The Savonarola Anniversary in Piazza Signoria

The May 23 Savonarola commemoration from last year with flowers from the city of Florence & private individuals

Although the annual ceremony an commemoration will not take place due to Coronavirus safety protocol that prohibit gatherings, individuals will still lay flowers on the encircled spot (see photo) in Piazza Signoria where Dominican friar Fra Girolamo Savonarola was publicly executed on May 23, 1498.

Fra Girolamo Savonarola (1452 – 1498), the “meddlesome friar” of 15th century Florence. Contrary to popular belief, he was not burnt at stake, like Joan of Arc: he was hung until dead, and his body burt, the ashes thrown in the Arno River. Two fellow Dominicans, Savonarola’s trusted disciples, met the same destiny at the same time.

After the death of Lorenzo the Magnificent de’ Medici, his son Piero de’ Medici had a weak hold of power in Renaissance-era Florence. Savonarola was a drastic change of pace from the rich excesses of the noble family, preaching morality, severity, and condemning everyone for their sins.  Crowds turned out for the “Bonfire of Vanities” that he organized: the burning of objects believe to induce people to sin, including books (such as the Decameron by Boccaccio and even Dante’s Divine Comedy), paintings, fine dresses, cosmetics, mirrors, even musical instruments.  The preacher further grasped power by making prophecies regarding the city: how the Sword of God would come to strike down the unrighteous (which Florentines understood to be the French king Charles VIII and his invading army) and how Florence would grow to become the most virtuous, righteous, richest city in all of Italy.

With all of his sway, a new political party called the Frateschi, which he was technically not a part of but which followed him, assumed power Florence, which made Savonarola the ruler of the city in all but name. His status and his refusal to obey the Vatican at all times, however, caused tension between Savonarola and the papacy until the Pope excommunicated the so-called prophet, calling on him to prove his claims to be blessed by God. Florentines grew nervous with this edict and immediately called upon Savonarola to demonstrate the truth of his words via trial by fire; on the day it was set to happen, however, he was saved by a violent thunderstorm. Public opinion, however, turned against him as the friar was seized for execution.

The friar from Ferrara had been condemned as a heretic and refused to recant. His zeal for exaggerated moral reform turned into political subversion against the Medici rulers and the papacy, so it was politics more than religion that unmade the man. Innocent of all charges, he was immediately mourned as a martyr, which has since confused scholars. Some believe that Savonarola to be a fanatical manipulator of the masses, which was not sufficient ground for his dramatic execution, and some continue to have a negative opinion of the monk.  (katy rose sparks)