I stood at a certain spot in the Piazza Della Signoria in Florence. It is a large plaza in the heart of the old City, right in front of the Palazzo Vecchio (“Old Palace”). There at my feet was a marker written in Italian commemorating the death of Girolamo Savonarola. On that very spot in 1498 he was hanged and burned, then his ashes were thrown into the Arno River.
He started a revival that failed. Savonarola was a Domenican monk who was horrified at the gross immorality he saw in Italy. He railed against the tyranny of the Medici family and of Pope Alexander VI. Supposedly he had visions of a new Cyrus from the north who would liberate Florence and bring in a new era of peace and prosperity.
When the French king Charles VII did in fact invade Italy and drove out the Medici family (for a while), it seemed that Savonarola’s prophecies might indeed be coming true. But in the course of time the Florentines exchanged one tyrant for another. In his zeal for moral purity Savonarola organized roving gangs of youths who would patrol the streets harassing people over how they dressed. They had “bonfires of the vanities”–huge fires in which were tossed books and secular art that did not measure up to Savonarola’s standards.
His focus was on getting rid of externals, and not on transformation of the heart.
The people tired of the monk. The pope excommunicated him. He lost his support…and then he lost his life.
It made me sad, to stand there, and think about the monk who had some things so right, some things so wrong, and whose “reformation” failed so miserably.