PERSONALITY AND FANATISM: St Paul and Savoranola
As so often before, I ended up standing in front of a bookshelf at home, watching the book spines. I pulled out one book bound in red ̶ Bible for Children. My grandfather had given it to me when I turned eight. On the back of the cover sheet I had once pasted a letter from Grandpa, written with his easily read, beautiful handwriting:
Tallebo 19/8 1962
My little Jan!
Here comes the gift you would have received by Christmas 1961, but then it was not available in any bookshop because it had been sold out.
However, now it is back in a new edition. Hope you take good care of it and often read in it, now when you have learned to read so well. And so beautiful pictures it has! Here's a lot to see and think about. You can learn a lot from those pictures.
With heartfelt greetings from Grandpa.
Sw. Psalm 515
Grandpa was right. The pictures were beautiful and inspiring. With childish seriousness I studied each detail. They had been painted by a certain William Hole, who by the beginning of the last century had spent a few years in Palestine. The result was almost photographic, documentary images, which brought their viewer into the centre of events.
I invented my own stories in connection with several of those pictures. It was especially one picture I found unusually scary. It was Hole's depiction of the crucifixion. As he often did, Hole had chosen a point somewhat distant from the centre of the action. At the top right corner of the picture we discern the three crosses, with the mourning women kneeling at the foot of the cross of Jesus. They like white stone blocks.
Some men are coming towards the viewer. Gestures and postures seem to reflect their feelings about the executions they have just witnessed. It was especially one of those men who caught my attention. A white-robed man who is stumbling forward with his head bent down. He has seized his turban with both hands, but to me it looked like he had been decapitated and held his hands across an open wound. I assumed he was a living dead. Somebody who had been beheaded and then risen from his grave. I had namely read:
And behold, the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom; and the earth did quake; and the rocks were rent; and the tombs were opened; and many bodies of the saints that had fallen asleep were raised; and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection, they entered into the holy city and appeared to many.
I was not only scrutinizing the Bible's pictures but also read it from cover to cover. It was not an easy read for a little boy who had just learned to read and write. This Bible for Children had no less than 500 tightly written pages and had not been adapted to and rewritten for children, but consisted of a selection of Bible texts from the official Swedish Bible translation. My great respect for Grandpa, who treated me as if I was more mature than I really was and often told me stories from the Bible, or Greek and Nordic mythology, made me read the book very carefully. Perhaps due to Grandpa´s thrilling manner of telling the biblical stories I became fascinated, despite the difficult language and the many incomprehensibilities.
When I now read Grandpa´s letter, I wondered which psalm number 515 was alluding to. It must be a hymn from the 1937 official hymn book, and not the more recent one from 1986. It turned out to be a psalm by the Swedish-Finnish poet Johan Ludvig Runeberg.
I lift my eyes unto heaven above
and fold my hands to draw near thee;
for thou, dear Lord, dust they children love,
and has promised to hear me.
How sweet to bless and praise thy Name,
for thou, O Christ, art my Saviour;
kind Shepherd, guard me from sin and shame
and let me love thee forever.
That must be the same childhood faith that inspired a hymn that the immensely popular Sami-Lisa Öst sang in the 1950s, both in Sweden and among Swedish communities in Minnesota and Dakota:
Do you still believe in heart,
nor from childhood faith depart?
Can you pray as in the days of long ago:
"Lord, who loves the children all,
keep me, guard me, though I'm small"?
Aged mother will rejoice with heart aglow!
Childhood faith, childhood creed,
a golden bridge to heaven you are indeed!
Childhood faith, childhood creed,
a golden bridge to heaven you are indeed!
I have to admit that I lost that kind of faith long ago. I even assume that I may pinpoint the moment I lost it. I must have been younger than ten years. It was a summer day and I lay on the couch in the living room reading a Classics Illustrated. I do not really remember which one it could have been, maybe Pitcairn's Island.
Some lost sailors were searching for a ship, but were unable to explain to the Polynesians how big the ship was and the number of its crew. A native islander took a watermelon, chopped it into two halves and through gestures explained that one half represented the ship. Then he took out the black seeds, put a number of them into his palm and arranged them on one melon half. The white sailors understood that a European sailing ship had previously passed by the island and that the islanders even had observed the number of its crew.
I put the comic aside and thought about the story, looking up at the ceiling I saw how sunshine that entered through the open balcony door turned it yellow. I went out on the balcony, a cloud covered the sun, everything darkened around me, with a sudden and crushing insight I understood that there is no Paradise above the clouds, not even beyond the blue sky. Only endless space and no God at all, no angelic hosts.
Religion is a human phenomenon and is thus affected by our personality and predispositions. Religion is exclusive to humanity, our experiences, insights and knowledge create and reshape our beliefs. Christianity is no exception. Since Grandpa gave me that Bible, I have often pondered on how my own faith has been shaped by people who lived hundreds, even thousands of years ago. Certainly, it was Jesus who founded Christianity, but it was his followers who interpreted and dispersed it across the globe. St Paul's letters and the Acts of the Apostles are the oldest evidences of Jesus´s existence and they were written by men who had not known him personally.
