Fire in the City – Savonarola and the Struggle of the Soul of Renaissance Florence
Lauro Martines -2006 – Oxford
This short book is very interesting political study and demonstrates the interrelationship between religion and politics prior to the separation of church and state in today’s western society. The events under discussion at least partially form the basis for Machiavelli’s writings.
If you are like myself, the picture I have had of Savonarola from his being mentioned in other readings is that of a pious & dangerous demagogue that used the religious beliefs of his time to persecute the people with “the fire of the vanities’ without any more reason that his own particular prejudices. According to Martines this is not the full story but more of the type of history written by the victors.
The main period covered is from 1490 – 1500. The political action starts with the French King Charles the VII entering the city and Piero Medici being overthrown and exiled. Florence also lost control of Pisa due to Charles’s invasion of Italy. Charles soon left Florence as his goal was the capture of Naples and Rome and Florence was technically allied with his at this point.
This created a political opening in Florence, with a conflict between the remaining Medici elite and an older tradition of middleclass tradesmen governing through councils they participated in represented their interests. It was into this opening that Savonarola stepped, using his position as a Dominican Friar to provide a set of ideals to the tradesmen. These ideals came at the price of a much stricter morality. Savonarola saw the gaudy self-indulgence of the both the upper business and the religious elites of the day as a denial of charity to the poor. His political stance however that the New Republic and the Great Council founded on the broad participation of citizens (in terms of his day this did not include the laboring poor) were sent by God.
(Savonarola also opposed the rule of mass meeting of the residents of Florence in the city square that were used by the Medici to support their rule recognizing that a handful of agitators well versed in crowd psychology did not lead to sound decisions.)
Savonarola was eventually defeated and executed by his opponents due to several factors; chief among them was opposition from the Pope and the other Italian city-states who were opposed to and under attack by Charles VIII; and the gamblers, partiers, etc. who were tried of what we call today his puritan morality.
I am going to end this by giving two quotes from the book, the first on the general study of history:
“It follows that the one thing we should not do to the men and women of past time, and particularly if they ghost through to us as larger than life, is to take them out of their historical contexts. To do so is to run the risk of turning them into monsters, whom we can then denounce for our own ( frequently political) motives – an insidious game, because we are condemning in their make-up that which is likely to belong to a whole social world, the world that fashioned them and that is deviously reflected or distorted in them. Censure of this sort is the work of petty moralists and propagandists, not historians.”
And the last two sentences of the study; something I believe all us non-religious should keep in mind when looking at today’s world as well.
“When, however, political power is irresponsible and spurns being accountable, or when it passes into the hands of ruthless elites, it opens the way for those who contend that they speak for justice, morality and God. And we must be prepared to read and study such contenders, not because they speak for, God, but because they are likely to be saying something significant about current politics.”
I’ll give the book a solid B.