« PreviousContinue »
political designs; with the sole purpose of promoting the religion of the people, took up his abode in the convent of St. Mark. The Dominican convent of St. Mark had been rebuilt by the munificent piety of Cosmo de' Medici. In three years he is said by P. Marchese to have spent 36,000 gold florins upon it. Cosmo had delighted to visit within its walls the holy Antonino, afterwards archbishop of Florence, and in good time a saint. Cosmo's grandson, Lorenzo, maintained the hereditary respect of his house for the convent of St. Mark. On the walls were now, fresh in all their saintly beauty, the frescoes of Fra Angelico, who in its cells had prayed and painted, painted and prayed ; his prayers no doubt crowded with themes of the holy images which he painted, while his paintings, as it were, embodied prayer. St. Mark is perpetually visited in the present day by those who, gazing with admiration on the works of Fra Angelico, forget that its cloisters were trod by the no less holy, but less peaceful, feet of Fra Girolamo. But with what rapture must the Preacher have gazed on the congenial paintings of Fra Angelico !?
From this time Savonarola is to a certain degree his own biographer: the successive volumes of his sermons, from Advent, 1491,to Lent, 1498 (the year of his death), display the gradual development of his eloquence, his influence, and his aims, till he rises to his height, the legislator and ruler of Florence.4
He began with the humble office of Reader, that is, the Instructor of the novices, perhaps of the tertiaries, the lay members of the Order. The sphere of his first efforts was a close hall, of moderate dimensions. The whole body of friars within the convent, and pious hearers from without, crowded the narrow room ; he descended into the garden of the convent,
2 The letter-press of the beautiful engravings from these frescoes is by the Padre Marchese.
3 These two courses were published at Prato (1846) in a volume intended as the commencement of a complete collection of his works. This design has, we rigret to find, been abandoned.
* Perrens-Recherches supplémentaires, tom. ii. p. 457.
and, under the damask rosebushes, or in the porch of a chapel, continued his pious instructions. There was something still of want of freedom in his gestures, something harsh in his intonation, which offended the fastidious eyes and ears of the Florentines,5 But these defects fell away, or were lost in his deep earnestness and kindling fire. There was a general demand that, from the lowly chair of the teacher, he should mount the authoritative pulpit. Savonarola at first hesitated to accept the offer of his Superior, the Prior of St. Mark. His biographers assert (legend now begins to speak) that, when he yielded, he said, “To-morrow I shall begin to preach, and I shall preach for eight years.' The Apocalypse was again his inspiring theme. On the 1st of August (1491), on a Sunday,
I began publicly to expound the Revelations in our church of St. Mark. During the course of the year, I continued to develope to the Florentines these three propositions : “That the Church would be renewed in our time.' "Before that renovation, God would strike all Italy with a fearful chastisement.' That these things would happen shortly.' I laboured to demonstrate these three points to my hearers, and to persuade them by probable arguments, by allegories drawn from the Sacred Scriptures, by other similitudes and parables drawn from what was going on in the Church. I insisted on reasons of this kind ; and I dissembled the knowledge which God gave me of these things in other ways, because men's spirits appeared to me not yet in a state fit to comprehend such mysteries.
In all the early sermons, Savonarola is as yet neither tribune nor prophet; but he is a preacher such as perhaps Italy had never before heard. He himself describes perpetually what deadened the force of all Italian preaching-subtle logical distinctions, profane and idle similitudes, illustrations from heathen poets, from Dante or Petrarch ; he compares the preachers of his day to the singers and mourners in the house of the ruler of the synagogue, whose mournful music made the soul weep, but could ņot raise the dead. Savonarola might now seem to have studied hardly more than one book, and
• Perrens, p. 42, with the quotation from the Magliabecchian Library, and from his book De Veritate Prophetica.
that the Book of Books: he is said to have learnt the Bible by heart. But it was that book, read by an imagination which opened out the biblical language with a boldness and luxuriance, certainly as yet untried, and perhaps hardly surpassed in later days : every image, every allegory, every parable, every figure has not one but a thousand meanings,—meanings, each of the same authority with its plainest and most literal significance,meanings heaped one upon another with prodigal profusion; and that not in wanton ingenuity, but with a vehemence and fervour which enforce the belief that the preacher had the fullest confidence in every one of his wildest interpretations. There is still enough of the Peripatetic philosophy of his master, S. Thomas Aquinas, to show that it is not for want, but from disdain, of erudition, that he rests his teaching on the word of God, and on that alone. At the same time he retains the most humble deference for the doctrines of the Church on all theological questions, and has full faith in the poetic mythology of the middle ages, in the Virgin, and in the Saints.
