Savonarola and Apocalypticism in Renaissance Florence
Girolamo Savonarola’s biographers posit him as many things: a preacher, a prophet, a rebel, and a martyr. Studies of his personal correspondence, sermons, and treatises suggest that Savonarola self-identified with all these labels. Savonarola’s influence is beyond debate; all agree that he significantly impacted politics as well as daily life in Florence. The question begged by scholarship is not whether Savonarola was successful in conveying his apocalyptic message, but rather, why and how a seemingly ordinary man was able to establish such a profound legacy. Scholars such as Rachel Erlanger, Ralph Roeder, David Weinstein, and Donald Weinstein (among others) argue that Savonarola’s prophecies and his calls for reform and repentance resonated with Florentines for two reasons: the unique social and historical context of fifteenth-century Italy, and the prophet’s fiery, dramatic preaching style.
Historical and Social Context
While most of Europe was in the process of forming nation-states, present-day Italy remained a fragmented group of city-states during the Renaissance. As a republic, Florence lacked one official governing body, but was instead ruled by competing political factions, guilds, and powerful families like the Medici. Florence was a center of artistic and cultural flourishing during the Renaissance, yet it was also one of the most politically unstable regions in Europe. Ralph Roeder notes that one of the means through which Florence’s leaders attempted to impose order was by appealing to citizens’ morality, a tactic that Savonarola enthusiastically employed (Roeder, The Man of the Renaissance, 26). Savonarola tapped into a pre-existing sense of anxiety and expectation that dominated the popular imagination in early modern Europe—that of millenarianism and the expectation that the apocalypse would arrive in the year 1500. This sense of anticipation was not just a Florentine phenomenon but was felt across the European continent. Apocalyptic expectations engendered a sense of urgency in the minds and hearts of Christians to live and worship in a righteous manner. Though Florence was not unique in sharing this perspective, the city did have a distinct sense of its exceptionality and its destiny as the divine favorite (Weinstein, Savonarola and Florence, 34).
Donald Weinstein argues that apocalypticism in Florence was more than the usual combination of a response to crisis and the leadership of a magnetic prophet; it was prepared for by a pre-existing and long tradition of Florentines viewing their city as an entity whose destiny was shaped by God. Happy events in Florence were read as a reward for the virtue of its citizens, while failures and difficulties were read as punishment for the citizens’ vices. The theme of rebirth and renewal dominated both secular and religious spheres, with the city championed as both a “new Rome” and “new Church.” By the fifteenth century, the myth of Florence’s auspicious destiny had become a deliberate strategy of civic rhetoric (Weinstein, Savonarola and Florence, 59).
The concern for morality so deeply felt by the citizens of Florence often put the faithful at odds with figures of authority. Members of the Medici family were not part of the hereditary aristocracy, but had made an immense fortune as bankers. They used their wealth and connections with the Papacy to maneuver themselves into a place of political prominence, and by the time Savonarola was born they had become de facto rulers of Florence. Cosimo de Medici, known as the “pater patriae” of the family, and credited with cementing the dynasty’s greatness, died in 1464. In Cosimo’s absence, public opinion of the Medici began to sour, and widespread sentiments of anti-despotism were leveled at the family and linked with a growing sense of anti-imperialism. Lorenzo de Medici, known as “il Magnifico” (the Magnificent), became the family’s patriarch in 1469, and he restored order to the city and greatness to the dynasty. Lorenzo became a prolific patron of the arts, and surrounded himself with a group of cultured and learned men. He was Savonarola’s contemporary, and ironically, he initially supported the prophet. It was at Lorenzo’s behest that Savonarola came to Florence in 1489. Though Savonarola made his disdain for Lorenzo de Medici quite apparent, il Magnifico proved relatively ambivalent about Savonarola. He was, most of all, bemused by the prophet’s attacks on his character and authority. Lorenzo died in 1494, and he left behind a city that was, for the first time in several decades, unsure of its leadership and its destiny. Savonarola had already amassed a sizeable following in Florence, but the death of il Magnifico marked a crucial point in Savonarola’s career. In a period of crisis and chaos, Savonarola emerged as Lorenzo’s political and spiritual heir. To fully appreciate Savonarola’s commitment to reforming Florence, it is necessary to understand the path taken by the prophet in his journey to becoming the steward of Florence’s divine destiny.
