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 Savonarola and the lasting effects of the Bonfire of the Vanities on painters of the Italian Renaissance

Girolamo Savonarola was born in 1452 and died by hanging and burning in 1498. He became a  Dominican Friar preaching in and around the city of Florence, Italy. Savonarola lived during the time of the greatest masters of the Renaissance including Sandro Botticelli and Michelangelo. He despised the decadence of the Renaissance and believed that the Pope and church hierarchy were corrupt to the core (he may have been right about this). Savonarola declared "They have built up a new Church after their own patter. Go to Rome and see! In the mansions of the great prelates there is no concern save for poetry and the oratorical art. Go thither and see!"

Savonarola sermonized before huge throngs with fiery passion and quickly earned enormous influence over not only the common peasant but artists, writers and the ruling elites. He truly believed that God had given him the task of calling people to ask forgiveness and save their souls before the impending day of judgment. Many of his followers, called The Weepers, declared him a prophet. Savonarola was anti-humanistic and detested poetry, literature, rich foods, perfume, art and anything that was vaguely fun. Libraries were emptied and priceless antique books added to the fires, their knowledge lost forever. Savonarola rallied his flowers by declaring "It would be good for religion if many books that seem useful were destroyed. When there were not so many books and not so many arguments and disputes, religion grew more quickly than it has since."

Many of the greatest painters of the renaissance got caught up in the madness of Savonarola's fanaticism and rushed to their studios to throw finished and unfinished works into the burning pyre. Sandro Botticelli was of many important artists who fell under the hypnotic sway of Savonarola. He destroyed many of his most dazzling paintings. 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." He encouraged painters and patrons to burn all artworks that did not conform to his strict code of morality. Thousands of the greatest masterpieces ever created by some of the giants of renaissance art were burned in his notorious Bonfire of the Vanities. For a time the brilliance of Florentine painters was greatly diminished as they had to paint according to strict Christian standards imposed by Savonarola. His austere rules left no room for flashes of brilliance or flights of fancy. The figures of the Saints, Virgin Mary and Christ had to be painted in accordance with the strict cannons.

 Upon the death of his arch enemies, Pope Innocent VIII  and Lorenzo de Medici, a political power vacuum developed  and Savonarola became ruler of the city of Florence. With the help of his followers he ruled with an iron hand, installing a Taliban style rule that outlawed gambling, frivolity, decadent clothing and sentenced homosexuals and adulterers to death. He preached that the syphilis epidemic rampaging across Italy was Gods punishment upon backsliders and transgressors and encouraged a return to morality and decency. Raphael, died of syphilis in 1520. Followers of the radical Friar went on frequent destructive rampages destroying anything that did not conform to Savonarola's militant conception of theology and Christian morality. Painters and craftsmen were expected to create works according to Savonarola's strict ascetic tastes.

Obesity was considered one of the seven deadly sins, gluttony. Fat people were looked upon as breaking one of holy Gods laws. Savonarola's more militant supporters sometimes hid outside of bakeries waiting for an overweight person to come out and then set upon the person with sticks, forcibly confiscating their pies and pastries.

After a time the people of Florence had had enough of his madness and puritanical laws. In 1498 Savonarola was charged with sedition, uttering false prophesies and various religious transgressions. He was charged, jailed and unspeakably tortured for several days but never retracted 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."

During the repressive reign of Savonarola and several years after his death the works of Florentine painters became sensible, sober and a bit gloomy. Romanticism, charm and mysticism was on  hold. The Virgin Mary appears melancholy and lost in thought. Saintly men, solemn and stern peer down from lofty perches. Savonarola's influence was not confined to Florence alone, but throughout Italy it steered art back into religious channels. It is certain that he did not create the religious reaction which at the time swept over Europe; for in him an explosion found vent, the materials for which were everywhere present. He was the voice of his time, proclaiming with loud voice what others felt in silence. It was just for this reason that with his appearance a new chapter of art history begins.

For some Italians, Savonarola was an evil demon, for others he was a great prophet.

If the artist does not submit to Gods divine will his hands must be cleansed by holy fires until his fingers are but  charred bones and fleshly drippings. -Savonarola





Key Descriptive Words  and Phrases associated with the Renaissance Movement rebirth, rediscovery of the classical world,  publication of Della Pittura, a book about the laws of mathematical perspective for artists,  sfumato, symbolism, chiaroscuro, Savonarola, spiritually significant,  illuminated manuscript,  idealized biblical themes, scriptorium, illuminator, plague, Age of Discovery, curiosity about the natural world,  realistic use of colors and  light,  Bonfire of the Vanities, Old Testament stories, ethereal and foggy backgrounds, Gospel parables, romanticized landscapes,  Christian symbolism.

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references  Richard Muther, The History of Modern Painting, Henry and Co., London, 1896



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