From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Girolamo Savonarola (September 21, 1452 – May 23, 1498) was an Italian Dominican priest and leader of Florence from 1494 until his execution by burning in 1498. He is known as a notorious moral crusader, book burner and art vandal.
He was known for religious reformation, anti-Renaissance preaching, book burning, and destruction of art. He vehemently preached against what he saw as the moral corruption of the clergy, and his main opponent was Pope Alexander VI. He is sometimes seen as a precursor of Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation, though he remained a devout and pious Roman Catholic his whole life.
In 1497, he and his followers carried out the Bonfire of the Vanities. They sent boys from door to door collecting items associated with moral laxity: mirrors, cosmetics, lewd pictures, pagan books, immoral sculptures (which he wanted to be transformed into statues of the saints and modest depictions of biblical scenes), gaming tables, chess pieces, lutes and other musical instruments, fine dresses, women’s hats, and the works of immoral and ancient poets, and burnt them all in a large pile in the Piazza della Signoria of Florence. Many fine Florentine Renaissance artworks were lost in Savonarola’s notorious bonfires — including paintings by Sandro Botticelli and Michelangelo Buonarroti.
Excommunication and execution
On May 13, 1497, Savonarola was excommunicated by Pope Alexander VI, and in 1498, Alexander demanded his arrest and execution. On April 8, a crowd attacked the Convent of San Marco. In the ensuing struggle, several of Savonarola’s guards and religious supporters were killed. Savonarola surrendered along with Fra Domenico da Pescia and Fra Silvestro, his two closest associates. Savonarola was charged with heresy, uttering prophecies, sedition, and other crimes, called religious errors by the Borgia pope.
During the next few weeks all three were tortured on the rack, the torturers sparing only Savonarola’s right arm in order that he might be able to sign his confession. All three signed confessions, Savonarola doing so sometime before May 8. On that day he completed a written meditation on the Miserere mei, Psalm 50, entitled Infelix ego, in which he pleaded with God for mercy for his physical weakness in confessing to crimes he believed he did not commit. On the day of his execution, May 23, 1498, he was still working on another meditation, this one on Psalm 31, entitled Tristitia obsedit me.
On the day of his execution he was taken out to the Piazza della Signoria along with Fra Silvestro and Fra Domenico da Pescia. The three were ritually stripped of their clerical vestments, degraded as "heretics and schismatics", and given over to the secular authorities to be burned. The three were hanged in chains from a single cross and an enormous fire was lit beneath them. They were thereby executed in the same place where the Bonfire of the Vanities had been lit, and in the same manner that Savonarola had condemned other criminals during his own reign in Florence.
Jacopo Nardi, who recorded the incident in his Istorie della città di Firenze, wrote that his executioner lit the flame exclaiming, “The one who wanted to burn me is now himself put to the flames.” Luca Landucci, who was present, wrote in his diary that the burning took several hours, and that the remains were several times broken apart and mixed with brushwood so that not the slightest piece could be later recovered, as the ecclesiastical authorities did not want Savonarola’s followers to have any relics for a future generation of the rigorist preacher they considered a saint. The ashes of the three were afterwards thrown in the Arno beside the Ponte Vecchio.
Nevertheless, the Frateschi party and her governo popolare revived until July 1499, when the French occupation of Milan began to favour it again. It was not until 1512 that the Medici returned with Spanish help, following the latest decline of the French.