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SAVONAROLA !—Was he hypocritical impostor? self-deluded fanatic ? holy, single-minded Christian preacher ? heavencommissioned prophet ? wonder-working saint? martyr, only wanting the canonization which was his due ? Was he the turbulent, priestly demagogue, who desecrated his holy office by plunging into the intrigue and strife of civic politics, or a courageous and enlightened lover of liberty; one who had conceived, and had almost achieved, the splendid notion of an equal republic of Christian men, acting on the highest Christian principles ? Was he—a subordinate question, yet not without interest—a rude Iconoclast, or one who would have purified and elevated art to the height of its holy mission ? Had he more of S. Bernard, of Arnold of Brescia, of Gerson,
· The Life and Martyrdom of Savonarola. By R. R. Madden, M.R.I.A Second edition. In 2 vols. London, 1854. Jérome Savonarola ; sa Vie, scs Prédications, ses Écrits. Par F. T. Perrens. Paris. Turin. 2 tomes. 1853. Hieronymus Savonarola und seine Zeit. Von A. G. Rudelbach. Hamburg, 1835. Girolamo Savonarola aus grossentheils handschriftlicher Quellen. Von Fr. Karl Meier. Berlin, 1836. The Life and Times of Girolamo Savonarola 12mo. London, 1843. Pocsie di Jeronimo Savonarola. Per cura di Audin de Rians. Firenze, 1847. Archivio Storico Italiano. Appendice. Tomo viii. Firenze, 1850. Lectures on Great Men-Girolamo Savonarola. By the late Rev. Frederick Myers London, 1856. Appendice alla Storia dei Municipi Italiani. Da P. E. Giudici. Firenze, 1850...
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or of Wycliffe ? Was he the forerunner of Luther or of Loyola, of Knox or of S. Philippo Neri, even of John of Leyden, or our Fifth-monarchy men ? Since his own day, and even in his own days, these questions have been agitated in his own Church, and among the Reformed Churches, with singular contrariety, so as to form almost a solitary exception to the usual resolute partisanship. He who was burned under Papal excommunication, in direct obedience, or at least submission, to a Papal mandate, has been the object of passionate vindication by very zealous Roman Catholics; his beatification has been demanded, it might seem almost granted ; a legend has gathered around his life, laying claim to, and obtaining implicit belief, and, considering the late period of his life, almost as prolific in miracle as that of Becket or of Bernard. Though hailed by the earlier reformers, with zeal almost equally blind to his real character, as one of themselves; as the disciple of Huss and Jerome of Prague; as the harbinger of Luther; yet the colder, later age of Protestantism cast him aside almost as a poor impostor. Such was the verdict of Bayle; such that of a writer far more serious than Bayle, Buddeus. To others, as to Roscoe, he is a wild fanatic. The enemy of the enlightened and magnificent, and all but perfect Lorenzo de' Medici, must be an enemy to all true wisdom, as well as to the real interests of Florence, which, at its height of glory and prosperity during Lorenzo's life, at his death began to darken towards its decline.
This historical and religious mystery, if we may judge by the list of works at the opening of our article, has neither lost its interest nor found its acknowledged solution. It is not from the want of biographers that the Life of Savonarola has not appeared in its clear and full light. We might, without difficulty, have enlarged the copious catalogue. Of all these lives the • Jérome Savonarola’ of M. Perrens, in our judgment, approaches much the nearest to a just appreciation as well as to a clear and vivid life of the famous Dominican. The Padre Marchese, to whom we are indebted for the letters and other
documents published, with valuable observations, in the
Archivio Storico Italiano,' had contemplated a Life of the Florentine preacher. The failure of his eyesight compelled him to abandon his design. M. Perrens has had the advantage of his valuable advice, in a work which he only undertook when thus given up by Padre Marchese. He visited Florence, to make himself master of his subject, and especially of the works of Savonarola. He professes to have read the whole of his sermons-no light task-and, to a considerable extent, we can avouch that he has read them well and carefully; and certainly from no other source but his own writings can the character, the influence, or the fate of this singular man be judged with historic truth or justice. Savonarola must be his own biographer. The preacher, the prophet, the politician, even the martyr, must speak for himself, and he does speak, in his own still stirring words; words which, however strange and wearisome from their perpetual iteration, reveal the man in all his living lineaments, his powers, his objects, his passions, the secret of his authority, even the causes of his fatal end. Savonarola appears not only the prophet and preacher, but, what must never be lost sight of, the Man, the Italian, the Monk. M. Perrens has paid especial attention to the corresponding dates of his works, and the events of his life: we can thus follow the Preacher, step by step, day by day, up through the rapid path of his ascent to fame and power, down the still more rapid and abrupt precipice of his fall.
