Savonarola studies in Italy on the 500th anniversary.
For Savonarola scholars, one of the first and most important events organized in anticipation of the anniversary was the seminar on the general topic of "Studi savonaroliani" held on 14-15 January 1995 in Florence under the auspices of some of the most eminent institutions of that city - the Fondazione Ezio Franceschini, the Istituto Nazionale di Studi sul Rinascimento, the journal Memorie Domenicane, the Accademia Toscana di Scienze e Lettere "La Colombaria," the Comune di Firenze, and the Regione Toscana. The expanded proceedings from this congress were subsequently edited by Gian Carlo Garfagnini under the title Studi savonaroliani. Verso il V centenario (1996) and became the first volume in a new and prestigious series, "Savonarola e la Toscana, Atti e documenti." Both the seminar and the volume sought to set the course for a renewed examination of the Ferrarese friar and his influence on the history, culture, and spirituality of late Renaissance Florence.
The opening statement by Donald Weinstein, the Anglo-American dean of Savonarola studies, served as an introduction to this and future seminars and is aptly titled "Studi savonaroliani: passato, presente e futuro." In a simple, clear, yet scholarly rigorous overview of past and present research, Weinstein argues for an end to partisan approaches to Savonarola and his work. Already in the immediate aftermath of the friar's execution, public and scholarly opinion had divided itself into two opposing camps, Piagnoni and neo-Piagnoni on one side seeking to canonize the friar, and Arrabbiati and neo-Arrabbiati on the other intent on recalling not only his heterodoxy, but also, as Burckhardian scholarship would have it, his abominable attacks on all that was true and beautiful about the Renaissance. Weinstein points out that neither group nor affiliated scholarly tradition can offer a truly historical reconstruction of the man and the events he precipitated. He insists, instead, that the time has come to break free from the stranglehold of the Piagnoni/Arrabbiati dichotomy in order to pursue a more historiographical, and even lay course of research.
Weinstein is not the first to issue such a call. A similar appeal for a "historic turn" in Savonarola scholarship had been made already fifty years ago by scholars such as Delio Cantimori, Giorgio Spini and Eugenio Garin. In the decades that followed, it was heard and picked up by Giulio Cattin and Fr. Armando Verde, O.P., whose careful philological and historical research contributed enormously to a clearer understanding of the historical figure of the friar and his writings. Along the same lines, extremely valuable work on the social and cultural context of Savonarolan Florence has been carried out in the last decades by other eminent scholars whose names, today, are inscribed in the pantheon of Florentine studies - Rubinstein, Gilbert, Vasoli, F. W. Kent, Bertelli, Martelli, de Maio, Polizzotto, just to mention a few.
Aside from these advances in the philological and historical/cultural approach to Savonarola, however, Weinstein notes that in other areas much work still needs to be done in order to free Savonarola from his Piagnoni/Arrabbiati straightjacket. Returning to a subject dear to his heart, Weinstein points out that Savonarola's career as a prophet is still viewed in light of old paradigms drawn from confessional theology and hagiography. Similarly, the questions of Savonarola as a promoter of republican government, of his influence on the Reformation, and of his role as religious thinker and moral teacher, all still need to be re-examined from a more historiographic perspective free from old dualisms.
The articles that follow Weinstein's introduction are grouped into three general areas: Savonarola and Florence; culture at the time of Savonarola; and the Savonarolan movement. Their authors represent the best of Florentine scholarship from Italy and the Anglo-American world, both young and well established. It would be fitting to list and describe at least some of them, but space limitations oblige me to say only that the excellence of their work will see to it that the collection (and the series it inaugurates) will quickly become a fundamental work not only in Savonarola studies, but in research on late Quattrocento and Cinquecento Florence as a whole.
The second seminar was held on 19-20 October 1996 and focused specifically on Savonarola's place in the political life of late Quattrocento Florence. The proceedings appeared in 1997 as the second volume in the series "Savonarola e la Toscana, Atti e documenti" and bore the title Savonarola e la politica. This second volume is also divided into three sections: Savonarola's political thought; the political structures of Savonarolan Florence; and Savonarola's social reforms. To go along with the much more restricted topic, the list of contributors is also significantly reduced - but not at the expense of scholarship.
