It was early on Tuesday 7 February 1497 when the crowds began to gather in front of the looming, fortress-like Palazzo Vecchio in the centre of Florence. For years, Shrove Tuesday had been one of the highlights of the city’s calendar. As the day before Lent, it was an opportunity for one last blowout: hence the French nickname ‘Mardi Gras’, Fat Tuesday. For the Florentines, as for many other Italians, it was also the last day of Carnival, a final orgy of dancing and decadence, in which masked citizens paraded in the streets, self-consciously thumbing their noses at the social conventions that prevailed for the rest of the year. This time, however, Shrove Tuesday would be very different.
Three years earlier, after the overthrow of the ruling Medici dynasty, Florence had fallen under the sway of an extraordinary Dominican friar, Girolamo Savonarola. Claiming that he had been given visions from God, Savonarola specialised in fire-and-brimstone speeches
that struck a powerful chord with ordinary Florentines exhausted by the endless wars against the French. Before long, Savonarola had proclaimed himself head of a ‘Christian and religious republic’, in which virtue ruled and vice was outlawed. He condemned the cult of luxury, rejected the fripperies of Renaissance art and demanded that artists dedicate themselves to the austere glory of God.
Several months earlier, Savonarola’s disciples had begun combing the city for what they saw as sinful objects – artefacts that glorified man, not God, and that revelled in decadence and vice. That Shrove Tuesday morning, however, their search took on a more ostentatious air. Dressed in white gowns, carrying red crosses and wearing garlands on their heads, scores of young men paraded across the city, banging on doors and demanding objects to be destroyed. Their aim, wrote one chronicler, was to “extirpate the abusive, perverse customs of Carnival”.
But there was more to their mission than pure destruction, for they also demanded alms for the poor and money towards the foundation of a public pawnbroker – a crucial step, Savonarola argued, “so that Jews would not remain in Florence to practise usury”.
In the centre of Florence, outside the Palazzo Vecchio, Savonarola’s followers had built a vast bonfire, with logs and straw piled 15 feet high. At the top was a great image of the Devil, while around it the men piled all the objects they had collected: books and paintings, classical sculptures and volumes of poetry, mirrors and make-up, gaming tables and chess pieces, lutes, dresses and hats. Among them were many paintings by the city’s Renaissance masters; according to some observers, the painter Sandro Botticelli willingly threw in some of his own works on mythological themes.
At Savonarola’s signal, representatives from each of the city’s neighbourhoods ceremonially set light to the great pile. And as the flames rose, up went hymns and psalms from his ecstatic followers, delighted by the spectacle of what became known as the Bonfire of the Vanities.
We will never know how many of the thousands watching that day shared Savonarola’s blistering passion. The chronicler Piero Parenti wrote that although “almost all” of the city’s residents took part, the bonfire “was regarded partly as frivolous, partly as hypocritical. Only the friar’s followers praised it as well done; others criticised it loudly.” And as Savonarola overreached himself, so his appeal began to fade. On Ash Wednesday he called for another collection of sinful artefacts, urging children to roam the city and scour the houses for things to burn. But the mood was shifting, and when he delivered his Ascension Day sermon three months later, riots broke out. The taverns reopened, and even gaming tables began to reappear. Savonarola was finished.
Although it was not until April 1498 that Savonarola was arrested, his power had already ebbed away. Excommunicated by the pope for heresy, he had lost his appeal to the Florentine crowd. After suffering horrific torture on the rack, the friar was eventually burned before a vast crowd outside the Palazzo Vecchio, in the very same spot that he had presided over the Bonfire of the Vanities. He probably would not have appreciated the irony that many of the thousands watching must have been the same people who had once applauded him.