Brownson's Quarterly Review, April, 1851
Art. IV.--Savonarola: his Contest with Paganism
The principles and measures of Savonarola, after teh lapse of three centuries and a half, since he was burnt at Florence and his ashes thrown into the Arno, have of late been subjected anew to historical criticism. Biographies have appeared, in England and in Germany, as well as lighter essays in the Reviews, reviving the claims of Protestants upon him as a precursor of Luther, while Catholics have vindicated him as a faithful son of the Church, and as having perished while fighting strenuously in her cause against the Paganism which for a time seemed about to overwhelm all Christendom. Amongst such Catholic apologies, the most remarkable is that which we present in the following article, which is the translation
of a chapter in M. Rio's unique work, De la Poesie Chretienne, of which the only part as yet given to the public is that portion of the section on Art which traces the history of Christian Painting' in Italy, from its origin in the Catacombs to its disappearance before the combined powers of Naturalism and Paganism.
With the little opportunity we have had of consulting either the original documents or the more recent works, we are far from being prepared to decide whether M. Rio has made out his case or not; yet such weight attaches to his own character and to his qualifications for historical criticism, and so favorable has been the reception which his views have met with from high Catholic authorities, that we feel safe in presenting them to our readers as at least deserving consideration. M. Rio is a Catholic of unquestionable orthodoxy and piety. The son of a sufferer in the cause supported by the "Catholic army" of his native La Vendee, he himself, at the age of fifteen, became the acknowledged hero of an uprising in the same cause, and has given us, in the history of that daring movement, one of the most beautiful works in all literature.*(footnote: * La Petite Chouvannerie, ou Histoire d'un College Breton sous l'Empire. Paris, 1842) Subsequently he filled, with great distinction, the chair of History in the College Royal le Louis de Grand, and gave evidence of eminent historical genius, as well as of great learning, in his Essay on the History of the Human Mind in Antiquity. Later in life he visited Italy, in some official connection with the pious M. de la Ferronaye, and there made those investigations into the history of the Christian painting of that country which he published in the work De la Poesie Chretieme, which contains his apology for Savonarola.
With respect to the reception which this part of his work has met with, it will be enough to say, that Count Montalembert, no mean authority, in an elaborate review of the whole work,(footnote: In his volume, Du Vandalisme et du Catholicisme dans l'Art:--Fragmens. Paris, 1839.) indorsed the views of Rio with characteristic heartiness, while having the most elaborate Protestant effort on the other side before his eyes, and prayed God to bless our pious author for having "reconquered for the Church the glory and genius of Savonarola."
The name of Savonarola has become popular with the partisans of republican opinions and the adversaries of the Catholic hierarchy; and so often as that name is pronounced at the present day, it seems to recall exclusively the recollection of an ignominious death inflicted on one of the most energetic defenders of civil liberty and liberty of conscience. That which has, more than any thing else, contributed to this error, is the perseverance with which the eyes of posterity have been required to contemplate two facts, which are claimed to exhibit the sum and spirit of Savonarola's public life, namely, his having refused absolution to Lorenzo de' Medici at the point of death, unless he should first restore to his country its liberty, and the boldness with which he is said to have shaken off the authority of the Holy See. Without inquiring to what extent this twofold assertion is confirmed or disproved by the most authentic contemporary authorities, let us put ourselves at once at the point of view with which we are immediately concerned, and let us become spectators of that struggle at once so close, so dramatic, and so imposing which was maintained, in the presence of all Italy, by a simple monk against the spirit of his age. The object for which he strives is the restoration of the kingdom of Christ in the hearts, the intellect, and the imagination of the people, and to extend the advantages of the Redemption to all the faculties of man, and to all the works which they produce. The enemy which he combats is that Paganism, the mark of whose influence he finds impressed upon every thing,upon art as well as upon morals, upon opinions as well as upon conduct, upon the cloisters as well as upon the secular schools.
When he had resolved, at the age of twenty-two, to embrace the monastic life, his predilection for St. Thomas Aquinas led him to prefer joining the order of the Dominicans, to which the Angelic Doctor had himself belonged ; but he joined it with the fixed intention of remaining all his life a simple lay-brother, in order by that means to escape from the medley of profane and scholastic studies, by which so dangerous a diversion was making towards an end altogether foreign from that which had been contemplated by the founder. Nevertheless, he made his vows in a convent at Bologna, and he even overcame his repugnance to teaching the philosophy of Aristotle the moment his superiors bad positively required him to give lectures upon it, taking care, however, to pass over in his instruction the idler speculations, and to bring out, as often as he found opportunity, the superiority of the Holy Scriptures to all philosophical authority.
The study of the word of God, as contained in the Old and New Testaments, became from that time the ruling passion of his whole life; and after the lapse of a few years his elocution, which had hitherto been slow and feeble, acquired a penetrative and triumphant power, as well in the pulpit as in the most familiar discourse.*(footnote: * Savonarola's first attempt as a preacher was so unfortunate, that at the close of his Lent discourses the number of his hearers did not exceed twenty-five. He announced to them himself, that he should thenceforward, instead of preaching, devote himself exclusively to the study of the Holy Scriptures.--end of footnote) In a provincial chapter held at Lleggio, the celebrated Pico Mirandola was so enraptured by his eloquence, and so attracted by the beauty and sanctity of his spirit and character, that it seemed to him he could no longer live away from him ; (footnote: "Che non gli pareva poi poter vivere seuza lui."--Burlamachi, Vita di Fra Girolamo Savonarola, Venice edition, p. 39.) and it was in consequence of the enthusiasm with which Ik; immediately afterwards spoke of him to Lorenzo de' Medici, that Savonarola was recalled to Florence and placed in the convent of St. Mark as Lector.
It was in this retreat, under a large Damascus rose-tree, which was the chief ornament of the garden, that he began his course of sermons before an audience at first by no means numerous, but which soon increased so considerably, that it became necessary to remove into the church of the convent. But the church itself was soon found too small to hold the ever-increasing influx of hearers from abroad; in consequence of which Fra Girolamo, now become Prior of St. Marks, was permitted, during the next year (1490), to assemble a far larger number within the spacious incisure of the cathedral of Florence.
The subject of his first sermons was the exposition of certain passages of the Apocalypse in such a sense as to excite terror and anxiety; for from those passages he inferred announcing his conclusions with the tone and authority of a prophet that a great crisis was approach-ins" for the Church of God, and unheard of tribulations for such as should not seek a refuge from his wrath in penance. The invasion of Italy by the French and the occupation of Florence by a foreign monarch having verified the predictions that related to the Florentines in particular, and having likewise given Savonarola the opportunity to act as their liberator, gratitude and veneration for the messenger of God were added to the enthusiasm already felt for the preacher; and the effect of all these sentiments combined was so powerful and so contagious, that the fairest ages of the primitive Church seemed to be restored.*(footnote: "Talche pareva proprio una primitiva Chiesa."--Burlamachi, p.39.)
In order to have their share in the miraculous manna which was thus falling so abundantly from heaven, the inhabitants of the neighboring towns and hamlets abandoned their homes, and the rustic mountaineers came down the slopes of the Apennines, setting their faces towards Florence, into which crowds of pilgrims hurried every morning, as soon as the gates were opened at the earliest dawn of day, and where they were retained as guests by the truly fraternal charity of which they became the object; for the question was only, who should have the privilege of showing them Christian hospitality. They were embraced in the street as brothers, even before knowing their names; and there were some pious citizens, who collected as many as forty of them at a time in their houses.(footnote: Burlamachi, p. 39.)