Sometime in the mid-1980s we bought an apartment in Lund, a town in the south of Sweden. It was rather worn down and covered with dirty wallpaper. When I some years later saw a few paintings by the quite well-known Swedish artist Ola Billgren, I realized that they had been painted in a similar apartment. I recognized the rooms, the views through the windows and the dirty wallpaper.
We started to paint the walls, it took more time than expected and we slept on mattresses directly on the floor, surrounded by moving boxes. The electricity was not yet plugged in and in the evenings I read a novel using a battery lamp I had attached to the book cover. It was The Kingdom of the Wicked by Anthony Burgess. A tersely and quite effectively written story about the first Christians. Burgess had tried to mix everything into the stew ̶ Paul and Peter's travels and quarrels, their fanaticism and doubts. The random violence and staggering cruelty of the Roman Empire, the mind-blowing decadence within its absolute epicentre, La Cittá Eterna, Caput Mundi ̶ Rome. Probably because the novel was based on a movie manuscript it was filled with dialogues and picturesque, realistic details. The story is told by a Greek shipping clerk, implausibly well- informed about the followers of a certain Yehoshua Naggar, or Iesous Marengos, an unusually strong and well-read construction worker whose physical strength made him survive his own crucifixion.
It was undoubtedly a well-written novel. Burgess displayed a thorough knowledge of nascent Christianity and Hellenistic civilization. Nevertheless, like so many other historical novels, Burgess´s story was somewhat too congested. His narrator knows everything and the novel´s scenery is crammed with the usual well-known actors; St Peter and St Paul, Seneca, Herod Agrippa, and the usual depraved Roman emperors. Burgess even shoves in a dialogue between Nero and St. Paul. The characters become far too one-dimensional, the discussions didactic and events are predictable.
Perhaps my appreciation of Burgess's novel had become somewhat soiled by the fact that, just before I read The Kingdom of the Wicked I had come across a masterful, historical novel ̶ Alejo Carpentier´s Il Siglo de las Luces, “Explosion in a Cathedral”. In that novel, history is told in a dazzlingly beautiful language, which takes its starting point among unknown people who experience disturbing world events, although from a somewhat different perspective than the one commonly known.
At the heart of the tale is a fairly well-known character, Victor Hughes, who brought the French Revolution to Guadalupe, though otherwise we perceive most of the well-known, historic actors from at a distance, while we are thrown into an environment distanced from us both in time and place, though Carpentier succeeds in telling us his story as if he himself had experienced everything he is writing about. This overwhelming effect may partly be due to the fact that Carpentier as a Cuban writer was well versed in Caribbean history, as well as acquainted with the various settings he writes abou and the course of a revolution that had been enacted in the Caribbean during his own life time. Since 1966 Carpentier was ambassador for the Cuban revolutionary regime in Paris, where he died in 1980. He wrote Il siglo de las luces in 1962 while he was still living in Cuba and it is somewhat surprising that the novel could be published there since it unmistakably describes how a revolution devours its own children.
Carpentier´s novel is filled with aromas, weather changes and seemingly insignificant details. For example, he describes the books read by his protagonists, books that now are forgotten, but once was an integrated part of bibliophiles´ lives and discussions, more than those which now are considered to be classics. Carpentier walks and lives among people who existed more than two hundred years ago.
I come to think about how Carpentier describes the bloody and rusty blade of a guillotine, placed in the central square of the French small town of Bayonne. How it is raised and lowered in a gloomy drizzle, being watched by an insignificant crowd of fishermen and ruffians, while a group of authorities crouches under their black umbrellas:
Distanced from its larger and celebrated context, far from the square sprinkled with the blood of a monarch, where it had played its part in a fateful tragedy, now this blood drenched machine – not even horrible, but ugly, not even destructive, but sad and pathetic – gave the same ridiculous and pathetic impression as an ambulatory troupe of wretched comedians trying to imitate the virtuosity of the Capital's greatest stars.
This is history made alive, spiced with personal experience and heart-felt empathy. Someone who also is able to achieve this is the French author Emmanuel Carrère, who in his Le royuame, The Kingdom, like Anthony Burgess is depicting the life and opinions of St. Paul and the birth of Christianity, here perceived through the eyes of the Greek medical doctor, Luke, author of the Gospel of St Luke and The Acts of the Apostles. Carrère takes liberties with his basic material, although his depictions indicate an intimate and accurate knowledge of The Gospels, The Acts of the Apostles and other sources, like Eusebius´s History of the Church from the third century AD, as well as a host of scientific findings and interpretations. Neverthelss, Carrère´s story is a highly personal interpretation of the nascent Christianity and his comparisons to current phenomena and personal experiences make Le royuame an exciting read.
