Chapter 28

CHAPTER XXVIII: JEROME SAVONAROLA (AD 1452-1498) PART I

There is not much to tell about the popes after Pius II until we
come to Alexander VI, who was a Spaniard named Roderick Borgia, and
was pope from 1492 to 1503. And the story of Alexander is too
shocking to be told here; for there is hardly anything in all
history so bad as the accounts which we have of him and of his
family. He is supposed to have died of drinking, by mistake, some
poison which he had prepared for a rich cardinal whose wealth he
wished to get into his hands.

Instead, therefore, of telling you about the popes of this time: I
shall give some account of a man who became very famous as a
preacher-- Jerome Savonarola.

Savonarola was born in 1452 at Ferrara, where his grandfather had
been physician to the duke; and his family wished him to follow the
same profession. But Jerome was set on becoming a monk, and from
this nothing could move him. He therefore joined the Dominican
friars, and after a while he was removed to St Mark's, at Florence,
a famous convent of his order. He found things in a bad state there;
but he was chosen prior (or head) of the convent, and reformed it,
so that it rose in character, and the number of the monks was much
increased. He also became a great preacher, so that even the vast
cathedral of Florence could not hold the crowds which flocked to
hear him. He was especially fond of preaching on the dark prophecies
of the Revelation, and of declaring that the judgments of God were
about to come on Florence and on all Italy because of sin; and he
sometimes fancied that he not only gathered such things from
Scripture, but that they were revealed to him by visions from
heaven.

At this time a family named Medici had got the chief power in
Florence into their hands, and Savonarola always opposed them,
because he thought that they had no right to such power in a city
which ought to be free. But when Lorenzo, the head of the family,
was dying (AD 1497), he sent for Savonarola, because he thought him
the only one of the clergy who would be likely to speak honestly to
him of his sins, and to show him the way of seeking forgiveness.
Savonarola did his part firmly, and pointed out some of Lorenzo's
acts as being those of which he was especially bound to repent. But
when he desired him to restore the liberties of Florence, it was
more than the dying man could make up his mind to; and Savonarola,
thinking that his repentance could not be sincere if he refused
this, left him without giving him the Church's absolution.

But, although Savonarola was a very sincere and pious man, he did
not always show good judgment. For instance, when he wished to get
rid of the disorderly way in which the young people of Florence used
to behave at the beginning of Lent, he sent a number of boys about
the city (AD 1497), where they entered into houses, and asked the
inhabitants to give up to them any "vanities" which they might have.
Then these vanities (as they were called) were all gathered
together, and were built up into a pile fifteen stories high. There
were among them cards and dice, fineries of women's dress,
looking-glasses, bad books, musical instruments, pictures, and
statues. The whole heap was of great value, and a merchant from
Venice offered a large sum for it. But the money was refused, and he
was forced to throw in his own picture as an addition to the other
vanities. When night came, a long procession under Savonarola's
orders passed through the streets, and then the pile was set on
fire, amidst the sound of bells, drums, and trumpets, and the shouts
of the multitude, who had been worked up to a share of Savonarola's
zeal.

But the wiser people were distressed by the mistakes of judgment
which he had shown in setting children to search out the faults of
their elders, and in mixing up harmless things in the same
destruction with those which were connected with deep sinfulness and
vice. And this want of judgment was still more shown a year later,
when, after having repeated the bonfire of vanities, Savonarola's
followers danced wildly in three circles around a cross set up in
front of St. Mark's, as if they had been so many crazy dervishes of
the East.

PART II

Savonarola had raised up a host of enemies, and some of them were
eagerly looking for an opportunity of doing him some mischief. At
length one Francis of Apulia, a Franciscan friar, challenged him to
what was called the ordeal (or judgment) of fire, as a trial of the
truth of his doctrine; and after much trouble it was settled that a
friend of each should pass through this trial, which was supposed to
be a way of finding out God's judgment as to the truth of the matter
in dispute. Two great heaps of fuel were piled up in a public place
at Florence. They were each forty yards long and two yards and a
half high, with an opening of a yard's width between them; and it
was intended that these heaps should be set on fire, and that the
champions should try to pass between the two, as a famous monk had
done at Florence in Hildebrand's time, hundreds of years before. But
when a vast crowd had been brought to see the ordeal, they were much
disappointed at finding that it was delayed, because Savonarola's
enemies fancied that he might perhaps make use of some magical
charms against the flames. There was a long dispute about this, and,
while the parties were still wrangling, a hearty shower came down on
the crowd. The magistrates then forbade the trial; the people, tired
and hungry from waiting, drenched by the rain, provoked by the
wearisome squabble which had caused the delay, and after all balked
of the expected sight, broke out against Savonarola; and he had
great difficulty in reaching St. Mark's under the protection of some
friends: who closed around him and kept off the angry multitude. Two
days later the convent was besieged; and when the defenders were
obliged to surrender it, Savonarola and the friar who was to have
undergone the ordeal on his side were sent to prison.

Savonarola had a long trial, during which he was often tortured; but
whatever might be wrung from him in this way, he afterwards declared
that it was not to be believed, because the weakness of his body
could not bear the pain of torture, and he confessed whatever might
be asked of him. This trial was carried on under the authority of
the wicked Pope Alexander VI

Although no charge of error as to the faith could be made out
against Savonarola, his enemies were bent on his death; and he and
two of his companions were sentenced to be hanged and burnt. Like
Huss, they had to go through the form of being degraded from their
orders; and at the end of this it was a bishop's part to say to
each, "I separate thee from the Church militant" (that is, from the
Church which is carrying on its warfare here on earth). But the
bishop, who had once been one of Savonarola's friars at St. Mark's,
was very uneasy, and said in his confusions, "I separate thee from
the Church triumphant" (that is, from the Church when its warfare
has ended in victory and triumph). Savonarola saw the mistake, and
corrected it by saying, "from the militant, not from the triumphant;
for that is not thine to do."

Savonarola's party did not die out with him, but long continued to
cherish his memory. Among those who were most earnest in this was
the great artist, Michael Angelo Buonarotti, who had been one of his
hearers in youth, and even to his latest days used to read his works
with interest, and to speak of him with reverence.