While Charles’s occupation of the city cost little in terms of life or material, it struck a mortal blow to Florence’s political prestige. The Signoria had shown itself incapable of effectively governing (and indeed protecting) the city. And where the government failed, people turned to God. Savonarola’s sermons, shouted from the pulpit of Florence’s Duomo, were attended by up to 14,000 people; the city’s populace spilling out the Cathedral doors so that, even if they couldn’t see the crucifix-wielding cleric, they could at least hear his message.
His message was clear: the Medici had failed, along with all their empty, godless materialism they had poured into the city. He wanted to make Florence the “City of God”, the city at the center of Italy’s much-needed purification. The only path to righteousness, he preached, was the rejection of material wealth. Let the rich give to the poor, let the churches be stripped of their excessive wealth and let all live in strict observation of God’s laws. This message was put into practice towards the beginning of Lent 1497 with an event known as the “Bonfire of the Vanities.”
Savonarola sent his “bands of innocents” (groups of children clad in white) around the city with posses of armed guards. They had been ordered to gather every valuable item they could find and bring them to the Piazza Della Signoria. These valuables were thrown onto an enormous pyramid and burnt: Wigs, clothes, perfumes, ancient pagan texts, paintings, statues, and busts, all piled beneath an effigy of Satan. It was a joyous moment for Savonarola. But little could he have known that the piazza would soon be the site of another public burning: one in which he would play a much more central part.
The Demise of Savonarola
Though Savonarola may have been the de facto ruler of the city, his position was never secure. He had alienated Pope Alexander VI by refusing to join other Italian states in rebellion against Charles VIII (whom Savonarola still regarded an instrument of God) after the French king finally took Naples. True, Savonarola may have won over vast swathes of Florence’s population, including artists such as Botticelli and even the ageing Michelangelo. But the man at the head of the “City of God” also faced opposition from commoners, nobles, and rival religious sects.
In late May 1498, there was a farcical episode in which a group of Franciscan friars, fiercely loyal to the pope, challenged Savonarola to prove his divine favor by walking on fire. If he emerged unscathed from the ordeal, he could continue to rule the city. The Franciscans even put forward one of their own, particularly radical friars to challenge him (though Savonarola refused to take up the challenge, instead of leaving it to his fervent disciple Domenico da Pescia). On the appointed day, however, as crowds gathered from across the city to witness this bizarre, archaic spectacle, the heavens opened, and in the lashing rain the event was called off.