Girolamo Savonarola

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Girolamo Savonarola, Portrait by Fra Bartolommeo , ca.1498

Girolamo Maria Francesco Matteo Savonarola (Latin Hieronymus Savonarola ; born September 21, 1452 in Ferrara , † May 23, 1498 in Florence ) was an Italian Dominican , penitential preacher and church reformer . He caused a sensation with his increasingly critical criticism of the Church and was the spiritual supporter of the Republic of Florence from 1494 to 1498 after the overthrow of the Medicean tyranny. He defended broad political participation against the oligarchy's striving to contain power.


Savonarola was born as the third of a total of seven children to the later impoverished banker and businessman Niccolò Savonarola and his wife Elena Bonacolsi (or Bonacossi) from Mantua . First Savonarola acquired the academic degree of a Magister artium , in order to then begin with the study of medicine ; just like his paternal grandfather Giovanni Michele Savonarola , who promoted him personally in his early years. The parental home in Ferrara was adjacent to that of the Strozzi family , a rejected marriage proposal to the Laodomia Strozzi is considered likely. At the age of 22, Savonarola broke off his medical studies and entered the Dominican monastery of San Domenico in Bologna on April 24, 1475 in order to live “not like an animal among pigs, but as a sensible person”.

Here in Bologna he completed the Studium generale of his order. On May 1, 1477, he received the sacrament of ordination as a deacon . Afterwards Savonarola worked as a preacher. His first appearance as a penitential preacher initially met with little success, but that changed quickly. From 1479 he was novice master in the Dominican monastery at Ferrara for two years . In a general assembly of the Dominican Congregation in Lombardy in the spring of 1482 he was called to be a lecturer in the Florentine monastery of San Marco , where he read out the Holy Scriptures and interpreted them in the sermon . Savonarola developed into a sought-after preacher who called for fundamental church reform . From 1484 on, private revelations , especially during his fast in 1485 and 1486, led to changes in his spiritual life; so his sermons held in San Gimignano had an increasingly eschatological character. In 1487 Savonarola was recalled from Florence. He later continued his preaching work in various northern Italian cities. His fiery speeches against the depravity of the ruling classes were cheered by large sections of the people. The mass effect that he finally achieved in northern Italy is often compared with that of the preacher Hans Böhm , who in 1476 exerted a similar attraction in Franconia with social revolutionary theses.

Previously, Savonarola was appointed Magister studiorum in the Dominican monastery in Bolognese , after which he took on a year of teaching theology there. Ministry of preaching followed in Modena , Piacenza , Brescia and Genoa .

The Medici

In 1490, at the request of Lorenzo de 'Medici , Savonarola was again sent to Florence as a lecturer. In the monastery of San Marco he first taught logic and later also the interpretation of individual books of the Holy Scriptures. In July 1491 he was appointed prior . In his function as head of the order, he strove to detach the convent from the Lombard congregation and set up his own Tuscan congregation in order to reform monastic life. So the rule of the order should be observed again in the original strictness. In Savonarola's view, the vow of poverty should also have been lived more seriously in order to make the order of preachers an instrument for the Christian renewal of Italy. He wrote his writings not only in Latin, but also in the Italian vernacular.

He denounced not only church grievances, but also wealth, unjust rule and the orientation of contemporary Renaissance humanism to the ideals of antiquity. Nonetheless, the Medici remained well-disposed to him, and Lorenzo's son Piero had significantly supported Savonarola's election as prior of San Marco .

However, the son Piero di Lorenzo de 'Medici lacked the political and administrative qualities of his father Lorenzo de' Medici, which in historical retrospect led to a number of political mistakes by the Medici family. When Charles VIII came to Italy from France to conquer the Kingdom of Naples ( Crown of Aragon ), Piero decided to support the Aragonese, although the people's sympathies were with the French king. When Karl arrived on Florentine territory and occupied Sarzana , Piero went to his camp and asked his forgiveness. The king demanded the cession of Pisa , Livornus and other cities, which Piero allowed. On his return to Florence on November 8, 1494, Piero found the opposition strengthened and his popularity declined, especially when the news of the scandalous cession to Charles became known. As a result , he was denied access to the Palazzo Medici Riccardi and fled Florence with a small escort. On the same day Pisa rose against the Florentines and was occupied by Charles.

The fact that Savonarola correctly predicted the death date of Pope Innocent VIII in a small circle of July 25, 1492 , could have promoted Savonarola's later reputation as a "prophet". However, Savonarola's undoing was the open support of King Charles VIII of France and his fight against Pope Alexander VI. , who acted considerably more power-conscious than his predecessor Innocent VIII. Striving for eschatological interpretations as they were typical of the time, he predicted the "new Cyrus" in Charles VIII, which would herald the end of the age of Charlemagne and the beginning of the final battle. To put it more concretely, Charles VIII was a savior for him, but also a scourge of Italy and the Church.

