The Evils Of The Church And The Murder Of Savonarola

A poem begins in the way that it ends, just as a song will end in a similar fashion to how it began. In many films, characters will start as friends and end as enemies. Things will begin with love and end up in bitterness. Such is the way of poetry, of art, of music. God is a poet; He is an artist, a musician, and so in His creation there is a reversal at the end of the story — a plot twist —, almost like a paradox. There is the contradiction that is found at the end of many a story, and the story of humanity consists of a similar fashion. It begins as a love story — God and His bride — and it ends as a war, a struggle, a bitter divorce. The story of God is a romance whose end is rage, whose denouement is violence. Christ was in a wedding party, and there He made water into wine — an image of blood. The poem of God begins as a wedding, but in the end the bride’s dress is stained with blood. A song begins calmly, but shifts into dissonance, working to find the harmony that the listener so seeks. Our appreciation for harmony is exemplified by a sudden disruption of the melody that brings about the sound of chaos, and when the dissonance transitions back to the beautiful part that we so loved, then we appreciate — and enjoy even more — the euphony. So in the song of God a struggle erupts, not between good and something that has always been evil, but between good and that which used to be good but has turned to the darkness. The Church was established as the Bride of Christ, but God tells Babylon: “the voice of bridegroom and bride will be heard in you no more” (Revelation 18:24).

A grapevine awakens in the spring, lush leaves and blossoms embellish its branches, fruits are born from the pollinated flowers; the grapes turn to a dark hue, only to be crushed under the winepress, its blood flowing like a river into the barrels, where it ferments, only to appear later to please the soul. Let beer be for those who are perishing, wine for those who are in anguish! (Proverbs 31:6) Wine is not made unless there be the winepress, and such is the story of God: chaos disrupting order, the light turning to darkness, the bride becoming a harlot. Where it begins, it ends, and where it ends, it starts again. God looked to Jerusalem as His bride, only to have the Romans devastate her. The painting was scraped away, a new canvass appeared, a new beginning was made. But Rome, too, went down the road of Israel. One example of this is the story of Girolamo Savonarola.

He exposed the Vatican has a den of pedophiles and combated the prevalent homosexuality in Florence. This provoked the pro-sodomy faction within Florence, the Arrabbiati (the “enraged ones”) to seek to kill him. This is not the story of any monk, but one of actual combat against Sodom in Renaissance Christendom. Much hatred rose up against Savonarola by Florence’s homosexuals. Giovanni di Brunetto commissioned an anti-Savonarolan libel, not from a pagan, but actually from an Augustinian preacher, and dedicated the work to his boyfriend, Carlo Federici. There were many songs composed against Savonarola. One was a “very indecent” song by Pierandrea da Verrazzano, who reportedly tried to sodomize a boy in 1496. The song was dedicated to Piero Soderini, who was also condemned for sodomy in 1496. From pedophilia in the Church, to sodomites and hypocrisy, the story of Savonarola proves that nothing has changed.

The day was April 8th, 1498 — Palm Sunday. In those empty streets of Florence, nothing could be heard — the air was dead. Silence prevailed as the morning sun overlooked the awe-inspiring Renaissance architecture, especially the Basilica di San Marco. The gentle beams of the morning, piercing through whatever clouds were left from the retreating night, touched the domes that adorned the roof of this prodigious church. From the top of the edifice one would have been struck with inspiration, beholding the sublime buildings sulking in the sun’s radiance amidst the silence. The eyes would have also viewed the Florence Cathedral, with its colossal dome overlooking the rustic — yet beautiful — metropolis. The scene of tranquility was disrupted. Suddenly people were seen — these were those of the upper classes, dressed finely in their Sunday attire. These were the Compagnacci — the Rude ones — young elitists whose pleasure seeking knew no bounds. There was an infamous sodomite named Pacchierotto who was “much favored by the Compagnacci,” and was deemed “one of the most shameful men in Florence because he derided and berated the life of friar Girolamo.”

Their gazes met with those wearing simple clothing; these were the Piagnoni — or, the Wailers. The Rude ones spat on the Wailers, pushing them and pulling their clothes. They did this, not because they were poor, but because these were the supporters of the most polarizing monk in all of Europe at the time — Girolamo Savonarola. In fact, from the Piazza della Signoria (where political decisions were made) a proclamation was made offering a thousand ducats to whoever could capture Savonarola and deliver him to the authorities.

