The belief in God at earlier times had its source and chief support in Christianity and the outward symbol of Christianity, the Church. When the Church became corrupt, men ought to have drawn a distinction, and kept their religion in spite of all. But this is more easily said than done. It is not every people which is calm enough, or dull enough, to tolerate a lasting contradiction between a principle and its outward expression. But history does not record a heavier responsibility than that which rests upon the decaying Church. She set up as absolute truth, and by the most violent means, a doctrine which she had distorted to serve her own aggrandizement. Safe in the sense of her inviolability, she abandoned herself to the most scandalous profligacy, and, in order to maintain herself in this state, she levelled mortal blows against the conscience and the intellect of nations, and drove multitudes of the noblest spirits, whom she had inwardly estranged, into the arms of unbelief and despair.
Here we are met by the question: Why did not Italy, intellectually so great, react more energetically against the hierarchy; why did she not accomplish a reformation like that which occurred in Germany, and accomplish it at an earlier date?
A plausible answer has been Italian mind, we are told, never of the hierarchy, while the origin given to this question. The went further than the denial and the vigor of the German Reformation was due to its positive religious doctrines, most of all to the doctrines of justification by faith and of the inefficacy of good works.
It is certain that these doctrines only worked upon Italy through Germany, and this not till the power of Spain was sufficiently great to root them out without difficulty, partly by itself and partly by means of the Papacy, and its instruments.105 Nevertheless, in the earlier religious movements of Italy, from the Mystics of the thirteenth century down to Savonarola, there was a large amount of positive religious doctrine which, like the very definite Christianity of the Huguenots, failed to achieve success only because circumstances were against it. Mighty events like the Reformation elude, as respects their details, their outbreak and their development, the deductions of the philosophers, however clearly the necessity of them as a whole may be demonstrated. The movements of the human spirit, its sudden flashes, its expansions and its pauses, must for ever remain a mystery to our eyes, since we can but know this or that of the forces at work in it, never all of them together.
The feeling of the upper and middle classes in Italy with regard to the Church at the time when the Renaissance culminated, was compounded of deep and contemptuous aversion, of acquiescence in the outward ecclesiastical customs which entered into daily life, and of a sense of dependence on sacraments and ceremonies. The great personal influence of religious preachers may be added as a fact characteristic of Italy.
That hostility to the hierarchy, which displays itself more especially from the time of Dante onwards in Italian literature and history, has been fully treated by several writers. We have already said something of the attitude of public opinion with regard to the Papacy. Those who wish for the strongest evidence which the best authorities offer us, can find it in the famous passages of Machiavelli's 'Discorsi,' and in the unmutilated edition of Guicciardini. Outside the Roman Curia, some respect seems to have been felt for the best men among the bishops, and for many of the parochial clergy. On the other hand, the mere holders of benefices, the canons and the monks were held in almost universal suspicion, and were often the objects of the most scandalous aspersions, extending to the whole of their order.
It has been said that the monks were made the scapegoats for the whole clergy, for the reason that none but they could be ridiculed without danger. But this is certainly incorrect. They are introduced so frequently in the novels and comedies, because these forms of literature need fixed and well-known types where the imagination of the reader can easily fill up an outline. Besides which, the novelists do not as a fact spare the secular clergy. In the third place, we have abundant proof in the rest of Italian literature that men could speak boldly enough about the Papacy and the Court of Rome. In works of imagination we cannot expect to find criticism of this kind. Fourthly, the monks, when attacked, were sometimes able to take a terrible vengeance.
It is nevertheless true that the monks were the most unpopular class of all, and that they were reckoned a living proof of the worthlessness of conventual life, of the whole ecclesiastical organization, of the system of dogma, and of religion altogether, according as men pleased, rightly or wrongly, to draw their conclusions. We may also assume that Italy retained a clearer recollection of the origin of the two great mendicant orders than other countries, and had not forgotten that they were the chief agents in the reaction against what is called the heresy of the thirteenth century, that is to say, against an unruly and vigorous movement of the modern Italian spirit. And that spiritual police which was permanently entrusted to the Dominicans certainly never excited any other feeling than secret hatred and contempt.