According to Carrère, the agreeable and quite refined Greek St. Luke was one of many intellectuals who had been attracted by the intense piety, sense of togetherness and devotion to an all-powerful deity that characterized the Jewish faith. Furthermore, such spiritual searchers had been attracted by the intense study the Jews devoted to their holy scriptures, Tanach, which by the beginning of the 200's B.C. in Alexandria had been translated into Greek ̶ the so called Septuaginta.
Greek had for a long time been the main language of Jewish traders and administrators, who had spread throughout the Hellenic world, especially living in thriving, trading cities. It was only sometime in the late first century AD that the Sanhedrin, the Great Council of the Temple of Jerusalem, had decreed that all Jews should read the Tanach in Hebrew and not in Greek.
Goyim, non-Jews, were welcomed to visit the synagogues, which existed all over the Roman Empire and they were even encouraged to participate in discussions and rituals. Carrère writes that Judaism was probably quite "fashionable", its attraction could maybe be compared to today's New Age enthusiasts, who gather to practice Yoga and Tai Chi. It was in synagogues outside of Palestine that St. Paul began to preach his Jewish-Greek-inspired teachings about a resurrected Messiah and that a belief in Him could mean a completely changed life, a salvation. St Paul and his followers began to organize the first Christian communities among non-Jews, who already had been attracted to the Jewish faith.
Carrère assumes that it was in the small town of Troas in Asia Minor that St. Luke was presented to Paul, perhaps he was called to try to cure the charismatic prophet from seizures caused by a mysterious disease that St. Paul occasionally mentions in his letters.
As you know, it was because of an illness that I first preached the gospel to you, and even though my illness was a trial to you, you did not treat me with contempt or scorn. Instead, you welcomed me as if I were an angel of God, as if I were Christ Jesus himself (Galatians 4:13-14).
I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know — God knows. […] I will boast about a man like that, but I will not boast about myself, except about my weaknesses. […] In order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me (2 Corinthians, 12: 2-8).
There has been quite a lot of speculations about the nature of Paul's disease. The most common assumption has been that it could have been some kind of temporal lobe epilepsy, an affliction expressed through epileptic seizures, often associated with severe cramps and feelings such as fear or euphoria, déjà vu, hallucinations, hearing- and vision disorders, as well as dissociation.
In any case, St. Luke was deeply taken by the charismatic and eloquent St Paul and his preaching about a life-changing faith in Jesus Christ as a path to personal joy and salvation. Luke followed Paul on some of his tours and also ended up together with him in Jerusalem, where Luke met with people who had known Jesus and he was also given access to written testimonies and descriptions of Jesus´s acts and teachings, which he used to compile his gospel.
In Jerusalem, the apostles John and Peter were still alive and a congregation adhering to the teachings of Jesus was led by a brother of Jesus. Brother? Yes, Jesus had had no less than four named brothers and several sisters, whose names we do not know (Mark 6:3). His brother James was heading a group of followers, which in Jerusalem was named "Those Who Follow the Path." It was in the Syrian town of Antioch that converted Greeks came to be known as "Christians".
Eusebius quotes in his History of The Church a certain Hegesippus "belonging to the first generation after the apostles". Hegesippus tells us that James was a strictly Orthodox Jew, who, although converted to his brother's teachings, continued to live as a Jew, demanding that Those Who Follow the Path had to allow themselves to be circumcised and ordered them to obediently follow the Jewish law:
… this one was holy from his birth; he drank no wine or intoxicating liquor and ate no animal food; no razor came near his head; he did not smear himself with oil, and took no baths. He alone was permitted to enter the Holy Place, for his garments were not of wool but of linen. He used to enter the Sanctuary alone, and was often found on his knees beseeching forgiveness for the people, so that his knees grew hard like a camel´s.
James and John were sceptical of St Paul and his teachings about Jesus, though Peter vacillated between doubts and support. On several occasions, the Jewish/Christian congregation of Jerusalem dispatched preachers to foreign synagogues where St. Paul was spreading his interpretations of Jesus´s teachings, intending to correct his “misconceptions”. However, it appears as if the Jewish Christians over time accepted Paul as an “apostle for the Gentiles" and acknowledged his deviations from what they considered to be the correct doctrine. For many years, the two interpretations of the teachings of Jesus existed side by side. In the church of Santa Sabina on the Aventine Hill in Rome you can still see a mosaic dating from the 5th century AD (422-432 CE), presenting the Jewish Christian Church side by side with the Pagan Christian Church ̶ Ecclesia ex circumcisione and Ecclesia ex gentibus.
Within this unique, ancient Christian environment, Carrère allows Paul´s and Luke's personalities and doubts to reflect his own attractions and doubts concerning the teachings of Jesus. Carrère applies a kind of parallel approach, meaning that he offers in-depth descriptions of his own time as being "saved”, and his later "awakening" from his fanatic convictions. He compares St. Paul´s convictions and the blind faith of the first Christians to Lenin and the Bolsheviks, though Carrère does stress the love and compassion of Christians as being different from the Bolsheviks´ merciless inflexibility.