Upon a narrow pathway of square stones, in between closely placed lofty towers, under an afternoon sky, treaded a monk surrounded by his supporters who were also his bodyguards. This was Mariano Ughi, a devout follower of Savonarola. Mariano and his acolytes were suddenly met with a hail of stones, thrown by the followers of the Compagnacci — the Rude ones. The monk and his entourage endured through the ambush of stones and finally made it inside the Florence Cathedral. But even within this sacred edifice, there were the Rude ones, full of their fury. They kicked the back of the seats where people were sitting, screaming, “Adante con Dio, piagnonacci” (“Go with God, you sniveling psalm-singers”). Devotees who did not come to the church to bring violence rose up, and a great tumult commenced. Some of the Catholics tried to flee back to the Via del Cocomero, but were wounded by weapons held by hands of the Rude ones. The mob overflowed outside of the church, crying: “Lets get the Friar! On to San Marco! On to San Marco!”

Those domes that sat upon the Basilica di San Marco, each one standing as if it were its own edifice, underneath the oppressive sun of the noon day. On each dome stood a cross, glistening under the sky’s beams, a reminder of death, of sacrifice, of resurrection, of hope. But could hope be seen, even like a faint of brief light surrounded by storm clouds? On the plaza of the basilica there was a mob whose numbers were amassing quickly. So many were their numbers that regular folks could not exit the church. Amongst those in the crowd were Jacopo di Tanai de’ Nerli and Alfonso Strozzi, who were both convicted sodomites.

The friars inside, knowing that the mob thirsted for blood, locked and bolted the doors of the church. The terrified congregants who were stuck inside were escorted out of the church through a different access way, and made their way towards the Porta di San Gallo. With the non-combatants gone, every hand — even the hands of friars — grabbed a weapon. “Everyone was arming himself,” wrote Landucci, who led the civilians out of the Basilica di San Marco. “All Florence was in commotion.” Inside the Basilica, within its monastery, were over a dozen or so friars, alongside thirty or so Piagnoni and leading citizens who supported Savonarola. One of these citizens was Francesco Valori, who advised the monks not to partake in violence, and that it was better to leave Florence. But the monks refused. Combat was the route that they would take. For some time already they had been preparing for this day; they saw the presaging signs: vitriol, the fanatical declarations — they felt the viciousness and knew they had to be ready. Beneath the monastery was a room that the friars converted into an armory where there was twelve breastplates, about a dozen helmets, eighteen halberds, five or six crossbows, various shields, some mortars, four or five arquebuses, a barrel of gunpowder and a crate of leaden bullets. The weapons were smuggled into the monastery by a leader of the Piagnoni, Francesco Davanzati, and his assistant, Baldo Inghirami who was now making the plans for the defense of the monastery against the Rude ones. Sixteen of the friars declared their will to fight the mob and to place themselves under the command of Inghirami. They rushed, door by door inside of the church, locking each one so as to prevent the mob from breaking into the inner monastery.

Surrounding the interior convent were high walls with narrow windows, which provided a significant defense for the monastery. Inside the edifice stood Savonarola, not knowing that his friars were getting ready to spill the blood of their enemies who were surrounding San Marco. A storm of stones was launched up into the air by the mob, and descended upon the church. The bell of the basilica went off, and resounded throughout the air of the city. The Signoria — the government council of Florence — heard the ringing and sent their official mace-bearing heralds to San Marco to proclaim to the friars to lay down their arms, and that Savonarola was ordered to be exiled. The friars within the building, hands clutching their guns, their haldberds and crossbows, their helmets and shields, did not believe the order and saw it as a trick by the Rude ones.

The order had the opposite effect. The members of the Signoria began to argue amongst themselves. ‘Should we order the removal of all weapons from San Marco to prevent conflict?’ Typical factionalism transpired, with moderates not wanting to cause a riot and the anti-Savonarola members wanting blood. It did not take long for rage to build up and boil over. Two members of the Signoria pulled out weapons and confronted one another. In the end, the voices of the anti-Savonarola faction within the Signoria overwhelmed the moderates. One voice of reason, Domenico Mazzinghi, who held a senior position in the government, went to the Palazzo della Signoria and reminded the council members of their responsibility to maintain order. However, as one person who was present recounted, he was “rebuffed with every villainy in the world, and had it not been for several noblemen, I think he would have been killed.”