After reading the 'Decameron' and the novels of Franco Sacchetti, we might imagine that the vocabulary of abuse directed at the monks and nuns was exhausted. But towards the time of the Reformation this abuse became still fiercer. To say nothing of Aretino, who in the 'Ragionamenti' uses conventual life merely as a pretext for giving free play to his own poisonous nature, we may quote one author as typical of the rest--Masuccio, in the first ten of his fifty novels. They are written in a tone of the deepest indignation, and with the purpose to make this indignation general; and are dedicated to men in the highest position, such as King Ferrante and Prince Alfonso of Naples. The stories are many of them old, and some of them familiar to readers of Boccaccio. But others reject, with a frightful realism, the actual state of things at Naples. The way in which the priests befool and plunder the people by means of spurious miracles, added to their own scandalous lives, is enough to drive any thoughtful observer to despair. We read of the Minorite friars who travelled to collect alms: 'They cheat, steal, and fornicate, and when they are at the end of their resources, they set up as saints and work miracles, one displaying the cloak of St. Vincent, another the handwriting of St. Bernardino, a third the bridle of Capistrano's donkey.' Others 'bring with them confederates who pretend to be blind or afflicted with some mortal disease, and after touching the hem of the monk's cowl, or the relics which he carries, are healed before the eyes of the multitude. All then shout "Misericordia," the bells are rung, and the miracle is recorded in a solemn protocol.' Or else the monk in the pulpit is denounced as a liar by another who stands below among the audience; the accuser is immediately possessed by the devil, and then healed by the preacher. The whole thing was a prearranged comedy, in which, however, the principal with his assistant made so much money that he was able to buy a bishopric from a Cardinal, on which the two confederates lived comfortably to the end of their days. Masuccio makes no great distinction between Franciscans and Dominicans, finding the one worth as much as the other. 'And yet the foolish people lets itself be drawn into their hatreds and divisions, and quarrels about them in public places, and calls itself "franceschino" or "domenichino." ' The nuns are the exclusive property of the monks. Those of the former who have anything to do with the laity, are prosecuted and put in prison, while others are wedded in due form to the monks, with the accompaniments of mass, a marriage-contract, and a liberal indulgence in food and wine. 'I myself,' says the author, 'have been there not once, but several times, and seen it all with my own eyes. The nuns afterwards bring forth pretty little monks or else use means to hinder that result. And if anyone charges me with falsehood, let him search the nunneries well, and he will find there as many little bores as in Bethlehem at Herod's time.' These things, and the like, are among the secrets of monastic life. The monks are by no means too strict with one another in the confessional, and impose a Paternoster in cases where they would refuse all absolution to a layman as if he were a heretic. 'Therefore may the earth open and swallow up the wretches alive, with those who protect them.' In another place Masuccio, speaking of the fact that the influence of the monks depends chiefly on the dread of another world, utters the following remarkable wish: 'The best punishment for them would be for God to abolish Purgatory; they would then receive no more alms, and would be forced to go back to their spades.'
If men were free to write, in the time of Ferrante, and to him, in this strain, the reason is perhaps to be found in the fact that the king himself had been incensed by a false miracle which had been palmed off on him. An attempt had been made to urge him to a persecution of the Jews, like that carried out in Spain and imitated by the Popes, by producing a tablet with an inscription bearing the name of St. Cataldus, said to have been buried at Taranto, and afterwards dug up again. When he discovered the fraud, the monks defied him. He had also managed to detect and expose a pretended instance of fasting, as his father, Alfonso, had done before him. The Court, certainly, was no accomplice in maintaining these blind superstitions.
We have been quoting from an author who wrote in earnest, and who by no means stands alone in his judgement. All the Italian literature of that time is full of ridicule and invective aimed at the begging friars. It can hardly be doubted that the Renaissance would soon have destroyed these two Orders, had it not been for the German Reformation and the Counter-Reformation which intervened. Their saints and popular preachers could hardly have saved them. It would only have been necessary to come to an understanding at a favourable moment with a Pope like Leo X, who despised the Mendicant Orders. If the spirit of the age found them ridiculous or repulsive? they could no longer be anything but an embarrassment to the Church. And who can say what fate was in store for the Papacy itself, if the Reformation had not saved it?