Charles VIII of France and the situation of Florence in Italy - 1494 to 1498

Savonarola preached in the days before Charles VIII's arrival and even went to see the king personally. Nevertheless he was only an accompanying figure until December 1494. When the oligarchy had implemented a reform, he was asked: allegedly, on the advice of Paolantonio di Maso Soderini , he rose to the pulpit and preached for a people's government. When it had to be implemented and the remaining resistance of the oligarchs to be broken, the friar was a powerful mouthpiece.

Alessandro Moretto : Girolamo Savonarola, 1524

It is controversial whether Savonarola had already had a political concept or whether he was called to improvise. In any case, the model for the reform was the order of the Republic of Venice , at the base of which was a council meeting of several thousand. However, Florence lacks the equivalent of the Doganate , which was occupied for life , in that a gonfaloniere della Giustizia continued to officiate every two months. There was also no power that would have endowed the Council of Eighty with the competence to ensure the deliberative and daily politics of the Rialto. At the exit, Florence fell into a disordered, leaderless and costly chaos in terms of domestic and foreign policy.

Charles's campaign ultimately turned into a fiasco, as he left Italy after the triumphant capture of Naples and Naples was lost again soon afterwards (see Italian Wars ). For Florence, however, a trap opened up: around the republic, the communes and princely states returned to their old state of rule. The fact that the city on the Arno remained in the party of the French, however, was the reason for its isolation by the so-called League of Venice . The latter consequently tried to bring the Medici back in order to free Florence from the French following.

The firmness of the partisanship was explained by the interaction between the developments in Florence and the political situation in Italy. With a certain simplification, pairs of opposites can be set up: Savonarola preached with the Dominicans who stood by him in Florence for France and, at the insistence of the corresponding party of the Frateschi, for the people's government. The opponents from the backward part of the oligarchy sent the Franciscan Domenico da Ponzo against Savonarola in the pulpit, had preached for the Holy League and wanted Pope Alexander VI to be punished. He was an ally of the Holy League and obviously linked his decisions on questions and subpoenas concerning Savonarola to the interest of a political upheaval in Florence.

Purgatory of the vanities

In 1495 Pope Alexander VI prohibited Savonarola, continue to preach. For a short time he stuck to it, but soon denounced the grievances in the church again. At the beginning of February 1497, Savonarola sent large crowds of young people and children ("Fanciulli") through Florence, who confiscated everything "in the name of Christ" that could be interpreted as a symbol of the depravity of the people. This not only included pagan writings (or those that Savonarola counted) or pornographic images, but also paintings, jewelry, cosmetics, mirrors, secular musical instruments and notes, playing cards, elaborately made furniture or expensive clothing. Sometimes the owners delivered these things themselves, either out of actual remorse or out of fear of reprisals. On February 7, 1497 and February 17, 1498, all of these items were burned on a huge pyre in the Piazza della Signoria . The painter Sandro Botticelli threw some of his pictures into the flames himself. Not everyone, not even all religious and clergy, supported these cremation actions. Above all, the Franciscans of Santa Croce and the Dominicans of Santa Maria Novella criticized Savonarola's approach. The Franciscans under Domenico da Ponzo took the side of Savonarola's opponents and used to preach against him anyway.


The execution of Savonarola in Piazza della Signoria
A marble plaque set into the floor shows the place of execution

Without the support of King Charles, but also because of the opposition of the old elites as well as the Franciscans and some Dominicans, there was finally a change in mood in Florence, so that Savonarola's supporters missed the majority in the city's Signoria elections in the spring of 1498. Already on May 13, 1497 Savonarola was from Pope Alexander VI. excommunicated as " heretics , schismatics and despisers of the Holy See" . When the Pope, under threat of an interdict for the entire Florentine Republic, demanded that the penitential preacher be taken prisoner, and a trial by fire announced by Savonarola and awaited by the people was prevented by hostile religious and political opponents, the angry crowd dragged Savonarola out of the Monastery. He was imprisoned , tortured and sentenced to death after confessing to the wrongdoings of which he was charged . Before he was executed , he revoked his confessions , but his trial files were forged. Savonarola was finally hung with two confreres ( Domenico Buonvicini and Silvestro Maruffi ) in front of a huge crowd and then burned . This happened in the Piazza della Signoria - the same square where he had previously organized the “Purgatory of Vanities”. As some women tried to take bones with them as relics , the piazza was closed and Savonarola's ashes were thrown into the Arno River the next day .

The Frateschi party rose again when Louis XII. of France in 1498/99, a few weeks after Savonarola's death, announced a campaign to Italy and carried it out in 1499/1500. The people's government established in the main features of Savonarola therefore asserted itself through French protection until 1512.