The afternoon sun was descending into its slumber, the stone roads of the city were tinged with some light and some darkness, underneath the feat of the mob that stood before the Basilica. Their rage had not subsided; they were adamant for the monk. Inside the edifice, Savonarola, donning his sacred vestments and holding a crucifix, declared that he was willing to surrender himself to put an end to the tensions. “Let me go forth,” he said, “since this storm has only arisen because of me.” But the friars and the piagnoni, alongside their supporters, refused to give him up. “Do not leave us!” they cried. “You will only be torn limb from limb; and what would become of us once you are gone?” The sun had finally plunged itself, and the darkness of the night subsumed the city. Francesco Valori left the church with the intention of bringing back reinforcements to defend San Marco. But his fate ended with blood. As we read in Landucci, Valori:

“got out of San Marco secretly, into the garden at the back and along the walls, but here he was seized by two villainous men and taken to his house. Later in the evening he was fetched by the mace-bearers of the Signoria, who promised that his life would be spared, and marched him off to the Palagio. But on the way… a man came up behind him and struck him on the head with a bill-hook two or three times, so that he died on the spot. And when they ransacked his house, they wounded his wife so that she died, and they also wounded the children and their nurses, stripping the house of everything.” 

This would be a night of blood. Mobs began to break into the homes of Savonarola supporters, robbing and killing. Suddenly the siege of the Basilica di San Marco began. As Landucci recorded:

“At the same time, there was fighting around San Marco, where the crowd was constantly increasing; and they brought three stone-throwing machines into the Via Larga and Via del Cocomero. By now several people had been wounded and killed. It was said that between fifteen and twenty people were killed in all, and about a hundred were wounded. At about six in the night [i.e. 2 a.m.] they set fire to the doors of the church and the cloister of San Marco, and bursting into the church began to fight.”

The friars were ready to fight; they wore breastplates over their monastic robes, helmets on their heads, their hands gripped upon a gun or a crossbow or a halberd. They charged at the enemy, crying out “Long live Christ!” The mob was repulsed by the tenacity of the monks. They tried to ascend the basilica with ladders, only to be hit by tiles hurled down upon them by the friars who anticipated the enemy on the roof. As the fray continued inside the basilica, one monk from Germany named Fra Enrico positioned himself in the pulpit, aiming his arquebus and firing with precision. The sound of gunfire, the smoke of burning gunpowder billowing in the building, the cries of the wounded, the bodies of the dead dropping — all such chaos was occurring in the Basilica di San Marco. As the fighting went on, Savonarola stood in the choir area, surrounded by torches, in the midst of the bright fire as the sound of erupting guns echoed within the majestic edifice. Soon, in the threshold of death, surrounded by battle and gore, as the monk stood in the middle of the flames, the militant friars each grabbed a burning torch and each made charge at the crowd that sought after their destruction. Overtaken by the fatigue of combat, overtaken by monks who they thought would make for an easy win, the mob — beholding the tenacious monks, each armed with a torch — ran in terror. Savonarola then led his friars into the monastery library. Violence was still ongoing outside; one could have heard yelling and rioting, and the occasional gunfire. Before his men, Savonarola spoke:

“Every word that I have said came to me from God, and as He is my witness in heaven I do not lie… I am departing from you with deep sorrow and anguish, so that I can surrender myself into the hands of my enemies. I do not know whether they intend to kill me. However, you can be certain that if I die I shall be able the better to aid you from heaven than I have been able to do here on earth.”

It was told to Savonarola that he still had a chance to escape, and he actually considered this. But, there was a traitor amongst them — Fra Malatesta Sacramoro — who had made a secret allegiance with the Arrabbiati (the “enraged ones”), an ideological faction that hated Savonarola and his cause. Sacramoro knew how Savonarola thought; he knew that this monk would always try to take the difficult path. And so he asked: “Should not the shepherd lay down his life for the sake of his flock?” Savonarola silenced the arguments amongst his friars, and declared his decision to surrender himself. He took Communion, kissed each one of his friars, and sent two of them to inform the Signoria’s men that he was surrendering. They requested safe passage for Savonarola and this was assured. Savonarola, alongside his loyal monk, Fra Domenico da Pescia, exited the Basilico di San Marco. As the officers were trying to chain their hands, the mob surrounded them, holding torches that illuminated in the midst of the darkness. As the two prisoners were being led out, they were followed by scoffers. One of them thrusted a flaming brand to the face of Savonarola and jeered: “Behold, the true light.” As they were being escorted inside the side door of the Palazzo della Signoria, another member of the mob kicked Savonarola’s backside and shouted: “Look, thats where his prophecies come from!”