The family of Savonarola came from Padua, and a gate in that city bore their name. His grandfather, Michael Savonarola, a physician of great fame, had been invited to Ferrara by Nicholas Prince of Estè. His father, Michael, had five sons, of whom Girolamo was the third, and two daughters. His mother's name was Helena Buonaccorsi. Girolamo, as was also his brother Albert, was destined for his grandfather's profession. They were seemingly a religious family. Michael, the grandfather, had exercised that blessed privilege of the Christian physician, the gratuitous care of the poor. Girolamo was born September 21, 1452. Even in his boyhood he was reserved and serious : he loved solitude; he sought lonely walks, avoiding the gardens of the ducal palace, where the youth of Ferrara held their joyous meetings. There was a depth of religious passion in his soul which required only to be stirred to decide his future life. His protestation (cited by M. Perrens) that in early youth he had determined not to be a monk only shows that the thought was already brooding in his heart. As the world opened upon him, its religious and moral darkness appalled, repelled, drove him to seek any sanctuary where he might dwell alone with himself and with God. Nor was this the act of a timid, over-scrupulous, superstitious mind. Perhaps in no period of the civilized world since Christ was the moral condition of mankind, in some respects, in a lower and more degraded state; never were the two great enemies of human happiness—ferocity and sensuality—so dominant over all classes; and in those vices Italy, in one sense the model and teacher of the world, enjoyed and almost boasted, a fatal pre-eminence. Some who read history with but purblind sight, attribute much of this dreary state to the revival of letters. The paganism of the more cultivated minds is denounced as the dire enemy, which violently or insidiously put an end to the ages of faith. But classical learning did not thrust religion from her throne; she came into the vacant seat, and offered all she could offer to the desolate and yearning mind of man. Men believed in Plato, because those who ought to have taught Christ gave no signs of their belief in Christ. In the highest places of the Church was the most flagrant apostasy from the vital principles of the Founder of the Church. This subject will force itself upon us too frequently during our survey of the life of Savonarola. His favourite studies too were guided and stimulated by this intuitive predilection. He turned from the great authorities of the profession, Hippocrates, Galen, Avicenna. He stole away to Aristotle, to bis ethics and metaphysics, his knowledge of which betrays itself even in his most impassioned
sermons; but still more to Thomas Aquinas." He may at first only have sought in the cloister, as he declared in one of his later sermons, his two dearest objects—liberty and rest, freedom from domestic cares,” the perfection, or, at least, the security, of his own moral and religious being. But his letter to his father, written at the time of his flight to Bologna, is far better evidence of his motives at that time than sentences scattered about his later sermons. It was on April 24, 1475 (he was then twenty-two years and a half old), that Savonarola deserted for ever his father's house, and knocked for admittance at the door of the Dominican convent in Bologna. The Dominican order boasted among its disciples St. Thomas Aquinas, the greatest of the Schoolmen, the object of the young man's ardent study; and if profound religion survived—the religion which, while it trained the intellect by the scholastic learning, left free scope to zealous passion and even to excursive imagination within the bounds of Church theology-it was in the cloisters of the order of Preachers. Two days after, the young man sent to his father his memorable letter, in which the calm, deliberate determination of the youthful ascetic is exquisitely touched with the tenderness of a loving son : :
You who know so well how to appreciate the perishable things of earth, judge not with the passionate judgement of a woman; but, looking to truth, judge according to reason, whether I am not right in abandoning the world. The motive which determines me to enter into a religious life is this: the great misery of the world, the misery of man; the rapes, the adulteries, the robberies, the pride, the idolatry, the monstrous blasphemies by which the world is polluted, for there is none that doeth good, no not one. Many times a-day have I uttered this verse with tears,
Heu fuge crudeles terras! fuge littus avarum.'
I could not support the enormous wickedness of most of the people in Italy. Everywhere I saw virtue despised, vice in honour. When God, in answer to my prayer, condescended to show me the right way, could I decline it ? O gentle Jesus, may I suffer a thousand deaths rather
? There is a vague story, resting on but slight authority, that Savonarola was the victim of a tender but honourable passion for a beautiful female.