Girolamo Savonarola and the Medici


By William LandonNorthern Kentucky University

Since the early 1480s, Girolamo Savonarola had taught frequently from Florentine pulpits. But his sermons, in the early days of his time in Florence, were so pedantic that parishioners would walk out halfway through. Savonarola realized that if he was going to connect with the lay population, a new style was necessary. He, therefore, sunk himself into study, prayer, and fasting.

Statue of Girolamo Savonarola
Girolamo Savonarola believed that mixing renaissance culture with Christianity would produce a bastard religion and argued against it. (Image: Daderot/Public domain)

Savonarola’s New Style

When he returned to Florence in 1490, Savonarola took up the leadership of the Dominican Monastery of San Marco, which Lorenzo de’ Medici’s family had patronized since the 1430s.

Savonarola had openly criticized both the clergy and secular princes for their willingness to adapt pagan (that is, Renaissance) culture to fit tenuously with Christianity. So how he came to lead the Dominicans at San Marco provides us with an important part of the backstory that led up to Lorenzo’s death.

No Mixing of Christianity with Renaissance Culture

The Medici family, and Lorenzo in particular, had been the patrons of the Renaissance’s greatest philosopher—Marsilio Ficino. Ficino had managed to argue that Platonism and Christianity offered complementary visions of the cosmos and humankind’s place in it. 

Painting depicting Pico della Mirandola
Pico della Mirandola managed to receive the protection and patronage he strived for whereas Ficino did not. (Image: Cristofano dell’Altissimo/Public domain)

He was rivaled only by Giovanni Pico della Mirandola—an Aristotelian of the highest rank, who had demonstrated that Aristotle’s model for the universe’s creation could peacefully coexist with Christian cosmology. In other words, both men argued that pagan philosophy could add depth and subtly to Christian theology. 

Savonarola argued strenuously against this notion, suggesting that Renaissance culture was perverse and decadent and that mingling it with Christianity produced a bastard religion that obscured the truth.

While Ficino had made Florence and its Medici-financed Platonic Academy his home, Pico, as he was commonly known, was a foreigner, and in fact, a prince. He made his way to Florence, where, due to his aristocratic background, and his brilliance, he hoped to receive protection and patronage. Both were granted.

Pico Joins Savonarola and Pays the Price

Pico, who had undergone a conversion, rejected his former philosophical and esoteric studies and determined to become a monk. He became fast friends with Angelo Poliziano. Both men expressed a growing interest in the preaching of Savonarola. 

In time, they became part of the Frateschi—those who followed Savonarola’s teaching—and, adding a sinister air to the events immediately thereafter, in 1494, both men were murdered, when their support for Savonarola became widely known.

Forensic analyses of their exhumed bodies, by Professor Giorgio Gruppioni in 2003, illustrated that both Pico and Poliziano were almost certainly the victims of arsenic poisoning; poisoning, many have argued, ordered by none other than Piero de’ Medici, Lorenzo’s son and heir, who felt betrayed by his former friends.

This article comes directly from content in the video series How the Medici Shaped the RenaissanceWatch it now, on Wondrium.

The Content of Girolamo Savonarola’s Sermons

By the time of his death in April of 1492, Lorenzo had become a bogeyman of sorts for the common people of Florence—who sided with Savonarola, after he began preaching about Italy’s coming ruin, and Florence’s centrality to his post-apocalyptic vision—if the Florentines would repent. 

Moreover, Savonarola frequently suggested in his sermons that Lorenzo kept the city enthralled with lavish civic celebrations in order to distract and stupefy the Florentine populace into submission. If they were entertained and well-fed, Savonarola argued, the people of Florence were far less likely to realize that their republican freedoms, once codified in Florence’s constitution, were quickly disappearing—and that their religion was being debased.

There are no historical records to indicate that Lorenzo ever attended one of Savonarola’s sermons, but he was kept abreast of their content, including the preacher’s constant prophecies regarding Florence’s choice to repent of its sinfulness—which would lead to its glorification internationally—or to continue its depravity, which would lead to God’s judgment.

Despite Savonarola’s constant haranguing, Lorenzo continued to subsidize San Marco and, therefore, Savonarola’s preaching. So, we must ask—why is it that, in his final days, Lorenzo sought out Savonarola—not for absolution, that had already been granted, but for a final blessing?

Lorenzo’s Final Interactions with Savonarola

We cannot know Lorenzo’s mind at the end of his life. We have Poliziano’s description of his last days to go by. After spending time with Lorenzo in quiet conversation (still surrounded by his weeping family and friends), and with death certainly coming soon, Savonarola arrived. The two men shared a brief exchange, and after Savonarola admonished the dying Medici not to waver in his faith and to live the brief remainder of it in purity, the friar stood to leave. 

But Lorenzo called to him: “Father! Wait! Give me your blessing before you go.” According to Poliziano: “Hanging his head, with a humble expression and an aspect of unqualified piety, he promptly repeated Savonarola’s words and prayers duly and correctly, not moved in the slightest by the grief of his loved ones, so evident that it could no longer be concealed.”

It could be that this scene captures the moment that a client, Savonarola, whose monastery the Medici financed, simply felt obliged to pay his respects to the man who made his work possible. But this seems unlikely at best. Savonarola would not have met with Lorenzo if he did not believe Lorenzo had truly repented.

Even though many scholars have argued that the friar was a political animal who used the power of religious persuasion to wrest control of Florence from the Medici—eventually instituting a theocratic republic—the best, most recent scholarship dedicated to Savonarola has illustrated that he was far less cartoonish than that. He was sincerely devout, thoroughly republican, and beholden to nothing or no one but his conscience and his God.

Common Questions about Girolamo Savonarola and the Medici

Q: Why did Savonarola argue against the notions of Marsilio Ficino and Giovanni Pico della Mirandola?

These two thinkers argued that pagan culture could be fused with Christianity or at least coexist with each other. Girolamo Savonarola argued that mixing Renaissance culture with Christianity would produce a bastard religion.

Q: According to Girolamo Savonarola, what was the reason that Lorenzo de Medici kept citizens well-fed and entertained?

In his sermons, Girolamo Savonarola said that Lorenzo would entertain the city with lavish parties to force citizens into submission by stupefying and distracting them.

Q: Why did Girolamo Savonarola stay when Lorenzo de Medici asked him for a final blessing?

One can’t be certain of the answer. Perhaps, Girolamo Savonarola was just trying to do his job by respecting the wishes of a man who made his work possible. On the other hand, it seems that Savonarola truly believed that Lorenzo had repented in his final days.

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