When we consider that this enthusiasm was sustained for seven successive years, that it was necessary to preach separately to the men, to the women, and to the children, because it was impossible to admit them all together into the cathedral, Chat such unheard of success was gained in the midst of cries of rage uttered by the faction of the Palleschi,(footnote: Palleschi was the name assumed by the partisans of the Medici, from the three palle or balls on the family escutcheon. To the friends of Savonarola they gave the nickname of piagnoni, the whiners; and they retorted by designating their adversaries as the lukewarm ones, the term actually used in the original, for which we have ventured to substitute the more manageable and historical party name.--TR.--end of footnote) who denounced him every day to the court of Rome, and threatened him loudly with the gibbet, we hardly know which most to admire in Savonarola, whether his inexhaustible fecundity as a preacher of the Gospel, or the inexhaustible fecundity with which his spirit soared aloft above the region of popular tempests, or his truly superhuman confidence in help from above that could not fail him.*(footnote: * There were priests and monks who refused absolution to any penitents that attended upon the preaching of Savonarola. See the Sermon for Easter Tuesday, M95, in the collection printed at Florence during the subsequent year, in one volume, 4to.--end of footnote)
Nothing less than such supernatural assistance was required to purify all that Paganism had defiled ; for there was not a single branch of the sciences or of the arts, not a single faculty of the human mind, that had escaped this contagion. By dint of prostrating themselves before this ancient idol, men had come at last to be ashamed of the ignominy of the cross; and Burlamachi tells us, that Savonarola found Florence full of those who, while adorned by noble birth and genius, and rich in the treasures of human wisdom, had not only lost their faith, but even made a mock of such as kept it, and still more of such as defended it.(footnote: Burlamachi, Vita di Fra Girolamo Savonarola, p. 87.) There were artists of the highest grade, who declared boldly that they had never had the faith; and amongst those who kept more within bounds to avoid scandal, the profession of Christianity was confined most frequently to some external observances. The teachers who had the charge of public education fed the minds of the youth, for the most part, only with a poisoned aliment, turning their admiration systematically towards the fables of the Greek mythology, or towards the heroes of the ancient republics, and not permitting them even to suspect that Christianity had her heroes too, who had surpassed them all. What was far worse, they selected from amongst the works of profane literature precisely such as were the best calculated to corrupt their minds and their morals; and, in spite of all that contemporary historians have told us of the corruption of the age, we are still astonished to find amongst the books, the banishment of which from the schools was loudly called for by Savonarola, the licentious poems of Tibullus and Catullus, and even Ovid's Art of Love;(footnote: See the conclusion of the Sermon for the Third Sunday in Advent, 1495, in the collection already quoted.) which, however, might pass for a book of edification in comparison with another collection, the,very title whereof reveals its utter infamy, and against which the holy preacher called for an edict of prescription in terms.*(footnote: * See the conclusion of the Sermon for the Monday after the Third Sunday of Lent, ibid.) Such was the extent to which the perversity of classical teachers and the blindness of parents had gone.
This system of profane education was continued, under another form, in the advanced instruction of the universities and of the cloisters, without excepting even those of the Dominicans, notwithstanding the study of the scholastic philosophy was interdicted by the Constitutions of St. Dominic, except under dispensation.(footnote: Sermon for the Monday after the Third Sunday of Lent.) The logic of Aristotle, overloaded as it was with novel subtilties, was subjecting to its dry and coldly regular processes even the science of theology itself, the science which by its nature is the most independent of such kind of fetters ; and the authority of the Holy Scriptures was not fully recognized, except so far as it had the good fortune to accord with that of the Peripatetic philosophy. What do I say ? The study of the Sacred Writings, that of the Old Testament in particular, was so shamefully neglected, that the small number of such as gave attention to it were asked, with entire simplicity, what could be the use of such a study, and what good they could get from the knowledge of events which had come to pass and had been accomplished so many centuries ago, a question so grossly stupid, that it would be impossible to believe it could ever have been asked, if it had not been addressed to Savonarola himself, during his novitiate, by a monk who was in other respects entirely exemplary and actuated by the best intentions.(footnote: See the Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Lent.)
The eloquence of the pulpit also had degenerated into a system of bandying scholastic arguments ; and the fashionable preachers, making a shapeless mixture of Scripture and of logic, came forward, with their heads stuffed with all the subtilties of the schools, for the purpose of throwing this dry dust into the eyes of their hearers, caring nothing for the things of faith and of God.(footnote: "Sono le suttilita dei filosofi come polvere....Fanno di questa filosofia e della Scrittura santa e logica un meseuglio, e questo vendono sopra li pergami, e le cose di Dio e della fede lasciano stare."--Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Lent.--end of footnote)
But blessed still were the poor in spirit; for when Savonarola appeared with the abundance and happy selection of his Scriptural quotations, it was in these simple hearts that they echoed like the repeated bursts of thunder never heard before; and it seemed as if the same burning coal had purified his lips and set on fire their hearts. It was no longer in his own name that he threatened the people with near and terrible chastisements, and that he sought to exorcise science and the arts possessed with the demon of Paganism, it was in the name of the prophets who had cried woe to whomsoever should bow the knee to idols. Amos was for him the type of that rude and energetic simplicity, which God delights to make use of to confound the knowledge of the wise; *(footnote: *"Dio non elesse un filosofo, ma uno pastore e simplice uomo e voleva che a lui fosse creduto."--Sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent.--end of footnote) and the prophecies of the shepherd of Thecua seemed, by the application which'Savonarola made of them, to have been aimed especially at the intellectual idolatry in which Florence was at that time sunk. "When the prophet, speaking of the unpardonable sin of the people of Israel,(footnote: Amos ii. 8.) reproaches them with having drunk of the wine of the condemned, vinum damnatorum biberunt, his expounder declares to the Florentines, that this accursed wine is nothing else but Paganism, with its ancient recollections, its voluptuousness, and its profane ceremonies. (footnote: Sermon for Tuesday after the First Sunday of Lent.) Those who swear by the sin of Samaria, qui jurant in delicto Samaria, are, on the one hand, the young men of Florence, who are led on by pride to run after logic and philosophy, and, on the other hand, the professors of theology, who can study nothing but those vain subtilties which for ever nourish the disputes of the schools. (footnote: Sermon for Tuesday after the Fourth Sunday of Lent.) In like manner, they who cry out, The way of Bersabee liv-eth ! Vivit via Bersabe ! are the men of learning, who make an idol of science, and refuse to go back to a First Cause with the help of other lights than those of human reason. The prohibition given by Isaac to his son Jacob, to take a wife from amongst the daughters of Canaan, was a prophetic warning to Christians, to hinder them from searching for the truth in the books of the philosophers. (footnote: Sermon for Good Friday.) Of the seven plagues of Egypt, there were at least three to which the imagination of Savonarola contrived to give an analogous signification ; (footnote: * See the very remarkable Sermon for the Tuesday of Holy Week, in which will be found a decisive passage on Indulgences, and on the right of the Pope to grant them. Assuredly Protestants would not have so much admired Savonarola if they had read this sermon, and several others in the same collection.--end of footnote) the Israelites who grew weary of the manna in the desert, and longed for the flesh-pots of Egypt, were the type of those Christians who, while having in their hands the very Word of God, disregarded it to give themselves up to profane studies; (footnote: Sermon for Wednesday (of Holy Week). This is one of his most beautiful sermons, and is devoted almost entirely to the Sacrament of the Eucharist; its orthodoxy has never been contested by the fiercest enemies of Savonarola.) and when, in the story of the miraculous draught of fishes, the Apostle St. Peter complained that he and his companions had toiled all night and had caught nothing,(footnote: St. Luke v. 5.) this complaint, being applied to the unfruitfulness of modern preaching, signified that, by dint of preaching rhetoric and philosophy, the light of faith had become obscured, and that a night of fearful darkness had come on, during which the fishers had cast their nets without taking any thing, that is to say, without saving any souls, because, in the midst of all this extraordinary abundance of sermons, the Spirit of God had ceased to be the vivifying principle of eloquence, and the speakers had become more than ever strangers to the knowledge of the faith.(footnote: Sermon for Easter Tuesday) It is easy to see how Savonarola, with a mind so entirely possessed with these ideas, and with such fervor of zeal, should become so attractive and so moving, whenever he recommended to his hearers the reading of the Sacred Scriptures, or spoke of the consolations which he had drawn from them himself.
" Believe," he said to them, " believe in the sufficiency of the Word, and in the wisdom of Christ, who has left his teaching expressed in such a way, that it may well dispense with the help of the wisdom of this world. They say, that logic and philosophy are able to confirm minds in the faith, as if a higher light had need to be strengthened by a lower one. Call to mind that philosopher of the Council of Nice, whom over-learned bishops attempted in vain to convince by syllogisms, and who, after he had been convinced by some unlearned and simple believer, addressed these remarkable words to the former: 'Vobis pro verbis verba dedi, To you I gave words for words.' .... Go into all the schools of Florence, you will find doctors paid for teaching logic and philosophy; you will find masters for all the sciences and all the arts ; but not a single teacher that is charged with giving instruction in the Holy Scriptures.....Seest thou not, foolish doctor, that when thou
wouldst rest the faith on profane sciences, thou dost abuse and degrade, instead of elevating and ennobling it? Recollect the story of David going forth against the giant Goliath ; let alone that clumsy armor of logic and philosophy, and arm thyself with a lively and simple faith, after the example of the apostles and the martyrs.(footnote: Sermon for Monday after the Third Sunday of Lent. The translation is literal. I have merely allowed myself some transpositions of phrases.) .... What ineffable sweetness does the Christian heart find in the reading of the Holy Scriptures! The man who is wearied by the long pilgrimage of life sometimes sits down upon his way and rests himself, in order to seek refreshment and strength in this viaticum, and then he enjoys, so to speak, the presence of his well-beloved one, of Christ himself, and he solaces himself with the sweet tears which he sheds as he contemplates the mercies of God.(footnote: (footnote: Sermon for Tuesday after the Fourth Sunday of Lent) . . . . O Florence, do with me what thou wilt; I have ascended the pulpit to-day to warn thee that thou destroy not my work, for it is the work of Christ. Whether I live, or whether I die, the seed which I have sown in the hearts of men will none the less bear its fruit. Yea, if my enemies should be strong enough to drive me forth from thy walls, I shall not thereby be cast down ; for somewhere I can find a solitude into which I can ily for refuge with my Bible, and enjoy a peace and rest which it will be beyond the power of thy citizens to disturb."(footnote: Sermon for Tuesday after the Third Sunday of Lent.)
