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Fire in the City: Savonarola and the…

Fire in the City: Savonarola and the Struggle for the Soul of Renaissance… (2006)

by Lauro Martines

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Picked this one up because I realized that while Savonarola's name gets bandied about quite a bit, I wasn't actually all that clear on just what it was that he had done. Martines' book, while not the most readable or clearly writing volume, certainly gets at the political and religious drama Savonarola stirred up in Florence, and places the friar in his proper historical context. Perhaps not the best introduction, but better than none. ( )
  JBD1 | Jan 8, 2015 |
The blurb claims that this reads like a novel. That would be a novel written by someone who was simultaneously writing their dissertation, and had accidentally mixed up the chapters I guess. Martines has a couple of narrative chapters, and a couple of thematic chapters, and a couple of wtf chapters... and it doesn't really work. On the upside, lots of information about a great story. ( )
  stillatim | Dec 29, 2013 |
Martines prides himself in being opposed to all mystifications. This may be the source of one of the main problems in the Florentine story about Savonarola. As the Dominican Savonarola was exerting his power through sermons, understanding the mythical messages seems paramount. After the first 100 pages or so (of a hard to read translation), I felt left in the dark as to what the conflict was all about. Given that fifteenth century Florence is one of my favorite research areas and that I am not a novice to Savonarola, this needs explaining:

At the end of the fifteenth century, a greater conflict was in motion. The nascent nation-states were in an exploration frenzy to expand their colonial influence over newfound territories in North and South America. The Jews had to leave Spain within three months in an indescribable Holocaust and the Italian Peninsula was flooded with Melchite Saracens fleeing the forced conversions in Spain. Plague and famine shook the foundations of Florence, which seems to also have had a magnetic attraction for the refugees. The papacy and all of Italy were in sheer uproar. The pope faced an intellectual challenge like none other before─but not from Savonarola. A Renaissance man by the name of Pico della Mirandola had found an entirely new way of absorbing everything there was to learn, be it Christian, Jewish, Zoroastrian, or Muslim. Mirandola’s systematic approach opened up all frontiers and breached all restraints that had been imposed by the church. Achievement became the focal point. Having carried his ideas to the center of spiritual evil in Rome, he had made sure that his words fell on fruitful grounds.

Savonarola was at the other end of Mirandola’s views: his intention was to establish Florence as a “New Jerusalem” and his claim was that God himself had spoken to him. The implication of this can be derived from the context from which the Book of Revelations in the New Testament was born. In the New Jerusalem, the Christians expected the kingdom of heaven to be established in Jerusalem, where the book of Revelations promised free booze, plenty of food, and eternal life without worries. Hence, Savonarola was an apocalyptic radical, who glorified poverty, called for the termination of those that thought differently, and pulled the political strings from behind the scenes.

Instead of global context and curiosity, which would have helped in better understanding the preacher Savonarola, the author seems lost in details. For example, Martines is talking at length about a group of demons but seems to dismiss them as superstitions. Instead, there is an apocalyptic wave of purification of the faith by the innocent (e.g. Savonarola’s followers) against those that endorsed wealth and sensuality (the demons). These real ‘demons’ had been in control of Florence before (the Medici) and needed rooting out, so the plan went.

What was the Holy League about (Rome, Venice, Milan, and Spain)? Why would Florence support the French and not the Holy League? Why had they driven out the Medici? What were Savonarola’s predictions and why were they offensive? There were five leading churches in Florence (among 70); what were their doctrinal differences and their role for or against Savonarola?

Having said that, the shortcoming is not Martines’s; it is one of a profession that is still impressed by the bias of a socio-economic history that was brought about by the Catholic Church. The author notes where the Florentine records of history were destroyed in a most thorough manner and under threat of excommunication, immediately after Savonarola’s pulverization and shoveling into the Arno River. They knew exactly what they were doing in preventing relics to keep Savonarola alive.

The book turns good─no, excellent─when the time comes to sack Savonarola’s church San Marco; to arrest Savonarola as an impostor and to see a prophet fall through the insults and kicks of a mob angered by an anticipated miracle that had gone sour; to put the preacher on (show) trial and finally on the stakes. Martines finally manages to pull the reader into the story and bring it to life with just enough detail as to keep the narrative engaging and exciting.

