I’ve been spending a lot of time recently researching Girolamo Savonarola recently, for particular reasons that will hopefully be announced soon as well as the fact that the man fascinates me. I don’t really know why he does, as he was the man behind the terrible travesty known as the Bonfire of the Vanities but there is just something about his incredible self belief and his unwavering faith that has really pulled me in. And having just finished Death In Florence by Paul Strathern (review coming over the next few days), whilst I can’t say I really like the man, I can now say I feel incredibly sorry for him and respect the little Dominican friar utterly. But why? As I mentioned previously, his incredible self belief and unwavering faith are partly to do with it but there is also something else. He endured torture bravely and approached his death calmly. If anything, Girolamo Savonarola became a martyr to his supporters in Florence and those who served with him in the Dominican monastery at San Marco. Today, I am going to write about Savonarola’s trial and execution and I will warn you now, it does not make for light reading.
On the 8th April 1498, Fra Girolamo Savonarola was arrested within the church of San Marco, following what can only be described as a siege. The people of Florence had risen up against him following the botched “trial by fire” only a few weeks previously, and the ruling signoria (currently being run by men of the anti-Savonarola faction) had the excuse they were looking for to place the man on trial for treason and heresy. Previously, the city of Florence had hung on to Savonarola’s every word and had believed the prophecies that he had made; he had even taken part in setting up the new government after Piero de Medici was exiled. But now it seemed as though the city was tired of him, and Pope Alexander VI wanted the friar out of his hair for good. Arrested alongside Savonarola were two other Dominican friars – Fra Domenico and Fra Silvestro Maruffi. Savonarola and Domenico were taken first, and Maruffi joined them the next day.
Savonarola and Domenico were placed in irons and marched to the Piazza della Signoria, where they were presented to the Gonfaloniere who asked them both if they still persisted in believing that Savonarola’s words came from God. When they both replied that they did they were taken to separate cells within the palazzo and Savonarola was taken to the tiny room at the top of the tower known as the Alberghettino.
When news reached Pope Alexander VI that Savonarola had been arrested and subject to trial (which by the way was illegal – despite having been excommunicated, as a man of the cloth he should have been tried by the church courts) he was undoubtedly pleased. But he sent a message to Florence demanding that once they were finished with the man, he wanted him sent to Rome so he could be tried and tortured by the church courts. And whilst Alexander lifted the excommunication that he had previously placed on the city, the signoria were reluctant to sent Savonarola away from Florence as he knew intimate details of the goings on of their parliament, and their foreign policy. It would not do for the friar to give away such information that could be used against them.
The diarist Landucci recorded the following about the torture inflicted on Savonarola:
“Fra Girolamo was put to the rack (stappado) three times, and Fra Domenico four times; and Fra Girolamo said: ‘Take me down and I will write you my whole life.'”
It should be noted though that there is no way that we can know how many times he was dropped, there are so many differing numbers given and no actual material evidence. The most quoted is 14, but Savonarola was incredibly frail so it is unlikely he would have been to put up with many drops before he said he would confess. But when he said he would write them his whole life if they stopped torturing, it wasn’t enough for the Signoria – they wanted a confession of his heresy and his treason so they could have him executed. Following the torture, Savonarola admitted that he did not receive prophecies from God and that for all intents and purposes he had made everything up, and he justified his motives for everything he did – he said he wanted credit and he wanted reputation. However, Savonarola undoubtedly believed that he was a prophet and believed that he was receiving visions from God, that he believed he was working for the good of Florence. Was this Savonarola’s way of trying to save himself? At any rate, the answers he gave did not constitute treason, so Ceccone pressed on and on, trying to outwit the friar. Still his answers did not constitute treason.
