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Jerome Savonarola (1452-1498)

 

The most controversial figure in all Dominican history was Jerome Savonarola, who was burned at the stake in 1498. Even today he is a source of violent disagreement among scholars. Some regard him as a saint; others insist that he was a reprobate. So heated were the politics of the day, and so prejudiced were the people who put him to death, that it is almost hopeless to expect to get the whole truth after all these years. He cannot be omitted from any Dominican account. He played too important a role in his lifetime, and reports of his life and death have found their way into all sorts of accounts, both inimical and sympathetic.

Jerome Savonarola was born in Ferrara, in 1452, of a wealthy and socially prominent family. His father died when he was very young. His early training was calculated to give him a gloomy outlook on life an outlook that was not hard to acquire in a century of plague and political knavery. There is a legend that the young Jerome fell in love with a beautiful young lady. She spurned his proposal of marriage, and this rebuke embittered him against women. He supposedly, also, rejected a chance to be trained at court. Whatever was his background and whatever his motives, he entered the Dominican convent in Bologna in 1475.

After his ordination, which probably took place in 1480, he was sent out to preach in his home city of Ferrara. Oddly enough, he, who was to set all Italy aflame with his preaching in a few years, made a signal failure of his trial flight. Most of his early attempts at preaching were eminent failures. It was several years before his gift of apocalyptic oratory developed sufficiently to command any attention.

At some time, not now easily identified, Savonarola began preaching in a vein of dire prophecy. The Italian peninsula was in the throes of political upheaval and death, and oppression reigned. In 1489, Savonarola who had by now become a great popular preacher was called to Florence, quite possibly at the request of Lorenzo de Medici, who had endowed the Dominican house in Florence, and who was also responsible for many of the dark political deeds of the day. Perhaps Lorenzo hoped to win the great preacher to his side in the political struggle that lay ahead; we do not know. Savonarola came, and shortly it became clear to the Medici that he did not recognize their authority only the authority of God.

A growing tension between the friar and the Medici came to a head in 1491. Savonarola was elected prior at San Marco, and refused to pay a visit of homage to Lorenzo de Medici, who murmured, "A stranger has come to live in my house and will not even pay me a visit." It is not easy, now, to follow the many twisting threads that traced the involvement of Savonarola in Florentine independence, or the many small annoyances to politicians which eventually spelled out his death.

One thing that even hostile historians record of Savonarola is his effect on the morals of the city. Even while regarding his zeal as indiscreet, they admit that he must have had some tremendous power, since he brought a great and worldly city to repentance. He organized the children into bands to gather up vain objects and profane books for burning, and he publicly conducted several huge bonfires to consume the vanities. He brought a city to repentance in action, and much charity was done under his direction.

As a prophet, one has a dozen opinions to choose from. Savonarola claimed to be inspired directly by God to preach repentance, before the great tragedy of invasion would strike the country. Some of his prophecies came true and some did not. It would not take divine intervention to have foreseen some of the events that were brought about by people in high places. When the French came into Italy, much of the terror he had prophesied came to pass. With the flight of the Medici from Florence and his projected return, the whole question of the friar's political loyalty became very complex. Finally, as it was inevitable, his position was seen to run counter to that of Pope Alexander VI. There was bound to be trouble.

Alexander VI is not a pope of whom the Church can boast; he was a man of irregular personal life. Possibly if he had received a true account of Savonarola's doings and, above all, of his letters, the affair might not have ended so tragically. But between Savonarola and the pope there were a dozen grasping and interested persons who would benefit by stimulating trouble between them, and a situation that was bad enough to begin with very quickly became worse. Even so, the letters of Alexander VI whatever may have been his personal faults are models of fatherly discretion.

Briefly, the case can be presented in this way: Savonarola, deeply entangled in Florentine politics, opposed the League of Cities. The pope favored the League, but for reasons that the friar considered selfish. His opposition to the League inevitably found its way into his sermons, which were already inflammatory. The pope sent word for him to moderate the tone of his sermons; then he asked the friar to come to Rome. Savonarola protested, with justice on his side, that it would be suicidal to go to Rome, but that he would come as soon as it was safe. Then, it is claimed, a brief of excommunication was sent to the friar.

There is a good deal of argument on this point, some claiming that the excommunication had no effect, because it was based upon false information, others, that it was never read and therefore was not effectual. It was not a time when anything could be seen clearly. The city rulers, having voted in several members who hated Savonarola for purely personal reasons, turned on him, and one of the many political parties in the city took it upon themselves to espouse the cause of the pope for the time being. They attacked the convent, and they would have burned it to the ground if the friar had not come; out of his own accord and surrendered to them.

In May, 1498, after eleven days of torture, Savonarola and two of his staunchest friends were tied to the stake, and they were burned to death in the city square. Most of his brethren, who lived with him and should have known what they were talking about, claimed that he was a good religious, obedient and zealous, and that he had not disobeyed anyone, let alone the pope. His enemies rejoiced at his death, but were unhappy to find that they had made a martyr of him. Some of the Dominican saints, including St. Catherine de Ricci, who credited Savonarola with curing her of a serious illness, maintained that he had been unjustly condemned. Nearly everyone now admits that there was some juggling of documents which could bear heavily on his guilt or innocence.

(Source : Dorcy, Marie Jean. St. Dominic's Family. Tan Books and Publishers, 1983)

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