Monday, December 21, 2020

Machiavelli on Savonarola, the Unarmed Prophet

In the 1490s, Girolamo Savonarola launched his movement for religious purity in Florence, a city-state that had prospered under the rule of the Medici family. From the enthusiastic response that his sermons received from the Florentines, Savonarola was convinced that he could mobilize the masses and capture power in Florence and the rest of Italy. The first part of his plan was 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—these works of art included female and male nudes—was a sign of Florentine decadence and debauchery. His followers started rampaging through the mansions, museums, and gardens to find and destroy the debauched 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”. On this day, 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” proved to be the climax of Savonarola’s political career. He was excommunicated by the Pope on 12 May 1497. Being excommunicated, he lost his credibility and the Florentines turned against him. He was executed on 23 May 1498.

In chapter six of his book, The Prince, Machiavelli notes that Savonarola failed because he was an unarmed prophet, unlike Moses, Cyrus, Theseus, and Romulus who were armed. 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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