“People laid down their weapons, but everyone continued talking about what had happened. It was as if hell had opened beneath our feet: everyone kept saying ladro e traditore (wretch and traitor), no one dared to say a word in support of Savonarola, or they would have been killed, and everyone jeered at the citizens, calling them Piagnoni and hypocrites.” Such is how Landucci described April the 9th of 1498, once Savonarola was now a prisoner. The Compagnacci — the Rude ones — roamed around the streets holding up the weapons that belonged to the friars’ arsenal in San Marco, and proclaiming that such were evidence that Savonarola and his monks were planning an insurrection in Florence. Middle-class Piagnoni — knowing that it was open season on supporters of Savonarola — fled for the countryside. Others secretly took their families and valuables and exiled themselves from Florence. Now was the time of excruciating pain for the two prisoners. Savonarola and Domenico were made to endure the strappado, a form of torture that would easily break any human. It involved tying one’s hands behind his back, and then lifting him up by his wrists with a rope, suspending him above the ground; the person was then dropped and then suddenly stopped before hitting the ground; the sudden stoppage was so violent that it would dislocate his shoulders. A medical professional would then pop the person’s shoulders back into place, and the extremely painful process was repeated. Savonarola was made to go through this three times before he broke and cried out: “Take me down and I will write you my whole life.”

What is ironic is that the interrogator, Francesco de Ser Barone (nicknamed “Ser Ceccone”) was actually rescued by Savonarola at one point. After the overthrow of the Medici dynasty, there were mobs who wanted to kill those who supported Medici rule. Savonarola, utilizing his spiritual authority, warned against any violence on those partial to the Medici dynasty. Ser Ceccone took refuge in Savonarola’s San Marco Basilica. Ser Ceccone would pretend to being a supporter of the pro-Savonarola faction (the Piagnoni) and would attend all of the monk’s sermons. But the entire time Ser Ceccone was acting as an informant for the anti-Savonarola faction, passing information directly to Doffo Spini at the dinners organized by the Compagnacci. Now, here he was, interrogating Savonarola, overseeing his shoulders being dislocated again and again. This is not really shocking — although it is disturbing — given that Ser Ceccone had been jailed in Siena for sodomy as a teenager in 1465; and in 1494 a boy had confessed to being sodomized by him.

Savonarola was absolutely in the disadvantage in every way. The entire judicial commission — consisting of seventeen citizens — was anti-Savonarola to a man, including Compagnacci leader Doffo Spini, a pedophile. Another member of the commission, Giovanni Manetti, requested permission to have an inspection done on Savonarola’s private parts because rumors were spreading that an astrologer prophesied that a hermaphrodite prophet would arrive in Italy. The inspection was done. Such was the beginning of the humiliation. The anti-Savonarola faction in the Signoria wanted to make sure that nobody would impede their plans. They called for an election for the Great Council, and no members of the Piagnoni were allowed to be candidates. If you were suspected of having Piagnoni sympathies you were purged out of the government. So eager were they to kill Savonarola, that the holiest days of the Christian religion — Good Friday (April 13th) and Easter Sunday (two days later) — did not cause them to postpone the mock trial. Word of Savonarola’s capture reached Pope Alexander VI back in Rome, and “His Holiness” was most thrilled. He wrote a brief which the Signoria received on April 13th:

“It gave us the greatest pleasure when your ambassador informed us of the timely measures you have taken in order to crush the mad vindictiveness of that son of iniquity Fra Hieronymo Savonarola, who has not only inspired such heresies amongst the people with his deluded and empty prophecies, but has also disobeyed both your commands and our orders by force of arms. At last he is safely imprisoned, which causes us to give praise to our beloved Savior, whose divine light sheds such truth upon our earthly state that He could not possibly have permitted your faithful city to have remained any longer in darkness.”

The Church was now in cahoots with the anti-Christian faction of Florence, the Arrabbiati (the Enraged ones) and the Compagnacci (the Rude ones) who wanted no religious influence on the state and who did not want to end the prevalence of homosexuality, which had become such a trend in Renaissance Florence and which Savonarola had been exerting so much of his efforts to purge out of the city. The Church was now collaborating with such people — who did not mind storming a basilica with weapons to capture a monk — and this reality pushes one to wonder as to what state was the Church in at this point in history?

Alexander VI requested that Savonarola be sent to Rome to be tried in an ecclesiastical tribunal. Priests in those days were tried in Church courts and not in civil tribunals. Thus, the trial of Savonarola in Florence was illegal. But Pope Alexander VI was so threatened by Savonarola that it really didn’t bother him at all if the monk was kept in Florence to be tried. In fact, the Signoria did not want to send him to Rome. Savonarola was very influential on the government of Florence after the overthrow of the Medici family. He knew of the city’s secret policies, as well as its methods of gathering intelligence. This would certainly have included gathering intelligence from Rome, possibly even spies within the Vatican itself. The Pope could have extracted information on this from Savonarola and certain informants would have been eliminated and the city’s weaknesses could have been then exploited.

