Death in Florence: The Medici, Savonarola and the Battle for the Soul of the Renaissance City, by Paul Strathern, Jonathan Cape, RRP£25, 428 pages
Founded in 1397 in Florence, the Medici Bank operated rather like a Mafia consortium, eliminating rivals and infiltrating local power elites. The dynasty was at its most powerful under Lorenzo de’ Medici (“The Magnificent”), a merchant-poet celebrated for both his financial nous and verse in praise of falconry. Following his death in 1492, the dynasty went downhill and eventually fizzled out with Cosimo III, who reigned over the Duchy of Tuscany until he died in 1720. Under this sanctimonious man, all nude Renaissance statues were removed from the streets and Michelangelo’s “David” concealed beneath a tarpaulin. Thus the supreme symbol of Medicean Florence became, in Cosimo’s stern morality, a shamefully vulgar thing.
During the 15th century, the firebrand Dominican friar and church reformer Girolamo Savonarola had also sought to purge the Tuscan city of “sin”. Florence, in the priest’s view, was a sham republic ruled by a banker-tyrant. From his grandfather Cosimo de’ Medici, Lorenzo had learnt the Florentine art of power-broking and how banking might consolidate Medici power. In 1478, however, the Pazzi Conspiracy had dared to challenge his supremacy. Amid a fury of dagger blows, Lorenzo narrowly escaped assassination in Florence cathedral. Retribution was brutal. On Lorenzo’s command, Pazzi family members were torn alive from groin to neck, and their widows banished to convents. In Mafia parlance this was a regolamento dei conti, or “balancing of accounts”.
In his sermons, Savonarola fulminated against the political violence, financial malpractice and sexual “depredations” of Florence. The city’s reputation as a sodomitical hotbed especially exercised him. Much of the greatest art patronised by the Medici (the proudly blatant musculature of Michelangelo’s “David”) was unabashedly homoerotic. A German slang dictionary of the time defined a “Florenzer” as a “buggerer”.
How could the city that gave us Botticelli and Cellini have been so corrupt? The Victorians who toured the Uffizi with copies of Walter Pater did not concern themselves with the city’s blood-soaked past. Yet according to Paul Strathern, a Dublin-based historian and novelist, the glittering birthplace of the Renaissance was as much concerned with power as with art. In Death in Florence, his riveting account of Savonarola and the Renaissance, he does not spare us any horror. Having ruled despotically for two decades, Lorenzo de’ Medici turned Florence into a virtual police state, where rivals were liquidated in a Mafia-style vendetta or else publicly disembowelled. Like a biblical prophet, Savonarola saw himself as a chastiser of the wicked come to cauterise the human heart of sin. Often, he advocated violence (even if only symbolic violence) as a vehicle of deliverance. “I am the hailstorm that shall smash the heads of those who do not take cover,” he typically announced.
Yet, as Strathern shows, the Ferrara-born priest was playing with fire. His own Dominican order was under Medici patronage; to attack his patrons on moral grounds was manifestly dangerous. Still many thousands supported Savonarola. Among his acolytes were impressionable young men who felt alienated by the money-making and power-broking of the Medicean Renaissance. As a token of their loyalty they routinely gathered up piles of “heretical” books, paintings and sculptures and set them ablaze in a giant “bonfire of the vanities”. These bonfires were symbolic of Savonarola’s own endeavour to purge Florence of the “filth of Mammon”.
Banking was, to a large extent, an Italian invention (the English term derives from the Italian banco, meaning “counter”). In his sermons, Savonarola called the wrath of God down on his merchant patrons. His absolutist Christianity, with its blood-and-brimstone vision of man’s redemption, sought to transform Florence into a new Jerusalem, purified of financial and sexual sin. His intransigence riled not just members of the Medici clan, but Renaissance humanist thinkers such as Marsilio Ficino, a Platonist, who condemned the “antichrist” and “false prophet” Savonarola. An attempt was made to blow him up during one of his sermons; it failed. Many thought him invincible. His sermons continued to radiate a fierce, pre-Reformation Catholicism: blessed are the poor, for they are exempt from the unholy Trinity of materialism, rationalism and property.
In spite of his spiritual ferocity, Savonarola was in some ways a curiously modern personality. A republican at heart, he sought to rid the Medicis of their monarchical pretensions (Lorenzo de’ Medici secretly referred to himself as Lorenzo Rex Medici) and bring democracy to Florence. Ultimately, though, his republicanism was less modern than medieval in its fundamentalist Christianity. When, in 1497, Savonarola sought to challenge the authority of papal Rome, he was excommunicated and burned in Florence as a heretic. His death-by-fire took place in Piazza della Signoria, soon to be the home of Michelangelo’s “David”. After his immolation, his ashes were tipped into the Arno so that nothing of him could be salvaged as a relic. All this happened more than 500 years ago, yet Death in Florence brings the history vividly and unforgettably to life. Though several books have appeared on Savonarola in the 21st century alone (one of the best, April Blood, was by the Renaissance historian Lauro Martines), Strathern combines diligent archival research with an exemplary narrative verve, and keeps the pages turning.
Ian Thomson is author of ‘The Dead Yard: A Story of Modern Jamaica’ (Faber)