All of this, for certain minds that rejoice in a superficial philosophy, is nothing but a momentary contest between an ignorant and fanatical monk, on the one hand, and the irresistible progress of human intelligence, on the other. Nevertheless, this monk was at least as well read as the most learned of his adversaries in those profane studies which he wished, not to abrogate entirely, but merely to make subordinate to Christian studies. He knew as well as they the annals of Greece and Rome, but he found them neither more glorious nor more instructive than those of such nations as had since come upon the stage of the world, displaying the banner of the cross. In antiquity itself he refused the preeminence to those who, like Livy and Thucydi-des, had written only the history of the past, but claimed it for the Jewish historians, who alone had recorded in the same book the annals of the past along with the figurative history of the future.*(footnote: Sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent.) It must be allowed that there is something sublime and most profoundly Christian in this repugnance for that which is no longer and is no more to be. The instinct of perpetuity is inseparable from that of immortality ; and the instinct of immortality has been to such a degree developed by Christianity, that the point of view in historic studies has been entirely changed for all such as have entirely kept pace with the plenitude of this development. This is what may be observed already in the imperfect sketches of universal history attempted by the ecclesiastical writers of the earlier periods of the Middle Ages; it is what may be seen, with all the marks of perfection and of unity, in the incomparable Discows of Bos-suet; and it is what can be found, as a germ, in several passages of the Sermons of Savonarola. In order to disconcert the enthusiasm of the learned, whose eyes were always fixed upon classical antiquity, he pointed out to them in the East the wretched remains of the same Grecian race, consumed by that intellectual leprosy which its schism had rendered incurable, and equally powerless to shake off the yoke of the barbarians and the yoke of error. (footnote: "Che nacque per l' heresie e li peccati dell' oriente e dei Greci? Sono andati tutti in vastita e sotto gli infedeli."--Sermon for Friday after the Second Sunday of Lent.) In the West, far from seeking to withdraw the eyes of his hearers from the spectacle of Roman greatness, he delighted, on the contrary, to unroll before them the magnificent picture which it presented ; but he did this only that he might bring out in bolder relief the conquest of the Eternal City by Christ, who had laid all these things at the feet of a simple fisherman; and thereupon he seemed as if intoning a chant of triumph as he paraphrased these words of the prophet Isaiah: " Civitatem sublimem humiliabit, conculcabit eam pes pauperis, gressus egenorum,"--*(footnote: Sermon for Tuesday after the Fourth Sunday of Lent.) The high city he shall lay low; the foot shall tread it down, the feet of the poor, the steps of the needy."
In order to give a more Christian direction to public education, no calculation could be made upon the generation that had lived in the habit of considering the discovery of a Greek or Latin manuscript as one of the greatest blessings of heaven; it was necessary to wait until all these classical old men, whose hearts Savonarola complained he had found as hard as stone, should have gone down, one after another, to the tomb,(footnote: "Guarda tutti coloro che oggi seguitan la dottrina di quelli filosofi, gli troverai tutti duri come pietre."--Sermon for Saturday after the Fourth Sunday of Lent. "I tiepidi e maxime i vecchi che hanno il vizio nella parte intellettiva, non si possono convertire."--Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Lent.) and, by means of institutions worthy of a Christian people, to prepare a new generation for coining on the stage, upon whom he more especially invoked the benediction of God.
A truly magnilicent collection might be composed out of the touching appeals addressed by him to the children that made a part of his audience. Never did the heart of the preacher yearn more tenderly, than when he spoke to this innocent and most cherished portion of his flock; he appealed to them to gather by and by the fruit of his labors, and to watch over the future destiny of their country; (footnote: Sermon for the Third Sunday of Lent) but meanwhile he prepared the way for this happy time to come, by bringing within the reach of their understandings the great dogmas of the Faith, and by pressing salutary reforms in domestic education. He told mothers that they failed in the most sacred of their duties, when they transferred the care of nursing their children to mercenary women, who imparted to them their own vices, and thus corrupted them from the very cradle,(footnote:
"Voi fate male, perche voi gli fate allatare da gente grossa, e diventano poi spiriti grossi, e chi diventa libidinoso, chi iracondo, chi stizzoso, perche gli fate allatare ancora dalle schiave, e quel primo latte da grande inclinazione al fanciullo," etc.--Sermon for Holy Saturday.
The priority does not, therefore, belong to the author of Emile, nor to the school of the philanthropists.--end of footnote) He told fathers that they were bound to give to their sons, while yet in tender years, that amount and kind of instruction, without which their natural abilities could not attain their proper development later in life; *(footnote: * Sermon for Monday after the Third Sunday of Lent. This is perhaps the most remarkable sermon of the whole collection, for its views in reference to Christian education.) and it was to this elementary instruction, in particular, in which was comprised the study of the dead languages, that Savonarola strove to give a character and a direction that should be more in harmony with the chief end of Christian society.
Too enlightened to contemplate the proscription of those master-works which the ancient nations had loft behind, as so many luminous traces of their passage through the ancient world, he willingly admitted them as auxiliarius of modern civilization, and as instruments of culture for the imagination and the taste; but the license to appropriate these foreign decorations ought to be no hindrance to taking the foundation and the key-stone of the structure from Christianity alone. He entirely approved that the professors of Florence should prepare their pupils to comprehend the genius of Homer, Virgil, and Cicero, without the interposition of translations, like opaque media, between these great luminaries and themselves; but forasmuch as, from his point of view, the genius of certain fathers of the Church was still more profound and sublime, and at least counterbalanced, by this advantage, their inferiority in mere external form, he required that the best works of St. Jerome and of St. Augustine, and in particular the treatise De Civilale Dei, should be admitted to an equal share of attention with the profane authers, " in order," says he, " that the youth may not receive a lesson of Paganism without at the same time receiving a lesson of Christianity, and that eloquence and truth may be taught simultaneously." (footnote: See the Sermon for the Tuesday after the Third Sunday of Lent.) For the same reason, he wished that the memories of children should be sanctified by engraving upon them, from their tenderest years, the story of the saints and martyrs, who had honored the Church by virtues which were heroic in a far higher sense than were those of Plutarch's great men.(footnote: This is one of the recommendations to which he returns the most frequently. (See the Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Lent.) Burlamachi says (p. 93), a beginning had been made by teaching children grammar in the works of St. Leo and St. Jerome, and by explaining St. Ambrose's treatise De Officiis. He adds, that Savonarola had composed an esscy to divert young men from reading licentious poets. In the defensive memorial addressed by the magistrates of Florence to the court of Rome, it was stated to be Savonarola's wish, that youth should be taught the history of the Redeemer and the lives of the Saints. Bartoli, Apol. di Savonarola, p. 331. Firenze, 1782, 4to.--end of footnote)
The evils caused by the abuses which had been introduced into public education were aggravated and reproduced under still more dangerous forms by artists, who were devoted to working out the profane suggestions that came to them from their patrons or from other sources. The monuments of Pagan art, which in the gardens of the Medici had become the objects of a kind of worship, had insensibly produced conceptions of the beautiful far different from those entertained by Christian painters and sculptors until then. From another quarter, Naturalism, encouraged by the growing corruption of manners, had openly taken possession of the sacred places, and the profanation committed by the monk Sippi was every day renewed, that is to say, for a Madonna, a Magdalen, and even for a St. John, it was often the portait of some young female unfortunately too well known that was represented in an altar-picture, around which crowded throngs of the curious and profane, without reverence or regard for the Holy Sacrifice.*(footnote: Sermon for Saturday after the Second Sunday of Lent.)
