The Bonfire of Vanities was not just a particularly snarky novel by Tom Wolfe or the one of the few movie duds starring Tom Hanks. It was an event—or more precisely the most famous of a series of events—in Renaissance Italy propagated by elements of the Catholic Church in revulsion against perceived decadence and corruption of the flourishing new culture.
On February 7, 1497, the date of the traditional Mardi Gras festival, crowds whipped up by charismatic Dominican Friar Girolamo Savonarola seized and burned thousands of objects like cosmetics, art, and books in Florence, part of a pattern of defiance to the corruptions of the Church and to the Pope himself.
Savonarola can be seen as a forerunner of the Protestant Reformation. Denouncing clerical hubris, abuse of the poor, and the despotic rule of the Medici, he gathered a fanatical following, especially among the educated young with his promises of new civic glory based on virtue and purity.
Savonarola was, naturally considered a hero by many. But Medici and Papal loyalists remained. To shore up support the Friar staged elaborate public processions and theatrical events both celebrating the new order and promoting purification to earn God’s approval for a New Jerusalem. The celebrated Bon Fire was the highlight of his movement.
No one really knows how many great books, musical instruments, paintings, and statues were consigned to the flames along with ostentatious clothing, cosmetics, mirrors, and personal trifles like playing cards. Some believe the loss to be a cultural catastrophe, while other historians downplay the amount of damage done claiming it was largely symbolic and most fine pieces were either hidden or smuggled out of Florence before the flames could consume them.
Among those caught up in the euphoria of the moment was one of Florence’s leading artists, Sandro Botticelli who had risen to fame painting allegories from classical mythology, most notably his stunning The Birth of Venus with its famous nude on the half-shell. Obviously such themes and sexuality would not be in keeping with Savonarola’s austere piety. The artist had already moved on to more acceptable themes, particularly various renditions of the Virgin Mary. The artists may—or may not—have pitched many of his own paintings on the fire. We do know that for some years he retired from painting all together and was as a result reduced to poverty. He would later, however, recant his allegiance to Savonarola and regain the patronage of the restored Medici.
Savonarola. Luckily Venus and many other paintings were hidden or spirited out ot the city. But the artist may have thrown some of his more recent work on the Bonfire.
After a nasty battle in which he lost most of his loot, Charles got his army safely back to France. But he had lost Naples already and once friendly northern cities like Florence were coming back into the Papal orbit.
In May of 1497 the Pope formally excommunicated the Friar and threatened to put the city under interdiction unless they surrendered him. Under pressure from local authorities he withdrew from public preaching and composed a manuscript of justification and a theological reflection, Triumph of the Cross. Unfortunately for him in it he not only claimed to receive visions from God, but hinted that he had been given the power to perform miracles. Big mistake. It left him open to the charge of Heresy.
A rival friar and preacher called on Savonarola to prove his innocence by an ordeal by fire. When another monk and friend volunteered to take the test for him, Savonarola felt he had no choice but to accept the challenge. On April 7 1497 as he prepared to walk through the fire in the first such ordeal in Florence for 400 years, a rainstorm broke out extinguishing the flames. As the burden of proof was on him, the crowd took it as a sign that he was guilty. They attacked his convent. Savonarola and two other friars were arrested.
Savonarola and two of his Friars were hung and roasted for heresy and schematism.
On the morning of May 23, 1498, the three friars were led out into the main square where, before a tribunal of high clerics and government officials, they were condemned as heretics and schismatics, and sentenced to die. They were immediately stripped of their Dominican robes down to thin white shirts. Each ascended to separate gallows on which they were hung with fire burning below them to consume their bodies. Their ashes were scattered in the Arno River to prevent them from becoming relics for stubborn followers.
However his partisans remained active as both a religious and political force until the Medici were restored in Florence and the Republic squashed in 1517.
But Savonarola’s idea lived on. Martin Luther read Triumph of the Cross as did John Calvin. He was very influential in the briefly flourishing Italian Protestant Reform movement which included the scholars like Faustus Socinus and Giorgio Blandrata who were instrumental in introducing anti-trinitarianism and unitarianism into central and eastern Europe.
On the Catholic side, when it was safe to do so the Dominican Order reclaimed Savonarola and recast him as a benevolent and saintly prophet mostly stripped of his political importance and rougher edges. Later Catholic reformers would call him the last hope to “prevent the catastrophe of the Reformation.” And in the 19th Century he would be adopted as a symbol for Italian nationalists and their drive to create a modern nation state.
Savinarola was recast politically as a hero of Italian Republicanism and religiously as the last hope "to prevent the catastrophe" of the Reformation.
On the other hand, some have found inspiration in Savonarola’s urge to purge. In some ways what we have come to think of as 19th Century American Puritanism, especially the obsessive sexual prudery and zeal at suppression of corrupting influences, might be more rightly called Savonarolaism. Certainly the notorious Anthony Comstock and his Society for the Suppression of Vice are the old Friar’s direct heirs.
And so were and are, whether they know it or not—and most assuredly they do not—all of the modern book burners of whatever stripe.