This is why Florence did not want to send Savonarola to Rome, and wanted to try and execute him within the city. On the day that the Signoria received the brief from the Pope, it was learned that on April 7th the King of France, Charles VIII, died. At the age of just twenty-seven, he cracked his head on the stone lintel of a doorway, went unconscious, and despite all of the attempts of his doctors, succumbed to his injury in a matter of hours. What made this death so shocking in Florence was that the year prior to this trial, Savonarola prophesied that the king would die. Savonarola’s relationship with the King of France tied into his tensions with the Vatican. The Vatican was extremely corrupt — and this is an understatement — it was full of evil, and Savonarola believed that it was the calling of a righteous king, the King of France, to be the scourge of God and overthrow the papal government in the Vatican.

Savonarola warned Charles VIII that if he refused to overthrow the Pope, that God would destroy him. It was for the evils of the Vatican that Savonarola wanted the Vatican purged, and he would preach sermons describing the evils that would go on. For example, in one sermon he declared: “the high priests of Rome … you whose lust, love of luxury and pride have been the ruin of the world, violating men and women alike with your lasciviousness, turning children to sodomy and prostitution … you who spend the night with your concubine and in the morning conduct the sacraments.” Take notice on how he mentions pedophilia in the Vatican. Is anything different today? With innumerable accounts of priests molesting children — especially boys — what we learn from Savonarola is that nothing has changed. In the last line, the “you” was referring to Pope Alexander VI who had numerous concubines. With such sermons, the Signoria was worried about the Vatican government, which was very powerful in those days, doing something against Florence.

Moreover, the Arrabbiati’s rage towards Savonarola was soon going to boil over. The Pope was angry at Savonarola for exposing him and his den of pedophiles, and for calling the King of France to topple him; the Signoria was worried that Savonarola could provoke the Vatican against Florence, and the Arrabbiati was tired of Savonarola’s exhortation for the purging of the city of its vices. Savonarola knew that his death was nigh. “Do you wish to know how all this will end for me?” Savonarola asked Piero Capponi, who the government sent to warn him of the dangers he was inviting. “I can tell you that it will end with my death, when I shall be cut to pieces.”

After Savonarola was tortured, he made certain confessions. But the record of such confessions, written down by Ser Ceccone, was obviously skewed, mixed with truth and lies. For example, Ser Ceccone wrote that Savonarola denied being a prophet. But, numerous times in the past he also denied being a prophet. He did, however, speak of prophecies and visions. When Ser Ceccone pressed Savonarola on whether or not he was in contact with Charles VIII (the King of France), he did not deny this. He also admitted to having called for a Council of the Church with the aim of ridding it of corruption, nothing that was worthy of death in Florentine law. He was asked if he himself wanted to be pope to which Savonarola replied: “No, I did not wish to become pope — for if I had succeeded in my purpose I would have deemed myself above any cardinal or pope.” There are certain things in Ser Ceccone’s record of the interrogation that are obvious lies.

For example, he claimed that Savonarola said: “I intended to rule” and “my aim was … the glory of the world”, “to increase … my name and reputation abroad … my pride … my hypocrisy”, and so forth. And such claims are put in the mouth of Savonarola so many times that it becomes clear that they are insertions made by Ser Ceccone. This was not the language of Savonarola. The confessions were read out to Savonarola who immediately objected to its obvious falsifications. The next day, he was ordered to put his signature on it, an order that he refused to do. But after being threatened with another moment in the strappado, he, reluctantly, signed. The Signoria concluded that the confessions were not enough. The thing that made this story so disturbing was that Savonarola had committed no capital offence, and yet the state was actually planning to kill him.

It was not for law that they wished to take his life, but to appease a bloodthirsty mob. It was decided that Savonarola should undergo a second interrogation. Ser Ceccone recorded that this time the interrogation was “without torture or any harm to the body”. But Landucci recorded that “The Frate was tortured.” On April 24, the trial was coming to its end and Savonarola was asked to sign his “confession.” It appears that Savonarola wrote parts of it himself, since Savonarola wrote (or was forced to write) that “in some places there are notes in the margin written by Ser Francesco di Ser Barone [Ser Ceccone]”. There are obvious insertions made into the text. For example, it says that Savonarola confessed that he “never went to confession”. This was contradicted Fra Silvestro Maruffi, a monk who was very close to Savonarola and who, after breaking under torture, recounted: “on twenty or twenty-five occasions, when he was about to deliver a sermon, he would come to my cell and tell me, ‘I do not know what to preach. Pray to God for me, because I fear that he has abandoned me because of my sins.’ And he would then say that he wished to unburden himself of his sins, and would make confession to me.”

