Savonarola’s Bonfire

Girolamo Savonarola was hanged on this day in 1498 and then incinerated in the same piazza in which the citizens of Florence had earlier attended more than one “bonfire of the vanities.” Some participated willingly in these orchestrated purges; many were coerced by the squads of fundamentalists who, in their zeal to create a “Republic of Virtue,” had moved through the city confiscating any sinful combustible. George Eliot’s 1863 novel Romola, set in Savonarola’s Italy, describes one such bonfire “in the shape of a pyramid, or, rather, like a huge fir-tree, sixty feet high”:

There were tapestries and brocades of immodest design, pictures and sculptures held too likely to incite to vice; there were boards and tables for all sorts of games, playing-cards along with the blocks for printing them, dice, and other apparatus for gambling; there were worldly music-books, and musical instruments in all the pretty varieties of lute, drum, cymbal, and trumpet; there were masks and masquerading-dresses used in the old Carnival shows; there were handsome copies of Ovid, Boccaccio, Petrarca….

In his Introduction to Death in Florence (2011), Paul Strathern positions Savonarola at a historical tipping point — in “the city that gave birth to the Renaissance” and at “the moment that was to transform Western civilization and provide the first inklings of our modern world”:

[T]his clash between the secular and the religious has continued to reverberate down the centuries — first in Europe, then in America, and now finally throughout the world the struggle continues. It is nothing less than the fight for the soul of humanity, a struggle over the direction that humanity should take, the way we should live our lives, what we are, and what we should become. This is a struggle that will become all the more pressing and relevant as we exhaust the resources and despoil the environment of the planet that we inhabit, as we face a choice — for perhaps the first time in our progressive civilization — of how we are to limit our way of living. Five centuries ago in Florence this coming battle was played out for the first time in recognizable modern terms.

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.