From this time all Florence crowded to the preacher. The narrow church of St. Mark was too small. He was summoned to the cathedral ; and here men climbed the walls and swarmed on the pillars, to catch a glimpse of his keen, delicate features, and the tone of his deep and thrilling voice. And Florence had need of a preacher of Christian righteous
There is no reason to suppose that Florence was, in Shakspeare's phrase, a more “high-viced' city than others in Italy. But her commerce, perhaps, made her sensuality more splendid and notorious; and the cultivation of letters and arts, and the Platonic philosophy, if it had made the manners more elegant, had probably not heightened the moral tone.
The form of religion, it is true, subsisted—the hierarchy in all its splendour, and with its awful titles; the ceremonial of the Church, in its utmost gorgeousness; the doctrine, which as yet few were so religious as to dispute, in all its rigour-but its life, its sanctifying graces, its elevating aspirations were gone. Its serious power, even its poetry (to speak generally), had lost
its hold on the inner soul of man; and that soul must have something to fill its insatiable craving after higher things.
The year after his settlement in Florence (in 1491) so great was his fame that Savonarola rose to the dignity of Prior of St. Mark. As the convent had been enriched by the bounty, and had prided itself hitherto on the reverence shown towards it by the house of Medici, it was the custom for the Prior on his appointment to pay a kind of homage to the head of the family. Savonarola seemed to be ignorant, or simulated ignorance, of this usage. The older friars remonstrated. “Is it God or Lorenzo de' Medici who has named me prior?' 'God, was the instant answer. Let me, then, render thanks to God, not to man.' Lorenzo heard the report of this speech : he merely observed, 'A monk, a stranger in Florence, has taken up his abode in my house, and will not deign to visit me. To Lorenzo, no doubt, Savonarola was no more than a man of surpassing eloquence, whom his civilities would gradually tame down. Lorenzo would have delighted to have added Savonarola to the brilliant society which assembled around him in Careggi, to share his splendid hospitality and discuss arts, letters, philosophy, and religion, with Politian and Mirandola. He would have listened, as a high intellectual gratification, to the unrivalled preacher. But Savonarola felt that the friendship of Lorenzo was more dangerous to his lofty purpose than his enmity. He would not even tamper with the perilous courtesies of a man who at least dallied with heathenism, whose delight was in heathen poets, whose own poetry was bright with heathen images, and melodious with the names of heathen gods and goddesses, and in whose presence were discussed such solemn questions as the immortality of the soul, with arguments extraneous to those of the Scriptures and of the Church. Throughout we must remember that Savonarola was, as will hereafter appear, a monk, in all the rigour and intolerance of monkhood. To Savonarola these evenings at Careggi—so beautifully described, and in a kindred spirit, by Mr. Hallam, who of all persons might fairly assume that classical culture is not incompatible with Christian goodness— were but profane revels; hence his uncourteous and almost unchristian rejection of the advances of the princely host. Lorenzo, punctual in all the ceremonies of religion, came to mass at St. Mark's. It was told to Fra Girolamo, that after the mass he was walking in the garden. Let him walk as long as he will,' was the cold answer. Lorenzo (the Magnificent) placed a number of pieces of gold in his contribution to the alms-chest of St. Mark. The Prior knew from whence came the splendid oblation. He set aside the baser metal as sufficient for the simple wants of the convent, and sent the gold to the buonuomini, to be distributed among the poor.
Savonarola relates himself a further instance of his own haughty demeanour to the lord of Florence. Five persons from the noblest houses in Florence, a Bonsi, a Vespucci, a Soderini, a Valori, a Rucellai, appeared before him to persuade him, for the sake of the public peace, to moderate his tone ; his darkening prophecies were already disturbing the city. “You tell me,' said the preacher, 'that you are come of your own accord. I say you are not. Go, and make this answer to Lorenzo de' Medici,—Let him repent of his sins. His friends told him that he was in danger of imprisonment. You, who have wives and children, may dread imprisonment. I care not; let him do as he will; but let him know that I am a stranger here, and he a citizen and the first of the city. But I shall stay where I am; it is he that shall depart. This, of course, afterwards grew into a distinct prediction of Lorenzo's death. Other and milder means were tried to keep down the growing influence of the Dominican. There was a famous Franciscan preacher, Fra Mariano. He was set up to calm the popular mind. He preached on the text, 'It is not for you to know the times or the seasons which the Father has put in his own power' (Acts i. 7). Savonarola accepted the defiance ; he preached on the same text. Mariano was awed to silence; the rival preachers met in courteous intercourse; but Mariano, at a later period, fourd his hour of vengeance : he preached in Rome,