The conclusions might as well be skipped. Was Savonarola a terrorist? Let me answer this with a counter question: Is the fundamental Muslim teacher Anwar al-Awlaki, currently an imam hiding in Yemen’s hinterland, a terrorist? U.S. President Obama’s commissioned murder mission surely suggests so, if not by implication of participation in terrorist attacks, then by providing the intellectual framework for the violent missions. Savonarola glorified poverty and called for the stoning of sodomists (as in the modern Taliban). This is an unacceptable hatred against mankind, regardless of the political and ecclesiastical context. Spiritual leaders of the time were no less aware of their destructive power than those modern “Awlakis.”

This book should be rewritten in modern English, put in a global context and better chronology (I love chronology), cleansed from an onslaught of unnecessary names, and complemented with the spiritual side of Savonarola’s teachings. The author has the skills to unlock a truly fascinating mystery of the time with the potential for a hit in history books. Why? Because the book beautifully carves out how a narrow majority was able to take and loose power and how both majorities acted with cruelty against their foes─all within less than a decade. It demonstrates how an influential preacher can recruit an army with thousands of children, turning them into extremist servants of God in an astonishingly brief time span and in the shadow of trusting parents. The book shows how the institution of the confession can act as an information hub─the whispering network of ecclesiastical power. It suggests that religious preachers have a competitive advantage with a clear and narrow mission against a notoriously fragmented opposition, and that entire cities can welcome religiosity in times of calamities. On the stage of “democratic” politics, it lays out how voting by name compromise the system’s integrity and how the masses were (or maybe are) manipulated easily.

A.J. Deus, author of The Great Leap-Fraud - Social Economics of Religious Terrorism
ajdeus.org ( )
1 vote ajdeus | Jul 3, 2011 |
A very well researched and well written account of the Savonarola phenomenon. The author rightly insists he be seen in the context of his time in his rhetorical approach and attitude towards religious (and political) elites, and not through the prism of current West European attitudes towards religion. Savonarola emerges as a much more interesting and partly sympathetic character than he usually does. The author is slightly repetitive, especially in some of the early chapters, but this is a very good read for anyone interested in Renaissance Italian history or the links between religion and politics. ( )
1 vote john257hopper | Feb 28, 2010 |
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al mio carissimo jairo, un gigante a modo suo (To my dear Jaro, a giant in your own way)
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0195177487, Hardcover)

A gripping and beautifully written narrative that reads like a novel, Fire in the City presents a compelling account of a key moment in the history of the Renaissance, illuminating the remarkable man who dominated the period, the charismatic Savonarola.
Lauro Martines, whose decades of scholarship have made him one of the most admired historians of Renaissance Italy, here provides a remarkably fresh perspective on Girolamo Savonarola, the preacher and agitator who flamed like a comet through late fifteenth-century Florence. The Dominican friar has long been portrayed as a dour, puritanical demagogue who urged his followers to burn their worldly goods in "the bonfire of the vanities." But as Martines shows, this is a caricature of the truth--the version propagated by the wealthy and powerful who feared the political reforms he represented. In fact, Savonarola emerges as a complex and subtle man: compassionate, wise, a poet and scholar, and even, at critical moments, a force for moderation. The friar, a mesmerizing preacher, set the city afire with his message of Christian charity wedded to republican ideals.
It is this reality--of Savonarola as both religious and civic leader--that Martines captures in all its complexity, showing how he inspired an outpouring of political debate in a city newly freed from the tyranny of the Medici. In the end, the volatile passions he unleashed--and the powerful families he threatened--sent the friar to his own fiery death. But the fusion of morality and politics that he represented would leave a lasting mark on Renaissance Florence.
For the many readers fascinated by histories of Renaissance Italy--such as Brunelleschi's Dome or Galileo's Daughter, and Martines's acclaimed April Blood--Fire in the City offers a vivid portrait of one of the most memorable characters from that dazzling era.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:14:20 -0400)

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A gripping and beautifully written narrative that reads like a novel, this work presents a compelling account of a key moment in the history of the Renaissance, illuminating the remarkable man who dominated the period, the charismatic Savonarola.

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