The influence which the Father Inquisitor of a Dominican monastery was able habitually to exercise in the city where it was situated, was in the latter part of the fifteenth century just considerable enough to hamper and irritate cultivated people, but not strong enough to extort any lasting fear or obedience. It was no longer possible to punish men for their thoughts, as it once was, and those whose tongues wagged most impudently against the clergy could easily keep clear of heretical doctrine. Except when some powerful party had an end to serve, as in the case of Savonarola, or when there was a question of the use of magical arts, as was often the case in the cities of North Italy, we seldom read at this time of men being burnt at the stake. The Inquisitors were in some instances satisfied with the most superficial retraction, in others it even happened that the victim was saved out of their hands on the way to the place of execution. In Bologna (1452) the priest Niccolo da Verona had been publicly degraded on a wooden scaffold in front of San Domenico as a wizard and profaner of the sacraments, and was about to be led away to the stake, when he was set free by a gang of armed men, sent by Achille Malvezzi, a noted friend of heretics and violator of nuns. The legate, Cardinal Bessarion, was only able to catch and hang one of the party; Malvezzi lived on in peace.
It deserves to be noticed that the higher monastic orders-- e.g. Benedictines, with their many branches--were, notwithstanding their great wealth and easy lives, far less disliked than the mendicant friars. For ten novels which treat of 'frati' hardly one can be found in which a 'monaco' is the subject and the victim. It was no small advantage to these orders that they were founded earlier, and not as an instrument of police, and that they did not interfere with private life. They contained men of learning, wit, and piety, but the average has been described by a member of it, Firenzuola, who says: 'These well-fed gentlemen with the capacious cowls do not pass their time in barefooted journeys and in sermons, but sit in elegant slippers with their hands crossed over their paunches, in charming cells wainscoted with cyprus-wood. And when they are obliged to quit the house, they ride comfortably, as if for their amusement, on mules and sleek, quiet horses. They do not overstrain their minds with the study of many books, for fear lest knowledge might put the pride of Lucifer in the place of monkish simplicity.'
Those who are familiar with the literature of the time, will see that we have only brought forward what is absolutely necessary for the understanding of the subject. That the reputation attaching to the monks and the secular clergy must have shattered the faith of multitudes in all that is sacred is, of course, obvious.
And some of the judgements which we read are terrible; we will quote one of them in conclusion, which has been published only lately and is but little known. The historian Guicciardini who was for many years in the service of the Medicean Popes, says (1529) in his 'Aphorisms': 'No man is more disgusted than I am with the ambition, the avarice and the profligacy of the priests, not only because each of these vices is hateful in itself, but because each and all of them are most unbecoming in those who declare themselves to be men in special relations with God, and also because they are vices so opposed to one another, that they can only co-exist in very singular natures. Nevertheless, my position at the Court of several Popes forced me to desire their greatness for the sake of my own interest. But, had it not been for this, I should have loved Martin Luther as myself, not in order to free myself from the laws which Christianity, as generally understood and explained, lays upon us, but in order to see this swarm of scoundrels (questa caterva di scelerati) put back into their proper place, so that they may be forced to live either without vices or without power.'
The same Guicciardini is of opinion that we are in the dark as to all that is supernatural, that philosophers and theologians have nothing but nonsense to tell us about it, that miracles occur in every religion and prove the truth of none in particular, and that all of them may be explained as unknown phenomena of nature. The faith which moves mountains, then common among the followers of Savonarola, is mentioned by Guicciardini as a curious fact, but without any bitter remark.
