23 May

An Italian Dominican friar, preacher and de facto ruler of Florence, Girolamo Savonarola is burned at the stake in Florence on this day in 1498.

Savonarola (21 September 1452 – 23 May 1498) was known for his prophecies of civic glory, the destruction of secular art and culture, and his calls for Christian renewal. He denounced clerical corruption, despotic rule and the exploitation of the poor. He prophesied the coming of a biblical flood and a new Cyrus from the north who would reform the Church. In September 1494, when Charles VIII of France invaded Italy and threatened Florence, such prophesies seemed on the verge of fulfilment. While Savonarola intervened with the French king, the Florentines expelled the ruling Medici family and, at the friar’s urging, established a “popular” republic. Declaring that Florence would be the New Jerusalem, “richer, more powerful, more glorious than ever”, he instituted an extreme puritanical campaign, enlisting the active help of Florentine youth.

In 1495 when Florence refused to join Pope Alexander VI’s Holy League against the French, the Vatican summoned Savonarola to Rome. He disobeyed and further defied the pope by preaching under a ban, highlighting his campaign for reform with processions, bonfires of the vanities, and pious theatricals. In retaliation, the Pope excommunicated him in May 1497, and threatened to place Florence under an interdict. A trial by fire proposed by a rival Florentine preacher in April 1498 to test Savonarola’s divine mandate turned into a fiasco, and popular opinion turned against him. Savonarola and two of his supporting friars were imprisoned. Under torture, Savonarola confessed that he had invented his visions and prophecies. The Church and civil authorities condemned, hanged, and burned the three friars in the main square of Florence.