When I read about Luke and Paul and their meetings with men and women who knew Jesus, I come to think of my own meetings with people along the border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, who by the beginning of the twentieth century had known the charismatic peasant leader Olivorio Mateo. Like the more than hundred years old Julian Ramos, who described his friend to me:
Olivorio was a sturdy fellow, compact. He was generally in a cheerful mood, liked to dance and was fond of fish. He drank a lot, but not excessively. I knew him and am convinced that he is the living God.
At a first meeting, you might assume that Julian Ramos was slightly crazy, though he was actually a wise and sensible man. He was well-acquainted with his surroundings, who exhibited great respect towards him and during our discussions he taught me things which I found to be quite profound.
While I studied History of Religions at Lund University, one of my professors explained prophetism by presenting me with an example:
If a man runs naked through a city crying out aloud: "I´m chosen by God. Follow me and you´ll be saved!" If no one follows him he is crazy. However, if people start to run after him, crying: "We believe you. We will follow you to the end of the World!" Then he is a prophet.
An odd and charismatic person may inspire people just through his way if being. As in a scene from Robert Zemecki's movie Forrest Gump. The naive, kind-hearted, but far from smart Forrest is after his girlfriend's death overwhelmed by an urge to run. He runs from USA´s east coast to its west coast, back and forth for several years. He becomes famous. TV reporters ask him:
̶ Why are you doing this? Are you doing it for world peace? Are you doing it for the homeless? Are you running for women´s rights? For the environment? For animals?
Gump simply states: ”I just felt like running”. Later someone runs up by his side:
̶ I saw you on TV and thought “Is it really you!” I thought here´s someone who got it all right. Here´s someone who have it all figured out. I´ll follow you everywhere, Mr. Gump.
Soon a whole bunch of followers are running behind Forrest Gump. After more than three years of running from coast to coast, he suddenly stops. His followers stop running as well and eagerly await his words:
̶ Quiet, quiet, He´s going to say something.
Gump surveys his hangers-on:
̶ I´m pretty tired. I think I´ll go home now.
They watch him with bewildered disillusionment:
̶ Now what? What are we supposed to do now?
Gump is harmless and far from being a prophet. However, there are many real-life examples of how religious and charismatic individuals have merged their own beliefs with what they assume to be assignments bequeathed to them by God himself. They have used their fanatic convictions to create strict rules for everyone else, to entire communities and even nations. Some of them have even demanded that if the entire planet is going to be changed and saved, the rules laid down by them must be followed by each and every one. Thus, those who do not follow these rules may be branded as dangerous opponents, the scum of Satan, who have to be punished, or even wiped out.
Such freaks may be religious fanatics, or any other kind of convinced ideologists. Benito Mussolini did for example consider his own ego to be identical to the real soul of Italy. He was certainly delusional and brought his nation to the edge of the abyss ̶ he and his cronies actually dropped it into the chasm. Nevertheless, Mussolini was no idiot. When signing a Concordat with the Vatican, the Catholic Church was rendered its long-awaited influence over education and morals. It actually became a state-subsidized authority in Italian society ̶ on condition that the pope gave his full support to Mussolini and his fascist dictatorship.
However, the convinced atheist Mussolini did not want appear as the Pope's stooge and while defending his support to the Vatican he did in a parliamentary speech present Catholicism as an Italian creation. A result of the power and influence of the Roman Empire. The Pope and his Catholic Church would never have existed without the Roman emperor Constantine making Christianity the only permissible religion of his Empire. Ergo ̶ the Pope was then, just as now, dependent on the goodwill of the state, i.e. Mussolini', and not the other way round:
This religion was born in Palestine, but it became Catholic in Rome. Very probably it would simply been one of the many sects that flourished in that overheated environment … and very likely it would have died out, without leaving a trace. The Italian state is Catholic but also Fascist, indeed before all else exclusively and essentially Fascist.
Obviously the pope became furious. The easily agitated Pius XI scolded Mussolini's hapless ambassador to the Vatican:
I am offended, mortally offended: Open your mouth, and your breath offends the Pope; you move, and you humiliate me; you get your sinister brain in motion and plot things that insult the Church … Enough! Enough!
Nevertheless, in my opinion Mussolini was right. Christianity became a power factor after Constantine made it the obligatory faith of his empire. This eventually became both the strength and weakness of Catholicism.
Emmanuel Carrère tells us how some dedicated men and women became the founders of a world religion. Personal convictions were eventually transformed into general law. History offers examples of several such processes; how a person's fanatic opinions become the moral criterion for thousands, even millions of people ̶ Hitler, Stalin, Mao. Let us consider such a process on a smaller scale ̶ Savoranola´s road to power in Florence, followed by a pathetic failure, which nevertheless sowed a seed to a sea change of Christianity, eventually resulting in the subsequent death of millions of people.
By his opponents, the Dominican monk Girolamo Savoranola (1452-1498) has been depicted as a demon. I recently read about him in Simon Monteforte´s Monsters:
His very name is a synonym for mad monks, and the crimes of theocracy and misguided virtue.