Girolamo Savonarola: Preacher and Prophet
Savonarola’s biographers have all remarked on the prophet’s humble origins. Though fairly well educated, he was from an otherwise unremarkable family. Long before his arrival in Florence, Savonarola was moved to embrace a life of religion. Savonarola entered the monastery of San Domenico, Bologna, in 1475. He was motivated by what he perceived as the sorry state of the world and of humanity; his letters to family members reveal that he was tormented by the prosaic demands of his physical body, hinting at an inner struggle with sexual desire, and he sought to liberate his spirit from those bonds. This was the genesis of Savonarola’s extreme asceticism. He practiced incessant mortifications and denied himself more than four hours of sleep per night. He was appalled by what he felt to be rampant vanity in the world, and he even perceived his fellow monks to be weak-willed and feeble of spirit. The duties of the Dominican order included rigorous study and militant preaching, and Savonarola had taken up their mission with great vigor (Roeder, The Man of the Renaissance, 26). While at the monastery, Savonarola had developed an interest in the Old Testament and the Book of Revelation that would inspire his sermons and treatises until his death.
As part of his duty to the Dominican order, Savonarola became an itinerant preacher. As word of Savonarola’s preaching reached Florence, Lorenzo de Medici, known for surrounding himself with the best and brightest minds in early modern Europe, invited the prophet to his Florentine palazzo. In what can be understood as an act of either extreme assurance in God’s will or extreme arrogance, Savonarola issued a sermon in which he all but named Lorenzo as a tyrant. Savonarola viewed Lorenzo de Medici as licentious and by extension as the source of vicious evil in Florence, working under the philosophy that rulers are responsible for their people’s morality. Lorenzo was confused by the attack, given that he had treated Savonarola kindly, but for many years he ignored the prophet.
The denunciation of tyranny and vanity characterized Savonarola’s work as a preacher and author; he railed repeatedly against secular leaders like Lorenzo de Medici and religious leaders like the Pope (Innocent VIII and later Alexander VI). This fed into the anti-imperial sentiment that had taken hold of Florence following Cosimo de Medici’s death. Savonarola more firmly united the concepts of civic duty and moral rectitude in the minds of his contemporaries. By 1491, just two years after his entrance into Florence, Savonarola preached to crowds of 10,000 at the city’s famous Duomo cathedral. His sermons had a distinctly apocalyptic bent, in which he predicted tribulations for the Church and its subsequent renewal; he espoused very similar views about the city of Florence. The anti-Roman sentiments expressed by Savonarola may have earned him popularity with the commoners, but they also earned him negative attention from Pope Alexander VI (1492-1503). Savonarola remained undeterred and continued to attack corruption in the Church. Savonarola saw himself as a vessel for divine revelation, and he felt he had the ability to foretell the future. Many of his prophecies coincided with contemporary events, lending his message a sense of credibility. For example, he predicted Lorenzo de Medici’s death and was proven correct when il Magnifico died in 1494. He also correctly predicted the exile of Lorenzo’s son, Piero de Medici. Savonarola supported the invasion of Charles VIII during the French king’s Italian campaign, believing Charles to be a divine instrument of change that would bring about the reform of the Church. Charles VIII’s arrival in Florence created an atmosphere of chaotic panic, but Savonarola met with the king and convinced him to pass through Florence without harming the city (Court, Approaching the Apocalypse, 94). For many this event sanctioned Savonarola’s power of prophecy and his divine purpose on earth. During this period of heightened credibility, Savonarola published his most important treatise, The Compendium of Revelations (1495). The Compendium of Revelations offered a prophetic message of warning to the “enemies” of Florence.
