As I mentioned a few weeks ago, I have been reading Lauro Martines’ Fire in the City, a revisionist account of Savonarola, which I plan to review more fully in another post. But let me offer some preliminary remarks first. The book goes a long way towards increasing my understanding and my respect for this often misunderstood and denigrated figure. If the purpose of history is to understand men in the past in terms of their own time and place, Martines’ Fire in the City is one of the best works of history I have ever read. It has also confirmed my impression that those who invoke Savonarola’s name as a term of abuse or compare their adversaries in debate to Savonarola as a way of dismissing their arguments must know next to nothing about the man’s career and unwittingly align themselves with forces of tyranny and moral corruption. This is not simply because Savonarola preached against moral corruption and the tyranny of the Medicis, though he did this, but that the targets of his preaching were in many respects every bit as bad as he made them out to be. His claims to a kind of prophecy were extreme and hard to credit, but as Martines explains 15th century Italian preachers frequently claimed that God was speaking through them.

The book further reminds me that those who object most loudly to calls for moral reform and self-examination of any kind are usually new Arrabiati, more consumed with destroying voices for reform than with their own improvement, who do not object to the preacher because he might be a hypocrite (and Savonarola, who seems to have been a genuinely pious Dominican friar, was not) but because they have no intention of living according to high standards of conduct and find the very idea obnoxious. Where the preacher chastises failings and calls for repentance, the Arrabiati conspire to have him condemned, tortured and murdered. The bonfires of the vanities destroyed things that were, all in all, trivial and often lascivious, whereas his enemies used their fire to kill Savonarola and his brethren. Somehow in liberal readings of this moment in 15th century Florence, Savonarola has been cast as a kind of villain and demagogue who basically deserved what he got.

Considering the political situation Florence was in, and the extremely vulnerable and tenuous position Savonarola was in, it does strike the modern reader that his commitment to the reform of the Church and Florence bordered on insanity, but only in the sense that most people, preoccupied with self-preservation, would never challenge entrenched powers in the audacious and provocative way that he did. Savonarola made questionable political judgements, as friars and monks often will did when they entered into the political fray. His support for Charles VIII of France seemed like a good example of unsentimental Realpolitik, trying to ally Florence with a major power outside Italy, but in his conviction that Charles VIII was God’s scourge come to cleanse Italy of its corrupt princes he seems to have possessed all the political realism that St. Theodore Studites did when he advised Michael I to persist in his war with the Bulgarians (which proved to be a costly disaster and ended up helping to get Michael I overthrown). However, idiosyncratic and odd as Savonarola’s preoccupation with the French king would seem to us, his role was as a preacher who exhorted his audience to certain courses of action; in the end, the decisions of the Florentine government were deliberated and decided by the elected officials of the city and the Council, so whatever political errors Florence made in these years they were the errors of the citizens and their government as well.

Savonarola also had the flaws most friars and monks have when they come into direct contact with the political world: in a world that requires a certain amount of compromise to accommodate vying interests, he was unbending and uncompromising in his rhetoric. He was, however, not exactly the monotonous and dour character of modern liberal imagination; he was immensely popular primarily because of the lively, rich style of his preaching.

In the war-torn, plague-ridden, politically divided Florence of the 1490s it was precisely that sort of rejuvenation and unbending conviction that the Florentines needed (and the charitable part of his stern convictions helped to quell the desire for revenge against supporters of the Medici and prevented a general civil war in the city). That large segments of the aristocracy and supporters of the Medici wearied of Savonarola’s calls for reform and his defense of the General Council of the city against oligarchic cliques or one-man rule serves to show what sort of life they valued; it was not, by and large, one of wholesome Christian virtue or Florentine republicanism. The return of the Medici tyranny and all of the disorder the Medici represented confirmed that. Savonarola might be judged as someone who took his vision to excessive lengths, but considering the state of affairs in Florence when he arrived there for the second time in 1494 it is neither surprising nor cause for condemnation that he felt compelled to take a hard line with a wayward, desperate city.

Most of the major intellects of his time, such as Machiavelli, Guicciardini and Pico della Mirandola, some of whom had no sympathy for his preaching during his lifetime (though in later life Guicciardini came to admire him very strongly), remembered the man with admiration as a basically good man and a loyal defender of his adopted city. It is a pity that it has taken this long for the modern view to catch up with something his contemporaries already knew.