A Message from Father Nick 34

San Marco (2) – a “bonfire of the vanities”

            San Marco in Florence will always be associated with the paintings of Blessed Fra Angelico, but it is no less associated with a much darker chapter in the city’s history. In a remarkably short span of years, other great artists like Michelangelo, Leonardo and Raphael worked in Florence, and among them was Sandro Botticelli. We remember Botticelli for the sumptuousness of his work, but he is also closely linked with one of the most troubling characters of Renaissance Italy: Girolamo Savonarola.

Originally from Ferrara, Savonarola came to San Marco as a Dominican friar, and his preaching hugely influenced the city. At a time of extraordinary individuals like Lorenzo di Medici, Macchiavelli, and the Borgia pope, Alexander VI, Savonarola emerged as a genuinely outstanding figure.

Botticelli had become famous for mythological paintings (his Primavera and Birth of Venus are instantly recognisable today). We even give his name to the particular kind of female beauty they portray, reflected in a series of Madonnas. But Botticelli was not the inventor of this ideal. Like many others, he was captivated by a real woman: Simonetta Vespucci, who was regarded as the most beautiful woman of her time. When Simonetta died at the age of only twenty-two, her body was carried through the streets of Florence in an open coffin: a terrible reminder of human mortality.

Savonarola was a herald of mortality. He believed that this beauty-obsessed city was moving towards a cataclysmic fate and on 7th February, 1497, he organised in the main city square a “Bonfire of the Vanities”. Items of luxury, cosmetics, mirrors, beautiful clothes, even books and works of art, were thrown into the flames. Some believe that Botticelli consigned paintings of his own to destruction. Astonishingly, men and women flocked to Savonarola’s bonfire. It was to prove an ominous precedent.

Charismatic and intimidating, Savonarola had become the dominant person in Florence – even Lorenzo “the Magnificent” asked to confess to him before dying – but Savonarola seems to have been carried away by the exercise of so much power. Summoned to Rome by the pope, he refused to go. Becoming ever more apocalyptic in his warnings, he lost the support of his people, and finally he was sentenced to death. By one of history’s quirks of irony, he was strangled and burned with two companions in the city’s main square on 23rd May, 1498 – an even more startling illustration of mortality.

Botticelli seems to have remained loyal to him. Towards the end of 1500, the painter produced his so-called “Mystic Nativity”. Complex, and rich in symbolism, it shows the end of the world. Angels represent times and virtues; rocks are split and devils appear. Some even claim to see Savonarola depicted among the figures at the bottom. “The end is nigh”…but the promise is one of peace. From the heart of Renaissance Florence, such work continues to challenge our lives and values. It can now be seen in the National Gallery in London.