In 1490 a Dominican priest Girolamo Savonarola entered Florence on a mission from the church. He had spent years alone in his cell in a monastery studying the scriptures and was appalled at the evils and excesses of the renaissance society. With the fabulous wealth of the Di Medici bankrolling the explosion of art, fashion and luxury in Florence standing in contrast to the poverty of the common man, Florence was a place of shocking contrasts. There was a plague called the French Pox (syphilis) and a growing resentment of the ruling classes by the ordinary citizens. The coming millennium (1500) was fueling a movement that speculated that the end of times was at hand. Savonarola was a gifted and fiery speaker though possessed of a small voice and unimposing figure. He preached the coming of the last days and claimed communication with God and the saints.
Savonarola denounced the sinfulness of the Florentines, he proclaimed the faults in the church itself and denounced the ruler of Florence, Lorenzo Di Medici. His sermons were wildly popular among the rich and the poor alike and he drew crowds of thousands. Lorenzo gave fortunes to the poor and attempted to win over Savonarola. Unable to convince the fiery priest to desist in his criticism of the Di Medici rule, Lorenzo ordered him to stop or he would be expelled from the city. Savonarola"s reply was that Di Medici must repent and stated that he, although not a citizen would remain in Florence and Lorenzo would be forced to quit the city. Lorenzo sickened and from his death bed called Savonarola to come so he might be absolved of his sins. The priest made three requests of Lorenzo. The ruler was to confess and believe that God would forgive his sins. The second was to return to the people wealth that Savonarola felt Lorenzo had come by immorally and the third was that Lorenzo must return to Florence the rights that they had possessed before the rise of the DiMedici. The last, Lorenzo refused, rolled over to face the wall and died.
Savonarola continued to preach and prophesied the destruction of the Florentine state by a force that would come over the Alps. Charles the VIII of France arrived at the head of an army and fulfilled Savonarola's predictions. The French expelled the Medici and set up a republic with the consent of the Florentines. Savonarola was charged with administering that. Florence became a theocracy and named Christ as their king. The city was swept up in a fervor of repentance. Woman discarded their fabulous gowns and began dressing simply in drab colors. The taverns and gambling houses emptied and were closed.
This new Puritanism encouraged, even required the citizens to bring the trappings of "earthly vanity" to the Piazza Della Signoria to be burned. They brought playing cards and books that were deemed secular, fashionable gowns, cosmetics, wigs and mirrors and musical instruments, then ancient sculpture and finally fine paintings. Into the enormous bonfire on February 7, 1497 went the works of Fra Bartolemo, and Lorenzo Di Credi and probably Sandro Bottecelli, possibly by the artists own hand. Florence burned great art and private libraries. Plenty of the citizens of Florence were fed into bonfires for good measure.
As Florence's economic conditions worsened though, the people began to realize that Savonarola's anti business policies of opposition to free trading and profit were partly if not mostly to blame. There were riots and the taverns reopened to a thirsty city, too sober on repentance.
The Pope excommunicated Savonarola who had become a nuisance to him and ordered the priest arrested. After a bloody riot that resulted in the death of Savonarola's guards he surrendered and was charged with heresy, false prophesy and other charges. He and two of his closest aides were tortured. Broken on the rack Savonarola confessed and was condemned to death. The three were hung from a large wooden cross by chains over a bonfire on the same site as the burnings of the "vanities". The charred remains of the three were broken up and reburned until nothing was left and thrown in the Arno, beside the Ponte Vecchio to deprive his followers of relics.
Savonarola and the Bonfire of the vanities are remembered as an example of fanaticism. Their destruction of art and books remains a cautionary tale of the excesses of a theocracy turning on beauty and worldly pleasures. Artists, writers and lovers of aesthetics should remember this cautionary story and be aware there are forces in the world that are no friends to beauty and intellect. The soldiers of repression and narrow asceticism may seem powerless, but then suddenly gain strength and destructive force. The freedoms to make and enjoy art, to enjoy the beauty of fashion and poetry, music and the gaiety of wine and celebration are not perpetual and assured. They flourish in freedom and are a decoration to liberty.
Above is the music of Mansour, banned from his native Iran and living in California, part of the diaspora of Iranian artists. This is a great tune. I am fond of Iranian pop music.