Savonarola’s biographers attribute his success not just to the words he wrote and spoke but to the fiery preaching style he employed. Savonarola’s apocalyptic rhetoric instilled fear in the hearts of his congregation. At the pulpit he promised violent, imminent punishment for sinners while at the same time he advocated for the faithful and morally upright to endure the current period of tribulations. As a reward they would see a renewed golden age in Florence unlike ever before—Florence would soon be transformed into the New Jerusalem. During the Palm Sunday Procession, on March 27, 1496, the prophet spoke to Florence about its special destiny:
Do you not know? O most fortunate city of Florence. That when you were chosen for such a grace: how greatly you are favored to have been made worthy of the blessings and felicity promised to you…. I call Florence a New Jerusalem because, just as from Jerusalem issued that light and virtue which spread and disseminated the faith of Christ everywhere, so out of Florence will issue that light by which the whole world has to be reformed and led back to the true worship and original simplicity of the primitive Church of Christ. You who now sit weeping: on account of your present tribulations. Not only you, O Florence, but the whole world will be adorned: with the true worship of God, and with the true light of Christ (Savonarola, Selected Writings, 235).
Savonarola was a passionate preacher; his words, his bearing, and his mannerisms were highly dramatic. In this vein, Savonarola used public displays to convey his apocalyptic message and to call the citizens of Florence to penitence. He is perhaps best remembered for his Bonfires of the Vanities (1497-98), in which he ritually burned “objectionable” works of art, classical literature, musical instruments, and tools of science. Works of art that Savonarola deemed objectionable were those that were secular in nature and meant for purely scopophilic and intellectual enjoyment (i.e. non-religious works). The destruction of these objects was necessary in Savonarola’s mind as he saw excess, luxury, and vanity as contributing to the immoral state of Florence. The asceticism that pervaded all aspects of Savonarola’s life extended to his philosophy on art. He compared Christians to works of art, arguing that natural figures are more pleasing to the eye just as outer simplicity is more becoming on a true Christian than ostentation. He wanted art to reflect the simplicity of early Christianity. Savonarola summarized his thoughts on art in his De simplicitate christianae vitae (1510), saying, “Obviously, simple works are more pleasing and acceptable to us than artful ones.” He added, on the subject of how to decorate a church, that “everything gives off the fragrance of devotion and simplicity.” (Dall’aglio, Girolamo Savonarola and His Dream of Reform, 97-99).
Interestingly enough, Savonarola found an ally in the prominent Renaissance artist Sandro Botticelli. Botticelli even volunteered his own paintings for burning by the prophet. It is perhaps difficult for a twenty-first century mind to conceive of an artist supporting the destruction of art—and the notion is made even stranger by the fact that the Medici were among Botticelli’s most important patrons. Botticelli’s famous works Birth of Venus and Primavera were both commissioned by the Medici. Botticelli’s willingness to sacrifice his own works of art and his deep support for the prophet demonstrated the intensity of Savonarola’s influence and the sense of urgency that the approaching millennium created. The preservation of the spirit was far more important to Savonarola than temporal distractions ever could be. Botticelli was, in fact, a staunch supporter of Savonarola. His studio was used for clandestine meetings of disciples and sympathizers following the prophet’s death. Botticelli painted two images that are based on apocalyptic sermons given by Savonarola: the Mystic Crucifixion and Mystic Nativity. The Mystic Crucifixion simultaneously depicts the destruction of Rome, or Babylon, and Florence as the New Jerusalem (Court, Approaching the Apocalypse, 97). The Mystic Nativity was painted in 1500-1501, a significant date for a millenarian such as Botticelli, and is based on Savonarola’s Compendium of Revelations and his 1496 Assumption Day sermon (Hatfield, Mystic Nativity, 96-98).