Gian Carlo Garfagnini opens the volume with a detailed analysis of Savonarola's 1494-1495 cycles of sermons on Haggai and the Psalms. These are important sermons from the point of view of Savonarola's involvement in the political life of the city for they mark the start of that "great Savonarolan season of political-prophetic preaching, completely dedicated to ensuring 'for high and mid-ranking' citizens a way out of the institutional morass [of Florence] through the assurance of divine support" (p. 4). Speaking to the Florentines from the pulpit in the city's cathedral, Savonarola becomes the focus of a debate on government and reform that was to continue in the years that followed. Paolo Prodi follows with an examination of Savonarola's preaching in 1495-1497 when the city was carrying out its experiment with a more popular form of government. Prodi's conclusions, based on a careful reading of over 200 sermons preached in these years, is that the friar was, in fact, much more "political" than traditional scholarship on his prophetic mission would have it.
Lorenzo Polizzotto's contribution is an incisive look at the long-range effect of Savonarola's preaching. Starting with the observation that before 1490 Savonarola had shown little interest for social questions, Polizzotto then traces the friar's post-1490 change in preaching style and in his attitude to social questions. Without abandoning his primary intention of demonstrating the truth of the Faith and the need for personal spiritual reform, on his return to Florence Savonarola significantly modified the content and style of his sermons by giving them greater immediacy and closer references to the socio-political situation of the city. While still focusing on the spiritual well-being of his listeners, Savonarola began to connect it with their obligation to practice charity, that is, with their duty to express their love for God through their love of neighbor. Polizzotto then traces the impact of Savonarola's message on the charitable institutions of the city pointing out, in particular, how, moved by the friar's teachings, his disciples gave themselves so generously to volunteer work in Florence's social and philanthropic network that they not only gained, but maintained control of it for several generations, thus keeping the friar's message alive well into the mid-Cinquecento.
This second volume ends with a fourth section not clearly connected to the title topic of politics - the presentation of a recently discovered autograph codex containing Savonarola's sermons on the first epistle of John. Valuable and noteworthy as this discovery is, its presence in this volume seems somewhat gratuitous, especially since the two articles by Fr. Armando Verde and Piero Scapecchi were later republished in the third volume of the series, Sermones in primam divi Ioannis epistolam secondo l'autograjo, as its introduction and appendix, respectively.
This third volume, prepared by Fr. Armando E Verde and Elettra Giaconi, offers a critical edition of the original Latin text of the sermons as given in the autograph manuscript. As Fr. Verdi points out in his introduction, this version varies significantly from the editio princeps of Venice, 1536, later used for the 1989 edition published in the "Edizione Nazionale delle Opere di Girolamo Savonarola" (ironically, by Fr. Verde himself). In defence of the 1989 edition, it should be noted that at that time the autograph manuscript was unknown, for it became available only when the Ministero dei Beni Culturali and the Cassa di Risparmio di Firenze purchased it at a 1993 sale at Sotheby's in London and then deposited it into the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale in Florence. Both Fr. Verde's introduction and Elettra Giaconi's careful philological appendix point to, and try to deal with, the problema testuale, that is, with the problem of what constitutes an authoritative text in a tradition where manuscript and print culture coexist. Savonarola's original text, they note, was modified not only in its published edition of 1536, but also in the manuscript copies that were circulating at the time. An appendix by Piero Scapecchi (reprinted from volume 2, above) chronicles the codex's travels from Florence to England, and then back to Florence again. Neither the introduction nor the two appendices actually discuss the content of the Sermones, but then, given that this volume brings to light the discovery of a noteworthy Savonarola autograph, the editors may well be excused for focusing on the manuscript rather than its contents. A facing-page Italian translation enriches the edition.
The fourth volume in the "Savonarola e la Toscana, Atti e documenti" series is again a documento - an edition of a contemporary anonymous translation into Italian of Giovanfrancesco Pico della Mirandola's Vita di Hieronimo Savonarola, originally written in Latin. Although published quite late and abroad (Paris, 1674; London, 1681), the work enjoyed wide dissemination in Italy in manuscript form throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, so much so that the large number of extant copies and fragments, with all their variants, omissions and additions, greatly complicated the editor's work (and, once again, raised the problema testuale). Nonetheless, the current published text seems to be philologically sound and, at the same time, easily accessible. In her introduction, the editor, Raffaella Castagnola, points to the differences between the original Latin text by Pico della Mirandola and the anonymous Italian translation noting that the translator's omissions generally touch on doctrinal passages, erudite examples, learned citations, and anything else that might be deemed too complicated for a general public which was interested primarily in a hagiography of the friar. The Vita itself is structured in two parts: the first a chronological biography, the second a listing of miracles performed by the alleged saint.
