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Reviewed by:
  • Selected Writings: Religion and Politics, 1490-98
  • Ross Brooke Ettle
Girolamo Savonarola . Selected Writings: Religion and Politics, 1490-98. Ed. Donald P. R. Beebe. Ed. and trans. Anne Borelli and Maria Pastore Passaro. Italian Literature and Thought. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006. xxxviii + 382 pp. + 13 b/w pls. index. $60. ISBN: 0-300-10326-3.

This is a welcome addition to the existing translations of Savonarola's works. In the past two centuries, most translators have focused either on the frate's pastoral writings (mostly late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century publications) or his political and prophetic sermons, the latter most commonly included in Renaissance and Reformation source collections. However, the present volume encompasses a broad sampling of the Dominican's works, from sermons to treatises, letters, and dialogues, and includes a variety of subject matter, from pastoral ministry to prophecy, politics, Church reform, and the institutional struggles with Rome. There is good reason to hope, then, that English-speaking audiences will gain an amplified understanding of Savonarola and his complex legacy.

The volume includes a foreword by Giuseppe Mazzotta and an introduction by Alison Brown. Mazzotta offers a brief, incisive suggestion to readers not to conflate Savonarola's message of reform with contemporary calls for a simpler, devotional life. Unlike other reformers, the frate sought to enhance the cultural, and even political, expression of spirituality in his appeal for Church renewal. Brown reinforces Mazzotta's suggestion of the Dominican's exceptionalism. She notes that in his organizational approach to San Marco and preaching style, Savonarola broke from tradition and won wide popular support. Moreover, as Brown demonstrates, his pastoral sermons and writings overlap with his political [End Page 1184] and prophetic works, so that his more revolutionary agendas appear only to elaborate his exhortations to a deeper spirituality. Brown's introduction offers a vital historical backdrop for the collection: although she treats Savonarola's writings thematically, she discusses a number of his writings not translated in the collection in order to shed light on the development of the preacher's thought over time. Most useful is her account of prophecies predating the famous "Renovation" sermon of 1495, since they, too, were linked with the frate's repeated calls for pastoral reform, most especially in the clergy. She also reviews the sermons delivered both before and after Lorenzo the Magnificent's death, sermons that criticized the excesses of ruling elites and, therefore, drew Savonarola into the political role of a party leader. Her introduction concludes with an overview of events from the frate's excommunication to execution and, notably, offers the only bibliography in the collection.

The remainder of the volume includes Savonarolan texts, writings by contemporaries, a small collection of images, and a brief, closing assessment of the preacher's legacy. Arranged thematically in three sections, the Savonarolan translations comprise pastoral, prophetic, and political writings. In spite of the differences in content, all the writings reference two themes, namely the necessity of an interior, devotional life, and the importance of a vivid and visual imagination among Christians. Sermons on the arts of living and dying well emphasize the devotional message, stressing the importance of private meditation and its fulfillment in a life of the sacraments and good works. Savonarola's political sermons only extend the message to urge the application of individual piety to a communal context. Regarding the second theme, Savonarola expresses a unique visual style in his preaching, developing images for his readers or listeners, enumerating steps, ladders, and chains of thought to aid in prayer. He even invokes this visual style to explain the nature of his prophetic knowledge. The translators enhance his imagistic emphasis with their paragraph breaks, and they scrupulously maintain his use of original Latin phrases. English translations appear in footnotes, allowing the Latin to punctuate Savonarola's argument more thoroughly, as it did in his original sermons.

The volume also offers texts by contemporaries, documenting the extent of Savonarola's influence over moral reform in Florence. Letters, histories, and some apologetic works appear: for the most part, the contemporary evidence is kind to the frate and describes the social changes in the city, such as the Bonfires of...


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pp. 1184-1186
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Archive Status
Archived 2009
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