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Bonfire of the Vanities

Origins and History of the Iniquitous Bonfire of the Vanities and the lasting consequences on Art History

 Girolamo Savonarola was a Dominican Friar and a religious extremist. The ideas of asceticism and renunciation which at that time had only existed in narrow monastic circles were carried to the masses by Savonarola. The Auto da fe (bonfire) of vanities held at the annual Florence carnival of 1497, probably marks the height of his activities as agitator. Thirteen hundred children, marching from house to house, demanded and collected the luxuries of the world. Silken clothes and musical instruments, carpets and editions of the Decamerone (a 14th century book filled with lewd tales of love),  sweet cakes and painting with partly nude figures, all were piled on to a huge pyramid and set alight. Women and maidens crowned with olive branches danced around the burning pile in a state of spiritual ecstasy. They encouraged townspeople to throw in their jewelry, wigs, silken garments, hair combs and even fake teeth. All these lovely treasures were quickly consumed by the flames.

Savonarola ranted " Immodest figures should not be painted, lest children be corrupted by the sight. What shall I say to you, ye Christian painters, who expose half nude figures to the eye? But ye who possess such paintings, destroy them or paint them over and ye will then do work pleasing to God and the Blessed Virgin." Many great Florentine painters got caught up the madness of Savonarola's fanaticism and rushed to their studios to add some of their greatest masterpieces to the burning pyre. Sandro Botticelli was of many prominent artists who fell under the hypnotic sway of the mad Firer. He destroyed many of his beautiful painting.

For a time the splendor of art had been destroyed by Savonarola. Christian ideals again become omnipotent and left no room for imagination or flights of fancy. The figures of the Saints, Virgin Mary and Christ had to be painted in accordance with the strict cannons that had for centuries prevailed. Painters cringed in their studios afraid to pick up a brush lest they be tossed into a burning fire or hung for offending the harsh aesthetic rules of Savonarola and his fanatical henchmen.

End to the Madness

 When Savonarola became ruler of Florence he declared the syphilis epidemic sweeping Italy was Gods punishment upon backsliders and transgressors. Savonarola preached "Our reformation has begun in the Spirit of God, if you take it to heart that each one has to preach to himself. Then will we in the name of Jesus drive out the devils of temptation. Yes, call upon Jesus as often as temptation approaches: call upon Him a hundred times and believe firmly, and the temptation will depart. Then will we speak with new tongues; we will speak with God. We shall drive away serpents; the enticement of the senses are these serpents."

Supporters of the radical Friar went on frequent devastating rampages destroying anything that did not conform to Savonarola's militant conception of theology and Christian morality. Children peeked in windows to report on people eating pastries, rich gravies or other delectable morsels. The offenders house was surrounded by angry followers of Savonarola and occasionally set ablaze. Obese people were set upon with sticks and whips as they ran through the streets in terror.  Savonarola dictated that people should not offend God with excessive weight and decreed that overweight people were sinners and their obesity was a sign of the deadly sin of gluttony. Terrified families shipped off chubby children to far off relatives.

After a time the people of Florence had had enough of his lunacy and puritanical edicts. In 1498 Savonarola was accused of sedition, uttering false prophesies and various religious transgressions. He was charged, jailed and horrifically tortured for several days but never recanted his words. A trial of sorts was held and he was declared guilty.  Savonarola  and two of his loyal Dominican disciples, Silvestro Maruffi and Domenico de Pescia, were hanged from a huge cross and burned until nothing but ashes remained. During the burning his supporters chanted "Charity is extinct, Love of God is no more. All are lukewarm; And without living faith. . . .Alas! the Saint is dead! Alas! O Lord! Alas! Thou hast taken our Prophet And drawn him to thyself." After Savonarola's death the artists and art of Florence slowly recovered from the trauma and continued to evolve and thrive.

According to author G.K. Chesterton "Savonarola's thrilling challenge to the luxury of his day went far deeper than the mere question of sin. The modern rationalistic admirers of Savonarola, from George Eliot downwards, dwell, truly enough, upon the sound ethical justification of Savonarola's anger, upon the hideous and extravagant character of the crimes which polluted the palaces of the Renaissance. But they need not be so anxious to show that Savonarola was no ascetic, that he merely picked out the black specks of wickedness with the priggish enlightenment of a member of an Ethical Society. Probably he did hate the civilization of his time, and not merely its sins; and that is precisely where he was infinitely more profound than a modern moralist. He saw that the actual crimes were not the only evils: that stolen jewels and poisoned wine and obscene pictures were merely the symptoms; that the disease was the complete dependence upon jewels and wine and pictures."

Sadly the greatest master of Florentine art, Sandro Botticelli was forever changed and rarely picked up a brush or produced another masterpiece. The paintings he is famous for such as the Birth of Venus were created prior to Savonarola's rise to power.




Key Descriptive Words  and Phrases associated with the Renaissance Movement rebirth, rediscovery of the classical world, City-state, Humanism, Humanist, Francesco Petrarch, Reform, The Prince, Theocracy, The Inquisition, Human Reasoning,  publication of Della Pittura, a book about the laws of mathematical perspective for artists, sfumato, chiaroscuro, linear perspectiveHeliocentric Theory, vanishing point, Savonarola, spiritually significant,  illuminated manuscriptidealized biblical themes, scriptorium, emotion, illuminator,  iconoclast, Age of Discovery, axonometric drawing, curiosity about the natural world, mythology,  realistic use of colours and lightBonfire of the Vanities, Old Testament stories, ethereal and foggy backgrounds, Gospel parables, The Blackdeath, romanticized landscapes,  Christian symbolism. Paradise

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References: TWELVE TYPES BY G.K. CHESTERTON 
The World's Great Sermons, Volume 01: Basil to Calvin by Grenville Kleiser