7th February 1497 – The Burning of the Vanities


Fra Girolamo Savonarola by Fra Bartolomeo: c.1498

The Burning of the Vanities is an event in Renaissance history that often has historians cringing – so many beautiful pieces of art and precious books were lost on a giant pyre that was constructed within the Piazza della Signoria and set alight on 7th February 1497, Shrove Tuesday. Following on from the expulsion of the Medici, Florence was once more a Republic – yet it was, for all intents and purposes, ruled by one man. A simple Dominican friar dressed all in black named Girolamo Savonarola. His sermons packed out the Santa Maria del Fiore, the citizens believed him to be a prophet sent from God and he believed that he could turn Florence into a Holy City. The Burning of the Vanities was a major event in Savonarola’s short time as the ‘head’ of Florence, an event set amidst a complicated political backdrop.

In the run up to the Burning of the Vanities, events within Italy had set the Florentine citizens ill at ease. Ludovico “Il Moro” Sforza had tried to darken Savonarola’s name to the Council by showing them forged letters. Letters that “invited” Charles VIII of France to invade. Sforza complained to the Signoria about the Dominican friar who had, for all intents and purposes, become the leader of Florence in place of the Medici. Sforza wanted the friar out of power and as such, made up lies – the Archbishop of Aix was a secret supporter to the Duke of Orleans, wanting him on the throne instead of Charles. As well as this, the said Archbishop absolutely detested Savonarola. Although this wasn’t entirely true (the relationship between the two men wasn’t wonderful but they weren’t particularly enemies), the moment the Archbishop read the letter he went on a tirade against the Dominican friar. According to him, Savonarola was running Florence into ruin. Savonarola, of course, denied writing the letters. Yet these forgeries were one of the first steps towards the Friar’s ultimate downfall – a seed had been planted and more enemies were slowly starting to crawl out of the woodwork.

Savonarola had constantly spoken about the coming of a “New Cyrus” to Italy, a saviour who would help cleanse the country of the corruption of the Church of Rome and return things to how they should be. Charles VIII was Savonarola’s Cyrus – but when Charles’ three year old son died in the October of 1496, Charles’ planned invasion of Italy was cancelled. Cyrus wasn’t coming and Florence was left alone to defend against any sort of attack. The defence of Pisa had been a complete disaster leading on to famine and plague – the Florentine’s were completely isolated. And the people began to suspect that Girolamo Savonarola wasn’t the prophet they had so originally believed.

As war raged and famine overtook the city, the people begged for divine intervention. They marched along the streets of Florence with the veiled painting of the Madonna dell Impruneta, imploring her to save them from famine as she had done for so many years before. And as they marched, a messenger rode up with the news that French ships had finally arrived in Livorno carrying corn and soldiers to help in the war efforts. And then, on 16th November, a strong gale sank the Venetian fleet. Victory, it seemed, was in the Florentine’s grasp and things were finally looking up. But still there were forces at work that tried to isolate Florence and the friar – Rome sent demands that the friaries within Florence join a Tusan-Roman congregation. This threatened the independence of Savonarola and his entire congregation.

Florence and her people were therefore downcast by the time carnivale came around in 1497. Normally a time for celebration, the people saw little need to celebrate when their lives had been so affected in the past months. War and famine had broken them down and, whilst the Florentine government had done their best to hand out free grain to the poor, people within the crowds were trampled and killed in the rush for food. The citizens needed something to cheer them up, and Savonarola had the perfect idea.What better way to cheer up an unhappy populace than a massive bonfire?

Shrove Tuesday, the day chosen by Savonarola, was normally marked with a bonfire but this one would be different. The friar sent out his band of children to collect up what he called ‘vanities’, that is to say any instrument of vice or evil – the fanciulli went from house to house collecting up items such as paintings, lewd books, naked statues and playing cards. Nothing was safe if it was considered to be a vice – books by great authors and poets were collected up including works by Ovid (the themes within his poems were seen as heretical), paintings that failed to show religious themes or made the Virgin Mary seem like a whore were also collected to be consigned to the flames. It is said that Sandro Boticelli, once of the greatest artists of the Renaissance, willingly handed over his works.

The pyre within the Piazza della Signoria was constructed into a pyramid shape, with items collected by the boys placed upon it in order of how ‘evil’ they were. The lower tiers were made up of wigs whilst the more profane items were consigned to the top, beneath an image of the devil. Whilst a Venetian merchant offered to pay an extortionate sum of money to save the items from the flames, there was nothing that could be done to save them. Some of the most beautiful pieces of art and illuminated manuscripts went up in flames.

Whilst the bonfire was constructed for the enjoyment of the citizens after a particularly rough time, the message that the bonfire sent out was clear. Girolamo Savonarola would not tolerate any sort of vice within his “City of God”. Whilst he did not disapprove of paintings per se, he disapproved of much of the subject matter of the period. Anything that took away from the message of Christ was totally inappropriate and would, like those who committed the vice of sodomy, go up in flames.

Further Reading

Desmond Seward, The Burning of the Vanities: Savonarola and the Borgia Pope

Paul Strathern, Death In Florence: The Medici, Savonarola and the Battle for the Soul of the Renaissance City

Luca Landucci, Diario Fiorentino

Jacob Burckhardt, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy

Lauro Martines, Scourge and Fire: Savonarola and Renaissance Italy

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