Review of “Death in Florence: The Medici, Savonarola, and the Battle for the Soul of a Renaissance City” by Paul Strathern

Note: This review is by my husband Jim.

This is an historical account about the complicated times during the Renaissance when two main opposing forces were seeking to win the hearts and minds (and souls) of the influential citizens of Florence.

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15th century Italy consisted of many separate city-states, which were usually warring with one another. Florence, though, was thriving; it was the center of the Italian Renaissance in art, producing notables like Michelangelo and Botticelli. It was also a great financial center, dominated by the Medici family banks. But Florence, like the rest of Italy, suffered from the rampant corruption of the Catholic Church, and in particular, the ruling Borgia family. The times were ripe for religious reform, which would have profound social and political consequences as well as religious ones.

Giralamo Savonarola was born and grew up in the town of Ferrara. He was moved by the worldliness and “sinfulness” of his fellow Italians to take Holy Orders with the Dominicans, in his words, “because of the blind wickedness of the people of Italy.” He moved to Florence in 1482, where he entered the monastery of San Marco. There Savonarola was scandalized by the secular pursuits of Florence’s Dominicans, who accumulated comforts in the service of Lorenzo (“The Magnificent) de’ Medici, the wily ruler of Renaissance Florence.

Portrait of Lorenzo de' Medici by Agnolo Bronzino

Portrait of Lorenzo de’ Medici by Agnolo Bronzino

Savonarola was a vociferous opponent of sin, which in his view included “anything that brought pleasure.” This did not, however, in his mind, include academic pursuits; in fact, Savonarola was quite an intellectual and scholar, even becoming friends with the freethinker and polymath humanist Pico della Mirandola. Together, they explored theological knowledge and unorthodox philosophy such as the Kabbala. Nevertheless, Savonarola remained strictly orthodox in his beliefs.

Savonarola was a fiery preacher. He sought not to enlighten or reassure in his sermons; he wanted to put the fear of God in his listeners. He was convinced he was a prophet, inspired by God. In his sermons, he often blamed Lorenzo for the evils of secular Florence.

Portrait of Savonarola by his friend Fra Bartolomeo

Portrait of Savonarola by his friend Fra Bartolomeo

In 1491, Savonarola was elected Prior of the monastery of San Marco. A year later he ministered to Lorenzo on his death bed, at which time he promised to refrain from preaching against Piero, Lorenzo’s son. But Savonarola was such an inspiring and dynamic speaker that he became a political power himself nonetheless. Strathan says his sermons brought people into “mass hysteria.”

The labyrinthine politics of Italy became even more complicated when Charles VIII of France invaded in 1494. Savonarola predicted apocalyptic doom, characterizing Charles as the “scourge of God.” When the French army approached Florence, Savonarola went out to meet Charles, and successfully persuaded him not to sack Florence, an act which served to enhance his prestige and political power.

Charles VIII of France, by the Ecole Francaise

Charles VIII of France, by the Ecole Francaise

Savonarola kept expanding upon his ministry. He claimed to have visited the Virgin Mary in paradise. He alienated many Florentines by advocating the death penalty for sodomy, which was widely practiced in Florence on both men and women because (1) women were supposed to be virgins when they married so they were unavailable, and (2) married men could still have sex with their wives in this way without a ruinous number of children resulting from their actions. But according to Strathern, most citizens approved of Savonarola’s repressive policies by and large, aside from the sodomy restrictions. In 1497 during Carnival time (the run-up to Lent), “Savonarola’s boys” (culled from catechism classes of San Marco) went around Florence collecting items associated with dissipation – called “vanities” – such as packs of cards, dice, jewelry, and books by poets, and made a huge bonfire. This “Bonfire of the Vanities” rose to sixty feet, with a circumference at its base of 240 feet. At its peak, an image of the Devil was placed, and while it burned, Savonarola’s boys, dressed in white, sang hymns.

Florence in Savonarola's time

Florence in Savonarola’s time

Eventually, Savonarola went too far. His downfall came improbably, though, after a Franciscan monk challenged him to an ordeal by fire. This sort of thing no longer had much credence in a sophisticated city like Florence, but through a comedy of errors, the governing body of Florence decided it should go ahead, with two Franciscans going against two Dominicans. A thunderstorm interrupted the proceedings. Savonarola was blamed by the assembled mob for not performing a miracle, and was accused of being a charlatan.

The mob then stormed Savonarola’s monastery and took him prisoner. With help of emissaries of the Pope, he was tortured for claiming that he was a prophet and had spoken with God. He resisted the torture manfully, but ultimately he broke down and made admissions that could be interpreted as heresy. His punishment was to be burned at the stake.

Discussion: Savonarola never tried to found a new sect – he attempted to reform the Church from within. [Two decades later, the Church was still subject to the same criticisms of corruption and worldliness, leading Martin Luther to reject the entire structure and start a new religion.]

The author seems very sympathetic to Savonarola, possibly because of his courage in the face of torture. Although I have little sympathy for the Borgias, I can’t help feeling that Savonarola would not have been a pleasant ruler. Fire and brimstone preachers are not necessarily an improvement over venal popes.

Evaluation: Strathan has done a remarkable job of relating the sinuous twists and turns of Renaissance Italian politics. Without that detail, it would be hard to comprehend the events described. Nonetheless, this book is not a “page turner,” and I found myself drifting off as I read about the intricacies of various great families’ internecine feuds. While the book contains very helpful maps and illustrations, one can see by the length of the “Leading Dramatis Personae and Main Factions” preceding the book that the history of these times is quite convoluted.

Rating: 3/5

Published by Pegasus Books, 2015

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4 Responses to Review of “Death in Florence: The Medici, Savonarola, and the Battle for the Soul of a Renaissance City” by Paul Strathern

  1. BermudaOnion says:

    My mom would probably love that but I don’t think it’s for me.

  2. M Denise C says:

    I enjoyed your review! I read another review of this book in the Dallas Morning News and it sounds like a book I would love. Cheers, MDC

  3. I always shrink from reading about Italy in this period (or any period really) because of all the ruling families of tiny bits of Italy, and what the relationships among them were, etc. I love the machinations but just cannot keep track of who’s who.

  4. stacybuckeye says:

    When we visited Florence I had to hear about the Medici family from my husband the 3 days we were there. I bet he’d like this book 🙂

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