Not quite hagiographical, yet, though certainly aimed at the converted, Adriana Valerio's collection of selected passages from Savonarola's works, Fede esperanza di un profeta. Pagine scelte, is not strictly a scholarly text - for one, the language, spelling and punctuation of the passages have been modernized to facilitate reading by non-specialists. The editor's intention is clearly to render some of Savonarola's works known to a wider public. While at times preachy, Valerio's introduction is nonetheless commendable, for it provides, in brief bold strokes, a thumbnail sketch of Savonarola's life, his role as a mystic, and his work as a reformer. Starting with Dante and proceeding through St. Catherine and St. Bernardine to arrive at Savonarola, Valerio presents the "young Dominican friar" in the context of a much-longed-for renovatio ecclesiae. The six texts contained in the volume constitute a fairly representative collection of Savonarola's writings: the Oratio pro ecclesia (a prayer for the Church composed in August 1484 during a time of sede vacante), the Trattato dell'amore di Gesu Cristo (a short spiritual treatise composed in the vernacular in about 1492 for several communities of religious), the sermon on Psalm 10, In Domino confido (delivered probably on 21 October 1492), the Dieci regole da osservare al tempo delle grandi tribolazioni (composed in 1497 while under papal excommunication), the Esposizione sopra l'Orazione della Vergine (composed about 1496 for a group of Ferrarese nuns), and the In te, Domine, speravi (Savonarola's last work, composed 8-18 May 1498 while in prison). Though of little use to the specialist, the introduction and the six texts presented in this collection would be of interest to non-specialists interested in Savonarola's pastoral message. Not surprisingly, the volume comes from a religious publishing house (which, I should add, does also produce solid scholarly texts).
"Se tu non hai carita, tu non sei vero cristiano. " Tre prediche is another collection of texts aimed at a general readership. The difference, in this case, is that the texts form a much more cohesive whole and the introduction by Paolo Viti meets the highest standards of scholarship - it is extensive, thorough, and abundantly footnoted. The three sermons offered in this volume revolve around the theme of charity which, Viti points out, is one of the fundamental motifs in all of Savonarola's writings - something that Polizzotto also indicates in the article mentioned above. Such a motif does, indeed, seem to apply well to Savonarola's own sense of a mission. As Viti points out, charity is the highest of the three theological virtues and Savonarola does return constantly to it as a fundamental aspect of human life, as "a completely Christian vision of availability and love towards God and one's neighbor." Love of God and neighbor, however, also implies renewal, a "binomial" that Viti identifies even in Savonarola's earliest sermons. With this in mind, the three sermons can be seen as instructions on charity and renewal. The first, preached in the cathedral on 15 December 1494, shortly after the flight of Piero de' Medici from Florence, argues for the need to find a better and more equitable system of political government for the city. The second, delivered on 24 February 1496, also in the cathedral, focuses on the sins of the tyrant and speaks of the need for a better leader. The third, preached to his brothers in the convent of San Marco on 15 February 1498, outlines the virtues of the ideal priest. Viti's introduction takes the reader briefly through each sermon, contextualizes it in the current socio-political situation, and points to some of the most important biblical and patristic allusions to be found in it. The volume is further enriched by sixty-three black-and-white and color illustrations selected and commented by Ludovica Sebregondi. They run the gamut from woodcuts taken from early editions of Savonarola's works to nineteenth-century paintings of the friar, from autograph pages of his works to twentieth-century bronzes commemorating his mission. Because many are little known images, for the most part previously unpublished, they are of great interest to art historians. As a whole, the illustrations trace the development of an iconography of Savonarola as saint, martyr, and reformer, a process that seems to reach its peak in the late nineteenth-early twentieth century. The volume is beautifully published by a somewhat unusual combination of interests: the scholarly press of Le Lettere and the Florentine branch of the Knights of Jerusalem - an unusual combination to say the least.
