Girolamo Savonarola in the Modern Media


As part of the launch for “Girolamo Savonarola: The Renaissance Preacher“, I thought I’d do a few posts in and around the infamous Dominican friar who took Florence by storm. As well as the multitude of books surrounding Florence at the time, telling us his story amidst the political turmoil of the time and the wonderful art that was encouraged by the Medici family, Girolamo Savonarola has had a starring role in a few recent television adaptations of the period.

Many of you will have seen Showtime’s series ‘The Borgias’ and many of you will have seen Canal +’s series ‘Borgia: Faith & Fear’ – within both of these series, Girolamo Savonarola has a central role in the storyline. How accurate are these representations?


Stephen Birkoff as Savonarola

In Showtime’s ‘The Borgias’, Savonarola is played by Stephen Berkoff and I have to admit he really does look like the Savonarola seen in the portraits. He has the cold eyes and the hooked nose – not only that but in the scenes where Berkoff preaches, he has the booming and thunderous voice described by those who saw the friar preach. However, despite Berkoff pulling off Savonarola, the show made some HUGE mistakes particularly in regards to the Bonfire of the Vanities, the trial by fire and Savonarola’s execution.

We know from the sources that the Bonfire of the Vanities, the main one at least, happened in the Piazza della Signoria. A huge pyramid of vanities was built up and set aflame in the square in front of what is now known at the Palazzo Vecchio. In ‘The Borgias’, we are shown the bonfire taking place in front of the Santa Maria del Fiore. In the same vein, we are also shown Savonrola’s trial by fire taking place in the same spot – with Savonarola himself walking through the flames, his robes catching alight. This did not happen. Two other friars took the place of those supposed to walk through the fire and even then did not complete the trial – instead, after hours and hours of arguing and waiting about, a rainstorm made it so the trial had to be called off. As for his execution, we see it taking place in Rome in front of Pope Alexander – Savonarola was in fact executed in the Piazza della Signoria along with two other friars. The Pope remained in Rome whilst the execution was carried out with his blessing.

Episode 210

Savonarola’s execution in Showtime’s ‘The Borgias’

Savonarola’s death also came about through the method of hanging first and then his body being burned. In ‘The Borgias’, we see the friar simply tied to a stake and burned.

The show makes out that Savonarola’s execution came about simply because the Pope wanted it, but this is far from the case. Savonarola had been popular within Florence – his defiance of Papal orders even went as far as ignoring his excommunication which the people seemed to love. Yet, having been one of the driving forces behind the expulsion of the Medici and their ‘tyrannical’ ways, the people soon turned on him, seeing their friar as a tyrant in his own right. Not only did the Pope want Savonarola, a thorn in his side who so wholeheartedly believed that he was the voice of God, gone but the people wanted him gone also.


Iain Glenn as Savonarola

In ‘Borgia: Faith & Fear’, Girolamo Savonarola is played by Iain Glenn of ‘Game of Thrones’ fame. Now, Iain Glenn looks nothing like the hook nosed friar immortalised in the portraits however in this instance it really seems as if the looks don’t matter. Within this series there is much more accuracy to the story, despite the fact that there are still some rather huge mistakes – Glenn is a phenomenal actor and in his role as Savonarola there is feeling. The sermons delivered in the show truly make your hair stand on end and you can literally feel the hatred of the Church’s vices rolling from Glenn’s portrayal. Accuracy wise, whilst watching this show, I was very pleased to see how well the Siege of San Marco was done following the botched trial by fire. Not only that but we see the horrendous torture of the frate in the days leading up to his execution. Whilst it is overseen by Cesare Borgia, a rather large inaccuracy in itself, we are shown how Savonarola was subjected over and over again to the strappado in order to extract a ‘confession’. We know, historically, that Cesare was not anywhere near Florence at the time of Savonarola’s torture, nor was he there at Savonarola’s execution.

In ‘Borgia’, Savonarola’s execution is shown as taking place in front of the Santa Maria del Fiore. The execution actually took place upon an elaborate stage before the Palazzo della Signoria (Palazzo Vecchio).


Savonarola’s execution in ‘Borgia: Faith & Fear’

However, despite the fact that the series has Cesare and Cardinal Farnese in attendance, they had his method of execution correct. The friar was hung alongside two of his fellow Dominicans and then his body burned. His ashes were then scooped up and thrown unceremoniously in the River Arno. The execution scene, despite being incredibly harrowing, was beautifully done.

