Italian Paintings – Savonarola

The first and only genuine portrait of Savonarola was painted by Fra Bartolommeo. It hangs in his cell in the convent of San Marco. When you go to Florence, you will of all places go to San Marco, the convent of Fra Angelico, of the good Bishop Antoninus, of Savonarola and of Fra Bartolommeo. No black and white robed monks guard now its doors. It is the property of the government, and chapter house, refectory, library and the monks’ cells are all open to the public. I wonder if any one enters its doors without a thrill at his heart! It was here Savonarola preached to crowds of eager listeners and it was here at last that Florence, gone mad, besieged it, athirst for his blood. Here is his cell, and here are preserved his Bible, his crucifix, his rosary, his chair, and a fragment of the pile on which his body was burned. Those who love George Eliot’s Romola will remember that it was here Romola’s brother Dino died, it was here she came to confession, it was here she came to plead with Savonarola for the life of her god-father, Bernardo del Nera painted this portrait of Savonarola shortly after the burning of the Pyramid of Vanities in the Piazza della Signoria. Vasari says of it : “Baccio della Porta, for the love he bore Fra Girolamo, painted a picture, wherein was his portrait, which is indeed most beautiful.” Vasari’s standard of beauty would perhaps differ from our own.

Mrs. Oliphant says : “No other portrait possesses the homely reality and character of this. It is not the conventional prophet nor the preacher conscious of bis mission, but the benign leader, the father for whom those white robed novices fought at the door of the choir, the man who threw himself with the natural fervor of love and fellow feeling into the hearts and lives of other men, and ruled Florence by the great affection he bore her.”

Says George Eliot: “There was nothing transcendent in Savonarola’s face. It was not beautiful. It was strong featured, and owed all its refinement to habits of mind, and rigid discipline of the body.

“As he called Romola back that day when she was fleeing from Florence and Tito, the impression his glance produced on her, as she stood nearly as tall as he, and looked straight into his eyes, was the sense it conveyed to her of interest in her and care for her, apart from any personal feeling a gaze in which simple human fellowship expressed itself in a strongly felt bond.”

It seems to me this is what every one must feel in looking at this portrait. It was this side of Savonarola’s nature that appealed to Fra Bartolommeo. It was this side of his nature that Romola felt, and which she voices in her words to Lillo, the last words in the book: “Never mind, there are many good people who did not love Fra Girolamo. Perhaps I should never have learned to love him if he had not helped me when I was in great need.” For-ever dominating not only San Marco but Florence herself, stands Savonarola. “He died mute, unjustified, his life’s work undone, and the Kingdom of God he had labored to found shaken to its very foundations; but only a few years later, and under a Medicean Pope (Leo XI.) , he is solemnly rehabilitated by the church.

“Today the historian estimates him at his true value, devotees make pilgrimages to his cell. Fra Bartolommeo paints him as the patron saint of his order, and Raphael places him in a frescoed paradise among a glorious company of prophets and sages. Ferrara, his birthplace, raises his statue before the Castle of the d’Este family. In the Palazzo Vecchio, in the Grand Hall of the Council he so labored to secure, the Florentines of the nineteenth century have placed a statue of the mighty monk.

“In his famous Lenten sermons preached in the Cathedral, Savonarola prophesied that a deliverer would come to Florence. After a little more than three hundred years the prophecy was fulfilled, the deliverer came not from without but from within, not only to save Florence but the country a king whose proudest title was that of an honest man, a soldier who unsheathed the sword of righteousness. Italy is free from the Alps to the Straits. The narrow jealousies and fierce civic hatred of province to province, and town to town, have vanished before the grand idea of national unity, an idea nobler than that of the great reformer, and Florence can again write ‘Liberty’ above the Lion and the Lily.

“The ashes of Savonarola, which were sown broadcast to the wind, have borne seed in the days when the land cherishes the dust of patriots and writes upon the stones of its cities the names of Mazzini, and Garibaldi, and Cavour, and Victor Emmanuel.”

After the most brutal torture Savonarola was hanged and his body burned in the Piazza della Signoria on the 23rd of May, 1498. The place in the pavement where the scaffold stood is marked, and on the 23rd of May it is heaped with violets placed there by citizen and stranger in loving memory of Fra Girolamo Savonarola.

( Originally Published 1912 )

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