The Pope was still insisting that Savanarola and the other friars be taken to Rome, and still the Signoria held back on this. But Savonarola’s confession wasn’t enough, and the signoria decided that Savonarola should be tried for a second time although according to reports this did not use any form of torture. On 24th, Savonarola was told to sign his confession, some of which was written himself but other parts were written be Ceccone. The confession told of how he (Savonarola) had lost his faith in God, how he had sinned and how he had lied about his prophecies and visions. As Savonarola was signing his confession, the other friars brought in with him were also being tortured, and the torture faced by Maruffi broke the frail old man and terrified him out of his wits. Domenico however faced his ordeal bravely, and kept singing Savonarola’s praises.
On the 5th May, the Signoria made the decision that Pope Alexander VI could send a papal commission to place the friars on trial in the ecclesiastical manner. They would however not allow the men to be taken to Rome as they believed that the men should be tried and executed in Florence. And so, on 19th May the Papal commission reached Rome and their own trial began the next day.
As the trial began, it became evident that Savonarola had regained much of his previous demeanour and he would obscure the truth from them, but without lying. The commission grew tired of this and demanded that the strappado be brought back out, and when faced with the rope Girolamo fell to the floor and cried out in terror, admitting that he had said what he had previously in fear of being tortured. Now, he was tortured again, despite the fact that the previous strappado sessions had rendered one of his arms useless. It is said that as he faced the prospect of the rope again, he raved and screamed; and in the transcript it is obvious that faced with terror Savonarola told the truth.
After two days of this, the commission retired and the signoria discussed the judgement. And as this was being discussed the commission sent a report to Alexander detailing most of what was said by Savonarola although some of it was kept hidden, likely to try and protect the Pope from what was perceived as great wickedness on Savonarola’s part. And on May 22nd, Savonarola and his fellow friars were given the verdict – the very next day they would be stripped of their church membership and then they would be executed.
The method of execution would be the usual one for heretics – they would be burnt. But it would be slightly different to the burning at the stake normally done for such matters. The men would be hanged, and a fire set beneath their feet. The gallows and pyre was built in the piazza della signoria, on the very spot where the trial by fire was supposed to have taken place just weeks before; the stake was built to look like a cross. The people cried out that Savonarola was going to be crucified, and so the part making it look like a cross was sawn off.
At daybreak on 23rd, the three friars were lead out into the piazza and there were faced with three tribunals. The first stripped them of their membership in the church and removed their vestments. The second was an indulgence granted by Pope Alexander, forgiving them their sins and the third was where they were handed over to the secular authorities who confirmed their fate and then shaved their hair and beards. The men were then lead along the wooden walkway towards the gallows. Silvestro was the first man who was taken up and there the rope was placed around his neck and he was pushed off the ladder. The rope however was too short and not tight enough, so Silvestro dangled, slowly being strangled and repeating “Jesu” over and over again. This was of course done on purpose so that he and his fellow condemned would be able to feel the pain once the flames were lit. Domenico was next, and he went to the gibbet with a smile on his face, seemingly glad to meet his maker. Savonarola went last – he did not speak to the crowds and only muttered to himself as he walked towards his death – he did not say a word about his guilt or even his innocence – and then he too was hanged, though allowed to suffer slowly before the flames were lit. As the kindling beneath the gallows was lit, the fire spread very quickly and a wind blew, making the arm of Savonarola rise in the draft and look as if he were blessing those in attendance. Then the wind dropped again, and the flames turned into an inferno. Stones were thrown at the bodies as they burnt, making arms and legs drop into the flames, and guards surrounded the fire so that those present could not pick up anything that could be used as a relic. To make doubly sure that nothing would be left, as only the burning torsoes of the men remained, the gibbet was pushed into the flames.
Once the fire was out, the ashes were shovelled into a cart and taken to the Ponte Vecchio. There the ashes were tossed into the River Arno so that nothing would remain behind.
Paul Strathern – Death In Florence
Paul Strathern – The Medici
Desmond Seward – The Burning of the Vanities
Lauro Martines – Scourge and Fire: Savonarola and Renaissance Italy
Lauro Martines – Fire in the City: Savonarola and the Struggle for Renaissance Florence