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?
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.
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.
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).
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.