Monday, September 20, 2010

The bonfire of the vanities

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.


MCG said...

...same as it ever was. Worst of all within visual art itself, on BOTH sides of the fence.

Anonymous said...

Hi Stape,
Freedom is very fragile, it depends on the 'golden rule' for it's survival. The day I was born the Holocaust was occuring to the east and the bombing of Heroshima in the west and my dear father was trying to survive as an officer in a German POW camp near Auschwitz. During that terrible year the Germans kept pulling back toward the 'homeland' (now that's a word that makes us old folks cringe!) they marched the prisoners several hundred miles in mid winter, many of them walked barefoot to save their boots for an escape. They ended up in Stalag 1, and on my first birthday, the Russians, after taking all their officers across the road and executing them ( Stalin didn't want anyone who had contact with the west returning to the 'motherland') turned the survivors over to the Americans, their allies in the war. My father weighed 68 lbs, he survived because in chewing the wood in the barracks to stave off hunger pain, he discovered a nest of termites. He always said to us, "Beware the big lie" when something is said by public figures and printed in the press over and over people begin to believe it. Good people will do things they would never think they could do. When hate is the solution, someone is benefiting by gaining power and money.
People forget history so soon, when my great grandparents opened their hotel in San Francisco in the mid 1800's, to serve the gold rush the state of California was 99% Spanish or indians. Now we have hate mail going to Hispanic families who's ancestors were here before the 'white' man!
A group at the Palm Springs Art Museum wanted to have a life drawing session, you wouldn't believe the hate mail, using their 'religious' belief to rationalize hate!
I grew up in the middle east, there are people in our country who would outdo any Mullah if they could get into power. Books, paintings, people up in smoke.
Oh dear Stape I'm afraid you touched a nerve in me, my father and his compatriots sacrificed so much so that all of us could be free to disagree, and still be respected, Terry

Karla said...

$13,479,406,575,118.15 said...

A tyrant is a tyrant is a tyrant. We want to protect "our rights" but not " their rights". Selective freedom is worse of all. And freedom at the expense of repressed others is no freedom at all: it's the tyranny of fear.

It's a very worthwhile post. This scenario has taken place many times and with many fires within our our beloved country. Banned in Boston bonfires: It's funny now but it was not very funny then. This righteous Boston, primarily Protestant movement was aimed at the Irish and Italian Catholic immigrants. Its effects lasting well into the 50's. My father, an American citizen, was arrested at the age of 12 for selling newspapers at the docks in East Boston because he was of Italian descent and Italy was allied with Hitler.

Simone said...

"...Savonarola's anti-business policies." Was he into liberation theology? (lol)

In the interest of clarity Savonarola's fanatical tyranny was in no way reflective of the Church's social positions at the time. The Church had done a lot to preserve and sustain arts, the sciences, books and intellectual pursuits throughout the middle ages. Untold volumes were preserved for antiquity by the Church. Were it not for the Church the fine arts of painting, sculpture and architecture would not have flourished so.

Although a tyrant himself, Lorenzo Di Medici was not oppressive and militant as was Savonarola. He used his diplomatic skills in an effort to unify the five Italian states especially against the possible invasion by the French.
His influence throughout Italy made him a the natural target of the French who in turn found a willing ally in Savonarola. If I had my guess I would say that the French used Savonarola to disrupt Florence. Most historians discount the story of Lorenzo being refused absolution on his death bed and speculate that he died a Catholic in good standing. In fact one of his son's eventually became pope as did one of his nephews. He was a splendid patron of the arts and of scholars.
That may be why the tyrannical Savonarola targeted the arts and books.

If stories of Florentine citizens being cast into the bonfires are true that was the doing of a maniacal tyrant who was excommunicated on moral grounds rather than doctrinal grounds. Technically, not a heretic but his violent threats against the Pope and the Roman Curia sealed his fate. The Pope and members of the Curia were present for his trial which was apparently conducted by civil authorities with his sentencing carried out by civil authorities. It was ultimately an uprising of the citizenry that drove the French out of Florence. That didn't settle it though. Authority changed hands from members of the Medici and the Republic for decades. Finally Cosimo di Medici ruled as a Monarch in the name of Spain. Eventually he gave himself over to a life of vice that would have enraged Savonarola...

Good post!

Marc Dalessio said...

To add insult to injury they've erected a statue of him in a square with his name in the middle of the artist's quarter of Florence (well, it was supposed to be the artist's quarter, all the streets are named after painters).

I've enjoyed painting the statue over the years, it's quite picturesque.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I would like to have separate buckets instead of a fence.

Stapleton Kearns said...

That's quite a story and a legacy of caution.
I am surprised that a church wrote letters against a figure group. Were they really hateful or just disagreeing with the action? Hate is a hard thing to define. Sometimes the definition requires the accusation of thought-crime.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Is that your phone number?

Stapleton Kearns said...

I was thinking more of the ayatollahs and the Taliban than the Episcopalians and Presbyterians. It is a matter of degree.

Stapleton Kearns said...

No church has come close to equaling the Catholics for support of the arts.
The protestant church has banished art from their churches pretty much, except for the occasional felt applique banner.
I actually consulted both Charles Spurgeon and the Catholic encyclopedia plus several other sources to write the post. I liked the Lorenzo story, but as you say it is doubted by some.
I did cavil on the Botticelli story though. Only one fuzzy story per post.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Yeah whats with that? At least it's a pretty good sculpture.Isn't there some other sculpture around there too?

Joanne Licsko said...

Your post was excellent and thought provoking. By demonizing the rich, and in the attempt to redistribute the wealth in this country, I see the support of art and artists greatly diminished.