The friars who fought in San Marco were, in fact, excommunicated by Pope Alexander VI for fighting to defend the basilica from the mob. To gain the favor of the Pope, these friars decided to disown Savonarola, writing in a joint statement: “Not only ourselves, but men of much greater wisdom, were persuaded by Fra Girolamo’s cunning.” Whats amazing is that these friars — who could have easily escaped the basilica and the terror of the mob, were willing to fight and die for Savonarola, which makes such a statement highly questionable and it can be reduced to classic sycophancy and indiscriminate obedience.

On April 27th, the Arrabbiati began rounding up anyone suspected of being a supporter of Savonarola. Landucci recorded: “All the citizens arrested for this cause were scourged, so that from 15 in the morning [11 a.m.] till the evening there were unending howls of agony coming from the Bargello [torture chamber].” After all of the torture, still no convincing evidence against Savonarola was extracted. On May 1st, “All Citizens were sent back home: and only the three poor Frati [Savonarola, Domenico, and Maruffi] remained.” The Arrabbiati were at a lost. Savonarola did not admit to anything worthy of death, and neither did his followers. It was suggested that the friars be tried again, with the hopes that incriminating evidence could be obtained from at least one of them. Piero Popoleschi, a former head of the Signoria (called a gonfaloniere) who was against Savonarola, arose and objected to another trial with the same torturous methods:

“both on account of the way in which the previous examinations were conducted, and for the sake of peace and public order in the city. If we proceed to examine them in the same way as before this will only give rise to a scandal, as we have already been informed by the diplomatic representatives of every state in Italy.”

Word of the interrogations and torture sessions had gotten out, and the public was outraged. How could a civilized state like Florence treat monks in such a way? The French ambassador to Florence, Giovanni Guasconi, also objected and expressed his sympathies for Savonarola and the Piagnoni. The Florentine government sent a message to their ambassador in Rome to inform Alexander VI that the Signoria desired to make an example of Savonarola and his two friars, and that if they were to be executed in public that the society would know that their cause was futile.

The Pope, regardless of priorly demanding that Savonarola be brought to Rome, did nothing to prevent this execution. In fact — and this was to the surprise of the Signoria — Pope Alexander VI agreed to the proposal of killing Savonarola and his two friars. By killing Savonarola, the Pope would remove someone who was exposing him and who could have caused a revolution to his rule. In addition to this, the killing of Savonarola could have also caused a revolt in Florence, destabilizing the city and thus providing an opportunity to revive Medici rule, bringing a Vatican ally back to power. Pope Alexander VI appointed two bishops to take part in the process to executing Savonarola: Giovacchino Torriani and Francesco Remolino whose legal expertise was a great means by which he eliminated other enemies of the Pope.

As he was stuck in his cell, Savonarola began to go through a duration of contemplation, looking within himself, noticing his own weaknesses. He wrote his thoughts in a tract entitled, “An Exposition and Meditation on the Psalm Miserere”, which began with:

“Unfortunate am I, abandoned by all, I who have offended heaven and earth, where am I to go? With whom can I seek refuge? Who will have pity on me? I dare not raise my eyes to heaven because I have sinned against heaven. On earth I can find no refuge, because here I have created a scandalous state of affairs … Thus to Thee, most merciful God, I return filled with melancholy and grief, for Thou alone art my hope, Thou alone my refuge.”

Savonarola had denied being a prophet, denied receiving inspiration, and thus it was in St. Peter — who denied Christ three times — that he saw himself, that he gazed upon his own weaknesses. He did not deny his weakness, his fears and his torments, but rather he exposed them openly. He wrote:

“But these questions were just words; what would he have done if the Jews had come and threatened to beat him… He would have denied once more if he had seen them getting out whips … If St. Peter, to whom Thou granted so many gifts and so many favours, failed so miserably in his test, what was I capable of, O Lord? What could I do?”