A great deal of planning and ideological intention poured into first Bonfire of the Vanities. Sinful objects were collected for months leading up to the ritual, and on the day of the bonfire itself, Savonarola’s followers adorned themselves with white gowns, garlands, and red crosses, and went door-to-door collecting objects for burning. An enormous pyre was erected in the Piazza della Signoria and it was surmounted by an image of Satan. Representatives of the different Florentine districts symbolically lit the pyre, obliterating the objects of vanity. The larger aim of the first Bonfire of the Vanities was not just to rid Florence of lascivious objects, but also to challenge the tradition of Carnival, when it was customary to wear masks and eat, drink, and commit lewd acts. Savonarola did not oppose Carnival itself, but rather aimed to Christianize the festival. It was part of his larger project of reform, in which he sought to stamp out pagan activities and behaviors like sodomy and adultery, gambling and public drunkenness, and ostentation in manner and dress. Stefano Dall’aglio notes that this was a divisive spectacle—it earned the respect and admiration of Savonarola’s supporters, but it alienated him from many other citizens who felt that he was robbing Florence of its culture and enjoyment.
The divisive effect of the Bonfire of the Vanities was just one of several factors that contributed to Savonarola’s eventual demise. Savonarola had made his career criticizing the excesses of the Roman Catholic Church and the papacy; he associated Alexander VI with the antichrist, and repeatedly railed against the Pope in public. This did not escape Alexander VI’s attention. The Pope ordered Savonarola to quit preaching, an edict that the prophet ultimately disobeyed. In 1497, Alexander VI excommunicated Savonarola, and he threatened the residents of Florence with retribution should they continue to support the prophet’s preaching. This tense situation came to a head on Palm Sunday, 1498, when a mob comprised of approximately 600 people converged on San Marco, where Savonarola acted as prior. After a brief standoff, Savonarola submitted to the mob. He claimed that he had expected his capture—only not so soon—and that it was part of his destiny as a martyr for Christianity. Savonarola was assaulted by the mob and taken to prison, where he was interrogated and tortured for several days. Savonarola had anticipated this end, and he had hoped to endure with the same stoicism of other great martyrs like Christ and Jeremiah. Yet he feared that he would break under torture; he even told his followers that he would not recant, but if he were forced to, they were not to believe it. Savonarola did recant, and he signed a confession that identified him as a false prophet. He was publically executed on May 23, 1498, in the same Piazza della Signoria where he had held his Bonfires of the Vanities. He was hanged and burned, so that there would be no remains to be kept as relics for a martyr’s cult dedicated to the prophet (Erlanger, The Unarmed Prophet, 264-289). Still, as Richard Trexler has demonstrated, for many years following his execution Savonarola was indeed worshipped as a martyr (“Martyrs for Florence,” 293-108).
Conclusion: Empire, Apocalypse, and Savonarola
Girolamo Savonarola was very much a product of his age. The millenarianism so rampant in Europe certainly informed the prophet’s understanding of the time in which he lived. Like John of Patmos, Savonarola saw himself as a vessel for divine revelation, and he felt that he had an ability to foretell the future. Just as the Book of Revelation can be understood as a narrative of resistance that promised justice to oppressed Christians in its original context, so too did Savonarola look to the Book of Revelation to reassure himself that the backwardness and immorality he perceived in the church and the republic would be rectified by God. Donald Weinstein posits Savonarola as post-millenarian, as he read contemporary events as signs of the coming apocalypse. He predicted that both the Church and Florence as a city would undergo tribulations but then be renewed. He saw the French monarchy, under Charles VIII, and the Florentine State, as the harbingers of the new order (Weinstein, Savonarola and Florence, 165). Rome, the heart of the papacy, was Babylon to Savonarola, while his beloved Florence was the New Jerusalem; he was an enemy of both secular and religious authorities. Savonarola saw the world as plagued by vanity and tyranny, and in this way echoed the asceticism of John of Patmos. Like many revelatory prophets before and after his time, Savonarola perceived himself as a martyr for God’s truth. He often employed the same tools and methods as those he critiqued, using the language of empire to convey his apocalyptic message. The Medici often staged pageants in Florence to assert their authority and legitimacy, and Savonarola used his own brand of theatrics to speak to the public. Through his flamboyant Bonfires of the Vanities and his equally flamboyant and emotional preaching, Savonarola fought the secular and religious corruption that he believed constrained the renewal he anticipated—and he did so while fashioning himself a post-millenarian martyr.