Notwithstanding this hostile public opinion, the clergy and the monks had the great advantage that the people were used to them, and that their existence was interwoven with the everyday existence of all. This is the advantage which every old and powerful institution possesses. Everybody had some cowled or frocked relative, some prospect of assistance or future gain from the treasure of the Church; and in the centre of Italy stood the Court of Rome, where men sometimes became rich in a moment. Yet it must never be forgotten that all this did not hinder people from writing and speaking freely. The authors of the most scandalous satires were themselves mostly monks or beneficed priests. Poggio, who wrote the Facetiae, was a clergyman; Francesco Berni, the satirist, held a canonry; Teofilo Folengo, the author of the Orlandino, was a Benedictine, certainly by no means a faithful one; Matteo Bandello, who held up his own order to ridicule, was a Dominican, and nephew of a general of this order. Were they encouraged to write by the sense that they ran no risks. Or did they feel an inward need to clear themselves personally from the infamy which attached to their order? Or were they moved by that selfish pessimism which takes for its maxim, 'it will last our time'. Perhaps all of these motives were more or less at work. In the case of Folengo, the unmistakable influence of Lutheranism must be added.
The sense of dependence on rites and sacraments, which we have already touched upon in speaking of the Papacy, is not surprising among that part of the people which still believed in the Church. Among those who were more emancipated, it testifies to the strength of youthful impressions, and to the magical force of traditional symbols. The universal desire of dying men for priestly absolution shows that the last remnant of the dread of hell had not, even in the case of one like Vitellozzo, been altogether extinguished. It would hardly be possible to find a more instructive instance than this. The doctrine taught by the Church of the 'character indelibilis' of the priesthood, independently of the personality of the priest, had so far borne fruit that it was possible to loathe the individual and still desire his spiritual gifts. It is true, nevertheless, that there were defiant natures like Galeotto of Mirandola, who died unabsolved in 1499) after living for sixteen years under the ban of the Church. All this time the city lay under an interdict on his account, so that no mass was celebrated and no Christian burial took place.
A splendid contrast to all this is offered by the power exercised over the nation by its great Preachers of Repentance. Other countries of Europe were from time to time moved by the words of saintly monks, but only superficially, in comparison with the periodical upheaval of the Italian conscience. The only man, in fact, who produced a similar effect in Germany during the fifteenth century, was an Italian, born in the Abruzzi, named Giovanni Capistrano. Those natures which bear within them this religious vocation and this commanding earnestness, wore then in Northern countries an intuitive and mystical aspect. In the South they were practical and expansive, and shared in the national gift of oratorical skill. The North produced an 'Imitation of Christ,' which worked silently, at first only within the walls of the monastery, but worked for the ages; the South produced men who made on their fellows an immediate and mighty but passing impression.
This impression consisted chiefly in the awakening of the conscience. The sermons were moral exhortations free from abstract notions and full of practical application, rendered more impressive by the saintly and ascetic character of the preacher, and by the miracles which, even against his will, the inflamed imagination of the people attributed to him. The most powerful argument used was not the threat of Hell and Purgatory, but rather the living results of the 'maledizione,' the temporal ruin wrought on the individual by the curse which clings to wrong-doing. The grieving of Christ and the Saints has its consequences in this life. And only thus could men, sunk in passion and guilt, be brought to repentance and amendment--which was the chief object of these sermons.
Among these preachers were Bernardino da Siena, Alberto da Sarzana, Jacopo della Marca, Giovanni Capistrano, Roberto da Lecce and others j and finally, Girolamo Savonarola. No prejudice of the day was stronger than that against the mendicant friar, and this they overcame. They were criticized and ridiculed by a scornful humanism; but when they raised their voices, no one gave heed to the humanists. The thing was no novelty, and the scoffing Florentines had already in the fourteenth century learned to caricature it whenever it appeared in the pulpit. But no sooner did Savonarola come forward than he carried the people so triumphantly with him, that soon all their beloved art and culture melted away ill the furnace which he lighted. Even the grossest profanation done to the cause by hypocritical monks, who got up an effect in the audience by means of confederates, could not bring the thing itself into discredit. Men kept on laughing at the ordinary monkish sermons, with their spurious miracles and manufactured relics; but did not cease to honour the great and genuine preachers. These are a true speciality of the fifteenth century.