He confessed to breaking to the torture, to denying his inspiration under the fear of pain. He looked to St. Peter for an internal revolution of the spirit, which revolts against fear by not hiding one’s weaknesses, but rather leaving them all in the open for the world to witness. Yes, Savonarola denied his past works, but did not St. Peter have a vision of Moses and Elijah which he had beheld alongside Christ, and did not St. Peter deny ever knowing Jesus? Savonarola was admitting to his weaknesses, and in so doing made himself ready to face torture and death.

On May 19th, 1498, the two bishops sent by the Pope arrived at Florence and were met with a mob. “Death to the friar!” they cried out. Bishop Remolino replied: “Indeed he will die.” The Arrabbiati were ecstatic, and to express their gratitude to the bishop they sent to his residence a prostitute dressed up as a boy (specifically as a pageboy). Remolino then assured the Arrabbiati: “We shall have a good bonfire. I have reached the verdict already in my heart.” How could you have a legitimate trial if the verdict was already concluded in your heart? These are not the words of one who wants justice, but bloodshed for the sake of some interest. The next day Savonarola stood before the Papal Commission, with Bishop Remolino acting as the sole interrogator and five Florentine dignitaries who were present as observers for the government. In the interrogation, Remolino observed how Savonarola “would pretend to answer a question, first by telling some of the truth and then obscuring it, but always without lying.” Remolino snapped, and would begin the session of torture. As one account put it:

“Remolino ordered that he be stripped of his robes so that he he could be given the rope [strappado]. In absolute terror, he fell to his knees and said: ‘Now hear me. God, Thou hast caught me. I confess that I have denied Christ, I have told lies. O you Florentine Lords, be my witness here: I have denied Him from fear of being tortured. If I have to suffer, I wish to suffer for the truth: what I said, I heard from God. O God, Thou art making me do penance for having denied Thee under fear of torture. I deserve it.”

The record continued: “It was now that Savonarola was undressed, whereupon he sank to his knees once more, showing his left arm, saying that it was completely useless.” His left arm was still dislocated from the prior torture session. His hands were tied behind his back and he was lifted up into the air. “I have denied you, I have denied you, God, for fear of torture.” As he was being elevated beneath the ground he cried out: “Jesus help me. This time you have caught me.” “Why do you call upon Jesus?” asked Remolino. “So I seem like a good man.” Remolino pressed him again, Savonarola said: “Because I am mad.” He then begged: “Do not torture me any further. I will tell you the truth. I will tell you the truth.” Remolino suddenly asked: “Why did you deny what you had already confessed?” “Because I am a fool.” Remolino wanted Savonarola’s denial of his past “confession” to be true; he did not want him to be penitent nor remorseful. “Have you ever preached that Jesus Christ was just a man?” asked Remolino. “Only a fool would ever think such a thing.”

Back at the Signoria, the council was still discussing killing Savonarola. One legal expert, Agnolo Niccolini (who was formerly a supporter of Piero de’ Medici), objected to executing the monk, declaring that it would be a crime to kill Savonarola, “for history rarely produces such a man as this”. Niccolini explained:

“This man would not only succeed in restoring faith to the world, should it ever die out, but he would disseminate the vast learning with which he is so richly endowed. For this reason, I advise that he be kept in prison, if you so choose; but spare his life, and grant him the use of writing materials, so that the world may not be deprived of his great works to the glory of God.”

But this one voice of reason was drowned out by an ocean of viciousness who wanted the monk dead. At one point Bishop Remolino pretended to show compassion when he said that one of the monks, Fra Domenico, should be spared. One of the Florentine officials then told him: “If this friar is allowed to live, all Savonarola’s doctrines will be preserved.” To this Remolino coldly said: “One little friar more or less hardly matters; let him die too.” Another reason as to why the record of Savonarola’s confessions are questionable is that Remolino claims that the monk confessed “to deliberately causing shortages of food”. The food crisis in Florence was caused by excessive rains which destroyed crops, and the war between Florence and Pisa. For Remolino to make such an accusation brings the trial into question. But Savonarola’s enemies were bent on his death. “It was decided that he should be condemned to death,” recorded Landucci, “and that he should be burnt alive.”

Deep in prayer was Savonarola, as he sat silently in his cell, on that day, May 22nd of 1498. The door abruptly opened, and officials from the Signoria, led by Ser Ceccone, entered the cell to inform him that he was condemned to death. Silent was the monk, still was he in that transition point between life and death, subsumed in the knowledge that all things in his world were coming to an end. Fra Domenico and Fra Maruffi were also sentenced to death. Domenico, upon hearing of the news, wrote a letter to the Dominican monks at the monastery of Fiesole, instructing them to:

“Collect up from my cell all the writings of Fra Girolamo that are to be found there, have been bound into a book, and place a copy of this in our library. Also place another copy in the refectory, chained to the table, where it can be read aloud at mealtimes, and so that the lay brethren who serve can also read it amongst themselves.”

