Starting Fires in Florence

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The “Old Bridge” over the Arno River in Florence

It all started so well for Girolama Savonarola. With his message of heart-felt change and personal piety he had thousands of people turning up to his church in the city of Florence (Italy) to hear him preach each weekend. The city of Florence – now known for its art and culture – for a short period of time would be Girolama Savonarola’s city.

That’s until the people of Florence had him hanged, burnt, and thrown into the river on May 23rd, 1498.

Girolama was always a bit different. He was short, had strange facial features, and would write poetry calling the Catholic Church’s governing body a “false, proud whore”. Probably not the best career move for a Dominican Friar.

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Despite his personal short-comings and confrontational style the people of Tuscany flocked to him hear him preach on topics like the end of the world, the evil of wealth, and the need to live a humble and upright life just as Jesus did. The year 1500 was approaching and the people of Florence felt surely that had to mean the second coming of Jesus Christ and the end of days.

Girolama enlisted the children of the city to go door-to-door collecting anything that would be a distraction from a relationship with God. They collected things like mirrors, cosmetics, chess pieces, card games, musical instruments, women’s hats, books and art. With these items they built tall piles in the city and set them on fire – calling them “Bonfires of the Vanities”. While it’s lamented today that priceless Renaissance art ended up in ashes, Savonarola’s aim was for Christians in Florence to take their faith seriously and have it affect their daily lives for the better. After centuries of greedy and immoral behaviour from Florence’s clergy Friar Girolama Savonarola was a breath of fresh, pious air.

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Statue of a preaching Girolama Savonarola in his hometown of Ferrara, Italy

Savonarola virtually became the ruler of the great Italian city of Florence, but as often happens things began to change. Perhaps it would have been wise not to call out Pope Alexander VI for his obvious corruption and also call the Vatican “the sink of Christendom”. Or maybe when the young people of Florence rioted due to not being able to sing or dance Savonarola should have recognised that it’s OK for a Christian to occasionally have some healthy fun. But Girolama was a man of principle and he felt he had to speak his mind, even when the Pope excommunicated him.

So when the Pope threatened to place an interdict on Florence unless the city stopped the short monk with strange facial features from preaching, it was inevitable that Girolama Savonarola would end up in the public square just outside the Old Palace being hung, burned, and thrown in the river.

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“Execution of Girolamo Savonarola in Piazza della Signoria” by Francesco di Lorenzo Rosselli (Museo di San Marco, Florence).

Today marks the 519th anniversary of his death and the people of Florence will place flowers around the plaque that commemorates his execution, as they have done every year since.

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The annual “Florita” at the plaque that marks the place of Girolama Savonarola’s execution

Savonarola wanted to reform a church that had wandered significantly from the Saviour’s teachings, but historians today will say he went too far too fast. Twenty years after Girolama Savonarola’s death Martin Luther would learn from his mistakes and spark the Reformation that would light a spiritual fire through Europe. We celebrate the 500th anniversary of that event this year.

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