Savoranola has thus gone down in history as a fanatic opponent to the beauty and splendour represented by the very words “Italian Renaissance”, epitomized by an enlightened, tolerant and beauty-worshiping Florentine Republic. This despite the fact that some of the Renaissance's greatest heroes, such as the humanist Pico Della Mirandola and the artist Sandro Botticelli were devoted admirers of Savoranola.
The truth about Savoranola is thus not as one-dimensional as it often has been depicted. His character and actions should be judged in relation to his contemporary society. To me the best source to this strange era remains Jakob Burckhardt's magnificent The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy from 1860; easy-to-read, well-written and clarifying it paints a frieze that turns into a formidable overview, with a wealth of astonishingly details it depicts an entire era and after more than a hundred years the colours still appear as fresh as ever.
A few years ago I visited Savoranola´s cell in the San Marco monastery in Florence. I saw the desk where he wrote down his revelations and the horsehair shirt he wore during sleepless nights to chase away his sinful thoughts and chastise his body. Through a window in his cell, Savoranola could see how the beauty-loving millionaire, poet, patron of the arts and charmer Lorenzo de Medici quietly walked in his rose garden.
The Medici were Florence's factual rulers, despite the complicated parliamentary system practiced by the city's Signoria. It was Lorenzo's grandfather, Cosimo, who had founded the magnificent San Marco monastery, contracting masters like Fra Angelico and Ghirlandaio to adorn it with exquisite frescoes. It was Lorenzo de Medici, who for good reasons was called Il Magnifico, who recalled Savoranola to Florence after his Dominican superiors had sent the rabble rousing and fanatic monk on an apparently never-ending preaching tour through northern Italy.
On his return, the formerly quite ugly and unarticulated Savoranola became a changed person. A masterful, charismatic speaker who with his fiery sermons convinced members of ever increasing audiences about a future fall from grace of the corrupt and morally despicable Pope Alexander VI, Rodrigo Lanzol-Borja y Borja, as well as the necessity to guarantee rights of and support to the poor people of Florence, finally introducing a true democracy curbing the mafia rule of the Medici and eradicating the alarming debauchery of the Florentines.
Judgment Day is approaching! Repent! I have visited the Paradise and across Florentine skies I have seen mighty, heavenly warnings about the times that are on their way!
When Lorenzo de Medici in April 1492 found himself by death´s door, he called for his devoted opponent Savoranola. The severe monk came and demanded Lorenzo´s unconstrained confession and for that purpose they had to be left alone in the room. After Lorenzo had confessed his sins, Savoranola required that he had to unreservedly surrender to the grace of God. "I'm doing that with all my heart and soul," replied Lorenzo. "Are you renouncing your ill-gotten wealth and going to restore what has been wrongfully taken?” “Father, I will do so, or I will cause my heirs to do it if I cannot.” Finally, Savoranola requested Lorenzo to guarantee Florentines their freedom and order his heirs to be instrumental in establishing a strictly Republican regime. Lorenzo refused to answer, turning his face towards the wall. The monk did not give him the viaticum and left the room. The same night Lorenzo died. The story has been told by Savoranola himself, though as so much else concerning the "demonic monk" his enemies have portrayed the meeting in a different manner:
The haughty Savoranola appeared, probably thinking that in these last moments of agitation and suffering he might be enabled to collect material for his factious purposes. Lorenzo had already confessed his sins, been absolved and obtained the Last Rites.
Nevertheless, it is a fact that Savoranola and Lorenzo for a long time were left alone in Lorenzo´s chamber of death.
One of the reasons to why Savoranola nurtured worries about the piety of Lorenzo de Medici was his enthusiasm for Classical Greek paganism. Lorenzo had summoned an "academy" consisting of an intimate circle of enlightened and congenial friends. Among the academicians we find Marsilio Ficino, translator of Plato, directly from the Greek originals that had been brought from Constantinople just before it´s fall to the Turks in 1453. Pico della Mirandola, the humanist who believed that knowledge of all ages and places could be combined with his great appreciation of the Greek philosophers. To that end he studied Arabian and Jewish philosophy, the Church Fathers, Islam and Persian religion. Angelo Poliziano, a precocious poet and Lorenzo´s competitor in a joint effort to apply the most delightful Italian vernacular to their pioneering poetry. The ingenious artist Sandro Boticelli, creator of the immaculate masterpieces The Birth of Venus and Primavera. Cristoforo Landino, diligent commentator to The Aenid and The Divine Comedy and not the least ̶ Leon Battista Alberti, apogee of what it meant to be a Renaissance man. Alberti was an outstanding musician, architect, painter, natural scientist, art theorist, poet and athlete. Even Leonardo da Vinci considered himself to be a mere dilettante compared to this incomprehensible master, who once declared that search and effort is the meaning of life: "There is no art which has not had its beginnings in things full of errors. Nothing is at the same time both new and perfect."