Another volume also intended for a general readership appeared under the aegis of the Franciscan convent of Santa Croce in Florence and in two different guises: as a double issue of the journal Citta di vita (vol. 53, nos. 2-3, 1998) and as a book entitled Savonarola rivisitato (1498-1998). The collection, edited by Fr. Massimiliano G. Rosito, O.F.M., is aimed primarily at the well educated, though not necessarily scholarly reader. It consists of a medley of texts and studies, that is, of six transcriptions of contemporary texts about Savonarola (four taken from the Vita attributed to the pseudo-Burlamacchi, and one each from Agostino Lapini, Bartolomeo Masi, and archbishop Alessandro de' Medici), twelve poems by Savonarola, twenty-three brief selections from "critics" ranging from the Florentine Signoria to Pope Pius XII and from Machiavelli to Ridolfi, and thirteen original articles especially commissioned for the volume from modern scholars active in the field. The various texts are complemented by thirty-seven black-and-white illustrations ranging from fifteenth- and sixteenth-century woodcuts to nineteenth-century lithographs. As in the Tre prediche volume above, these, too, were selected by Ludovica Sebregondi. The fact that only a few images are repeated in the two different volumes reveals both the wealth of images available and the richness of the iconology.
Although all contributors to Fr. Rosito's volume are well established scholars of Renaissance Florence, there is some variety in the depth of their contributions. Mario Martelli, for example, offers only slightly more than a page of introduction to Savonarola's poems and leaves the reader thirsting for more from his very learned pen. Arnaldo D'Addario, a pillar in the study of Florentine religious history of the Cinquecento, presents a general overview of Florence in the period between republican and ducal government. His bibliography, however, leaves something to be desired in that it is quite italo-centric, shamelessly ignoring English-language scholarship. It is also out of date. For example, when providing a bibliography on confraternities, D'Addario cites only G.M. Monti's 1927 book Le confraternite medievali nell'alta e media Italia, ignoring the recent fundamental works by Christopher Black, Philip Gavitt, John Henderson, and Ronald F. E. Weissman, all of which have been readily available in Florentine libraries for many years, some even in Italian translation. Similarly, in offering a bibliography on St. Antoninus, D'Addario provides a list of"recently published" critical studies, but then lists only works dating from 1923 to 1961. In short, although D'Addario's work is fundamentally good, it is bibliographically out of date.
Timothy Verdon's article, on the other hand, is innovative and possibly even wonderfully controversial. Verdon points out the conservatism present in fin de siecle Florentine art and architecture and the drain of fresh new talent and art from Florence. As a result, the city was left in the grip of a self-focused conservative mentality epitomized in the works of Ghirlandaio and evident, even twenty years into the new century, in the derision that met Baccio d'Agnolo's attempt to introduce modern square windows, already long in use in other Italian cities, in the Palazzo Bartoloni in Piazza Santa Trinita (1517-1520). Verdon argues that this conservatism and Florentine myopia dovetailed with Savonarola's mission which, much as Dante had sought to do, urged contemporary Florentines to return to the simplicity and frugality of their ancestors. Verdon rightly points out that art historians, in particular, are not keen to accept this "conservative" view of late-Quattrocento Florentine art because it runs contrary to the "standard" version whereby everything Florentine is, by definition, new and innovative. However, the conservatism evident in Florentine art on the cusp of the century is, as he points out, part of the "basic dynamism" of Florentine culture and spirituality that sought to return not to a classical past (as had been the case with the early Quattrocento Humanists), but to a much more recent past, that is, to late-medieval and early-Quattrocento Florence. Savonarola, in Verdon's thesis, sought to make himself the spokesman for this conservative climate and to bestow it with "divine authority." In this manner, Savonarola becomes the chiave di lettura that allows us to understand the dynamism of a period which, otherwise, would seem to stagnate. The Savonarolan interlude was thus not a moment of "stagnancy," but of "gestation" that sought to "recompose, in a new synthesis, the structures of the past." This "gestation" would soon lead to Michelangelo who, in fact, returns to Florence in 1501-1504 and, abandoning the style of his Bacchus and his Vatican Pieta, undertakes to create the David, thus opening the way to the heroic naturalism that would dominate Florentine and European sculpture for the next three centuries (pp. 63-64).
The dynamism Verdon sees in the Savonarolan moment is clearly also present in current scholarship on Savonarola. Although the anniversary is now past, the celebrations that over the last few years led up to it have produced a wealth of scholarly materials, some still in preparation - editions, collections, exhibition catalogues (which, unfortunately, I have not been able to include in this review). They have also brought together a critical mass of scholars from a variety of disciplines who will, in years to follow, continue to reassess what was not only an exceptional individual, but also an exceptional moment in Florentine history. Work is also underway with renewed vigor on the beatification cause, but unfortunately I am not privy to the current state of affairs in that matter.
UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO, VICTORIA COLLEGE
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|Title Annotation:||Italian monk and religious reformer Girolamo Savonarola, who was burned at the stake for heresy in 1498|
|Date:||Jun 22, 1999|
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