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. He claimed to want to rid the city of vice, preaching repentance and reform. His ideas were surprisingly popular in Florence, and he quickly gained a significant following.
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).
Some have suggested he was effectively a de facto ruler of Florence, and Savonarola kept a personal retinue of bodyguards. In 1494, he helped bring about a major blow to Medici power in Florence following the invasion of Italy by King Charles VIII in France, further increasing his own influence.
Savonarola started to encourage his followers to destroy anything which could be considered luxuries – books, works of art, musical instruments, jewellery, silks and manuscripts were burnt during the period of carnival around Shrove Tuesday.
These events became known as the ‘bonfire of the vanities’: the biggest of these happened on 7 February 1497, when 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.
Such was Savonarola’s influence that he even managed to get contemporary Florentine artists like Sandro Botticelli and Lorenzo di Credi to destroy some of their own works on the bonfires. Anyone who tried to resist was set upon by Savonarola’s ardent supporters, known as piagnoni (weepers).
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.
Savonarola’s influence ensured he was noticed by other powerful contemporaries, included Pope Alexander VI, who excommunicated him in 1497 and eventually had him tried on charges of sedition and heresy. Under torture he confessed to making false prophesies.
Fittingly, Savonarola’s execution took place in the Piazza della Signoria, where he had previously held his famous bonfires. His ashes were swept into the River Arno for fear that supporters would take them as relics.
Following his death, those who were found in possession of his writings were threatened with excommunication, and on the return of the Medici to Florence, any remaining piagnoni were hunted down to be imprisoned or exiled.