On This Day in 1498
May 23rd: The Flammable Friar
Alexander VI was the type of Pope whom you would expect to die of syphilis. He was the personification of every vice and most crimes. One could concede that he was a doting father to his illegitimate offspring; unfortunately, those children happened to be Cesare and Lucretia Borgia.
By contrast, Friar Girolama Savonarola was a man of impeccable virtue who sought to restore morality to a corrupt Church and a decadent society. If given the choice between the cankerous Alexander VI and the austere Savonarola, any intelligent person would be writing fan letters to the Pope.
Savonarola was a Dominican, an order of monks that distinguished themselves for fanaticism and bigotry. (Guess who ran the Spanish Inquisition?) Hoping to do as much in Italy, he set up a repressive theocracy in Florence. Much of his social agenda was to drag Florence back to the Middle Ages. His goons went from door to door, collecting or confiscating “vanities”–paintings and books deemed too secular, jewelry and even colorful clothing. These forbidden items were publicly burned in ceremonies called “bonfires of the vanities.” The kindling included works by Botticelli.
Savonarola was a spell-binding orator who exploited fatigue with Medici rule and popular disdain with the conspicuous corruption in the Church. It is remarkable that just two years after the death of Lorenzo the Magnificent, Savonarola inspired and led a popular uprising that would drive the Medici out of Florence.
Although the Medici were pushovers, Alexander VI was not. He deeply resented Savonarola’s attacks. The Pope was a Borgia, so he wasn’t the passive type. Although he could easily have arranged for an accident–say food poisoning–for Savonarola, the Pope was going to make an example of his critic.
Apparently, criticizing a Pope can be heresy and so Savonarola was brought to trial. The Dominican friar demonstrated his usual tact–none–before the tribunal of Alexander’s appointees. So condemning him was effortless. Indeed, one form of execution seemed insufficent. Savonarola was simultaneously hanged and burned for heresy. His theocracy ended with him–on this day in 1498.
If Savonarola made any mistake, it was his timing. He knew that the Medici were weak and fumbling, so perhaps he should have waited until one was Pope. Professor Luther did.