Monday, December 21, 2020

Machiavelli on Savonarola, the Unarmed Prophet

Girolamo Savonarola started his movement for religious purity in the last decade of fifteenth century in Florence, a city-state that had prospered under the rule of the Medici family. Encouraged by the initial response that his sermons received from the Florentines, he was convinced that he could use the peoples anger against the religious and political establishment to acquire power in Florence and rest of Italy. But first he had to drive the Medici out of Florence. To weaken the Medici, Savonarola declared a war on their greatest achievement: art. He declared that the art that the Medici were patronizing—many of which consisted of female and male nudes—was a sign of Florentine decadence and debauchery. His followers started rampaging through houses, museums, and gardens for the debouched art that Savonarola had condemned—the climax of the anti-art movement came on 7 February 1497, a day known as the “bonfire of the vanities”. In the center of Florence, Savonarola’s followers burned works of art, literature, and things like mirrors, cards, dice, musical instruments, luxurious garments, and ornaments. But the “bonfire of the vanities” was to be the climax of Savonarola’s political career—he was excommunicated by the Pope on 12 May 1497 and after that the people of Florence turned against him. He was executed on 23 May 1498. Machiavelli, in chapter six of The Prince, says that Savonarola failed because he was an incompetent, ill-prepared and unarmed prophet, unlike Moses, Cyrus, Theseus, and Romulus. Machiavelli writes: “If Moses, Cyrus, Theseus, and Romulus had been unarmed they could not have enforced their constitutions for long—as happened in our time to Fra Girolamo Savonarola, who was ruined with his new order of things immediately the multitude believed in him no longer, and he had no means of keeping steadfast those who believed or of making the unbelievers to believe.”

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