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Girolamo Savonarola: a herethic in Florence

25-11-2018

Florence is a place full of history and stories, and sometimes, without even realizing it, we can find ourselves walking right upon them.
This might have happened in Piazza della Signoria, where a large marble plaque set in the paving of the square, right in front of the fountain of Neptune, reminds us of a story that happened centuries ago, that certainly did not have a happy ending. A story about a friar called Girolamo Savonarola.

Savonarola was born in Ferrara in 1451, he interrupted his studies of medicine to dedicate his time to theology, and in 1482, he was sento to the convent of San Marco,  appointed to preach from the pulpits of the Florentine churches.
At first he was not much appreciated, because of its Romagnol accent and for his preachings, extremely rigid towards the church and the city from the very beginning, when he predicted the arrival of a scourge caused by the sins of men and the bad pastors of the Church.
He also preached in front Palazzo Vecchio, affirming that all the good and the bad of a city came from its leaders, which were corrupt, exploited the poor and imposed upon them heavy taxes. He was immediately favored by the poor and the opponents of the Medici family.
Lorenzo the Magnificent warned him several times not to hold such sermons, but the Dominican friar never listened to him, on the contrary, in another sermon he predicted his end: "I am a stranger and he is a citizen and the first of the city, I have to stay and he has to go”.
Savonarola not only rebelled against the master of Florence, but also against the Pope Alexander VI, who had tried to forbid him to preach, but had been forced to revoke all the measures issued against the friar due to pressure received from the Florentines who had been bewitched by his sermons.
Preach after preach, Savonarola became politically influent, and during the Republic established in 1494, after the temporary expulsion of the Medici from the city, he had the taverns closed, and the prostitutes driven from Florence.
In 1497 Savonarola organized a bonfire of vanities in Florence, in which were burnt artworks,  paintings with pagan content, luxurious clothes and jewelry.
He had created a new democracy, free of the corruption of the powerful but where reigned just another type of dictator.

Soon came the Pope's excommunication, which eventually turned out to be a fake forged only to destroy the friar, but Savonarola continued his campaign against the sins of the Church nonetheless.
The Florentine Republic backed him up at first, but then, out of fear of a papal interdiction, took away this support and the restored party of the Medici had him arrested and tried for heresy in 1498.
The friar had no intention of surrendering and had barricaded himself in the convent of San Marco.
A fight raged throughout the night, until Savonarola was captured and taken to the Tower of Arnolfo in Palazzo Vecchio, where he underwent interrogations and torture: the torture of the rope, that of the fire under his feet and was then placed for a whole day on the streckbank, that caused dislocations on his whole body.

On May 23, 1498, he was sent to the gallows, that stood five meters high on a pile of wood,  in Piazza della Signoria. There Savonarola was hanged and burned at the stake alongside two other friars.
The ashes were taken away and thrown into the Arno by the Ponte Vecchio, though some of the followers of Savonarola did try to take some of it away: noblewomen dressed as servants, came to the square with vases to collect the ashes, saying they wanted to use it for their laundry.
Overnight, someone decided to pay tribute to the preacher’s memory, by covering with flowers the place where the execution had taken place, starting the tradition of la Fiorita: on the exact spot where Savonarola was burned, rose petals are scattered and during a ceremony that starts with a mass in the Chapel of the Priors of Palazzo Vecchio and ends with a parade towards Ponte Vecchio, the rose petals are thrown into the Arno river.
After centuries, the marble plaque still reminds us of that day that saw the end of Girolamo Savonarola, a discussed character, it’s true, but also a man who was not afraid to preaching “cose nuove” (new things) and denounce the corruption of those in power, even when it meant denouncing the Church itself.

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