In the pictures of this class, every thing was calculated with a view to deprave the imagination of the beholders: seductive nudities were displayed in them without stint or shame ; and not only was the traditional costume of the Blessed Virgin and of other female saints disregarded, but that which was actually given to them gave them the appearance of courtesans. For such a mode of treatment Savonarola reproached the painters in terms of the most vehement indignation, demanding of them by what right they thus displayed their own sinful vanities in the churches, and never wearied of repeating to them, that the Blessed Virgin always went about dressed with simplicity and modesty like a maiden of the poorer class, and that the celestial beauty of her countenance was a reflection of the sanctity of her spirit, which caused St. Thomas to declare, that no man had ever looked upon her with the eye of concupiscence. (footnote: "Io vi dico ch'ella andava vestita come poverella semplicemente e appena segli vedeva il viso...Voi fate parer la Vergine Marie vestita come una meretrice," etc.--Sermon for Saturday after the Second Sunday. On the beauty of the Blessed Virgin, see the Sermon for Friday after the Third Sunday.)
It would seem that this kind of license had already produced the most serious ravages, since Savonarola affirmed, that if the artists knew, as he did, the scandal that had been given by this means to simple believers, they would look on their own productions with horror. Nevertheless, their pencils were still more licentious when they worked for the decoration of palaces or private dwellings. There Paganism had free course, and introduced into the minds of the young by the eye what from another quarter was also communicated through the ear. The Madonnas which were placed in the domestic oratories, so far from edifying the families that assembled in them to pray, often produced the most contrary effect; and if a pious citizen, out of paternal solicitude, expressed his dissatisfaction with these lascivious representations, and asked for a Virgin whose expression and age and character should be a preservative against every thought of impurity, then the perverse artist painted him one with a long beard.*(footnote: * The artist who played this trick was named Nunziata; he excelled in making ornaments for the Feast of St. John. The piece of conduct here alluded to is related by Vasari in the Life of Ridolfo Ghirlandajo.)
The sacrifice of all such nudities as offered a wound to modesty in its most sacred asylum the precinct, namely, of the mother's eyewas the first pledge that Savonarola required a converted parent to give, setting against their relaxed practice in so serious a matter the strictness of Aristotle, who, with no other light than his heathen philosophy, still had been sufficiently enlightened to point out the danger of placing immodest representations before the eyes of children.(footnote: Sermon for the First Sunday of Lent.)
But of what use would be the destruction of all profane monuments, if the principle which had given them birth should not be attacked at its very root, and if the imaginative faculties should not be definitively delivered from the Antichristian influence which had held them in subjection ? To attempt such a work one of the boldest undertakings ever mentioned in the history of the human mind required nothing short of the genius of Savonarola, and his unshaken faith in the divinity of his mission.
He had seen, without having recourse to the long circuits of the analytic method, that the decline which the line arts had suffered was closely connected with a corresponding declension in all that pertained to Christian worship, and had accordingly concluded that a regeneration of the latter would necessarily produce a regeneration of the former. He set himself to work, therefore, to inculcate as earnestly as possible upon his hearers the necessity of interior worship in its relation to the wants of the soul, and to explain to them the profound significance of the ceremonies practised in the Catholic Church, and the sublime part which art was called upon to play in connection with them.*(footnote: "Tu vedi quel santo la in quella chiesa e di: io voglio far buona vita ed essere simile a lui."--Sermon for Saturday after the First Sunday of Lent.) While thus bringing out, in their lull and proper light, the true sense whether allegorical or mystical of so many usages and ordinances admirably adapted to the comprehension of the simplest minds, he reopened for artists a mine as pure as it was rich, which their predecessors had been far from exhausting.
But upon this point the old men did not show themselves less hard and intractable than upon that of profane literature ; and their example was almost universally followed by those who came immediately after them. It was therefore exclusively upon the generation that came between mere childhood and mature age (footnote: He forbade bringing children under ten years of age.) that Savonarola rested his brightest hopes for the future, hopes which he cherished for eight successive years with an affectionate interest without a parallel, and which sustained him in the trials trials often most difficult and severe which the implacable hatred of his enemies raised up against him.
To prepare and insure the triumph of Christian art, poetry, and faith for a new era which was to open gloriously with the sixteenth century, and at Florence earlier than' elsewhere on account of her spiritual wealth,(footnote: "Firenze e la citta di Dio...Qui si fa piu bene che nell'altre."--Sermon fo the First Sunday of Lent.
" Vien qua, Firenze, tu di che sei povera ; io dico quanto alle richezze spirituali, tu sei la piu ricca citta d' Italia." Sermon for the Eve of Palm Sunday.--end of footnote) this was the object in view of which Savonarola labored to impregnate the hearts and imaginations of the young with that exquisite perfume of tender and infantile piety, whose sweetness is ordinarily carried far onward in the career of life.
His success so much surpassed his expectations, that he himself thought he could ascribe it only to a miraculous intervention of the Divine goodness, and never was he more eloquent than while pouring out his gratitude to the Author of this mercy. *(footnote: * See, at the conclusion of the Sermon for Tuesday after the First Sunday, the beautiful paraphrase of this verse of the Psalm: "Ex ore infantium et lactantium perfecisti laudem." The whole sermon is admirable, from beginning to end.) It was for his heart a delight so sweet, as to be a kind of anticipation of his heavenly recompense. We see from many passages in his discourses, that the innocence of early years awakened in his heart an indefinably exalted state of feeling that was not unlike adoration. He used to say, that a child keeping clear from sin, after having attained to the use of his free will, acquires such purity of mind and heart, that the angels of heaven often come to visit him.(footnote: Sermon for Palm Sunday. It was addressed expressly to children.) It was, moreover, through this cherished portion of his flock that he had prayers addressed to God, whether to obtain strength for himself when he felt exhausted, or virtuous magistrates for Florence when new elections were to be held.(footnote: Sermon for Thursday after the First Sunday of Lent.)
It was a very extraordinary spectacle for the Florentines to see this body of children and youth, before so noisy, so undisciplined, so rebellious against the restraint of the laws, now submit willingly to a rule of life so contrary to their habits and to their natural impetuosity, and to give themselves up with such interest and enthusiasm to exercises of piety, as hardly to think of any thing else for seven consecutive years. At home, they recited the Rosary or read the Office of the Blessed Virgin, according to the difference of ages, and especially they conformed, according to the measure of their individual capacities, to the plan of Christian education recommended by Savonarola. Abroad, they were listeners at all his sermons, and upon the eve of the greater festivals they went together to make garlands of olive-leaves; they sat upon the turf, divided into groups, which formed so many choirs; they sung Lauds to the praise of God or of Mary; and those who had passed near the spot used to say, that they seemed to have been gazing upon a scene of paradise.*(footnote: * Sermon for Palm Sunday.)
These Lauds, composed for the most part by respectable poets, and sung to well-known tunes, were one of the most powerful means employed by Savonarola for effecting the scheme of regeneration which he had in view. He was aware, that the practice of assembling every Saturday evening after Nones, in the principal churches of Florence, for the purpose of singing spiritual songs in alternate choirs before a picture of the Madonna, which was afterwards covered up again in the midst of a concert formed by the organ, the voices, and the bells, could be traced back, without interruption, to the thirteenth century, and was considered of so much importance, that there was regularly appointed a captain de1 Landcsi. He was aware, that, throughout the whole duration of the Interdict of 1376, men, women, and children every evening crowded into the churches to console themselves, by means of these songs, for the temporary suppression of public worship; and he himself constantly saw a company of trombiste, organized long since, at the cost of the state, to accompany the Caroccio in time of war, the Priori and the Gonfalonieri in time of peace, come every Saturday into the Piazza of the Old Palace to play national airs in honor of the justice that had been rendered to the people during the week that had just passed.(footnote: The Osservatore Fiorenio, Vol. I. p. 139 et seq.) On the other hand, he was not ignorant of the daily increasing currency and iavor which those licentious songs had gained, which were composed for the orgies and dances of the Carnival; and from his own personal observation, combined with historical traditions, he inferred most legitimately, that music exerted a most controlling iniluence over the imagination of the Florentines, and had power to increase tenfold the evil caused by the Satanic inspirations of a certain class of poets. He therefore resolved to extend his reformation to this branch of art also.
Here, again, the problem admitted of no solution so far as concerned the old men, from whose memories it was impossible to root out all those obscenities which they had treasured up like precious ornaments ; it had been an
easier task to cleanse the stables of Augeas. The plan of the reformer could therefore be made applicable only to childhood and youth ; and, within these limits, his triumph over profane music was the more complete by its being celebrated during the days of the Carnival, in the midst of the pious songs and the benedictions of the immense majority of the people.