Sodomy was quite common in groups such as these. This behaviour was violently condemned by Savoranola, who was in agreement with the great philosopher of his Dominican order, Thomas Acquinas, who considered that of all sins homosexuality was second only to murder. Homosexuality was so endemic among Lorenzo´s compatriots that it was commonly labelled as the Florentine Affliction. Lorenzo il Magnifico himself was openly bisexual. Savoranola´s greatest crime was probably that after his most virulent sermon in December 1494 he demanded that the Signoria imposed death penalty for sodomy. However, the Florentines apparently preserved their tolerance for this kind of transgression. Only one person was burned alive for sodomy, though he was also accused of theft and brigandage.
Lorenzo de Medici was not a beautiful man, though both men and women were attracted to him. He was a skilled poet, endowed with a winning charm. Burckhardt wrote:
Lorenzo the Magnificent was supreme over his circle, not, as we might be led to believe, through the princely position which he occupied, but rather through the wonderful tact he displayed in giving perfect freedom of action to the many and varied natures which surrounded him.
Accordingly, Lorenzo was completely different from the stern Savoranola, who had a tendency to force all people to adapt themselves to his idealistic Procrustes bed.
Lorenzo il Magnifico arranged and paid for sumptuous festivals and public pageantries. He supported a host of extremely talented sculptures, architects and painters. At the same time, Lorenzo, like several of his family members, was a skilled schemer, who deliberately manipulated, threatened and bribed members of Florence's "elected" town council ̶ La Signoria. Like a mafia boss, Lorenzo put the welfare of his own family above everything else and he was quite inhibited and shameless when it came to bring his youngest son Giovanni to the fat income possibilities guaranteed by a brilliant Church career. Through generous gifts to the pope, Lorenzo managed to have the charming, chubby and luxury loving Giovanni appointed as Cardinal at the tender age of fourteen years. He later became Pope Leo X. Lorenzo's contemporary, the historian Franceso Guicciardini, described the economic and political power of the Medici family:
But even with a clear-sighted a man as Lorenzo, such a position might easily lead to errors, and he did in fact make mistakes in important cases to the disadvantage of the State, either by allowing himself to be carried away by passion or by regarding only his personal position and advantage, always under the pretext that his greatness and that of his family was necessary to the common good.
Savoranola´s times were tough and dissented, with constant skirmishes between power hungry city states, like Naples, Venice, Genoa, Florence and the Papal territories, while the whole of the Italian peninsula was constantly threatened by France in the West, the Turks to the East and Barbaresque pirates in the South. When the somewhat imbecilic and power-infested young French king Charles VIII, with a great army, entered Italy the same year as Lorenzo il Magnifico died, Savoranola saw him as a new Cyros II of Persia who would liberate Italy from its corrupt Pope and power greedy princes.
Karl VIII appears to be a somewhat unlikely hero for an ascetic and principled monk. The French king was of short stature and slightly hunchbacked, with six toes on each foot and a constantly gaping mouth, through which he tended to mumble to himself. Worse than those physical shortcomings was Karl VIII's rock-solid conviction of his own excellence, combined with stubbornness and plain inanity, worsened by an excruciating sexual appetite.
The French campaign ended in failure, but made the Medici abandon Florence, thus opening for the election of an unprecedentedly democratic Signoria, renamed as The Great Council, which, inspired by Savoranola's fiery preaching about the necessity of a moral shake-up and social justice, began to establish new, harsh laws.
By the end of the fifteenth century, large crowds gathered to listen to Savoranola´s Advent sermons. All over Italy, members of the Franciscan and Dominican preaching orders competed in arousing the passions of church goers. People flocked in their thousands to listen to the most famous orators, whose fame was almost equal to today's rock stars.
Savoranola was the main attraction. This may seem strange judging from the descriptions of his visions, which he wrote down to defend himself from the accusations of the Papal Curia, Compendium di Rivelazione e Dialogus de veritate prophetica, "Compendium of Revelations and a Dialogue concerning Genuine Prophecy". This book, which became an immediate bestseller, conveys a rather heavy-footed impression. Savoranola´s detailed descriptions of the Paradise appear derive from church frescoes, his convoluted conversations with the Devil are wearisome and it is only occasionally that his outbursts become visionary and inspiring.
Savoranola´s oratory must have been quite different. He considered his sermons to be some kind of inspired speech coming to him directly from God. They were fired by a personal blaze of frenzy, not witnessed until the appearance of Luther, 40 years later. In these times, without loudspeakers, radio, television and the intranet, a man like Savoranola had to be able to enthral his audience through his powerful and instantaneous charisma.
While preparing for his 1492 Advent sermons Savoranola had been particularly worried and tense. He knew they were crucial for his and Florence´s future, though any divine inspiration refused to appear, in spite of intense fasting and mortification of the flesh. However, one night it seemed to him as if the sky opened up. In an ecstatic fever Savoranola saw how a gigantic hand hit the air above Florence with a bloody dagger. Above the monstrous hand flaming letters declared: Gladius Domini superterram, cito et velociter, "The Lord's sword above the earth, stinging and swift." A powerful voice proclaimed:
The time is nigh when I shall unsheath my sword. Repent before my wrath is vented upon you. For when the day of my judgement comes you may seek to hide but you will find no refuge. You will fall prey to raging foes; see rivers blood in the streets; wives will be torn from their husbands, virgins ravished, children murdered before their mothers´ eyes; all will be terror and fire; and bloodshed.