The Order--generally that of St. Francis, and more particularly the so-called Observantines--sent them out according as they were wanted. This was commonly the case when there was some important public or private feud in a city, or some alarming outbreak of violence, immorality, or disease. When once the reputation of a preacher was made, the cities were all anxious to hear him even without any special occasion. He went wherever his superiors sent him. A special form of this work was the preaching of a Crusade against the Turks; but here we have to speak more particularly of the exhortations to repentance.
The order of these, when they were treated methodically, seems to have followed the customary list of the deadly sins. The more pressing, however, the occasion is, the more directly does the preacher make for his main point. He begins perhaps in one of the great churches of the Order, or in the cathedral. Soon the largest piazza is too small for the crowds which throng from every side to hear him, and he himself can hardly move without risking his life. The sermon is commonly followed by a great procession; but the first magistrates of the city, who take him in their midst, can hardly save him from the multitude of women who throng to kiss his hands and feet, and cut off fragments from his cowl.
The most immediate consequences which follow from the preacher's denunciations of usury, luxury, and scandalous fashions, are the opening of the gaols--which meant no more than the discharge of the poorest debtors--and the burning of various instruments of luxury and amusement, whether innocent or not. Among these are dice, cards, games of all kinds, written incantations, masks, musical instruments, song-books, false hair, and so forth. All these would then be gracefully arranged on a scaffold ('talamo'), a figure of the devil fastened to the top, and then the whole set on fire.
Then came the turn of the more hardened consciences. Men who had long never been near the confessional, now acknowledged their sins. Ill-gotten gains were restored, and insults which might have borne fruit in blood retracted. Orators like Bernardino of Siena entered diligently into all the details of the daily life of men, and the moral laws which are involved in it. Few theologians nowadays would feel tempted to give a morning sermon 'on contracts, restitutions, the public debt (monte), and the portioning of daughters,' like that which he once delivered in the Cathedral at Florence. Imprudent speakers easily fell into the mistake of attacking particular classes, professions, or offices, with such energy that the enraged hearers proceeded to violence against those whom the preacher had denounced. A sermon which Bernardino once preached in Rome (1424) had another consequence besides a bonfire of vanities on the Capitol: 'After this,' we read, 'the witch Finicella was burnt, because by her diabolical arts she had killed many children and bewitched many other persons; and all Rome went to see the sight.'
But the most important aim of the preacher was, as has been already said, to reconcile enemies and persuade them to give up thoughts of vengeance. Probably this end was seldom attained till towards the close of a course of sermons, when the tide of penitence flooded the city, and when the air resounded with the cry of the whole people: 'Misericordia! ' Then followed those solemn embracings and treaties of peace, which even previous bloodshed on both sides could not hinder. Banished men were recalled to the city to take part in these sacred transactions. It appears that these 'Paci' were on the whole faithfully observed, even after the mood which prompted them was over; and then the memory of the monk was blessed from generation to generation. But there were sometimes terrible crises like those in the families Della Valle and Croce in Rome (1482) where even the great Roberto da Lecce raised his voice in vain. Shortly before Holy Week he had preached to immense crowds in the square before the Minerva. But on the night before Maundy Thursday a terrible combat took place in front of the Palazzo della Valle, near the Ghetto. In the morning Pope Sixtus gave orders for its destruction, and then performed the customary ceremonies of the day. On Good Friday Roberto preached again with a crucifix in his hand; but he and his hearers could do nothing but weep.
Violent natures, which had fallen into contradictions with themselves, often resolved to enter a convent, under the impression made by these men. Among such were not only brigands and criminals of every sort, but soldiers without employment. This resolve was stimulated by their admiration of the holy man, and by the desire to copy at least his outward position.
The concluding sermon is a general benediction, summed up in the words: 'la pace sia con voi!' Throngs of hearers accompany the preacher to the next city, and there listen for a second time to the whole course of sermons.
