Death in Florence: the Medici, Savonarola and the Battle for the Soul of the Renaissance City

How a mad monk spawned our ideas of egalitarianism.

Death in Florence: the Medici, Savonarola and the Battle for the Soul of the Renaissance City
Paul Strathern
Jonathan Cape, 448pp, £25

"Don't be so gloomy," said Harry Lime, the sinister anti-hero of Graham Greene's Third Man, "in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they
had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love, they had 500 years of democracy and peace - and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock." Lime's history may not have been entirely accurate - the Swiss were a notably martial people during the early modern period, for one thing - but in suggesting that the Italian Renaissance was born of savage conflict, he was on to something.

A familiar view has it that, with the Renaissance, a highly civilised part of Europe turned away from medieval fanaticism to embrace a modern notion of the world. The reality was more complicated. The boundaries between medieval and modern in Renaissance Italy were neither clear nor fixed, but intensely contested, with some of the protagonists adopting stances that might seem paradoxical from the perspective of many people today. The ruling passions of the modern world - the ideal of equality and the demand for popular government, for example - were often most clearly visible among the Renaissance's enemies, while the Renaissance was in some ways the opposite of a modern movement. No one exposes these contradictions more clearly than Girolamo Savonarola, the nondescript Dominican monk who rose from provincial obscurity to galvanise Florence at the end of the 15th century, only to perish in the upheaval he fomented.

Savonarola's story overturns many conventional notions - not least the idée fixe that says fundamentalism is a revolt against modernity. But the life of the gentle-mannered friar who terrorised congregations with his lurid sermons on the punishment they would receive in the hereafter for their lust and greed is a fascinating study in itself, and Paul Strathern's Death in Florence grips the reader from the first page.

As Strathern shows, this turbulent cleric was far from the ignorant obscurantist of urban legend. Savonarola was on friendly terms with some of the leading figures of Renaissance learning, including the intellectual adventurer and humanist Pico della Mirandola, a member of a circle of freethinking minds that had formed around Lorenzo the Magnificent at the Palazzo Medici. The author notes:

The worldly philosopher and the ascetic theologian - in so many ways such opposites - indubitably continued to have one thing in common: the exceptional depth of their theological knowledge. They also had another, somewhat surprising, element in common: their extensive knowledge of unorthodox philosophical thinking.

Like many others in the vanguard of Renaissance thinking, Pico was attracted by esoteric traditions, particularly the Kabbalah, and while Savonarola never followed Pico in this direction the two thinkers spent many hours together "piously philosophising" (as Pico put it) in the Dominican's monastic cell. Savonarola was intellectually cultivated to a high degree; but that did not prevent him from launching a wave of book-burning, encouraging the destruction of "immoral art" and preaching that gay sex (which had been tolerated in Florence) should be an offence punishable by death.

When the ruling Medici family was toppled after French forces invaded the city in 1494, Savonarola became the lawgiver in a type of direct democracy, his anathemas against vice enforced by roaming bands of militant young men. The fiery monk's apocalyptic vision of divine punishment was reproduced in a Bonfire of the Vanities, in which "anything that brought pleasure was fair game" - playing cards or dice, wearing wigs, jewellery, perfume or brightly dyed dresses and reading Petrarch's love poems were among the items that he condemned as sinful.

But Savonarola's position as de facto leader of a republic of virtue did not last: his army of young followers turned against him, he was accused of heresy and excommunicated, arrested and tortured, then executed by hanging and burning. The gibbet on which he had been hanged was consumed by the flames along with the charred body, so that no relic of the heretic remained. The burning was begun by a man who, Strathern reports, burst from the crowd and lit the brushwood, exclaiming: "Now at last I can burn the friar who would have liked to burn me!"

It is an arresting and horrifying tale, and Strathern tells it with immense skill and verve. The interpretation of the Dominican friar's life that he presents is equally thought-stirring. "Savonarola," he writes, "can be seen as the precursor of a tradition that would go on to produce such figures as Luther, Cromwell, Robespierre, even Lenin."

For a time at least, the monk seems to have believed that Florence might become what no other city had been - a place in which virtue ruled. It is true that fundamentalists invoke an imagined past when faith was not yet corrupted; but they do so in order to open the way to a new world that is better than anything that has ever existed. Savonarola's followers have more in common with Mao's Red Guards than they do with the Inquisition. Far from being a medieval throwback, he inaugurated the modern revolutionary project that aims to reorder the polity on an egalitarian and puritan model.

In the folklore of secular rationalism, the artists and scientists of the time turned back to the Greeks and Romans for instruction and inspiration. So they did, but what they took from the ancient world was a type of humanism quite different from the kind that emerged with the Enlightenment.

Despite all his prudent protestations, few people have ever been more emancipated from Christianity than Machiavelli; but there is nothing in this prototypical Renaissance thinker of the belief in human progress that animates later humanists such as Mill and Marx. Machiavelli believed that history follows a cyclical pattern in which old civilisations decay and die, while new ones are born in chaos and violence.

The Renaissance humanist Michel de Montaigne had a similar view but did not share Machiavelli's interest in power. Like the thinkers of the ancient world, the artists and scholars of the Renaissance accepted that the peaks of human achievement could be reached again and again as history moved on; but they would never be surpassed, because human nature was constant and unchanging. If it is the belief that humanity is advancing and improving which defines modernity, then it was Savonarola who was modern, in the full sense.

There is some controversy about the source of Harry Lime's celebrated remark. Most likely it originated not with Greene, who wrote the script of the film, but with Orson Welles, who acted the part. Whoever the author may have been, Lime's quip captures an uncomfortable truth. The Swiss may have produced more than cuckoo clocks, but it was the creative turbulence of the Renaissance that gave us the murderous modern world.

John Gray is the New Statesman's lead reviewer. His latest book is "The Immortalization Commission: Science and the Strange Quest to Cheat Death" (Allen Lane, £18.99)

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article first appeared in the 06 June 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Are we all doomed?