On May 23rd 1498, Girolamo Savonarola, who was the prior of the Dominican convent of San Marco, and two of his fellow monks (Domenico Buonvicini and Silvestro Mariffi), were hanged and burnt at the stake in the Piazza della Signoria. A circular plaque marks the spot where the execution took place and each year, on the anniversary of the execution, it attracts offerings of flowers.
Savonarola (1452-98), who hailed from the city of Ferrara, had become the prior of the convent of San Marco in 1491, at the request of Lorenzo de’ Medici. The Dominicans were known as the Order of the Preachers and in Savonarola it produced one of their most effective. For four years the monk, through the sheer, spell-binding force of his sermons, exercised a powerful hold on the minds and spirits of the Florentine people.
He castigated them for their loose morals and irreligious behaviour and reminded them that the ultimate penalty for their sins was eternal damnation, such as in the following: ‘Repent, O Florence, repent while there is still time. Clothe thyself in the white garments of purification….Behold. The sword has descended. The scourge has fallen. The prophecies are being fulfilled.’
Pico della Mirandola, a prominent Florentine intellectual, claimed that he could feel the hairs rise on the back of his neck when listening to one of his sermons. Savonarola’s effect on a large section of the population was, indeed, dramatic and an envoy from Mantua reported home that the Florentines ‘were wholly given up to piety.’ This, needless to say, was an exaggeration, for opinion in the city was sharply divided. Savonarola’s supporters called themselves the friars, but were referred to derisively, by their opponents, as the ‘snivellers’ and the ‘prayer mumblers’.
Savonarola’s greatest opponent was Pope Alexander VI (r. 1492-1503), a member of the infamous Borgia family. The pope was a worldly man, who openly indulged his own pleasures. The absolute antithesis of the ascetic monk, it was only a matter of time before he engineered the downfall and execution of the man he described as a ‘pestilential heretic.’