The enormous influence exercised by these preachers made it important, both for the clergy and for the government, at least not to have them as opponents; one means to this end was to permit only monks or priests who had received at all events the lesser consecration, to enter the pulpit, so that the Order or Corporation to which they belonged was, to some extent, responsible for them. But it was not easy to make the rule absolute, since the Church and pulpit had long been used as a means of publicity in many ways, judicial, educational, and others, and since even sermons were sometimes delivered by humanists and other laymen. There existed, too, in Italy, a dubious class of persons who were neither monks nor priests, and who yet had renounced the world--that is to say, the numerous class of hermits who appeared from time to time in the pulpit on their own authority, and often carried the people with them. A case of this kind occurred at Milan in 1516 after the second French conquest, certainly at a time when public order was much disturbed. A Tuscan hermit, Hieronymus of Siena, possibly an adherent of Savonarola, maintained his place for months together in the pulpit of the Cathedral, denounced the hierarchy with great violence, caused a new chandelier and a new altar to be set up in the church, worked miracles, and only abandoned the field after a long and desperate struggle. During the decades in which the fate of Italy was decided, the spirit of prophecy was unusually active, and nowhere where it displayed itself was it confined to any one particular class. We know with what a tone of true prophetic defiance the hermits came forward before the sack of Rome. In default of any eloquence of their own, these men made use of messengers with symbols of one kind or another, like the ascetic near Siena (1496) who sent a 'little hermit,' that is a pupil, into the terrified city with a skull upon a pole to which was attached a paper with a threatening text from the Bible.
Nor did the monks themselves scruple to attack princes, governments, the clergy, or even their own order. A direct exhortation to overthrow a despotic house, like that uttered by Jacopo Bussolaro at Pavia in the fourteenth century, hardly occurs again in the following period: but there is no want of courageous reproofs, addressed even to the Pope in his own chapel, and of naive political advice given in the presence of rulers who by no means held themselves in need of it. In the Piazza del Castello at Milan, a blind preacher from the Incoronata--consequently an Augustinian--ventured in 1494 to exhort Lodovico il Moro from the pulpit: 'My lord, beware of showing the French the way, else you will repent it.' There were further prophetic monks who, without exactly preaching political sermons, drew such appalling pictures of the future that the hearers almost lost their senses. After the election of Leo X, in the year 1513 a whole association of these men, twelve Franciscan monks in all, journeyed through the various districts of Italy, of which one or other was assigned to each preacher. The one who appeared in Florence, fra Francesco da Montepulcian, struck terror into the whole people. The alarm was not diminished by the exaggerated reports of his prophecies which reached those who were too far off to hear him. After one of his sermons he suddenly died 'of pain in the chest.' The people thronged in such numbers to kiss the feet of the corpse that it had to be secretly buried in the night. But the newly awakened spirit of prophecy, which seized upon even women and peasants, could not be controlled without great difficulty. 'In order to restore to the people their cheerful humour, the Medici--Giuliano, Leo's brother, and Lorenzo--gave on St. John's Day, 1514, those splendid festivals, tournaments, processions, and hunting-parties, which were attended by many distinguished persons from Rome, and among them, though disguised, no less than six cardinals.'
But the greatest of the prophets and apostles had already been burnt in Florence in the year 1498--Fra Girolamo Savonarola of Ferrara. We must content ourselves with saying a few words respecting him.
The instrument by means of which he transformed and ruled the city of Florence (1494-8) was his eloquence. Of this the meagre reports that are left to us, which were taken down mostly on the spot, give us evidently a very imperfect notion. It was not that he possessed any striking outward advantages, for voice, accent, and rhetorical skill constituted precisely his weakest side; and those who required the preacher to be a stylist, went to his rival Fra Mariano da Genazzano. The eloquence of Savonarola was the expression of a lofty and commanding personality, the like of which was not seen again till the time of Luther. He himself held his own influence to be the result of a divine illumination, and could therefore, without presumption, assign a very high place to the office of the preacher, who, in the great hierarchy of spirits, occupies, according to him, the next place below the angels.