In his musical reform he had two principal objects in view, First, to bring back into favor the simple, expressive, and majestic music of the hymns received in the Church from time immemorial, such as the Ave maris Stella or the Veni Creator, which were so happily appropriate to the wants of that crisis.*(footnote: * "Vorrei ancora che voi cantaste qualche volta dei canti della Chiesa come Ave maris Stella o Veni Creator," etc.. Sermon for Monday after the Third Sunday of Lent.
In the Sermon for Saturday after the Second Sunday, he expresses himself still more distinctly : "Lasciate andare i canti figurati, e cantate i canti fermi ordinata dalla Chiesa."--end of footnote) Secondly, he wished to substitute more becoming tunes for those to which Lorenzo de' Medici and his court were accustomed to sing the Lauds composed by him in a purity of style not to have been expected from the author of those drinking and dancing songs, the cynic grossness of which vitiates the collection of his works.(footnote: The Lauds composed by Lorenzo de' Medici amount to six. His mother, Lucrezia Tornabuoni, to whom he was indebted for all his sentiments of piety, composed several more.) That the people might not be thrown out by these new compositions, Lorenzo had taken care to have them adapted to the most popular airs, such as the tune of the Peasant, the tune of the Grasshopper, &c.; and this condescension had spared the poets the trouble of training choruses expressly for their own pieces. Savonarola did not directly proscribe either the words or the tunes of these Lauds; but by dint of causing the voices of children to repeat the sweet melodies which had exhaled like a perfume from the hearts of their pious ancestors, he led the Florentines to prize them at their real worth, and this important branch of Christian art had its share in the ameliorations introduced into the rest.
Not to recognize in Savonarola the powerful dialectician, the accomplished orator, the profound theologian, the bold and far-reaching genius, the universal philosopher, or rather the competent judge of all the schools and systems of philosophy, would be giving the lie with too much effrontery to history and to his contemporaries. It might be supposed, undoubtedly, that there would be better ground for denying him that exquisite sense of the beautiful, in the imaginative arts, which is not always the prerogative of even the greatest geniuses, and which supposes a sensibility of feeling and a delicacy of organization, both difficult to meet with in a solitary, devoted to the mortifications of the cloister; and yet it is no exaggeration to say, that all this is found united, to a very high degree, in Savonarola. From the moment of his entrance upon the monastic life, he had imposed upon himself the obligation of sacrificing every thing that became the object of too warm an affection, and this sacrifice was never more painful than when he had to give up some picture of a saint, or some pious book ornamented with miniatures.*(footnote: * Burlamachi, pp. 58, 59.) In the model-convent, which it was a plan of his to found at Florence, and which was a Utopia as dear to his heart as to his imagination,(footnote: Ibid., pp. 70, 71. The project is also alluded to in the conclusion of his Sermon for Low Sunday. The convent was to contain two hundred chosen monks, who were to be placed in Florence as a centre of light for the illumination of all Italy.) the lay-brothers were to busy themselves especially in works of painting and sculpture, and being thus placed in the closest proximity to the sanctuary, at the very source of the purest inspirations, they were to be there like vestals put in charge of the sacred fire. He knew by his own experience how much the pencil of truly Christian artists could help the soul to shake off its languor and to facilitate its aspirations towards God ; for often he might-be seen on his knees, for long hours together, in prayer before a picture of the Crucifixion in the church of Orsan-michele.(footnote: Bartoli, Apol. di Savonarola, p. 7.) And still farther, it may be affirmed without fear of contradiction, that his theory of the Beautiful, as it is expressed in scattered fragments in some of his sermons, surpasses in originality, as it does in profundity, all that the writers of the same age have said on this subject, repeating as they did, with more or less servility; the trivialities of Aristotle or Quintilian. Without pausing to consider his ingenious developments with respect to the
True, the Beautiful, and the Good, considered in their relation to Christian preaching,*(footnote: * Illuminare, delectare, inclinare. These are, perhaps, Platonic notions ; but they prove, at least, that Savonarola knew where best to bestow his affections, even amongst the ancients. See the Sermon for Saturday alter the Ihird Sunday in Lent.--end of footnote) I will content myself with quoting one of his most remarkable digressions, addressed more particularly to artists :
" Your notions," he said to them, " are stamped with the
grossest materialism......Beauty, in things which are
composite, results from the proportion between the component parts, or from the harmony between the colors; but in that which is simple, Beauty is transfiguration, it is light; essential beauty in its perfection must therefore be
looked for beyond the sphere of visible objects......The
more creatures approach and participate in the beauty of God, the more are they themselves beautiful, just as the beauty of the body is in proportion to the beauty of the soul; for if you were to take two women of this audience, equally beautiful in body, it would be the holier one that would excite the most admiration amongst the beholders, and the palm would assuredly be given to her even by worldly men." (footnote: Friday after the Third Sunday in Lent. Sermon on the Discourse of Jesus with the Woman of Samaria.)
He was not less alive to the beauties of nature, and he comprehended better than any other the sense of those sublime words of St. Paul: " Tarn multa genera linguarum sunt in hoc mundo et nihil sine voce est."(footnote: " There are so many kinds of tongues in the world, and none is with-out a voice." 1 Cor. xiv. 10.) During a short residence in Lombardy, Fra Giacomo, of Sicily, who had the happiness to accompany him in almost all his excursions, was often carried away by the enthusiasm which seized upon Savonarola at the sight of the grand and diversified scene which was opened before their eyes; they would then choose some sweet and solitary spot, and having seated themselves on the turf, they would open the Book of Psalms to look for a text appropriate to all these wonders of mountain and level plain, which in their own way were telling of the glory and the greatness of God.(footnote: Burlamachi, p. 65.)
Savonarola had left more than one recollection of this kind amongst the monks of St. Dominic at Fiesole, with whom he had many a time roamed about the surrounding hills, giving vent to the heavenly poetry that was working in his soul, and making those around him feel something analogous to what was felt by the two disciples at Emmaus, when they asked each other if their hearts had not burned within them while Jesus was discoursing with them.*(footnote: * St. Luke xxiv. 13-35.) One day, in particular, remained most sweetly impressed upon their memories. It was one on which Savonarola, moulding the pith which he had taken from several branches of the fig-tree, made of it some small white doves, which he distributed amongst the monks, explaining to them the while, with the eloquence of a poet and of a prophet, the twofold intervention of this mystic bird, in the covenant which God made with Noah when he came out of the ark, and in that which he afterwards sealed with the blood of his Son.(footnote: Burlamachi, p. 65.)
We need not, therefore, be astonished to find artists and poets among the most devoted partisans of Savonarola, for it was in their ranks the most lively sympathy burst forth, not only because his words struck out sparks that set their hearts on fire, but also because he caused them to regain the lofty position from which they had been insensibly descending. I do not think there has ever been a hero in history, whose name has been transmitted to posterity with a more imposing escort of men illustrious in every department ; and we can hardly persuade ourselves that we are dealing with nothing but a simple monk, when we read the enumeration of the philosophers, the poets, and the artists of every kind, architects, sculptors, painters, and even engravers, who offered themselves to him, almost in a body, with enthusiasm, in order to serve, each one in his proper sphere, as the docile instruments of his great social reformation.
At their head must be placed the famous John Pico de Mi-randola, that universal genius, who had already understood and wondered at many things before he met with Savonarola, but who was struck dumb with amazement, as at some new prodigy, the first time he listened to the words of this extraordinary man. Since he was the friend of Lorenzo de' Medici, no suspicion can attach itself to his admiration ; and the same circumstance gives equal weight to the testimony of Angelo Politian, who, in spite of his predilection for that profane literature which was the object of the invectives of Savonarola, could not help representing him as one equally remarkable for his sanctity and for his learning, who preached a celestial doctrine with rare eloquence.(footnote: * "Insignis et doctrina et sanctimonia vir coelestisque doctrinae praedicator egregius." Epistolar. Lib. IV. ep. 2.
John Pico de Mirandola and Politian both died in 1494, before the catastrophe which terminated the mission of Savonarola with his life.--end of footnote)
The Canon Benivieni, a Platonic poet, still more closely attached to the court and to the opinions of the Medici, nevertheless published, at the moment when the storm began to mutter over the head of the preacher, a most energetic defence of his doctrines and of his prophecies.(footnote: This work was printed in 1496.)
But of all classes of citizens, that which furnished the largest number of champions, religiously devoted to his cause, was certainly the artists: amongst them he found not merely friends, - he found apostles and martyrs ; some aspired to the glory of dying in his company; others, looking on the light of art as extinguished with him, determined, in the excess of their grief, to silence their genius in a perpetual mourning. All persevered in their enthusiasm even unto the end, bringing honor thereby both on their profession and on human nature itself by a fidelity which the triumph of their adversaries rendered difficult, and even dangerous.