Savranola's empathy, his fanatic belief in his own prophecies, which could sometimes be quite accurate, probably due to the fact that he was quite well-informed about politics and current events, impressed most of the Florentines. During a few years the city found itself overshadowed by Savoranola´s glowing fanatism.
The piagnoni, the city's proletariat, gathered behind the prophet's message and gangs of white-mantled, chanting and light-bearing youths broke into private houses, dragging with them luxury items, which they gathered in Piazza della Signoria. Many also volunteered their most precious possessions, since Savoranola had claimed that their attachment to them prevented their salvation. Savoranola remained a role model in asceticism and moral high-ground. His Dominican brethren, he had eventually become abbot of the San Marco monastery, adored him. Gambling dens and brothels were cleansed, bathhouses closed down, men and women who appeared in elegant gear, adorned with jewellery and precious fabrics, were mocked and shamed. Famous were the two occasions when Savoranola organized his huge Bonfires of Vanity:
On the lowest tier were arranged false beards, masks, and carnival disguises; above came volumes of the Latin and Italian poets, among others Boccaccio, the ’Morgante’ of Pulci, and Petrarch, partly in the form of valuable printed parchments and illuminated manuscripts; then women’s ornaments and toilet articles, scents, mirrors, veils and false hair; higher up, lutes, harps, chessboards, playing-cards; and finally, on the two uppermost tiers, paintings only, especially of female beauties, partly fancy pictures, bearing the classical names of Lucretia, Cleopatra, or Faustina, partly portraits of the beautiful Bencina, Lena Morella, Bina and Maria de’ Lenzi. […] When the pile was lighted, the Signoria appeared on the balcony, and the air echoed with song, the sound of trumpets, and the pealing of bells. The people then adjourned to the Piazza di San Marco, where they danced round in three concentric circles. The innermost was composed of monks of the monastery, alternating with boys, dressed as angels; then came young laymen and ecclesiastics; and on the outside, old men, citizens, and priests, the latter crowned with wreaths of olive.
Savoranola's senseless struggle against luxury and immorality did not have much in common with Jesus's teachings of forgiveness and tolerance. Nevertheless, immorality was rampant at the very centre of Christianity. The scandalous court of Pope Alexander VI was populated by his various concubines, bastard children, boot-lickers and consummate criminals. A Vanity Fair where revenue-generating offices were sold to the highest bidder. The Catholic Church had become a lucrative revenue for wealthy and unscrupulous men, enjoying lifetime incomes from tithes and fat bishoprics. There was not much the Christian love, nor compassion for the suffering poor. Savoranola preached that the fish was rotting from the head.
However, Savoranola became blinded by his own successes. Soon his moral aloofness and boldness knew no limits. In sulphurous sermons he attacked Alexander VI and demanded his immediate departure from office. He wrote to Europe's princes and asked them to gather for a Council and jointly disperse of the corrupt Sybarite occupying St Peter´s chair and within the tarnished Church restore the true teachings of Christ.
However, by attacking the spiritual authorities, Savoranola also attacked the worldly powers. His violations of the wealthy Florentines´ privacy, the fanatic assertions of his self-serving prophecies and his self-proclaimed role as God's representative on earth earned Savoranola powerful enemies. The pope banned Savoranola and forbade him to preach; his faithful Pigioni was soon attacked by i Arrabbiati, the Furious Ones; annoyed youngsters who felt choked in Savoranola´s godly Republic. Soon Florence was plagued by daily and sometimes deadly riots. Savoranola´s supporters lost their majority in The Great Council and the Signoria was reinstated. The Pope's henchmen appeared in Florence with orders to suffocate all opposition to his rule. In collusion with the Franciscans, envious of the influence of Savoranola´s Dominicans, a plan was cocked up to dethrone “the mad monk”.
Although the Savoranola was quite Medieval in his moral convictions and revelations, he was nevertheless an enlightened person. He considered astrology and alchemy, which were quite fashionable among the intellectual elite, as humbug and considered these “sciences” to be an abuse, a denial of the almighty power of God. He also fiercely condemned all other forms of “superstition”. When a Franciscan monk challenged Savoranola for a fire test, he knew quite well that he would not participate in such a superstitious contest. A fire test was a seldom used remnant from Medieval times and consisted of two "competitors" jointly passing through a burning tunnel. If one of them survived the trial, it was considered as a sign that God approved of his faith and teaching. To Savoranola´s annoyance one of the Dominican brethren accepted the challenge in his abbot´s name and declared he was willing to endure the test in his superior´s place. It was decided that the fire test would be conducted in Piazza della Signoria. A tunnel of twigs impregnated with oil was prepared. However, both the Dominican and the Franciscan contestant hesitated to undergo the test and the great crowd became increasingly unruly. When an intense rainfall inhibited the performance the crowd's anger and disappointment were transformed into an uncontrollable rage.