This man, whose nature seemed made of fire, worked another and greater miracle than any of his oratorical triumphs. His own Dominican monastery of San Marco, and then all the Dominican monasteries of Tuscany, became like-minded with himself, and undertook voluntarily the work of inward reform. When we reflect what the monasteries then were, and what measureless difficulty attends the least change where monks are concerned, we are doubly astonished at so complete a revolution. While the reform was still in progress large numbers of Savonarola's followers entered the Order, and thereby greatly facilitated his plans. Sons of the first houses in Florence entered San Marco as novices.
This reform of the Order in a particular province was the first step to a national Church, in which, had the reformer himself lived longer, it must infallibly have ended. Savonarola, indeed, desired the regeneration of the whole Church) and near the end of his career sent pressing exhortations to the great potentates urging them to call together a Council. But in Tuscany his Order and party were the only organs of his spirit--the salt of the earth--while the neighbouring provinces remained in their old condition. Fancy and asceticism tended more and more to produce in him a state of mind to which Florence appeared as the scene of the kingdom of God upon earth.
The prophecies, whose partial fulfilment conferred on Savonarola a supernatural credit, were the means by which the ever active Italian imagination seized control of the soundest and most cautious natures. At first the Franciscans of the Osservanza, trusting in the reputation which had been bequeathed to them by St. Bernardino of Siena, fancied that they could compete with the great Dominican. They put one of their own men into the Cathedral pulpit, and outbid the Jeremiads of Savonarola by still more terrible warnings, till Piero de' Medici, who then still ruled over Florence, forced them both to be silent. Soon after, when Charles XII came to Italy and the Medici were expelled, as Savonarola had clearly foretold, he alone was believed in.
It must be frankly confessed that he never judged his own premonitions and visions critically, as he did those of others. In the funeral oration on Pico della Mirandola, he deals somewhat harshly with his dead friend. Since Pico, notwithstanding an inner voice which came from God, would not enter the Order, he had himself prayed to God to chasten him for his disobedience. He certainly had not desired his death, and alms and prayers had obtained the favour that Pico's soul was safe in Purgatory. With regard to a comforting vision which Pico had upon his sickbed, in which the Virgin appeared and promised him that he should not die, Savonarola confessed that he had long regarded it as a deceit of the I)evil, till it was revealed to him that the Madonna meant the second and eternal death. If these things and the like are proofs of presumption, it must be admitted that this great soul at all events paid a bitter penalty for his fault. In his last days Savonarola seems to have recognized the vanity of his visions and prophecies. And yet enough inward peace was left to him to enable him to meet death like a Christian. His partisans held to his doctrine and predictions for thirty years longer.
He only undertook the reorganization of the State for the reason that otherwise his enemies would have got the government into their own hands. It is unfair to judge him by the semi-democratic constitution of the beginning of the year 1495, which was neither better nor worse than other Florentine constitutions.
He was at bottom the most unsuitable man who could be found for such a work. His idea was a theocracy, in which all men were to bow in blessed humility before the Unseen, and all conflicts of passion wert not even to be able to arise. His whole mind is written in that inscription on the Palazzo della Signoria, the substance of which was his maxim as early as 1495, and which was solemnly renewed by his partisans in 1527: 'Jesus Christus Rex populi Florentini S.P.Q. decreto creatus.' He stood in no more relation to mundane affairs and their actual conditions than any other inhabitant of a monastery. Man, according to him, has only to attend to those things which make directly for his salvation.
This temper comes out clearly in his opinions on ancient literature: 'The only good thing which we owe to Plato and Aristotle, is that they brought forward many arguments which we can use against the heretics. Yet they and other philosophers are now in Hell. An old woman knows more about the Faith than Plato. It would be good for religion if many books that seem useful were destroyed. When there were not so many books and not so many arguments ("ragioni naturali") and disputes, religion grew more quickly than it has done since.' He wished to limit the classical instruction of the schools to Homer, Virgil and Cicero, and to supply the rest from Jerome and Augustine. Not only Ovid and Catullus, but Terence and Tibullus, were to be banished. This may be no more than the expressions of a nervous morality, but elsewhere in a special work he admits that science as a whole is harmful. He holds that only a few people should have to do with it, in order that the tradition of human knowledge may not perish, and particularly that there may be no want of intellectual athletes to confute the sophisms of the heretics. For all others, grammar, morals, and religious teaching ('litterae sacrae') suffice. Culture and education would thus return wholly into the charge of the monks, and as, in his opinion, the 'most learned and the most pious' are to rule over the States and empires, these rulers would also be monks. Whether he really foresaw this conclusion, we need not inquire.
