of Savonarola and handed over several works willingly to be burned – masterpieces, lost forever. 

Painting (1650) of Savonarola’s execution in the Piazza della Signoria.

Savonarola was excommunicated by Pope Alexander VI in 1497. The following year he was arrested for sedition. Under torture he confessed to making false prophesies. He was found guilty and hanged and burned on a cross.

Image: Girolamo Savonarola preaching in Florence by Nikolay Petrovich Lomtev

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