Looking back: 7th February 1497 – The Bonfire of the Vanities

Today, in 1497: Girolamo Savonarola organised one of the most infamous moments in Renaissance history – the Bonfire of the Vanities. Here’s an old post I wrote on the subject…


Savanarola by Fra Bartolomeo

Giralomo Savonarola is probably one of the most famous people from Renaissance Italy, next to the Borgia and Medici families. He is best known as the preacher who fundamentally ruled Florence with his sermons, and the man who was behind one of the greatest atrocities in Renaissance history: The Bonfire of the Vanities. As a man, Giralomo Savonarola is fascinating and I will be doing a piece on him and his life in more detail soon. Today however, I wanted to do a brief post on the Bonfire of the Vanities – an event in which the supporters of Savonarola piled up all manner of famous works of art, books and fine clothing…and burned the lot.

Painting of Savonarola’s execution, in the same spot where he had started the Bonfire of the Vanities

It was Lent, 1497. Giralomo Savonarola had already been ruling the city of Florence for many years, preaching to the people and almost brainwashing them into believing that their extravagant life’s were sinful. He regularly packed out the Santa Maria del Fiore, famous for it’s massive dome built and finished by Brunelleschi in 1469, where he delivered rousing sermons against the extravagant clothes and art that the Florentine people were famous for.

At the start of Lent Savonarola sent a band of innocents around the city to collect up what he called ‘vanities’. These innocents, known as the ‘blessed innocents’ were groups of children who up until then had walked around the city dressed in robes of purest white and singing the praises of God. They had previously been barred from a number of streets in the city when it became apparent that some Florentine’s didn’t actually support the friar. However this time they had armed guards with them and every vanity that they could get their hands on were piled into a huge pyramid in the middle of the Piazza della Signoria (as seen in the painting above of Savonarola’s eventual execution, but this will be covered in more detail in later posts).

At the very bottom of the pyramid were items such as wigs, false beards, pots of rouge that women used to redden their cheeks and perfumes. On top of that were books that Savonarola and his followers considered to be ‘Pagan’ – these were all important historical works from Greek philosophers, books of poems by Ovid and Petrarch, works by Cicero. Next came paintings, drawings and bust sculptures of subjects considered profane. Included among these were works by the famous Sandro Boticelli, who is said to have been a follower of Savonarola and abandoned his paintings to follow the friar. Next were musical instruments, sculptures and paintings of naked women. And right at the very top of the pyramid were sculptures of Greek Gods and mythical legends. This was then finalised by an effigy of Satan, reigning over these sinful items. It is said that this model of Satan was given the face of a Venetian man who had offered to buy the items for 22,000 florins. This can only hint at the worth of all the items together, and I can only imagine that such works of art were worth much, much more.

The Palazzo Veccio, Florence.

The bonfire was lit on Shrove Tuesday, 7th February. As the entire signoria assembled from the balcony of the Palazzo Veccio, flames began to lick up the pyramid which by now was now over sixty feet high, and the crowds surrounding the massive bonfire singing a Te Deum.

This event divided Florence even more than it already was. The people were turning against Savonarola, and Piero de Medici ended up leaving Florence and heading to Rome where he received the blessing of Pope Alexander VI to lead an army against the city. Yet even as the army approached, the majority of Florentine citizens did not want to return to Medici rule (they had been ousted from the City during the early part of Savonarola’s “rule”). Piero returned to Rome, not as the victor he envisaged.

Savonarola’s reign of religious tyranny (for want of a better word), would start to decline in June 1497 when Pope Alexander VI issued a papal bull excommunicating him from the Roman Catholic church. Yet when Savonarola continued to preach in the Santa Maria del Fiore, the signoria tried to ban him from preaching and riots occasionally broke out.

His reign would not come to an end until 1498 when he was arrested and made to prove that he had a special relationship with God. When he failed he was jailed in the Bargello before being tortured and eventually executed. But that’s for a different post.

For now, all I can do is feel the huge loss of so many works of art lost to Savonarola’s flames. This really was a crime against the art that was created during the renaissance, and from my reading of Savonarola I have to wonder how anyone could condone doing something like that? A crime yes, but certainly a very interesting event in the history of both the fascinating man and the beautiful city of Florence.

Further reading

Donald Weinstein, Savanarola: The Rise and Fall of a Renaissance Prophet.
Lauro Martines, Scourge and Fire: Savanarola and Renaissance Italy
Paul Strathern, The Medici: Godfathers of the Renaissance
Paul Strathern, The Artist, The Philosopher and the Warrior
Paul Strathern, Death In Florence: The Medici, Savanarola and the Battle for the Soul of the Renaissance.
Christopher Hibbert, The Borgias and their Enemies

1 thought on “Looking back: 7th February 1497 – The Bonfire of the Vanities

  1. Thank you very much for putting this together. I am currently researching Boticelli and while I’d heard of the novel, I’d never heard of the Bonfire of the Vanities and was shocked. I am currently reading “The Book Thief” and I could see myself going back and reaching into the flames to rescue those works of art.
    I thought you might like this little story. When I was backpacking through Europe in 1992, I went to the Uffizi and was blown away by the art and bought a print of Botacelli’s Birth of Venus. I don’t think I’d ever seen such a beautiful painting before but was also blown away by the other works there. I was a huge Keats fans back then and loved romantic poetry. So, the Birth of Vu\enus really hit the spot.
    Anyway, brought it back to Sydney and later moved in with my boyfriend who worked in IT and was in the Army Reserve. He couldn’t stand it and dismissed it calling her “the naked woman in a shell”. However, we went out with friends and they gave him a huge dressed down.
    Clearly, he wasn’t a keeper, but we’re still good friends.
    Best wishes,

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