A more childish method of reasoning cannot be imagined. The simple reflection that the newborn antiquity and the boundless enlargement of human thought and knowledge which was due to it, might give splendid confirmation to a religion able to adapt itself thereto, seems never even to have occurred to the good man. He wanted to forbid what he could not deal with by any other means. In fact, he was anything but liberal, and was ready, for example, to send the astrologers to the same stake at which he afterwards himself died.
How mighty must have been the soul which dwelt side by side with this narrow intellect! And what a flame must have glowed within him before he could constrain the Florentines, possessed as they were by the passion for knowledge and culture, to surrender themselves to a man who could thus reason!
How much of their heart and their worldliness they were ready to sacrifice for his sake is shown by those famous bonfires by the side of which all the 'talami' of Bernardino da Siena and others were certainly of small account.
All this could not, however, be effected without the agency of a tyrannical police. He did not shrink from the most vexatious interferences with the much-prized freedom of Italian private life, using the espionage of servants on their masters as a means of carrying out his moral reforms. That transformation of public and private life which the Iron Calvin was but just able to effect at Geneva with the aid of a permanent state of siege necessarily proved impossible at Florence, and the attempt only served to drive the enemies of Savonarola into a more implacable hostility. Among his most unpopular measures may be mentioned those organized parties of boys, who forced their way into the houses and laid violent hands on any objects which seemed suitable for the bonfire. As it happened that they were sometimes sent away with a beating, they were afterwards attended, in order to keep up the figment of a pious 'rising generation,' by a bodyguard of grown-up persons.
On the last day of the Carnival in the year 1497, and on the same day the year after, the great 'Auto da Fe' took place on the Piazza della Signoria. In the center of it rose a high pyramid of several tiers, like the 'rogus' on which the Roman Emperors were commonly burned. On the lowest tier were arranged false beards, masks, and carnival disguises; above came volumes of the Latin and Italian poets, among others Boccaccio, the 'Morgante' of Pulci, and Petrarch, partly in the form of valuable printed parchments and illuminated manuscripts; then women's ornaments and toilet articles, scents, mirrors, veils and false hair; higher up, lutes, harps, chessboards, playing-cards; and finally, on the two uppermost tiers, paintings only, especially of female beauties, partly fancy pictures, bearing the classical names of Lucretia, Cleopatra, or Faustina, partly portraits of the beautiful Bencina, Lena Morella, Bina and Maria de' Lenzi. On the first occasion a Venetian merchant who happened to be present offered the Signoria 22,000 gold florins for the objects on the pyramid; but the only answer he received was that his portrait, too, was painted, and burned along with the rest. When the pile was lighted, the Signoria appeared on the balcony, and the air echoed with song, the sound of trumpets, and the pealing of bells. The people then adjourned to the Piazza di San Marco, where they danced round in three concentric circles. The innermost was composed of monks of the monastery, alternating with boys, dressed as angels; then came young laymen and ecclesiastics; and on the outside, old men, citizens, and priests, the latter crowned with wreaths of olive.
All the ridicule of his victorious enemies, who in truth bad no lack of justification or of talent for ridicule, was unable to dis- credit the memory of Savonarola. The more tragic the fortunes of Italy became, the brighter grew the halo which in the recollection of the survivors surrounded the figure of the great monk and prophet. Though his predictions may not have been confirmed in detail, the great and general calamity which he foretold was fulfilled with appalling truth.
Great, however, as the influence of all these preachers may have been, and brilliantly as Savonarola justified the claim of the monks to this office, nevertheless the order as a while could not escape the contempt and condemnation of the people. Italy^ showed that she could give her enthusiasm only to individuals.