Heroes & Villains: Savonarola - by Sarah Dunant, Novelist & Broadcaster

By Dunant, Sarah | The Independent (London, England), February 7, 2004 | Go to article overview
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Heroes & Villains: Savonarola - by Sarah Dunant, Novelist & Broadcaster


Dunant, Sarah, The Independent (London, England)


IF THE 15th-century Dominican monk Savonarola were alive today, he would probably be encouraged to have a nose job. It doesn't help your historical reputation when you even look like a villain. For Savonarola, though, such a sin of vanity would have been the work of the Devil, and defeating the Devil was what he was put on earth to do.

While I'd always known his name, it took the writing of a novel about the Florentine Renaissance to bring this complex, dramatic, demagogic villain to life. Born in Ferrara, Italy, in his early days he was, apparently, such a bad preacher that dogs would howl at the door of the church in response to his voice. Yet this was the man who was to become the scourge of the Medicis and create a bonfire of Renaissance art.

He arrived in Florence in the 1480s as head of the monastery of San Marco, a favourite retreat for the Medici family, who had richly endowed it. A natural ascetic, Savonarola took one look at the city in all its Renaissance glory and declared it corrupted by the devil: rich clothes, new wealth and the championing of pagan writers and ungodly images. For him, reproducing the beauty of the human body was a short-cut to hell through fleshy temptation, and all those rich Florentines whose portraits were appearing on church walls showed that man was trying to elbow God out of the picture.

Convinced he had God on his side, Savonarola found his voice and an audience. After Lorenzo di Medici's death, his congregation swelled and he had to move into the great cathedral of the Duomo. And when Lorenzo's son proved a political incompetent and the wrath of God that Savonarola had predicted arrived, in the form of an invading French army, he took the city with him.

The government he helped form after they left was a Taliban-like theocracy. Women had to wear veils in public and were refused entry to church. Laws against gambling, music and dancing were introduced and homosexuality, which had been leniently policed in Florence till then, became answerable by mutilation and death.

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