Chapter 28 - JEROME SAVONAROLA, PART 1 (AD 1452-1498)

There is not much to tell about the popes after Pius II until we come to Alexander VI, who was a Spaniard named Roderick Borgia, and was pope from 1492 to 1503. And the story of Alexander is too shocking to be told here; for there is hardly anything in all history so bad as the accounts which we have of him and of his family. He is supposed to have died of drinking, by mistake, some poison which he had prepared for a rich cardinal whose wealth he wished to get into his hands.

Instead, therefore, of telling you about the popes of this time: I shall give some account of a man who became very famous as a preacher-- Jerome Savonarola.

Savonarola was born in 1452 at Ferrara, where his grandfather had been physician to the duke; and his family wished him to follow the same profession. But Jerome was set on becoming a monk, and from this nothing could move him. He therefore joined the Dominican friars, and after a while he was removed to St Mark's, at Florence, a famous convent of his order. He found things in a bad state there; but he was chosen prior (or head) of the convent, and reformed it, so that it rose in character, and the number of the monks was much increased. He also became a great preacher, so that even the vast cathedral of Florence could not hold the crowds which flocked to hear him. He was especially fond of preaching on the dark prophecies of the Revelation, and of declaring that the judgments of God were about to come on Florence and on all Italy because of sin; and he sometimes fancied that he not only gathered such things from Scripture, but that they were revealed to him by visions from heaven.

At this time a family named Medici had got the chief power in Florence into their hands, and Savonarola always opposed them, because he thought that they had no right to such power in a city which ought to be free. But when Lorenzo, the head of the family, was dying (AD 1497), he sent for Savonarola, because he thought him the only one of the clergy who would be likely to speak honestly to him of his sins, and to show him the way of seeking forgiveness. Savonarola did his part firmly, and pointed out some of Lorenzo's acts as being those of which he was especially bound to repent. But when he desired him to restore the liberties of Florence, it was more than the dying man could make up his mind to; and Savonarola, thinking that his repentance could not be sincere if he refused this, left him without giving him the Church's absolution.

But, although Savonarola was a very sincere and pious man, he did not always show good judgment. For instance, when he wished to get rid of the disorderly way in which the young people of Florence used to behave at the beginning of Lent, he sent a number of boys about the city (AD 1497), where they entered into houses, and asked the inhabitants to give up to them any "vanities" which they might have. Then these vanities (as they were called) were all gathered together, and were built up into a pile fifteen stories high. There were among them cards and dice, fineries of women's dress, looking-glasses, bad books, musical instruments, pictures, and statues. The whole heap was of great value, and a merchant from Venice offered a large sum for it. But the money was refused, and he was forced to throw in his own picture as an addition to the other vanities. When night came, a long procession under Savonarola's orders passed through the streets, and then the pile was set on fire, amidst the sound of bells, drums, and trumpets, and the shouts of the multitude, who had been worked up to a share of Savonarola's zeal.

But the wiser people were distressed by the mistakes of judgment which he had shown in setting children to search out the faults of their elders, and in mixing up harmless things in the same destruction with those which were connected with deep sinfulness and vice. And this want of judgment was still more shown a year later, when, after having repeated the bonfire of vanities, Savonarola's followers danced wildly in three circles around a cross set up in front of St. Mark's, as if they had been so many crazy dervishes of the East.

PART II

Savonarola had raised up a host of enemies, and some of them were eagerly looking for an opportunity of doing him some mischief. At length one Francis of Apulia, a Franciscan friar, challenged him to what was called the ordeal (or judgment) of fire, as a trial of the truth of his doctrine; and after much trouble it was settled that a friend of each should pass through this trial, which was supposed to be a way of finding out God's judgment as to the truth of the matter in dispute. Two great heaps of fuel were piled up in a public place at Florence. They were each forty yards long and two yards and a half high, with an opening of a yard's width between them; and it was intended that these heaps should be set on fire, and that the champions should try to pass between the two, as a famous monk had done at Florence in Hildebrand's time, hundreds of years before. But when a vast crowd had been brought to see the ordeal, they were much disappointed at finding that it was delayed, because Savonarola's enemies fancied that he might perhaps make use of some magical charms against the flames. There was a long dispute about this, and, while the parties were still wrangling, a hearty shower came down on the crowd. The magistrates then forbade the trial; the people, tired and hungry from waiting, drenched by the rain, provoked by the wearisome squabble which had caused the delay, and after all balked of the expected sight, broke out against Savonarola; and he had great difficulty in reaching St. Mark's under the protection of some friends: who closed around him and kept off the angry multitude. Two days later the convent was besieged; and when the defenders were obliged to surrender it, Savonarola and the friar who was to have undergone the ordeal on his side were sent to prison.

Savonarola had a long trial, during which he was often tortured; but whatever might be wrung from him in this way, he afterwards declared that it was not to be believed, because the weakness of his body could not bear the pain of torture, and he confessed whatever might be asked of him. This trial was carried on under the authority of the wicked Pope Alexander VI

Although no charge of error as to the faith could be made out against Savonarola, his enemies were bent on his death; and he and two of his companions were sentenced to be hanged and burnt. Like Huss, they had to go through the form of being degraded from their orders; and at the end of this it was a bishop's part to say to each, "I separate thee from the Church militant" (that is, from the Church which is carrying on its warfare here on earth). But the bishop, who had once been one of Savonarola's friars at St. Mark's, was very uneasy, and said in his confusions, "I separate thee from the Church triumphant" (that is, from the Church when its warfare has ended in victory and triumph). Savonarola saw the mistake, and corrected it by saying, "from the militant, not from the triumphant; for that is not thine to do."

Savonarola's party did not die out with him, but long continued to cherish his memory. Among those who were most earnest in this was the great artist, Michael Angelo Buonarotti, who had been one of his hearers in youth, and even to his latest days used to read his works with interest, and to speak of him with reverence.