If we go through with the different branches of art, from its less ambitious regions to its loftiest heights, we discover, not only that Savonarola had made conquests in all of them, but still more, that his conquests amongst artists had always been of the most distinguished. The most beautiful work of the first famous engraver of gems which Italy has produced is a bust of Savonarola, which is still to be seen at Florence.(footnote: He was called Giovanni delle Corniole. The first school of this kind was founded in 1458, by Lorenzo de' Medici, afterwards continued under the protection of Piero de' Medici, and then transferred to Rome, where flourished, under Leo the Tenth, Piero de Pescia, the rival of the ancient Greek artists.--end of footnote) The most distinguished successors of Maso Finiguerra, who invented engraving about the middle of the fifteenth century, were Baldini and Botticelli, of whom the former never defiled his brain with any licentious or profane work, and the other, who was besides celebrated as a painter and as a commentator of Dante, engraved Savonarola's Triumph of Faith, with a perfection to which he had never approached in his other works; and so far did he carry his enthusiasm for his hero, that upon the death of Savonarola he renounced painting for ever, under the steadfast resolution to die of hunger rather than to resume his pencil.*(footnote: * Vasari, Vita di Sandro Botticelli.)
Lorenzo di Credi, without making himself remarkable by any such violent resolution, presented the tribute of a talent always kept pure and fed exclusively by religious inspirations; and his name is the more important amongst the reformers of art, in that it represents the vigorous and original school of Andrea del Verocchio, from which had already sprung Lionardo da Vinci.(footnote: The resolution which he formed of passing the remainder of his days in the asylum of Santa Maria Nuova, in which he died in 1530, at the age of eighty-eight, was probably the result of the deep impression which must have been made upon him by the death of Savonarola.)
In the convent of St. Mark there was a miniature-painter of the name of Fra Benedetto, who inherited the traditions which had been left behind, in the same convent, by the blessed Fra Angelico da Fiesole. This painter carried his courage and devotion beyond all the rest. On the day when the party of the Palleschi besieged the church, calling with cries of rage for the death of Savonarola, Fra Benedetto armed himself to the teeth to defend him, and would not desist from his warlike purpose until his master had told him, that one consecrated to religion had no right to resort to other than spiritual arms; and at the moment when the assailants, after having forced their way to the cloisters, were dragging away their victim into the presence of the judges, Savonarola was obliged to exert, for the last time, all his authority as Prior, to prevent this generous monk from going on to die with him.(footnote: "Fra Benedetto fece grande istanza di voler andar secco; e ributtandolo i ministri, egli pur importuanava per voler andare; ma il padre Girulamo gli si volto dicendogli, Fra Benedetto, per obedieza non venite, perciocche io ho a morire per amoree di Cristo"--Burlamachi, p. 169)
Baccia della Porta was also, on that day, in the convent of St. Mark, in the number of the five hundred citizens who had come thither for the purpose of repelling with arms the attack of the assailants. He had been an assiduous attendant upon the discourses of Savonarola, and no artist had entered more fully into his views with respect to the reformation of painting. His depression was accordingly extreme, when he saw this extraordinary movement terminate in the ignominious execution of him that had given it being and impulse; neither art nor glory had any longer charms for him, and he buried that imagination, which had been blighted by pain and grief, in a convent of Prato, in which he received the habit of a monk in the year 1500, and on this account he is better known in the history of art under the name of Fra Bartolomeo.*(footnote: * Vasari, Vita di Bartolomeo* The retainer of the Medici is seen in all that Vasari says of Savonarola.)
Luca della Robbia, the inventor of a new process for preserving the freshness of bass-reliefs, had founded in his own family a school of religious art, original in its character, and so productive, that all Tuscany may be said to have been filled with its works. His two brothers, Augustine and Octavian, were his first pupils; but they brought far less credit to him than his nephew, Andrea della Robbia, who, in his representations of angels, of the Blessed Virgin, and of saints, seemed always to be inspired by the traditions of the great mystic school of Umbria ; and hence he was more accessible than any other Florentine sculptor to the impressions which Savonarola aimed to produce upon all Christian artists. His success was immense in the house of Andrea; two of the sons embraced the monastic life in the convent of St. Mark, in which they received the habit from the hands of the prior himself; and the three others, remaining in the studio of their father, assisted him in modelling for medallions the profile of the monk who was to them a new prophet.(footnote: Vasari, Vita di Luca della Robbia.)
The stranger who traverses the streets of Florence, to admire its edifices of every description, will not be slow to distinguish from the rest a palace of the most imposing style of architecture, the entablature of which, still more imposing in its character, is justly regarded as one of the wonders of the wrorld of art. This remarkable building is the Palazzo Strozzi, and he who gave it this magnificent crowning decoration was the architect Cronaca, the bosom friend of the monk Savonarola, whose doctrines and whose fate he took so much to heart, that in his old age he could talk of nothing else, which gave Vasari the occasion of saying, that he had got into his head a kind of frenzy.*(footnote: "Gli eraentrato nel capo tanta frenesia delle cose di Savonarola, che altro che di quelle sue cose non voleva ragionare."--Vassari, Vita del Cronaca.
It must not be forgotten that the biographer had his motive for speaking in this strain.)
A multitude of conversions, not less important, were made amongst the other classes of citizens. Amongst the men of war, especial attention was attracted to that of Marco Salviati, who, during the days of peril, marched always at the side of Savonarola, outbraving with a look the fiercest of his enemies, and who dared to trace with his lance, in the public square, a line, which he forbade the popular fury to cross.(footnote: "Fece un segno in piazza con un'arme in asta, dicendo: chi passera questo segno provera quanto possono le armi di Marco Salviati."--Burlamachi, p. 155.) Amongst the Florentine nobles there were also evidences of devotedness full as chivalrous. The brave and pious Valori, in particular, may be mentioned, who, at the very moment when he was calling the people to arms, to defend him whom he always called the Pastor of Florence, was basely murdered by assassins, along with his wife and child. (footnote: Burlamachi, p. 100.)
With the energetic cooperation of so many men, illustrious either for genius, or noble birth, or public services, Savonarola concluded, after the unheard of success of his preaching during the Lent of 1496, that he might at length venture to strike a bolder stroke, and to exhibit before the Florentines a spectacle to which their eyes had never been accustomed. On Palm Sunday there was seen defiling through the streets a long procession, representing the entry of our Lord into Jerusalem; the children alone numbered eight thousand. In one hand they held a small red cross, and in the other an olive-branch, except such as had the duty of receiving alms for the Monte di Pieta. After them came the different religious orders, with the clergy, and then an innumerable multitude of men of every age and condition. Last came young girls clothed in white, with garlands on their heads, followed by their mothers, who closed the procession. Never in the memory of man had such a scene been witnessed in Florence; the collectedness of this immense throng of people, the baptismal robe worn by children of both sexes while singing responsively Psalms and Lauds composed for the occasion by the poet Benvieni,*(footnote: * One of these Lauds was a kind of patriotic song, and began with these words :
" Viva nei nostri cuori, viva Fiorenza.") these notes of children's voices harmoniously blended with the ringing of all the bells, all this, says the monk Burlamachi, produced the impression of being transported to the New Jerusalem, and of the descent upon earth of the glories of paradise. Tears of emotion trickled from every eye, and many of the Pal-leschi, who had come to murmur or to curse, were so carried away by sympathy with the feelings of the rest, that they could find it in their hearts to do nothing but bless. It was the triumph of innocence and charity that was celebrated on this first day.(footnote: The alms collected during this procession, partly in ornaments and partly in money, were abundant enough to furnish capital for four Monti <li Pieth, one in each quarter of the city, thus giving the last provocation to the wrath of the usurers and bankers.)