Upon a raised stone terrace were the three monks, in the face of death, in the oceans of mobs, in the torrent of vitriol. As they were made to endure the dread of knowing that death is near, they had to listen through two hours of reading of the sentences against them. The Bishop of Vasona, Benedetto Pagagnotti, who was once a firm believer in Savonarola, read out a declaration that he was ordered to read by Pope Alexander VI, stating the severing of the friars from the Church. Pagagnotti was unable to look at Savonarola and kept tripping on the words as he was trying to read. The bishop snapped with these words: “I separate you from the Church militant and from the Church triumphant.” Savonarola spoke: “Only from the Church militant; the other is not within your jurisdiction.” The bishop acknowledged the correction. The priestly robes of the friars were stripped off, signifying them being cut off from the priesthood. Bishop Remolino then came before them and absolved them of all of their sins. Now that the Church had severed ties with them, their fate was then given over to the secular authorities “who immediately made the decision that they should be hanged and burnt … then their faces and hands were shaved, as is customary in this ceremony.”

Wearing nothing but their thin white under garments, they were led to the gibbet. The mob was in a frenzy. One cried out, “Savonarola, now is the time to perform a miracle.” The plan was to have the friars suffer before they died. They were hanged with short ropes and loose nooses, so that they could experience strangulation as they were being burnt alive. The first to be hanged was Maruffi. They placed the noose around his neck and pushed him off the ladder. Landucci recorded that “he suffered for some time, repeating ‘Jesu’ again and again while he was hanging there, for the rope was not drawn tight enough to kill him”. The next was Domenico, who accepted the noose with a smile. As the two friars were choking, Savonarola was then put through the same punishment. Guicciardini recorded that Savonarola “suffered with unyielding fortitude without uttering a word either claiming his innocence or confessing his guilt.” The hangman decided to make a spectacle of the strangulation, and jerked the rope around Savonarola’s neck to make his body dance around. Underneath them were bundles of sticks. A man with a flaming torch charged to the bundles and cried out: “Now at last I can burn the Friar who would have liked to burn me!” Savonarola pushed for punishment against homosexuals, and so it is obvious what kind of person this was. The crowd began tossing little packets of gunpowder to the fire, to make waves of small explosions amidst the flames.

Amongst the windstorm of flames, in the thickness of the chaos, in the cacophony of cruelty, the fire burned the rope that was tying Savonarola’s hands behind his back. His left arm was dislocated, but his right arm was still intact. He ascended his arm, and slowly opened his hand, as if an angel was holding it. Women wept, some fell to their knees, others ran away in terror. Underneath him, near the flames, were seen a group of men dancing in celebration of his death. Armed guards came and pushed the crowd back. The monks’ organs and their limbs were severed and burned by the flames, and all that was left was the remainder of their torsos. Once he died, as Landucci writes:

“everyone had begun indulging in degenerate behavior, and at night-time one saw halberds or naked swords all over the city, with men gambling by candlelight in the Mercato Nuovo [New Market] and elsewhere without any shame. Hell seemed to have opened; and woe betide anyone who had the temerity to rebuke vice!”

There was a local shop owned by a homosexual named Scheggia, who hated Savonarola. After his immolation, Scheggia, to mock the Feast of St. John the Baptist, put a statue of an owl in front of his shop, dressed as a Dominican monk — an owl was a symbol of a phallus, called a bardassa — with a candle over its head and a sign that mocked a favorite saying of Savonarola: “This is the true light.” The spite towards Savonarola was, for the most part, due to his preaching against the sodomites. He said that there should a punishment done against the citizens of Sodom and, in the words of Giovanni Cambi, “all the people and the corrupt clergy were incited against him, and for this he was killed.”

Bishop Remolino announced that anyone who owned writings by Savonarola was to surrender them within four days or face excommunication. He returned to Rome, but not without the prostitute — dressed as a boy — that was given to him. Such was the state of the upper echelons of the Church. About eighteen months later, the infamous Renaissance artist Sandro Boticelli met with Doffo Spini, one of the Arrabbiati who oversaw the trial of Savonarola. They sat before a fire, its flames flickering and cracking, its shadows reflected on their faces. Boticelli began asking Spini about the trial of the friar. “Sandro, do you want me to tell you the truth?” asked Spini. “We never found anything he had done wrong, neither mortal sin, nor venial.”


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