One of the most exciting chapters in the history of Florence concerns the Dominican preacher Girolamo Savonarola. He was a man at odds with his times, and apparently lacked not only a sense of humor, but also tolerance and compassion.
He was a fiery preacher whose eloquent and vehement condemnation of everything he observed in Florentine society brought him fame and a surprising number of followers. Savonarola preached against gambling and adultery, which was not unusual, but he demanded that those who indulged should be burned at the stake. He railed against the prevailing interest in Classical Greek and Roman culture. He denounced any art that was not religious, especially anything containing nudity. He preached against all forms of personal pleasure and personal adornment.
Yet, he must have struck a chord because he packed the church of San Marco every time he spoke, and attracted many to his point of view.
Florence in the late 15th century was one of the wealthiest and most splendid cities in Europe. The ruling Medici family and many of their class lived in ostentatious luxury. I think that Savonarola was able to play on the people's superstitions, ignorance, and fear of heavenly retribution. Plague and famine were ever present dangers, and nearly everyone believed such disasters were God's punishments for worldliness. Everyone was concerned for their souls, too. No one wished to burn in hell for all eternity.
So, people listened when Savonarola preached damnation. Things reached a peak during carnival in 1497. He called for an enormous bonfire to be built in the Piazza della Signoria and demanded that all "vanities" be burned. Although the people contributed great heaps of items, Savonarola sent out his army of teenage boys to search house to house for things that had been held back and hidden.
These young toughs were ruthless and they seized a mountain of valuable goods--wigs, jewelry, lace and velvet, musical instruments, playing cards, mirrors and perfumes. They even brought precious manuscripts and books, as well as numerous paintings, to be burned. This was the first and most spectacular Bonfire of the Vanities.
The radical monk staged more bonfires, and for a time the Florentines lived under a kind of reign of terror. Those who once had been sympathetic to his call for reform and a return to spiritual values now feared his excesses. Eventually, the fanatical preacher went too far and turned his fury on the luxurious lifestyle of Pope Alexander VI. This gave the Medicis and the wealthy of Florence an ally in their fight to rid the city of its scourge.
In short order, Savonarola was excommunicated, charged with heresy, and burned at the stake in 1498 in the same Piazza of his bonfires. His ashes were thrown into the Arno so no relic-seekers could claim his remains.
Today there's a small plaque commemorating the exact spot where he died.
Life returned to its worldly state in Florence and people wondered what had come over them. It was as if a collective madness had infected them all for a time. Even Botticelli is said to have thrown many of his paintings into the bonfires. Many other artists and writers tossed their works in, too. We can only imagine what was lost.
Today you can see Savonarola's cell and a small display fragments of his cloak and other mementos in the Museum of San Marco which is also home to the lovely frescoes of Fra Angelico, a monk of an entirely different nature.