- Savonarola and Savonarolism by Stefano Dall’Aglio
The Dominican preacher and reformer, Girolamo Savonarola (1452–98), is known for his fiery preaching, morality campaigns, and equally fiery death. He turns up occasionally in modern popular and even educated culture as a typical example of the worst of intolerant and reactionary “medieval” religious culture: a recruiter of teenage vigilantes who turned up the heat on blasphemers, sodomites, and indulgent clerics, and turned his torches against the entire Renaissance in two Bonfires of the Vanities that consumed canvases, books, playing cards, and many more products of humanist culture in Florence’s main civic square. What is often lost in these brief depictions is any appreciation for Savonarola’s political republicanism; his opposition to absolute-power mongering in church and state; and his advocacy of political and social justice for the poor, women, and children. These [End Page 604] were in the foreground in nineteenth-century histories that cast Savonarola as a hero fit for Italian nationalists and ecumenical Protestants alike. Outside the ranks of a relatively small number of experts, they are almost entirely forgotten now, replaced by the rather more easily dismissed cardboard-cutout figure of Savonarola as the prototypical intolerant religious fanatic.
Savonarola was just as polarizing in his brief heyday (1492–98) and over the century that followed. Historians like Donald Weinstein, Lorenzo Polizzotto, and Tamar Herzig have done much to recover both the career and the movement that it spawned in a series of influential English-language articles and monographs. While Italian scholarship has been even more extensive, little of it reaches English-speaking audiences. One of the most productive Italian scholars is Stefano Dall’Aglio, who has produced a number of important monographs on the reformer and his movement and editions of some key texts. This translation by John Gagné makes his brief and helpful survey of the movement available to English readers, together with an extensive bilingual bibliography of classical and recent works.
Dall’Aglio’s approach resembles Polizzotto’s more than Weinstein’s in its careful discussion of the events that marked Savonarola’s time in Florence and then the series of texts that set out the movement’s evolution through the subsequent century. He writes as an intellectual historian whose firm grasp on Savonarolan literature and Florentine politics allows him to contextualize the extraordinary series of works that followed the friar’s execution. Former allies like Marsilio Ficino quickly cleared their own reputation by writing works condemning Savonarola’s errors, whereas the movement’s remaining partisans wrote boldly during those periods when Florentine republicanism held power against Medici absolutism (chiefly from 1501–12 and 1527–30). The Medici grip on power became ever firmer after establishment of the duchy in 1532, and in response the Savonarolan movement metamorphosed into something distinctly more spiritual and less political. Dall’Aglio tracks the vibrant battle for Florentine hearts and minds that dominated local intellectual life from the 1490s through the 1550s and the gradual emergence of a more disengaged and pietist Savonarolism after mid-century.
His account is informed, assured, and valuable as an intellectual and political history of the Savonarolan movement. What one misses is the dynamic social dimension of the movement—particularly the work of the many laity, ranging from poor men to elite and widowed women who worked to realize the Savonarolan ideal of a holy city characterized by charitable activity. There are, in fact, almost no women in this account apart from a few nuns. This is largely the result of a decision to focus on the texts and authors defining the intellectual side of Savonarolism, rather than on the institutions and largely female figures active until the late-sixteenth century and featured more prominently in recent English-language scholarship. [End Page 605]