Picture what happens when a small match is dropped in a dry field. The initial flame is quickly passed from blade to blade until the whole field is ablaze. In the book, Fire in the City: Savonarola and the Struggle for the Soul of Renaissance Florence, Lauro Martines follows the career of the vastly popular friar, Savonarola, whose ideas quickly caught fire in Renaissance Florence. Much like the raging flame passed between the blades of grass, Savonarola’s words swept through the city. Martines’ main goal in, Fire and the City, is to highlight Savonarola as a highly influential reformer who sought to renew Florence both religiously and politically.
To give readers a better understanding of Savonarola’s role in this time in history, Martines paints a detailed image of the Renaissance in Florence. The Renaissance was a time of cultural rebirth best known for its beautiful paintings, impressive sculptures, and captivating plays. Under Lorenzo the Magnificent the arts in Florence thrived . Florence soon became one of the leading cities of the Italian Renaissance fully experiencing the humanist revival often attributed to the 15th century . This new climate of art and culture is the Florence in which Savonarola began to attempt to revive the church and government.
The first area in which Savonarola sought reform was the church. Savonarola was fighting against a corrupt Catholic Church. He saw flaws in the direction the church was going influenced by the ideas of the Renaissance and under control of Pope Alexander VI . Savonarola preached that the church needed to be purged of its corrupt ways and believed he was sent by God to head up this reform. Within the clergy, Pope Alexander was selling the cardinal’s positions for 15,000 gold ducats a head . At this time the people of Florence were also mostly anticlerical. Savonarola picks up on this and says things such as, “Do you want to make your son bad? Make him a Priest .” Along with making comments like these in his sermons, Savonarola disrespects the Pope and his clergy by defying their authority.
Savonarola first undermines papal authority when he asserts that he is a prophet and the voice of God . This presents immediate tension between Savonarola and the Pope because by asserting that he has direct connection with God Savonarola is challenging the supremacy of the pope. Additionally, Savonarola claims that if the Florentine people follow him God will make Florence the New Jerusalem . He goes on to prophesize that if people entrust him with the city, Florence will be more successful than ever before. This is also downplaying Pope Alexander VI’s power by tarnishing the significance of Rome and The Vatican in relation to Florence.
The next way Savonarola challenges papal authority is by ignoring Pope Alexander’s ban on preaching. Savonarola refused to join Alexander’s Holy League against France. Consequently, Savonarola was called to Rome to discuss his refusal . But the friar from Florence choose to ignore the Popes command, and as a result is temporarily banned from preaching. Savonarola truly shows his disregard to the Pope’s orders and continues to preach in Florence.
All of these acts of defiance are disrespectful to the Papacy and the catholic church as a whole. But the astonishing thing about Savonarola’s behavior is that, at least at first, his actions were supported by thousands of followers . Martines shows the unprecedented power Savonarola, a simple friar from Florence, held within the church at the time. He points this out to demonstrate that Savonarola is a significant character when it comes to the history of the church in Renaissance Florence. Martines uses stories of Savonarola’s defiance to show how he challenges the traditional authority of the pope and urges reform within the Florentine church, perhaps even paving the way for Luther and the Protestant Reformation .
The other realm in which Savonarola defied traditional authority was the political scene in Florence. Savonarola saw mistakes in the Florentine government, particularly concerning the oligarchs and Medici. He used his position within the church to spread his political beliefs and speak against the Florentine government at the time. Martines highlights these moments of defiance on Savonarola’s part to give further insight into his political reform.
First and foremost, Savonarola detested excess wealth and ornamental items as he saw them to be unnecessary. He even goes so far as to call them evil . Savonarola also felt this way about many pieces of secular art and literature created during the early Florentine renaissance. Savonarola’s solution to this problem was to burn all wealthy and ostentatious items in a ritual known as the ‘burning of the vanities’ . This practice was condemned by the more affluent oligarchs of the time but many people from all different demographic areas of Florence participated in the burning. The widespread following of this ritual shows just how influential Savonarola was as a preacher and politician.
The other way Savonarola served as a controversial reformer in Florentine politics was in his fight for a republic. After Piero de Medici flees the city, there was a power vacuum within the government of Florence . Savonarola was quick to try and utilize his power to urge the people of Florence to return to their republican system of government. Savonarola uses his prominence as a friar to persuade the people to fight for a ‘Savonarolan Republic’, he even goes as far to say that God wants the citizens of Florence to adapt this form government over any other . By doing so Savonarola is speaking out against the Medici and prominent Oligarchs of the time, which was a haughty move for a Friar. Once again Martines illustrates how Savonarola uses his position within the church to spread his ‘divinely inspired’ political opinions and reform the Florentine government.
In order to convey the message of Savonarola as a revolutionary reformer, Martines calls upon many primary sources. Most significantly Martines frequently references Savonarola’s sermons. It is interesting that Martines refers back to Savonarola’s sermons because they follow very circular logic. For example, Savonarola’s sermons say that Savonarola is a divine profit of God but of course all of this is being said by Savonarola. So if one asks why should Savonarola be revered so much, the answer is because he is divinely inspired, but if asked how do we know he is divinely inspired the answer is because Savonarola said so. It is clear that the logic of this argument is invalid and makes for quite a biased source. But I think Martines calls upon Savonarola’s sermons so often to show the kind of circular logic Savonarola was able to perpetuate through the masses and convince people of his righteousness.
In Fire in the City: Savonarola and the Struggle for the Soul of Renaissance Florence, Martines presents Savonarola as a political and religious reformer. He does this by giving examples of the various ways in which Savonarola defied traditional authority in order to improve both the church and Florentine government. In my opinion, Martines successfully opens reader’s eyes to Savonarola as a reformer with lasting political and religious influence. By focusing on Savonarola, Martines also gives readers a broader overview of the opinions present in Renaissance Florence. Through Savonarola we see how one man’s spark greatly impacted an entire population and how his words set fire to the city.
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