Connell, William. “The Prophet as Physician of Souls: Savonarola’s Manual for Confessors.” In Society and Individual in Renaissance Florence, edited by William Connell, 241-260. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.
This text offers an analysis of one of Girolamo Savonarola’s lesser-known treatises, the Confessionale pro instructione confessorum. William Connell argues that the Manual for Confessors offers the rare opportunity to view Savonarola as a priest talking to other priests—in an “insider’s role.” For Connell, it is in the Manual for Confessors that Savonarola’s dueling identities as pastor and prophet are reconciled. The manual focuses on the art of casuistry and advises priests on how to apply doctrine to the daily sins of laypeople. Though the manual does not convey the same apocalyptic fervor of Savonarola’s other texts, Connell argues that it should be understood as part of Savonarola’s larger call for penitence in the face of impending apocalypse.
Court, John. “Apocalypse and Civil War (1500 and After).” In Approaching the Apocalypse: A Short History of Christian Millenarianism, by John Court, 93-111. London: I.B. Tauris, 2008.
This chapter addresses the significance of the year 1500 in contributing to widespread belief in an imminent apocalypse during Savonarola’s lifetime. John Court provides a concise and almost encyclopedic treatment of Savonarola’s career in Florence. Though brief, Court’s description of Savonarola’s career is explicitly focused on the prophet’s personal brand of apocalypticism, and details the various events that gave credence to his sermons and revelations. This is an excellent source for the beginning stages of research. Court provides an overview of the historical and social context of Florence in the fifteenth century, Savonarola’s biography as well as his philosophies, and the enemies he made in his critiques of secular and religious authority.
Dall’Aglio, Stefano. “Girolamo Savonarola and His Dream of Reform: Art, Money, and the Bonfire of the Vanities.” In Money and Beauty: Bankers, Botticelli, and the Bonfire of the Vanities, edited by Ludovica Sebregondi and Tim Parks, 93-103. Florence: Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi, 2011.
Dall’aglio’s chapter in Money and Beauty: Bankers, Botticelli, and the Bonfire of the Vanities details the events of the first bonfire, describing the long-term planning and anticipation for the ritual, and the religious fervor that swept Florence and Savonarola’s followers on the actual day of the event. Dall’aglio makes the important point that the Bonfire of the Vanities had a distinctly ideological bent as part of Savonarola’s program of reform, specifically his desire to re-Christianize the festival of Carnival—transforming it from a time of debauchery into one of moral purification. Dall’aglio’s other major contribution lies in his discussion of Savonarola’s philosophy on art, and the prophet’s desire to return art and the Church itself back to the simplicity of early Christianity.
Erlanger, Rachel. The Unarmed Prophet: Savonarola in Florence. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1988.
Erlanger’s biography of Savonarola contextualizes the prophet within Florentine history and custom. The author pays due attention to the fact that present-day Italy differed from the rest of Europe during the Renaissance; while most of the continent was forming nation-states, Italy remained fragmented. Erlanger argues that Savonarola’s rise to power as de facto ruler of Florence during the period of Medici exile was due to the relative chaos and political instability of the region; the prophet aligned himself with a faction of Florentine society that shared his anti-imperial perspective. By extension, Savonarola created many enemies during his rise to prominence: those who felt he had robbed the city of fun through moral reforms, those whose commercial interests he threatened, and most of all, the secular and religious princes who he opposed.
Hatfield, Rab. “Botticelli’s Mystic Nativity, Savonarola, and the Millenium.” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 58 (1995): 89-114.
