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Jeffery Chan

Sandro Botticelli is a name associated with some of the greats of the Italian Renaissance. He was born in 1445 at the heart of a cultural transformation, emerging from the prosperous city of Florence. Botticelli’s most renowned works include The Birth of Venus and Primavera, both of which exemplify his graceful and dynamic brushwork. In January 2021, one of his portraits, Young Man holding a Roundel, sold at Sotheby’s for $92.2 million, ranking it as one of the most expensive Old Masters artworks ever sold at auction. It is evident as to why he is often described as the greatest humanist painter of the Early Renaissance. However, there appears to be more to Botticelli’s life than painting sweet cherubs and elegant goddesses.

On the 7 February 1497, a roaring bonfire was held at the Piazza della Signoria in Florence. In the blaze were everyday items, alongside lavish sculptures and artworks. In the midst of the participants was Botticelli, who voluntarily threw his own paintings into the flames. This event was orchestrated by a Dominican friar named Girolamo Savonarola.

“Savonarola was one of the greatest villains in the history of art” writes American art historian, Noah Charney. But how could a simple preacher have such a devastating effect on art, especially during the Italian Renaissance?

In 1452, Girolamo Savonarola was born in the Duchy of Ferrara. His grandfather, Michele Savonarola, was a well-respected doctor in the city and therefore, oversaw Girolamo’s education. After his grandfather’s death, Girolamo further pursued his education, receiving an arts degree at the University of Ferrara. He wanted to follow the path of his grandfather and attend medical school, but somewhere along the line, he changed his mind completely.

At the age of 22, Savonarola left home to join the Friary of San Domenico in Bologna where he studied scripture, taking inspiration from theologians such as Augustine and Thomas Aquinas. He was ordained to priesthood a year later as he started to write his own works and envelop himself in spirituality.

Savonarola was sent to the Convent of San Marco in Florence as a teacher in 1482. This is where he began his preaching to the public, although he was extremely unpopular due to his Ferrarese accent and crude rhetoric. His speeches often focused on his belief of simplifying the outer world to focus on the spiritual aspect. However, Savonarola’s notoriously revolutionary ideals did not emerge until Lent of 1486, where he envisioned seven ways the church needed to be reformed. He then returned to Bologna a year later to continue teaching.

Lorenzo ‘the Magnificent’ de Medici was a sumptuous patron of the arts and invited Savonarola back to Florence in 1490 as his spiritual counsellor. Unbeknownst to him, this Dominican friar was to become his most dangerous enemy. Upon his return, Savonarola claimed to have had visions that described his prophecies from God, which heralded a change in government. He began preaching about Florence as a ‘New Jerusalem’, to combat all the decadence and corruption thriving in Rome. He also turned his focus to overthrowing the tyrannical Medici rule in his sermons.

To Savonarola’s fortune, Lorenzo de Medici passed away from gout in April 1492, leaving his eldest son Piero to take over. Savonarola strongly pushed for the exile of the Medici heir, with the backing of the people. Once the family had left, Savonarola was free to reform the city to his liking, through the creation of a Great Council, naming Christ as the new king of Florence. Rules were set on appropriate dress and secular music was banned. Francesco Guicciardini, a politician and friend of Niccolò Machiavelli, stated that “the work Savonarola did in promoting decent behaviour was holy and marvellous. Nor had there ever been as much goodness and religion in Florence as there was in his time.”

The seemingly-paradisal state that Florence was in did not last forever as King Charles VIII of France and his army arrived outside the city walls in November 1494. Citizens were struck in fear of violence and pillaging, as well as Savonarola’s apocalyptic prophecies coming true. People dreaded that this was the end of time, just as their beloved friar had predicted: “the sword of the Lord over the earth, quickly and soon”. In an attempt to save the city, Savonarola approached King Charles and asked him to become Christ’s reformer on earth and hurry to Naples instead. He argued that Florence was the city of God and that Charles should continue his holy mission of conquering those who have strayed from their faith. Charles agreed, leaving Florence behind with the citizens in awe of Savonarola, their saviour.

His words and actions drew the attention of numerous significant individuals including Pope Alexander VI. The pope, intrigued by this well-spoken friar, demanded a full explanation. Savonarola replied with the Compendium of Revelations, a compilation of his divine visions and a recount of his sermons.

He began to target the Pope and Rome, calling out their corruption and selfish behaviour. Savonarola’s audience began to see the papacy as a corrupt institute, calling for reform. As a result, Pope Alexander VI ordered him to cease preaching, which was ignored. The pope threatened excommunication to which Savonarola replied: “Whoever excommunicates me, excommunicates God.” He was even offered the position of cardinal by the Pope, in a feeble attempt to appease him. Savonarola dismissed this, scoffing: “A red hat? I want a hat of blood”, demonstrating his disdain of earthly power. He was excommunicated in May 1497.

A month before his excommunication was the aforementioned Bonfire of the Vanities (1497). It was named as such because the objective was to destroy anything that could tempt one to sin: this mainly included items that promoted vanity and secularism. Supporters of Savonarola carried out mirrors, fine dresses, books and artworks; anything he deemed immoral was sent for incineration. Giorgio Vasari, the Renaissance artist and historian, wrote that Botticelli was so moved and influenced by the fiery words of the priest, that he brought some of his own paintings to be thrown into the bonfire. Other notable artists who fell subject to the words of the priest include Fra Bartolomeo and Lorenzo di Credi. Thankfully, Botticelli’s most reputable works, The Birth of Venus and Primavera, survived as they were housed in the Medici country house, away from Florence and safe from Savonarola’s supporters. Vasari also claimed that the artist did not produce anymore paintings after the Bonfire, but this is not accepted by modern historians as several of Botticelli’s paintings are dated after the death of Savonarola. Be that as it may, his later works appear to take on a more religious tone such as The Mystical Nativity (1500), which was supposedly based on Savonarola’s sermon of Christmas 1493.

The Dominican friar’s rule over the Florentines did not last much longer, with the people beginning to turn against him. An angry mob stormed San Marco, where Savonarola was staying, and he was arrested by secular authorities. Under torture, he confessed to fabricating his prophecies, later rescinding, and then confessing again. At an ecclesiastical trial with representatives from the papacy, Savonarola was found guilty of heresy and condemned to death. In May 1498 alongside two of his close associates, Girolamo Savonarola was hanged and his body burned at the Piazza della Signoria. His ashes were emptied into the river Arno, in order to prevent his loyal followers from collecting relics.

Savonarola could be perceived as the antagonist of the Renaissance in Florence due to his denunciation of any form of non-Christian art, therefore suppressing multitudes of potential artworks. However, his ideals and passionate rhetoric have influenced many significant figures down the line. His activism was invoked as an inspiration for the Italian Unification movement during the 19th century. One of Savonarola’s common themes was about rectifying the Church which resonates with the Protestant Reformation in the 1500s, with Martin Luther even praising him as a martyr. The acclaimed political philosopher, Niccolò Machiavelli, had attended some of Savonarola’s sermons and mentioned him in his book, The Prince, as an example as to how religious leaders stay in power. We may never truly know if Savonarola’s intentions were pure or if he was simply a megalomaniac, but he will be forever known as the man who scorched a hole in the history of art.

The priest who convinced Botticelli to burn his paintings: Arts Articles
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