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The Burning of the Vanities: Savonarola and the Borgia Pope

By Desmond Seward

In the 1490s Girolamo Savonarola, a visionary friar, dominated Renaissance Florence, terrifying the city with his uncannily accurate prophecies.

Best remembered for his ‘burning of the vanities’ – the destruction of ‘profane art’ in public bonfires – Savonarola has often been caricatured as a hell-fire fanatic. Yet Victorian England saw him as an Italian Martin Luther, while his career inspired George Eliot’s novel, Romola.

Savonarola prophesied the French invasion of Italy with alarming precision and foretold the deaths of Lorenzo the Magnificent and Pope Innocent VIII. Yet there was more to him than prophecies of doom. He restored republican government to Florence and many of its citizens – including Michelangelo and Machiavelli – were convinced that no better Italian government had ever existed.

Savonarola’s undoing was his denunciation and attempt to depose the Borgia Alexander VI, one of the most corrupt popes in history. Had he succeeded, the Reformation might have been avoided. But in the end, Alexander turned the Florentines against Savonarola and destroyed him. They stormed his friary and, after a mockery of a trial during which he was tortured by the strappado and condemned as a heretic, he was hanged and burned in chains.

Dramatic, colourful and compelling, The Burning of the Vanities brings to life an extraordinary man whose story is one of the great Renaissance tragedies.

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