This article by Rab Hatfield offers an analysis of Sandro Botticelli’s Mystic Nativity, a painting which the author argues was inspired by Savonarola’s Assumption Day sermon, given in 1496 and published by 1500. The Mystic Nativity and Savonarola’s sermon both speak to the popular conception of Florence as God and the Virgin Mary’s chosen city, and both works make explicit reference to the Book of Revelation, particularly the return of Christ’s authority to earth and the downfall of the dragon. Hatfield makes the important point that Botticelli’s painting is not a literal interpretation of Savonarola’s sermon because it would have been dangerous for the painter and its recipient to overtly support the attainted prophet.
Martines, Lauro. Fire in the City: Savonarola and the Struggle for Renaissance Florence. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.
Martines explores Savonarola’s rise to power in the context of fifteenth century Florence, noting that Florence was unique from other Italian city-states in it longstanding tradition of public display, which preconditioned the city for Savonarola’s fiery brand of preaching. Like Weinstein before him, Martines points to the union of civic duty and morality that characterized Florence in Savonarola’s age. The author makes the pithy suggestion that part of Florence’s special destiny was meeting with Savonarola; the two were a perfect match for conveying an apocalyptic message. The widely held belief in Florence that the city was a favorite of God and of the Virgin Mary facilitated the adoption of Savonarola’s prophecies into the mainstream consciousness.
McGinn, Bernard. Apocalyptic Spirituality: Treatises and Letters of Lactantius, Adso of Montier-en-Der, Joachim of Fiore, the Franciscan Spirituals, Savonarola. New York: Paulist Press, 1979.
McGinn’s Apocalyptic Spirituality provides a valuable English translation of Savonarola’s most important written work, his Compendium of Revelations. The Compendium of Revelations is the text in which Savonarola most fully articulates his role as prophet and vessel for divine revelation. Savonarola describes the nature of his visions, and credits them with coming directly from God, establishing himself as a credible source of information by extension. McGinn prefaces the translation of the Compendium of Revelations with a discussion of Savonarola’s life and career in Renaissance Florence, thus contextualizing the prophet’s magnum opus within the larger discourse of early modern millenarianism.
Rocke, Michael. “Politics and Sodomy in the Late Fifteenth Century: The Medici Savonarola, and the Abolition of the Night Officers.” In Forbidden Friendships:Homosexuality and Male Culture in Renaissance Florence by Michael Rocke, 195-227. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.
This chapter in Forbidden Friendships: Homosexuality and Male Culture in Renaissance Florence expresses the dueling perspectives that characterized homosexuality in Florence during the late fifteenth century. Savonarola saw sodomy as one of many vices that was contributing to the deterioration of Florence’s moral fabric. Savonarola was not alone in persecuting sodomites, as the practice was widespread throughout Europe. The point the Rocke argues, however, is that while this period of persecution was a significant chapter in Florence’s history—the Night Officers condemned over 1,000 men for homosexual sodomy—it was also a brief chapter. Savonarola ultimately proved unsuccessful in stamping out what had been a longstanding facet of Florentine culture.
Roeder, Ralph. The Man of the Renaissance: Four Lawgivers: Savonarola, Machiavelli, Castiglione, Aretino. New York: Viking Press, 1933.
Ralph Roeder posits Savonarola as one of the leading “renaissance men” in Florence. The time and place in which Savonarola lived was, in many ways, the apex of artistic and cultural flourishing during the Renaissance, but also one of the most chaotic and turbulent political milieus in which to be mired. Looking to the writings of Savonarola, Roeder examines the social reforms that took place in late fifteenth century Florence through the lens of Savonarola’s spiritual asceticism. Roeder argues that one of the primary means through which Florence’s leaders imposed order was by appealing to the public’s morality.
Roeder, Ralph. Savonarola: A Study in Conscience. New York: Brentano’s, 1930.
Roeder’s biography of Savonarola is organized by the pivotal figures, events, and prophecies that contributed to the prophet’s widespread influence and his profound legacy. Among the factors that Roeder discusses as contributing to Savonarola’s unique brand of apocalypticism, he cites Lorenzo de Medici’s despotism, Charles VIII’s invasion as a promise of Christian renewal, and the moral reforms he enacted in Florence.
