The Bonfire of Vanities was not just a particularly snarky novel by Tom Wolfe or the one of the few movie duds starring Tom Hanks which was inspired by the book. It was an event—or more precisely the most famous of a series of events—in Renaissance Italy propagated by elements of the Catholic Church in revulsion against perceived decadence and corruption of the flourishing new culture.
On February 7, 1497, the date of the traditional gay Mardi Gras festival, crowds whipped up by charismatic Dominican Friar Girolamo Savonarola seized and burned thousands of objects like cosmetics, art, and books in Florence, part of a pattern of defiance to the corruptions of the Church and to the Pope himself.
Savonarola can be seen as a forerunner of the Protestant Reformation. Denouncing clerical, abuse of the poor, and the despotic rule of the Medici, he gathered a fanatical following, especially among the educated young with his promises of new civic glory based on virtue and purity.
It was a time of particular turmoil as Charles VIII of France in 1494 invaded Italy in opposition to Pope Alexander VI and his plans to extend Papal influence and control. As the mighty French army neared the city Savonarola entered negotiations with the king while his supporters overthrew the Medici and expelled them from the city proclaiming a republic. He welcomed the French as liberators, defying the direct order of the Pope to join his alliance. The French, for their part, spared the city from sacking and promised to respect the new republic.
Savonarola was, naturally considered a hero by many. But Medici and Papal loyalists remained. To shore up support the Friar staged elaborate public processions and theatrical events both celebrating the new order and promoting purification to earn God’s approval for a New Jerusalem. The celebrated Bon Fire was the highlight of his movement.
No one really knows how many great books, musical instruments, paintings, and statues were consigned to the flames along with ostentatious clothing, cosmetics, mirrors, and personal trifles like playing cards. Some believe the loss to be a cultural catastrophe, while other historians downplay the amount of damage done claiming it was largely symbolic and most fine pieces were either hidden or smuggled out of Florence before the flames could consume them.
Among those caught up in the euphoria of the moment was one of Florence’s leading artists, Sandro Botticelli who had risen to fame painting allegories from classical mythology, most notably his stunning The Birth of Venus with its famous nude on the half-shell. Obviously such themes and sexuality would not be in keeping with Savonarola’s austere piety. The artist had already moved on to more acceptable themes, particularly various renditions of the Virgin Mary. The artists may—or may not—have pitched many of his own paintings on the fire. We do not that for some years he retired from painting all together and was as a result reduced to poverty. He would later, however, recant his allegiance to Savonarola and regain the patronage of the restored Medici.
The French king’s army slice through Italy with little resistance outside of a couple of stubborn cities which paid heavily for their defiance. Just weeks after Savonarola’s party in Florence, Charles reached Naples where he claimed the crown of the state that controlled most of southern Italy. Alarmed by the ease with which Charles had moved, the Pope was able to rally most of the Northern states into the League of Venice. The idea was to cut off Charles return to France with his army and destroy it. The Republic of Florence had little choice but to formally join the alliance, although under Savonarola’s influence, they never actually committed troops to the Papal force.
After a nasty battle in which he lost most of his loot, Charles got his army safely back to France. But he had lost Naples already and once friendly northern cities like Florence were coming back into the Papal orbit.
In May of 1497 the Pope formally excommunicated the Friar and threatened to put the city under interdiction unless they surrendered him. Under pressure from local authorities he withdrew from public preaching and composed a manuscript of justification and a theological reflection, Triumph of the Cross. Unfortunately for him in it he not only claimed to receive visions from God, but hinted that he had been given the power to perform miracles. Big mistake. It left him open to the charge of Heresy.
A rival friar and preacher called on Savonarola to prove his innocence by an ordeal by fire. When another monk and friend volunteered to take the test for him, Savonarola felt he had no choice but to accept the challenge. On April 7 1497 as he prepared to walk through the fire in the first such ordeal in Florence for 400 years, a rainstorm broke out extinguishing the flames. As the burden of proof was on him, the crow took it as a sign that he was guilty. They attacked his convent. Savonarola and two other friars were arrested.
On the morning of May 23, 1498, the three friars were led out into the main square where, before a tribunal of high clerics and government officials, they were condemned as heretics and schismatics, and sentenced to die. They were immediately stripped of their Dominican robes down to thin white shirts. Each ascended to separate gallows on which they her hung with fire burning below them to consume their bodies. Their ashes were scattered in the Arno River to prevent them from becoming relics for stubborn followers.
However his partisans remained active as both a religious and political force until the Medici were restored in Florence and the Republic squashed in 1517.
But Savonarola’s idea lived on. Martin Luther read Triumph of the Cross as did John Calvin. He was very influential in the briefly flourishing Protestant Reform movement which included the scholars like Faustus Socinus and Giorgio Blandrata who were instrumental in introducing anti-trinitarianism and unitarianism into central and eastern Europe.
On the Catholic side, when it was safe to do so the Dominican Order reclaimed Savonarola and recast him as a benevolent and saintly prophet mostly stripped of his political importance and rougher edges. Later Catholic reformers would call him the last hope to “prevent the catastrophe of the Reformation.” And in the 19th Century he would be adopted as a symbol for Italian nationalists and their drive to create a modern nation state.
As for the Bonfire business, well, that has been more controversial. Intellectuals, writers, and artists have looked on it with horror. As such it has often been referenced directly or indirectly in books from George Eliot’s Romola to Margaret Atwood’s works allude to the Bonfire, as in her dystopian novel, The Handmaid’s Tale.
On the other hand, some have found inspiration in Savonarola’s urge to purge. In some ways what we have come to think of as 19th Century American Puritanism, especially the obsessive sexual prudery and zeal at suppression of corrupting influences, might be more rightly called Savonarolaism. Certainly the notorious Anthony Comstock and his Society for the Suppression of Vice are the old Friar's direct heirs.
And so were and are, whether they know it or not—and most assuredly they have not—all of the modern book burners of whatever stripe.