By Ioannis Tzortzakakis

On May 13, 1497, Savonarola was excommunicated by Pope Alexander VI. It was the beginning of his end, resulting in his death on public fire in Florence. Girolamo Savonarola (Ferrara, September 21, 1452 – Florence, May 23, 1498), a Dominican friar, preacher and theologian, for others also a prophet, is infamous, apart from his attempts to reform the Catholic Church, for his bonfires of vanities: the burning of books, mirrors, paintings and works of art, cosmetics, and other items which either appeal to people’s vanity or tempt people to sin. For that instant, Botticelli is believed to have abandoned working on mythological subjects.

Yet, it was his fiery and impassioned sermons combining attacks on moral corruption with apocalyptic visions of the future that led Pope Alexander VI to that decision; along with the death of his patron Lorenzo the Magnificent in 1492.

From his excommunication letter:

“He has disseminated pernicious doctrines to the scandal and great grief of simple souls. We had already commanded him, by virtue of his vows of holy obedience, to suspend his sermons; but he refused to obey, and alleged various excuses which we too graciously accepted, hoping to convert him by our clemency … he has persisted in his stubbornness and thus, ipso facto, incurs our censure … he is an excommunicated person and suspected of heresy.” (Van Paassen, Crown, p. 248.) 

Further reading

Stefano Dall’Aglio (2011) “Girolamo Savonarola and His Dream of Reform: Art, Money, and the Bonfire of the Vanities.” In Money and Beauty: Bankers, Botticelli, and the Bonfire of the Vanitiesedited by Ludovica Sebregondi and Tim Parks, 93-103. Florence: Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi.

Rab Hatfield (1995) “Botticelli’s Mystic Nativity, Savonarola, and the Millenium.” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 58: 89-114.

Ronald M. Steinberg (1977) Fra Girolamo Savonarola: Florentine Art and Renaissance Historiography, Athens, Ohio.

Pierre van Paassen (1960) A Crown of Fire: The Life and Times of Girolamo Savonarola, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

Fra Bartolomeo, Portrait of Girolamo Savonarola, c.1498, oil on panel, Museo Nazionale di San Marco, Florence.

Page from Compendio di revelatione / dello invtile servo di Iesv Christo frate Hieronymo da Ferrara dellordine de Frati Predicatori (Florence, 1496) by Girolamo Savonarola (1452-1498), Inc 6316.10 (A), Houghton Library, Harvard University

Moretto da Brescia, Portrait of a Dominican, Presumed to be Girolamo Savonarola, 1524, oil on canvas, Castelvecchio Museum.

Savonarola’s cell in San Marco, Florence, Italy.

Luther Monument (Luther-Denkmal) (detail with Girolamo Savonarola) in Worms, Rhineland-Palatinate, Germany.

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