Savonarola monument in Ferrara
Medal with a portrait of Savonarola by Niccolò Fiorentino , also called Spinelli, Niccolò di Forzore

The Evangelical Church in Germany commemorates Savonarolas as a martyr of the Church on May 23 in the Evangelical Calendar of Names . The Augustinian Martin Luther wrote in 1523 a prologue to Savonarola Latin edition Meditatio pia et erudita H. Savonarolae a Papa exusti super psalmos Miserere mei, et in te Domine speravi holy titled in Luther Savonarola as "- - Savonarola wrote it in 1498 in his captivity Man". In 1556, the Lutheran theologian Cyriacus Spangenberg described for the first time in German a detailed life story of Savonarola "Historia vom Leben, Lere und Tode Hieronymi Savonarole. Anno 1498 burned in Florentz ”and saw in him a pre-Lutheran reformer.

In the Roman Catholic Church, Pope John Paul II initiated a beatification process on May 23, 1998 at the instigation of the Archbishop of Florence .

Savonarola in literature

According to Niccolò Machiavelli , who, at the request of the Florentine envoy in Rome, Ricciardo Becchi , listened to the late and seditious sermons of Savonarola on March 1 and 2, 1498 in San Marco, Savonarola preached an iconoclasm and incited children who were her own Parents should denounce, whereby he showed such a demagogic zeal that Machiavelli, who was considered quite tolerant, accused him of religious-idealistic delusion. In addition, Machiavelli saw no point in the destruction of beautiful and valuable things, but only destructive things in the later work of Savonarola. The decision to live a godly life in poverty is only the responsibility of every believer and does not justify any encroachments on fellow citizens or their property. The great fire of vanities only leads to excesses of envy and resentment. In addition, Savonarola is not accessible to a moderating "voice of reason" - be it secular or ecclesiastical. The extremist arbitrariness of his teaching (such as the declaration that the possession of beautiful things is automatically "deteriorated") and the attacks motivated from it ultimately led to Savonarola's downfall.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe found a “grim, fantastic monster” . John Stuart Mill saw Savonarola as a forerunner of the Reformation , which, like Arnold von Brescia and Fra Dolcino before, failed. For Giuseppe Mazzini, on the other hand, Savonarola was at the same time a reformer and a political revolutionary, who thereby differed from Luther. In 1837 Nikolaus Lenau's epic poem Savonarola was published , in which the religious is depicted as a champion for the right faith and representative of a spiritual, hostile world. In the epic historical novel Romola by George Eliot , published 1862-63, Savonarola is one of the two main male characters; this is the most extensive representation of Savonarola in fiction to date . By Thomas Mann , the shape of Savonarola was literary indirectly in his early story Gladius Dei (1902) and directly in his only play Fiorenza processed (1905). The composer Ferdinand Pfohl wrote a symphonic poem Savonarola.

Savonarola is mentioned in the novels Borgia by Klabund and The Puppeteers by Tanja Kinkel , in Labyrinth of Unheard-of Love by Gabriele Göbel , in The Fall of Albert Camus and in the historical novel We Are the Salt of Florence by Tilman Röhrig . Sarah Dunant also describes the effects of Savonarola's work in her novel The Sign of Venus . Savonarola also appears as a (secondary) antagonist in the computer game Assassin's Creed II , which is set during his lifetime.


Epistola contra sententiam excommunicationis (1497)


  • Lorenza Tromboni (ed.): Inter omnes Plato et Aristoteles: Gli appunti filosofici di Girolamo Savonarola. Fédération Internationale des Instituts d'Études Médiévales, Porto 2012, ISBN 978-2-503-54803-6 (critical edition)
  • Marian Michèle Mulchahey (Ed.): Girolamo Savonarola: Apologetic Writings (= The I Tatti Renaissance Library. Volume 68). Harvard University Press, Cambridge (Massachusetts) 2015, ISBN 978-0-674-05498-1 (Latin text and English translation of seven letters by Girolamo and his writings Apologeticum fratrum Congregationis Sancti Marci and De veritate prophetica Dyalogus )



Web links

Commons : Girolamo Savonarola  - Collection of images, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

  1. two daughters and five sons
  2. ^ Friedrich Karl Meier: Girolamo Savonarola: from large th. handwritten Sources shown: with the portrait and facsimile of Savonarola's manuscript. G. Reimer, Berlin 1836, p. 11
  3. Ernst Piper: Savonarola: Prophet of God's dictatorship. Buch & Media, Munich 2009, ISBN 3-8690-6969-4 , p. 13
  4. Girolamo Savonarola: Meditatio pia et erudita H. Savonarolae a Papa exusti super psalmos Miserere mei, et In te Domine speravi. (1498) Edition: Wittemberga, year of publication: 1523 [1]
  5. Oliver Bernhardt: Shape and history of Savonarola in German-language literature: From the early modern period to the present. Königshausen & Neumann, Würzburg 2016, ISBN 3-82605-903-4 , pp. 62–71
  6. Oliver Bernhardt: Shape and history of Savonarola in German-language literature: From the early modern period to the present. Königshausen & Neumann, Würzburg 2016, ISBN 3-82605-903-4 , p. 71
  7. Becchi, Ricciardo Dizionario Biografico degli Italiani - Volume 7 (1970) [2]