Burning Ambition in Renaissance Florence: The Life and Death of Girolamo Savonarola
Burning Ambition in Renaissance Florence: The Life and Death of Girolamo Savonarola

Burning Ambition in Renaissance Florence: The Life and Death of Girolamo Savonarola

Alexander Meddings - November 1, 2017

Burning Ambition in Renaissance Florence: The Life and Death of Girolamo Savonarola
The strappado involved the victim’s hands being tied behind their back, them being lifted by a pulley and then dropped (almost) to the floor. The jolt was agonising and could sometimes rip arms from sockets. Wikinut

Things finally came to a head for Savonarola the day after the failed ordeal by fire. It was Palm Sunday, and one of his disciples snuck out of the monastery of San Marco to deliver a sermon. It wasn’t well-received, however, and he was chased back to the monastery by an angry mob. The mob camped outside the monastery where Savonarola was praying, swelling in size during the course of the day. Before long they resorted to trying to enter the monastery using ladders and grappling hooks. Savonarola implored his brothers not to resist, but it was no good.

They pushed down ladders, threw down grappling hooks, and one German priest even fired a medieval blunderbuss into the crowd. This only fanned the flames of the mob, and before long they managed to break down the door of the monastery. Finding Savonarola inside, deep in prayer, they dragged him outside and forced him through spitting, jeering crowds all the way to the Palazzo della Signoria. There his feet were bound together and he was consigned to the palace’s prisons, awaiting his trial by torture the next day.

The next morning Savonarola was carried to the city’s notorious prison, the Bargello. There he was subjected to the agonizing torture technique known as strappado. The prior endured four drops from the torture device before cracking and confessing to all heresies he was accused of. But once he’d composed himself, he withdrew his confession. Hoisted back up on the torture device, he was dropped several more times before he ultimately confessed. Being a priest, he could be condemned to death only by an ecclesiastic tribunal. Unfortunately for Savonarola, he had incurred the hatred of Pope Alexander VI who duly arranged for this.

Burning Ambition in Renaissance Florence: The Life and Death of Girolamo Savonarola
The plaque at the bottom of the photo marks the spot where Savonarola and his disciples were executed. Interzone

Girolamo Savonarola was executed along with two of his disciples on May 23, 1498. It was a particularly gruesome affair. The three men were hanged in the center of the piazza to the jeers of a huge crowd. Once dead, a fire was started underneath their swinging corpses to which gunpowder was added. An eyewitness, Landucci, records that the bodies burnt slowly, limbs falling off piece-by-piece until nothing was left but ashes. These were then carried off and dumped in the River Arno, though some disciples did what they could to gather sodden clumps of ash from the river and give them a proper burial.

Savonarola’s legacy would far outlive his mortal state. His death didn’t mark the end of religious violence in the city. It did, however, bring about the end of a chapter of religious extremism that culminated in an act that destroyed what the modern city of Florence has become globally renowned for its priceless artworks and untold riches.

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