Fire in the City

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 4)

In Fire in the City, Lauro Martines describes the life of friar Girolamo Savonarola. He was born into a distinguished family in Ferrara and was the special pride of his grandfather Michele Savonarola, court physician and author of medical studies. The physician tutored the precocious grandson in Latin, preparing him for his great love of the Church fathers, including Jerome and Augustine and Thomas Aquinas. Savonarola studied art at the University of Ferrara and, for reasons not clear, turned against a world that he perceived as corrupt and authored a poem on the destruction of the world that attacked sodomy among the cardinals and bishops. Three years later, in 1475, he wrote “On the Ruin of the Church” and entered the convent of San Domenico in Bologna. In 1479 he was transferred to a convent in Ferrara and in 1482 to the convent of San Marco in Florence, where he taught theology and Scripture for five years before being moved around to various postings. Finally, in 1490 he returned to San Marco, where he was soon elected prior and stayed until his death.

The move back to Florence was arranged by Lorenzo de’ Medici (the Magnificent), urged on by Savonarola’s admirer Count Pico della Mirandola. Savonarola’s Advent sermons of 1490 earned him much attention but annoyed Lorenzo and others who resented his attack on corrupt clergy and the grasping rich. His prophecies of scourges, death, and renewal were especially offensive, as they entangled social questions with religion. When Lorenzo died in 1492, his older son, the irresponsible Piero, became head of the powerful Medici family and supported Savonarola’s plan for more asceticism. This reform movement entailed splitting away from the Dominican convents in the north and creating a new alignment with the Dominican convents of Pisa and Fiesole, and it incurred the anger of the lord of Milan, Ludovico Sforza, who at this time was encouraging Charles VIII, king of France, to sweep through Italy and take the kingdom of Naples.

Florence suffered a crisis in 1494 with the approach of King Charles’s army. Piero responded by proposing an agreement with Charles, but the city rulers rejected this plan angrily, and Piero was forced to flee to Bologna before Charles marched into Florence on November 17. The collapse of the hated Medici family provoked attacks on their collaborators’ houses, and to guarantee order in government the city fathers invited back some of the illustrious families who had been exiled by the Medici. Charles argued in vain for the return of Piero, but the Florentines resisted his pleas. At this point, the Signory (a sort of city council) chose Savonarola to head a delegation to negotiate with Charles. Savonarola flattered the king by calling him a servant of God, and on November 28 the king departed for Naples with his army.

With the Medicis overthrown and King Charles gone to Naples, Florence had to decide on a form of government. Only the old Medici collaborators had any governing experience, and class tensions soon surfaced. With Savonarola’s support, a Great Council of more than thirty-five hundred citizens, sitting for life, was agreed upon, a body that lasted until 1512, when the Medicis reclaimed power in an armed coup d’état. Savonarola repeatedly preached for peace and unity, rejecting revenge against the Medici and thereby inducing the elite to accuse him of encouraging mob rule. He also played a large role in achieving a right of appeal in prison sentences and in abolishing an ancient tradition of public assemblies designed to manipulate the citizens.

Savonarola’s passionate religious feelings emerged in his sermons against the corruption he perceived in the Church, a spiritual rot that infected Florentine politics. His attacks were powerful and effective, making him such a marked man that by 1495 he was protected in the streets by an armed guard. He railed against the “tepid,” those whose faith was lukewarm and who focused only on the material externalities of religion, such as clothing, coats of arms, and church ornamentation. Despite his instincts for reform, Savonarola accepted the class system and expected people to stay in their inherited social stations. His leanings toward mysticism verged on a...

(The entire section is 1739 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 4)

Library Journal 131, no. 7 (April 15, 2006): 90.

Publishers Weekly 253, no. 8 (February 20, 2006): 149-150.

The Times Literary Supplement, June 23, 2006, p. 7.

The Wall Street Journal 247, no. 117 (May 19, 2006): W6.