- Fire in the City: Savonarola and the Struggle for Renaissance Florence
In this vivid account of Savonarola's forty-month ascendancy in Florence Lauro Martines has aimed to convey "the factual essentials" provided by Savonarola specialists to a wider readership while adding his "own lines of analysis." He succeeds admirably on both counts. The History Book Club Editor's Choice for April 2006, Fire in the City is both skillful haute vulgarisation and sophisticated historical commentary. Dramatic effect dictates the book's organization and scene selection, but the author's expert knowledge of Florentine government, politics, and society, and a perceptive reading of Savonarola's sermons and writings, as well as of the secondary literature, enrich the enterprise.
That a reinvigorated republicanism found traction in Florence rather than, say, in socially, politically, and culturally frozen Venice or in Savonarola's court-dominated hometown of Ferrara was due in no small part, Martines observes, to the Florentines' long-standing sense of participating in a "public world" (a concept innovatively applied to Florence by the late Marvin Becker). But that the largely upper-class coup d'état of November 1494 morphed into a genuine revolution in December was the result of several factors including the disarray of the ruling group itself (interchangeably and confusingly termed "nobles," "aristocrats," "patricians," and "oligarchs"), the angry reaction from below when it was realized that the cry of popolo e libertà had not been meant to be taken literally, and the charismatic preaching of Savonarola which played to that anger. Martines's remarks on the disruption of upper-class patronage networks are particularly insightful, and his account of the incremental way Savonarola was drawn into the political crisis avoids the hagiographic determinism that has warped the judgment of so many before him. Persuaded by some dissident patricians to endorse a reform plan featuring a Venetian-style Great Council, Savonarola, tentatively at first, then with increasing conviction that it was God's design, incorporated the governo largo into his apocalyptic vision. Florence was God's chosen city. By doing penance and reforming itself politically as well as morally the Florentines would survive the coming tribulations to become "more glorious, richer, more powerful than ever," the model and center from which would radiate the new piety. The New Cyrus from France would scourge the Church to begin its renewal, then go East to conquer the Infidel. There, zealous new Christians would battle the Antichrist and win a great victory, thus preparing the way for the Second Coming and the millennium.
That so many Florentines accepted the friar's drastic scenario, believed his graphic accounts of his visions, and did their best to conform to his severely ascetic standards, demonstrates the power of Christian belief, even in this most Renaissance of cities. Despite appalling abuse by Rome and the clerical hierarchy and notwithstanding the (much-exaggerated) influence of the classical Renaissance, religion continued to be a major force in most people's lives and a normative [End Page 1183] source of ideas about such vital matters as saints, miracles, morals, patriotism, and eschatology. Besides, Florentines who had long promoted the idea that theirs was a city of destiny did not have too much difficulty accepting that it was to be a New Jerusalem. As Martines puts it in one lapidary sentence: "Florence's encounter with Savonarola was a meeting with much of its own soul."
Positioning Savonarola in historical context is Martines's primary methodological guideline and in following it he covers a rich variety of subjects, including fifteenth-century preaching, Savonarola's philosophical and theological culture, Borgia Rome, Renaissance Florence, and the vicious diplomatic game played by Italian rulers. But he also declares that "the drama of Savonarola's years in Florence transcends its time and place, because it links high politics and religious activity in a time of epochal crisis." Readers may see in this an allusion to the current world situation. If so, they will also find relevant...