History Books

 The Problem of Savonarola

Lauro Martines: Fire in the City: Savonarola and the Struggle for the Soul of Renaissance Florence (Oxford, 2007)

Anthropomorphizing - attributing human feelings and desires to non-human beings or things - is one of our species' abiding weaknesses. It is an untutored kind of imagination; indeed, what we call "imagination" when we speak of the arts and sciences is really a kind of anti-imagination, a checking of the naive impulse to attribute one's own thoughts to others. Truly creative imagination must overcome the urge to project oneself onto the world. And nowhere is it more difficult to practice than in the field of history, where the anthropomorphizing that must be resisted is the attribution of modern ideas to pre-modern minds.

This is easy enough where externals are concerned. It's almost fun to imagine what it was like to live without knowledge of the New World, not to mention the internal combustion engine. When we try to recreate states of mind, however, we run into the terrible problem of unknowing. This is a problem that historians have only recently begun to grapple with. Read Gibbon or Hume, for example, and you will discover that they attribute their own mentalities to Byzantines and Plantagenets alike, accounting for any obvious incongruities by referring to such fudge factors as "the backwardness of the times."

Pre-modern men knew perfectly well that the mind was capable of deviousness, and they knew that certain passions could produce delusions, but they believed, as Aristotle was no doubt not the first to believe, that man is fundamentally rational, capable of taking reliable inventory of his interests, at least under calm circumstances. They would have stoutly resisted the idea that the mind itself is fundamentally self-serving, endless inventive at rationalization and re-interpretation. And because they would not have been able to accept that proposition if it had been made, they did not see their own rationalizations and re-interpretations for what they were. In another person, these might be weaknesses, but they simply didn't occur in oneself. Their vanity was protected by a staunch world-view that only the senseless slaughter of modern war could shake.

In the pre-modern model of consciousness, such as it was, we all want what is good - God and personal salvation - but because of our half-animal nature we also have many weaknesses. Different people have different weaknesses, but everybody knows that weaknesses are weaknesses and in that sense capable of being rounded up and vilified. There is the weakness for luxury so pestilential in women, and the weakness for power so common in noble men.

This makes judging pre-modern minds very difficult for us. If they'd known what we know - about psychology, for starters ... but they didn't. There were all sorts of mental tools that they lacked, concepts that would be invented in centuries to come, most notably in the heat of the Reformation, a movement that after much pain and suffering bore the fruit of civil tolerance (a fruit that has still not entirely ripened): we all want different things, and there's nothing irrational about that. That's one truth that has to be unlearned if we are going to enter into the fracas of Florentine political life after 1494, the year in which Piero de' Medici was ousted because he had formed a ruinous and expensive alliance with Charles VIII of France.

When Girolamo Savonarola started preaching his "Haggai" sermons in the Advent of 1494 - a moment of humiliation and renewal for Florence - he was calling on Florentines to abandon their individualizing weaknesses and forge a republic of virtue with their universal good nature. Presenting himself in the role of a biblical prophet, he castigated not only the exiled Medici but the ecclesiastical establishment as well. That much we know - we have the sermons. But what actually happened in Florence during the next three years? How did Savonarola come to be burned at the stake, with two disciples, in May 1498, after having seemed to rule Florence from the pulpit of the Duomo and the recesses of the Dominican convent of San Marco?

Determining "what really happened" is not too hard if we confine our search to recorded events. That's an unsatisfying limitation, however, because we know that much of what was recorded was ceremonial in nature. For decades before the 1494 debacle, the Signoria had reconstituted itself every two months, and all the forms of Republican government had been scrupulously observed. But Florence had been governed by the beneficent tyranny of Cosimo and then Lorenzo de' Medici, and the actions taken by these men to maintain and assert their power can only, in many instances, be discovered by inference. Scrupulous records of things that ought not to have happened were not maintained. Because Medici power was secure for so long, however, it's not terribly difficult to read between the lines. But Piero's exile in 1494 not only tossed the scepter of power into fractious play but removed a powerful historical tool. Without the Medici tyranny, we no longer know quite how to "correct for" the distortions in the documentary evidence.

Although the spirit of modern critical thinking first struck flame in the 1450's, when Lorenzo Valla exposed the Donation of Constantine as a fake on philological grounds - showing that it couldn't have been written in the Fourth Century - it was still the case at the end of the century that men wrote down what they were supposed to be thinking and doing. If they were thinking and doing other things, those things were weaknesses, and not worthy of being recorded. This is what is meant by the term "pious fraud." It means, among other things, that we are not going to find any Florentine diaries that tell us what anybody was thinking. Common prudence was an inhibiting factor, of course, but so was the preciousness of paper. Diaries had yet to be invented. People simply didn't regard their inner mental lives as of any interest, even to themselves. Another thing for us to un-learn.

So it is necessary for extremely diligent scholars to assess what evidence there is and then to tell us which conclusions can be drawn and which cannot. This service has been provided in the tumultuous case of Savonarolan Florence by Laura Martines, whose Fire in the City: Savonarola and the Struggle for the Soul of Renaissance Florence (Oxford, 2006) patiently walks us through what is known and what it means, while brushing off the hasty but anachronistic conclusions that past historians (and popularizers) have drawn from self-serving and retrospective sources. It is all too easy to link Savonarola to the great modern purifiers, Robespierre and Lenin.

Precisely because the details are everything in this affair, I am not going to attempt a summary; Mr Martines's book is in any case too elegantly entertaining for anyone to resist it. I have written this page more as a meditation on the vital historiographic pointers that Mr Martines taught me in his book about the Pazzi Conspiracy, and of which I reminded by the new book, which tackles a subject that's far better known of. In fact, it's probably not generally any better understood. We tend to read things into the Savonarolan republic that simply weren't there. Mr Martines, for example, finds no evidence that the Dominican ever so much as attempted to work the levers of Florentine government directly. He had a vision for Florence - and preaching it seems to have been enough to motivate support. As it happened, Savonarola was also a precursor of the Reformers; many of his charges against Rome would be repeated by Luther. But Savonarola was not Luther; he was a prophet out of the Old Testament. What might have doomed him was the attempt to revive a kind of public scourging that the newly robust political powers of the Fifteenth Century could not accommodate. Savonarola may have been an anachronism who came to look to us like a man of the future. (February 2007)

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