By William Landon, Northern Kentucky University
The French billeted in Florence for 10 days in 1494, and then moved to Naples. The new Florentine Republic was opened to artisans, and all citizens in good standing were permitted to serve, when elected by lot, to the City’s Grand Council. However, the pro-Medici aristocracy was banned from serving in the Florentine government.
Girolamo Savonarola’s Followers
The Frateschi, the friar’s party, made up the majority of the Florentine government. They were able to turn Girolamo Savonarola’s advice into law.
Florence’s old families, who had, for centuries, viewed themselves as the best and rightful rulers of their city, were shocked by Savonarola’s political revolution. That common rabble should be in control of one of Italy’s great cities appalled them—and it appalled the elites of Italy’s other states, including the papacy.
Guicciardini’s Point of View
Francesco Guicciardini was only 11 years old when Savonarola came to power in 1494, but the memory of his populist revolution was indelibly marked upon the young noble’s memory. In his History of Italy, he wrote:
At the beginning, when popular authority had been established, there had not also been introduced with it those provisions of moderation, which together with guaranteeing liberty by just means, would also prevent the republic from being thrown into disorder by the license and ignorance of the multitude. Therefore, since those citizens of greatest quality and condition were held in less esteem than seemed proper, and since their ambition furthermore was suspect to the populace, and since there often intervened in the midst of important deliberations many people of limited capacity, and since every two months the supreme magistracy, to which was referred the bulk of the most difficult problems was changed, the republic was governed with much confusion.
As Guicciardini noted, there was a good deal of confusion in the popular republic, but that confusion was also indicative of freedom, which few Florentines of low estate had ever experienced before. They had not been raised to be political animals.
Guicciardini, himself of noble birth, believed that Florence’s old families were best suited to run the city, and that the confusion which followed the new-found freedom of Florentine citizens would entice malignant intervention in Florentine affairs. He was right, at least in part.
This article comes directly from content in the video series How the Medici Shaped the Renaissance. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Piero de’ Medici’s Failed Coup
With the support of the papacy, of Siena, and of a number of aristocratic Florentines, Piero de’ Medici, who had been in exile, attempted a coup in 1497. It failed miserably.
Piero fled once again into exile, and the conspirators within Florence were put to death, with the exception of one: Piero’s sister Lucrezia, who was married to Jacopo Salviati—an extremely wealthy Florentine banker and merchant.
The chief minister of the Florentine Republic refused to harm a woman, so Lucrezia and her husband were spared the executioner’s blade. With hindsight, it is realized that sparing Lucrezia was a shocking error.
Savonarola against Pope Alexander VI
In response to the failed Medici coup, and to Pope Alexander VI’s support of it, Savonarola began to castigate the pope from his pulpit. The friar concluded that the pope was completely corrupt and, therefore, that the Church was tainted with his corruption. Again, Savonarola was correct.
Under Alexander VI’s leadership, the Church had reached new levels of secularism, which pulled it further and further away from its apostolic mission.
Pope Takes Action
The pope, who was widely known to be a sexual Olympian and whose mistresses and numerous children were openly paraded and promoted at the Vatican, was also a politician of the highest order. He surmised, astutely, that Florence’s treaties with the Kingdom of France, which had been brokered by Savonarola, meant that restoring equilibrium to Italian politics was almost impossible.
It is important to remember that Pope Alexander VI, while he was still Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia, had been tended to by the young Lorenzo de’ Medici, and both men had resolved to maintain the balance of power—internally, in Italy, and externally, between France and Spain and their competing claims to the Kingdom of Naples.
When Savonarola began preaching against the pope’s open corruption, he provided Alexander with an opportunity to strike. Savonarola was excommunicated, and Florence was once again put under interdict. This had the desired effect.
End of Savonarola
Savonarola began to lose his grip on Florence, and his party’s numbers began to dwindle. This provided the Florentine aristocrats, many of whom had suddenly rediscovered their republican inclinations, to regain substantial amounts of their previous power. Savonarola had gone too far.
His government fell. He was arrested and tortured. Under duress, he was made to confess that all of his prophecies were based upon intelligence that his spies had gathered after having infiltrated the French court (he did not have a spy network), and that he had unjustly condemned the pope and the Church for their corruption (both were condemned correctly).
On April 7, 1498, King Charles VIII of France died, having made a debacle of his Neapolitan expedition. Several weeks later, on May 23, Savonarola was hanged and then burned at the stake, together with two of his closest friars, in the Piazza della Signoria. As the threat of France subsided—for a while—the pope reopened diplomatic ties with Florence, and a new secular government was formed.
Common Questions about the Fall of Girolamo Savonarola
Francesco Guicciardini, himself of noble birth, believed that Florence’s old families were best suited to run the city, and that the confusion which followed the new-found freedom of Florentine citizens would entice malignant intervention in Florentine affairs.
With the support of the papacy, of Siena, and of a number of aristocratic Florentines, Piero de’ Medici, who had been in exile, attempted a coup in 1497. It failed miserably, and Piero fled once again into exile. The conspirators within Florence were put to death.
On May 23, 1498, Girolamo Savonarola was hanged and then burned at the stake, together with two of his closest friars, in the Piazza della Signoria.