The following year, Savonarola, emboldened by success, organized a still more solemn procession, which was to represent the principal object of his long apostolic labors, namely, the triumph of the spirit of Christianity over Paganism. In this celebration, again the most interesting part was committed to the children. They first went from house to house, begging, in the name of Jesus and of the Blessed Virgin, that the anathema might be given up to them, the word by which they designated all those articles of luxury or productions of the fine arts, which the preacher had condemned as profane. The produce of all these voluntary sacrifices was laid upon a pile, which had been constructed in the public square, and was thus exposed to the gaze of the citizens as spoils that they had won from the infernal powers. Upon that pile might be seen collections of licentious songs, with the musical instruments used to accompany them when sung, heaps of indecent prints and of portraits, the drapery of which was inconsistent with modesty, the tales of Boccaccio, and other works of the same character, the Morgante of Pulci, and all those other mock epics in which libertine adventurers were substituted for the heroes of the old romances of chivalry, the erotic poems of classical antiquity, and such as had been composed in imitation of them or otherwise, whether in Latin or in the vulgar tongue, and, lastly, a multitude of the costliest pictures and statues, which were ottered upon this altar of purification, either by the artists or by the owners; and although it might have seemed impossible to add any thing to the imposing pomp of the first procession, nevertheless the second produced a still greater effect upon the people, first, because it took place upon the very day of the Carnival, and thus bore witness loudly to the extraordinary control which Savonarola had gained over the most inveterate habits, and secondly, because even the arrangement of the celebration had been more skilfully contrived. A call had been made upon every branch of Christian art to increase its magnificence, and amongst other master-works particular attention was attracted to an Infant Jesus, done in marble by Bonatello, and placed upon a golden pedestal, from which he gave his blessing with one hand, while with the other he pointed to his cross with the nails and crown of thorns. After having gone through the whole city, gathering alms and singing alternately psalms, hymns, and lauds, the children raised their voices in a pious invective, composed for the purpose, against the Carnival, a monstrous image of which, emblematic of the basest propensities, had been set up on the summit of the pile, and which was presently given up as a prey to the flames, in the midst of popular acclamations that drowned the ringing of the palace-bells and the braying brass of the company of trombiste.
We should be tempted to believe that this progressive excitement must at last have reached its utmost height, and that the springs which had been bent so long and so forcibly must now begin to relax. But it turned out quite otherwise; for the next year's Carnival was celebrated by the destruction of a still more considerable number of profane or licentious works, amongst which might be distinguished several antique statues, the soft lines of which expressed admirably that charm of pagan voluptuousness,
which the sensual artists of Greece and Home were so well skilled to convey.*(footnote: * These statues had been named after the most celebrated beauties of the day, La Bella Bacicina, La Lena Morella, La Bella Bina, etc.)
Fra Bartolomeo brought scrupulously all the drawings which he had made as studies of the nude figure; and his example was followed by Lorenzo da Credi and many other painters, who had come fully to comprehend the necessity of a speedy regeneration for their art. This time the alms were still more abundant; the statues of saints and the painted banners exhibited in the procession gave a higher idea of what Christian sculpture and painting might attain to ; the pile was constructed on a larger scale, and surmounted by emblems of greater significance; and instead of raising shouts of joy, as fire was set to it, the whole people intoned with majestic solemnity the Te Deum. (footnote: Burlamachi, pp. 128-130.)
These imposing ceremonies, combined with the almost daily preaching of Savonarola, produced the deeper impression upon all classes of citizens, that each one of them had been most skilfully prepared beforehand. The impression produced was not the enthusiasm of a day, such as might have been excited by a fanatic or a demoniac ; it was an enthusiasm that had its root in the most secret depths of the soul, the explosion, as it were, of all those emotions and sentiments which this missionary-philosopher had therein stirred up and set into fermentation throughout eight whole years. He had contrived so to graduate his eloquence as never to appear retrograde, or even stationary, in the long career which he undertook to run. Hence it was, that at the outset complaints were made, very generally, of his excessive simplicity;(footnote: He himself allows the justice of the complaint in his Sermon for Low Sunday.) but in proportion as they saw unrolling before their eyes his vast scheme of reformation, which embraced, at one view, every faculty of the human mind that had been corrupted by inveterate pagan habits, such spirits as could still endure the brightness of so strong a light began to open themselves insensibly to more Christian convictions; and it was not until after he had laboriously strengthened those convictions by all the resources which theological, philosophical, and historical science put at his disposal, that Savonarola, now become absolute master of their minds and hearts, judged it to be time to strike their imaginations with all that apparatus of half religious, half dramatic ceremonies, which were reproduced with ever-increasing pomp during three consecutive years.
It does not appear that these triumphal processions were disturbed by the faction of the Palleschi, which had become powerless in presence of the immense majority of their fellow-citizens; but their rage, by being concentrated, became only the more envenomed and the deeper in its schemes; and their zeal in raising up enemies against Savonarola, wherever corrupted hearts and polluted imaginations could be found, was so indefatigable, that, when the fatal day had arrived, nothing was wanting for the execution of their plans of vengeance.
The keenest instigators of this hatred were not the old men, angry as they were at seeing the daily diminution m the number of victims who had served as food for their licentious appetites; *(footnote: * See the Sermon for Wednesday of Holy Week. In another place he reproaches them with heing like the elders that played the spy upon the chaste Susanna. Sermon for the First Sunday of Advent.) neither were they the professors of profane literature, whose occupation was falling in esteem to the level of the mechanic arts ; nor were they even the bad priests and the bad monks, although anathematized and blasted with all the might which could be given to human language by the eloquence of a preacher without fear and without reproach; the most mortal enemies of Savonarola were the bankers and the moneyed men of all descriptions.
In their view he had committed a crime never to be forgiven, that of having encouraged, with all his influence, the depositing of funds in the Monti di Pieta, which had been founded for the purpose of rescuing the poorer citizens from the ruinous exactions of usurers. From this there had resulted a momentary disturbance in financial speculations, and serious apprehensions for the reaction which this branch of business was likely to experience for the future. In another direction, inasmuch as the reform, which had extended successively to a very great number of articles of luxury, threatened to injure, and even to bring to utter ruin, all these dealers, who required a certain amount of corruption in the age to sustain their business, a formidable league was struck between these men and the bankers, the ramifications of which stretched as far as Rome, where the Borgia family, of such unhappy celebrity, were producing still greater terror by the impunity with which their crimes were committed, than by their enormity. In the view of such bold transgressors of all laws, human and divine, the sermons of Savonarola could be nothing but the seditious declamations of a sectary. Hence the bankers, the usurers, and the merchants, who multiplied their informations and calumnies against him,*(footnote; With this he charges the usurers, in express terms, in his Sermon for the Wednesday after Easter, and the establishment of the Monti di Pieta would create the presumption that they did so, even if he had said nothing on the subject. In another place he says: "Voi, o mercatanti che state la, uditeme, voi siete quelli che serivete lettere, che non si lasei parlare ai profeti," etc.--Sermon for Tuesday after tire First Sunday of Lent.) were secretly encouraged in all the machinations which they devised for his ruin; and at the end of eight years of intrigues and meannesses, their measures, combined for so long a time beforehand with an art truly infernal, brought about that tragic catastrophe which is known to all.
Besides this paltry interest of money-changing, usury, and traffic, there was another which Savonarola had compromised and wounded, the interest of ambition and self-conceit, over which this respectable class of citizens watched with not less solicitude than the other. Now had not the insolent preacher been audacious enough to say to the heads of families, that an education which consisted in making their sons study a few profane poems, and then sending them to a banking-house to take lessons in money-changing and usury, was as prejudicial to their souls as to their understandings ? (footnote: "La prima cosa li padri gli ponghono ad imparar pocsic, e dipoi alli banchi ad imparare cambj ed usure e cosi gli mandano a casa del diavolo." Sermon for Monday after the Second Sunday of Lent.) And had he not heaped the measure of his insolence by patronizing a political constitution which deprived the great capitalists of the enormous influence which they had hitherto exercised in public affairs ?