I Arrabiati ensured that the anger was directed against the Dominicans, who headed off to their monastery, where they soon were attacked by an angry and armed mob demanding the hand-over of Savoranola. However, the Dominicans took up a violent fight, fiercely defending themselves and their abbot. A few monks who had seen what was coming had, without the knowledge of Savoranola, stockpiled weapons; swords, crossbows, pikes and even some primitive muskets. Although Savoranola pleaded that everyone had to lay down their arms, the monks fought with unabated fury, killing and wounding several the attackers. However, they had to give up the fight when the Signoria ordered the city's troops to attack the monastery. The humiliated Savoranola was, accompanied by the Arrabiati´s angry jeering, brought to be judged by the Pope's representatives.
Savoranola's formerly triumphal story now turned into a tragedy. His already battered and emaciated body was broken through merciless torture with il strappado. This meant that his hands were pinioned and a hook attached to his wrists. Then he was winched up towards the ceiling and kept dangling there with his arms stretched above his head, while he underwent long, pitiless interrogations. If the hearings did not lead to the expected results, the rope was loosened and Savoranola fell down towards the floor, only to be halted immediately before his feet reached the pavement. The violent jerk generally caused the shoulder bones to be dislocated. After the bones had been reset, the prisoner was brought back to his cell. Time and time again, Savoranola was exposed to il strappado. Soon his body was broken down and he had to be carried to the interrogations. The persecutors shouted at him that he was a false prophet. A liar in love with his own magnificence and persuasiveness.
Savoranola broke down, both physically and mentally. In the end, he acknowledged everything he was accused of. He confessed that he had been blinded by his own vanity and deliberately seduced the people. He had had no revelations. His prophecies were his own inventions. Actually, he was a renegade lacking any honest belief in God and Jesus. In his cell, Savoranola wrote:
Unfortunate am I, abandoned by all, I who have offended heaven and earth, where am I to go? With whom can I seek refuge? Who will have pity on me? I dare not raise my eyes to heaven because I have sinned against heaven. On earth I can find no refuge, because here I have created a scandalous state of affairs … Thus to Thee, most merciful God, I return filled with melancholy and grief, for Thou alone art my hope. Thou alone my refuge.
In the end, Savoranola realized the meaninglessness of his confessions. He stated that he had actually believed in his visions ̶ they were real, they came from God. He honestly felt that the pope was an apostate and a spoiler of the true doctrine of Christ. He did not want to disappoint the poor who still believed in him. He had devoted his life to God. Would he now deny him in the face of death?
When the pope's messenger brought the troubled monk from his cell and once more ordered the executioner to undress him and tie him to il strappado, Savoranola shouted:
Now hear me, God! Thou hast caught me. I confess that I have denied Christ, I have told lies. O you Florentine Lords, be my witness here: I have denied Him from fear of being tortured. If I have to suffer, I wish to suffer for the truth: What I said, I heard from God. Thou art making me do penance for having denied Thee under fear of torture. I deserve it.
Savoranola had thus withdrawn his confession and was immediately sentenced to death. With two of his monk brethren, he was brought to Piazza della Signoria; the convicted heretics were forced to climb up a ladder leaning against a tall pole. On top of it they were hanged in such a way that they would die as slowly as possible, while a fire was lit beneath them.
Savoranola´s ashes were sprinkled in the Arno River. Sic transit gloria mundi. It is foolish to let State morality penetrate citizens´ private lives (with the exception of safeguarding the human rights), how benevolent and necessary it might seem to be for society as a whole. The victims will eventually feel violated and sooner or later they will revolt.
Burckhardt, Jacob (1990) The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy. London: Penguin Classic. Burgess, Anthony (1986) The Kingdom of the Wicked. London: Abacus. Carpentier, Alejo (1972) Explosion in a Cathedral. Harmondsworth: Penguin Modern Classics. Carrère, Emmanuel (2018) The Kingdom. London: Penguin. Eusebius (1989) The History of the Church from Christ to Constantine. London: Penguin Classics. Kertzer, David I. (2015) The Pope and Mussolini: The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe. New York: Random House. McGuinn, Bernard (1979) Apocalyptic Spirituality: Treatises and Letters of Lacantius, Adso of Montier-en-Der, Joachim of Fiore, the Spiritual Franciscans, Savoranola. New York: Paulist Press. Landsborough, David (1987) “St Paul and temporal lobe epilepsy”, Journal of Neorology, Neurosurgery, and Psychiatry. No. 50. Monteforte, Simon Sebag (2009) Monsters: History´s most Evil Men and Women. London: Quercus. Strathern, Paul (2012) Death in Florence: The Medici, Savoranola and the Battle for the Soul of Man. London: Vintage Books. Williamson, Hugh Ross (1974) Lorenzo the Magnificent. London: Michael Joseph Ltd.