Savonarola, Girolamo. A Guide to Righteous Living and Other Works. Translated by Konrad Eisenbichler. Toronto: CRRS Publications, 2003.
This text is a compilation of Savonarola’s letters, poems, and sermons, translated into English by Konrad Eisenbichler. The letters that are included in this volume trace the evolution of Savonarola’s career, illuminating the motives behind his decision to become a Dominican friar, the fervent apocalypticism that drove his preaching, and the demands he placed on himself and others to lead a life focused on the spirit rather than the temptations of the physical body.
Savonarola, Girolamo. Selected Writings of Girolamo Savonarola: Religion and Politics 1490 1498. Translated by Anne Borelli, Donald Beebe, and Maria C Pastore Passaro. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006.
This compilation of Savonarola’s writings offers an incredibly comprehensive view into the prophet’s public and personal identities. The book includes English translations of Savonarola’s major works, such as his sermons and treatises on moral reform, and most interestingly, his correspondence with Pope Alexander VI that led to his excommunication and ultimately to his death.
Trexler, Richard. “Lorenzo de Medici and Savonarola, Martyrs for Florence.” Renaissance Quarterly 31 (1978): 293-308.
Following two attempts on his life and the death of his brother, Giuliano, Lorenzo de Medici began to foster a cult of martyrs in Florence. Lorenzo the Magnificent began to disseminate the notion that he had sacrificed his brother’s life and nearly his own in service to Florence. Trexler argues that following Lorenzo’s death, Savonarola inherited the role of martyr-for-Florence, speaking of himself as such. Savonarola posited Rome as Babylon, whose influence was destroying Christianity, and his execution was read by many as a sacrifice in service of that faith. For many years after his execution Savonarola was worshipped as a martyr. Trexler asserts that it was not just Lorenzo and Savonarola who encouraged martyr cults in Florence but that the city was itself pre-conditioned to accept them; Trexler views Lorenzo and Savonarola as living in the “age of martyrs.”
Weinstein, David. Savonarola: The Rise and Fall of a Renaissance Prophet. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011.
David Weinstein charts Savonarola’s rise to prominence as a spiritual and political power in Florence, citing the prophet’s dramatic preaching style and apocalyptic rhetoric as reasons for his popularity. Savonarola criticized dominant ideologies at work in Florence during the fifteenth century and promised the public that a new, more glorious Florence would soon come to fruition. He also affected real political change in the republic during the period of Medici exile. Weinstein, one of the preeminent scholars on Savonarola, argues that those same tools that helped Savonarola rise to power were the reasons for his undoing; he had made too many political enemies through his outspoken critique and defiance of both secular and religious authorities.
Weinstein, Donald. Savonarola and Florence: Prophecy and Patriotism in the Renaissance. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1970.
This biography of Savonarola demonstrates that the prophet, even before officially engaging with millenarian circles, had demonstrated a profound concern with morality. This is reflected in his campaigns against sexual promiscuity (adultery and sodomy), ostentatious dress and self-fashioning, and gambling and public drunkenness. When he was more firmly entrenched in millenarian circles of thought, Savonarola cemented his belief that the defunct state of the world was due to the profligacy and vices of his social contemporaries. To this end, Savonarola put a stop to popular amusements, encouraged the formation of “vice squads,” and continued to preach following his excommunication.
Weinstein, Donald. “Savonarola, Florence, and the Millenarian Tradition.” Church History 27 (1958): 291-305.
This article by Donald Weinstein seeks to understand what Savonarola’s prophetic message and to discern its sources. Weinstein looks to Savonarola’s Compendium of Revelations as a major source, and discusses the various contemporary events that the prophet predicted, paying special attention to Charles VIII’s invasion of Florence. Weinstein argues that it was not divine inspiration alone that informed Savonarola’s message, but also Florentine humanism and the intellectual circles in which he operated. Savonarola’s message reflected Florence’s status as a center of culture in the Renaissance, and combined that civic pride with a Biblical reading of the city as the New Jerusalem.