The secret of Savonarola's predilection for popular government, and his unconquerable repugnance to the administration of the Medici, was this. As a man of intellect, and still more as a man of God, he had conceived a horror of the government of bankers; and the idea of putting the emblems of supreme magistracy in hands that might have been defiled by unlawful gain, was to him the subversion of every social principle. This was precisely the reason why he preached so much to the Florentines the love of their democratic constitution,*(footnote: * He wished that a patriotic song should be composed, and that it should be learned by all the citizens. " Dovete fare una canzona die ognuna la sappia." But he did not ask for a song suited to the orgies of a revolution. So far from inviting the people to take part in the government, he dissuaded them from it as much as possible. " Lassate governare da chi governa e non voler ingerirti alle dignita, ma lasciafare a Dio," etc. (Sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent.) In that for the Tuesday after the Third Sunday of Lent he uses these beautiful expressions : "Cittadini miei, quando voi andate su nei vostri consigli, se voi foste umili, Iddio vi illuminaria; se voi non foste ambitiosi e tanto superbi, voi avreste fatto ora mille cose che non avete falte." Assuredly this spirit of humility is not the spirit of modern republicanism. On the other'hand, it is easy to see, from Savonarola's political views taken together, that he would have preferred the worst of republics to a certain kind of monarchies.--end of footnote) never wearying of repeating to them, that it was the only constitution appropriate to their wants, and that God in his mercy had sent it to them as a remedy for their civil discords, which, looking to the intention of the preacher, by no means signified that this form was the most desirable of all; for Savonarola was never the champion of republican institutions in the sense which modern political writers have attached to the term, and some of them have been in too great haste to inscribe this great name upon the list of their glorious precursors. In his view, monarchical government was really the best of all, and he boldly declared himself accordingly to his hearers, all of whom were citizens of a rcpublic. (footnote: " Dove e un buon capo, e buono governo, e questo e l'ottimo dei governi." Next after this he put an aristocratic government, like that of the Venetians. Sermon for the Second Sunday in Advent. In the Sermon for the Third Sunday he again expresses his preference for monarchy.) In his favorite Utopia, where he placed the realization of his dearest hopes, all the honors were for royalty; and when making the application of the passage of Zacharias, in which the prophet asks of the angel of the Lord, " What are these two olive-trees upon the right side of the candlestick, and upon the left side thereof? "(footnote: Zacharias, chap. iv.) Savonarola answered, that the one represented the Pope and the prelates who should govern Christendom in the days of its regeneration, and the other the temporal princes, who should all labor, at that time, for the defence of the Church and the propagation of the Christian faith.*(footnote: Sermon for Saturday after the Fifth Sunday in Lent.) And if he used another language as often as the government of Florence was concerned, it was solely because he did not find there the elements which were necessary for establishing a monarchy on its true foundation, and because he believed that the power of a single individual, whether placed in the hands of the Medici or of any other banker deriving the same influence from his wealth, would turn, as it had already done, to the benefit of those profane and pagan views which had held such sway during the century which was then drawing to a close.
The recital of the catastrophe which terminated the life of this great man does not belong to my subject; but the authority which I claim for him as a reformer of art and of Christian poetry does not permit me to pass over in silence what has been done since his death to vindicate his memory, which his persecutors and executioners have vainly exerted themselves to blast. The mourning which was worn for him by the most illustrious Florentine artists was already a glorious vindication; but there were others, who were not satisfied with thus rendering a silent homage, and who, almost before the ashes of their hero had had time to grow cold, published in the face of his enemies apologetic writings, paintings not less significant, and medals on which the most glorious ascriptions were bestowed upon him.(footnote: " Si vedono uscire dei publici scritti, delle significanti pitture, delle medaglie che lo van decorando dei titoli piu gloriosi." Bartoli, Apologia di Savonarola, p. 177.)
At Rome, it was the pencil of Raphael which took upon itself his apotheosis, by placing him amongst the most illustrious doctors of the Church in the Dispute upon the Blessed Sacrament. Ten years had at that time passed away since the death of Savonarola; Julius the Second, a man capable of appreciating such a genius, had succeeded Alexander Borgia on the pontifical throne, and had put an end to the scandals which that family had occasioned in all Italy. The severe and despotic character of Julius will not allow us to suppose that Raphael would have ventured to take upon himself to introduce the portrait of Savonarola into one of the halls of the Vatican, if the thought had not been suggested to him by the Pope himself, who doubtless preferred this mode of reparation, as better securing publicity at the moment and perpetuity for the future.
In the course of the sixteenth century, men were not satisfied with believing him to be innocent, they also believed him to be a saint; and this belief gained so strong a footing amongst the faithful, that it was thought necessary at Rome to make a thorough examination into the case of Savonarola, and into the part which Alexander the Sixth had taken in his condemnation. This investigation was made in connection with the process for the beatification of St. Catharine of Ricci, against whom it had been urged, that she had often implored his intercession as a saint; and throughout the whole time during which this trial was pending, St. Philip Neri, who kept in his room a portrait of Savonarola, represented with a glory around his head, prayed to God, with a fervor that rose even to an agony, that this immortal champion of the Christian faith might not be dishonored by a second condemnation. We are told, that, having learned beforehand, by a special revelation, that the memory of his hero would come forth pure and spotless from this last ordeal, it was impossible for him to control the transports of an exultation, which was shared by a large number of the faithful, in whose eyes this result was equivalent to a formal canonization; and on this point the authorities at Rome carried their indulgence of the popular opinion so far, as to allow medals and portraits in bronze, bearing inscriptions in which the Blessed Fra Girolamo Savonarola was styled Doctor and Martyr, to be exposed for sale, and to circulate without restraint amongst pious families.*(footnote: * Bartoli, p. 183 fit soq.)
At Florence his name has never ceased to, be popular; and if the torrent of Paganism broke through the barrier which lie had for ten years opposed to it, and inundated anew every branch of the national literature, it was not so with painting, wherein that spiritualism which he had restored and made operative was preserved and prolonged far into the sixteenth century, by a small number of Christian artists, in whose hearts enthusiasm for their art remained thenceforward inseparable from veneration for the memory of him whom they had regarded not less as their master than as their spiritual father.
We add here to what we have said by way of preface to the translation of this chapter of M. Rio on Savonarola, that we have introduced it, not so much for the purpose of olfering a vindication of the character of that extraordinary monk, as for the earnest and eloquent protest it contains against Paganism, and its excellent views in regard to Christian art. A critical reader of M. Rio's account may be inclined to think that Savonarola, after all, was something of an enthusiast, and in his zeal against Paganism forgot the tender charity of the Gospel, and the filial respect due to the Vicar of Jesus Christ on earth. According to M. Rio's eloquent apology, it would seem that he had studied the prophetic writings of the Old Testament till he fancied himself, as it were, one of the old prophets, supernaturally sent on an extraordinary mission, and by that fact raised above all ordinary authority established by Christ in his Church. Whether this persuasion was the effect of pride, or of partial insanity, it is not easy to say ; but although he does not appear to have fallen into any particular heresy, it is clear that practically he exhibited an innovating and arrogant spirit, and said and did things which he could do lawfully only on the condition of having received from God, not merely the ordinary mission of a priest, but the extraordinary mission of a prophet or an apostle, which cannot be assumed, as is evident from his want of respect for the ordinary authority of the Church. The saints, no doubt, often are moved by the extraordinary inspirations of the Holy Ghost, but never to set themselves above the ordinary authority of the Church, or to act in opposition to it. They are never arrogant, but always humble and docile, and exceedingly modest in claiming to act by supernatural authority.
But aside from his claims to supernatural authority, and the acts which resulted as a necessary consequence from them, Savonarola's principles and doctrines appear to have been sound. His protest against Paganism, which was in the latter half of the fifteenth century reappearing in literature and art, was not misplaced nor uncalled for. That he exaggerated the danger is possible ; that he carried his invectives farther than was necessary is also possible; but that he was right in opposing the paganizing tendency of his time, as well as correct in his literary and artistic principles, M. Rio seems to us to have established beyond all doubt. Certainly we are not among those who object to the study of the ancient classics or the ancient models of art, and if that study were wrong, or even hazardous to the scholar or the artist, the highest authority in the Church would long since have officially condemned it; but that in the time of Savonarola it had become excessive, and led to the depreciation of the labors of Christian scholars and artists, there can be little doubt, as there is little doubt that just now there is, in some quarters, an undue appreciation of mediseval art. Not all that is classic is Antichristian, nor all that is Gothic Christian. It is as lawful to offer up the Holy Sacrifice in a temple constructed on Grecian, as in one constructed on Gothic principles of architecture, and in writing it is as lawful to copy the style, though not the thought, of Cicero or Horace, as of St, Augustine or St. Prosper. Nevertheless, the passion for heathen literature and art in the time of Savonarola involved in no slight degree the introduction of heathen morals and manners. It exalted Gentile antiquity above Christian antiquity, and threatened through literature and art, and the licentiousness of manners, to corrupt the faith of Christians. In rising against it in his day, as M. Rio in ours, Savonarola deserved the honor and gratitude of every Catholic. M. Rio, in the chapter translated, has, in stating the principles the monk opposed to the paganizing tendency of his times, done us a real service, and given us a chapter that we may read with great pleasure and profit, independently of its bearing on the character of Savonarola. It was under this relation that we read and admired the chapter, and under this same relation we lay it before our readers. We honor and esteem M. Rio, but he has a theory, in general a true theory, of art, to which he is enthusiastically attached, and it is possible, after all, that the pleasure of finding his own views clearly and eloquently set forth by the Florentine monk has been so great as to blind him in some respects to the real bearings of certain things objected to by others in Savonarola's conduct, made him, in fact, regard as more venial than they were the reformer's severity to Lorenzo de' Medici, and his disrespect to the Vicar of our Lord. But we are not qualified, with our present information on the subject, to discuss it, and we have made these remarks only for the purpose of not committing ourselves to a view that may turn out to be not wholly correct.