Whilst both series’ made mistakes in the historical accuracy of Savonarola’s life, both portrayals have their pluses and minuses. Berkoff looks much more like the Savonarola of the portraits and his version of the infamous friar was fantastically done. I found myself believing that I was seeing Savonarola preaching within the Santa Maria del Fiore. However to see the friar sent to Rome for his execution after a trial by fire that didn’t actually happen was incredibly disappointing. Glenn’s portrayal seemed to have much more feeling to it – the sermons were delivered with a fire that only a phenomenal actor of Glenn’s stature could deliver and, as an historian of this era with a specialist interest in Girolamo Savonarola, I was pleased to see that the show stuck as much as it could to the historical fact whilst still making it interesting enough for a historical drama.

All in all, both actors do the frate justice in their own way. But personally I will always prefer Iain Glenn as Savonarola over Stephen Berkoff. Glenn’s portrayal just seemed that much more believable to me, and I would recommend ‘Borgia: Faith & Fear’ to anyone looking for a good series on this era of the Italian Renaissance.

My new book ‘Girolamo Savonarola: The Renaissance Preacher’ is available here.

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Launch day & a GIVEAWAY!


The day is finally here! After months and months of hard work along with a trip to Florence, Girolamo Savonarola: The Renaissance Preacher has been unleashed upon the world.

In celebration of launch day, I’m running a giveaway over on the facebook page. All you have to do to be in with a chance of winning is:

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The winner will be announced on Sunday 13th August, maybe via facebook live or periscope.

Girolamo Savonarola: The Renaissance Preacher is available in paperback and on kindle here.

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[Review] Julian of Norwich: A Very Brief History by Janina Ramirez

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Over six hundred years ago a woman known as Julian of Norwich wrote what is now regarded as one of the greatest works of literature in English. Based on a sequence of mystical visions she received in 1373, her book is called Revelations of Divine Love.

Julian lived through an age of political and religious turmoil, as well as through the misery of the Black Death, and her writing engages with timeless questions about life, love and the meaning of suffering. But who was Julian of Norwich? And what can she teach us today?

Medievalist and TV historian Janina Ramirez invites you to join her in exploring Julian’s remarkable life and times, offering insights into how and why her writing has survived, and what we can learn from this fourteenth-century mystic whose work lay hidden in the shadows of her male contemporaries for far too long

This little book, a brief history of the Anchoress Julian of Norwich, is an utter delight. Dr Janina Ramirez takes us through a study of Julian’s life in her little cell and the book that she wrote whilst locked away from the world.

It really is a brief history at just over 80 pages but every page is full of knowledge. Ramirez writes with passion and it truly seeps through in her words, just as her enthusiasm for Julian came through in her recent television documentary.

The book is in sections with a short study of each topic – there’s sections on Julian’s life and then sections on her wonderful book “Revelations of Divine Love” which go into the meaning, the philosophy etc. Whilst there isn’t all that much information on Julian’s life before she was locked away, Ramirez takes us through the possibilities of who she could have been by dissecting “Revelations of Divine Love” – she could well have been a mother, given the way she writes. Was she a member of the nobility beforehand? Ramirez examines that by looking at records of those in Norwich who have the name Julian, coming to the conclusion that Julian of Norwich probably was this person in the records.

This little book is full of fascinating facts as well as scholarly study. It is an utter delight to read and is a book I will certainly be coming back to.

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Borgia inspired Ink

If any of you follow me on twitter I’m sure you’ve seen my tagline “Tattooed Renaissance Historian” – and that’s for good reason! I have a fair few tattoos, a couple of which are inspired by my very favourite Italian Renaissance family!

Today is my 29th birthday. I’ve been waiting for a while to get my next Borgia inspired tattoo but I though “why not get it on my birthday?” – so, I booked the appointment and off I toddled to the local tattoo artist.

And here is the final result:


Isn’t it just stunning?! As I’m sure you’re all aware I already have Cesare’s motto tattooed on my arm, but I wanted something else. And for the longest time the Borgia coat of arms has been in my head. I took the idea in to my local tattoo artist and he had a play with a few ideas until he came up with the above design. And I couldn’t be happier.

Do any of you guys have any historically inspired tattoos? Comment below or over on the facebook page!

For now, I shall be drinking red wine and eating Red Velvet Cake in celebration of being old!

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The Renaissance Preacher – Preorder NOW!


My second book “Girolamo Savonarola: The Renaissance Preacher” is coming on 8th August 2017. And it’s available to preorder NOW! Get your copy here.

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