Moral and religious decadence evokes spiritual reforms, and these require spokesmen, people who in the first place embody the life that they preach. St. Philip Neri would be such an agent for such a spiritual and moral reform. True religious reforms take time because they involve the change of people’s way of thinking and acting; these require reformers who are both humble and patient as well as magnanimous leaders. Before recounting his life Newman gives a sketch of another earnest and well-intentioned Florentine Reformer, Girolamo Savonarola.[i]
In the period of time depicted in the previous post, Savonarola (1452-1498) born in Ferrara moved as a Dominican friar to the Convent of St. Mark’s at Florence. Newman describes him as a man of “commanding eloquence and extraordinary influence, full of the traditions of his order, and cherishing a fierce hatred of the reviving heathen literature and the classical taste of the day.” He found Florence to be another Athens given over to idolatry. He was very disturbed by the misuse of the material riches and intellectual gifts of the rulers, and by its luxury, depravity in entertainments, and superstitious practices.
Unlike St. Paul at Athens Savonarola fiercely decried the abuse and gained immediate followers and success. With supposed visions and apocalyptic prophecies of doom he brought about a Puritan reform in which the people expelled the powerful Medici family from Florence and established a “popular” republic.
“In the houses of great prelates and great doctors,” he cried out, “nothing is thought of but poetry and rhetoric. Go and see for yourselves; you will find them with books of polite literature in their hands, pernicious writings, with Virgil, Horace, and Cicero, to prepare themselves for the cure of souls withal. Astrologers have the governance of the Church. There is not a prelate, there is not a great doctor, but is intimate with some astrologer, who predicts for him the hour and the moment for riding out, or for whatever else he does. Our preachers have already given up Holy Scripture, and are given to Philosophy, which they preach from the pulpit, and treat as their queen. As to Holy Scripture, they make it the handmaid, because to preach philosophy looks learned, whereas it should simply be an aid in the interpretation of the divine word.”
He lambasted prelates who celebrated beautiful liturgies with costly vestments and jewels but did not live the spirit of the Gospel. He preached conversion in very strong words: “”O Italy!” he cried out in the tone of a prophet, “O rulers of Italy! O prelates of the Church! the wrath of God is over you, and your conversion alone will avert it. For almost ten years the common people as well as nobles and artists paid heed to him, and he ruled in the city.”
With his writing and preaching Savonarola sought a moral reform, condemning the sexual decadence of Florence. “The beauty of every creature is more perfect, the more closely it resembles God’s beauty; and the body is beautiful in proportion to the beauty of the soul. Conceive what must have been the beauty of the Blessed Virgin, who possessed such sanctity, sanctity that shone from all her features. Conceive how beautiful was Christ, who was God and man. Now even Aristotle, who was a pagan, bids us not to tolerate indecent pictures, lest children, seeing them, be corrupted; but what shall I say to you, Christian painters, who execute these immodest figures?” With this preaching there were many conversions including that of artists, many becoming Dominicans; the Dominican convent of St. Mark had to be enlarged to accommodate them. People went to hear lengthy sermons and women reformed their dress. At last, during Carnival Savonarola arranged to burn pagan books and art that had incited sinful behavior in a large bonfire. The burning was repeated the following year.
His zeal and pride as a reformer fueled a fundamentalist and apocalyptic campaign of reform. He incurred the anger of Pope Alexander VI when Florence declined to join the Holy League in an alliance against France. Later after failing to go to a summons by the Pope to Rome and to cease preaching he was excommunicated. His enemies in Florence reacted against him and along with two other friars he was eventually accused and condemned by civil and religious authorities for heresy and schism. They were hanged and burned in the very square where they had held the bonfires of vanities in Florence. After this things returned to the way they had been before in Florence.
The powerful Medici Family returned to Florence in 1512 although they were not fully restored to power until 1530 with the help of Pope Clement VII (Giulio de’ Medici). Savonarola and his companions were considered by some as martyrs and their influence lived on. Shortly afterwards their religious ideas inspired Martin Luther and the French Huguenots. Savonarola’s social and political ideas inspired the Italian Risorgimento and years later Don Luigi Sturzo, the founder of the Italian Popular Party.
The spiritual movement had degenerated into a fanatical one and had become a political force with political enemies. The wealth and moral depravity of the 16th century Florence resembles that of some large 20th century cities in Western countries. Society and the Church need religious leaders and reformers who inspire peaceful and lasting reforms and stand out for their lives of humility and charity. The reformers that are needed are men like St. Philip Neri, born in Florence (1515) only a few years after the death of Savonarola.
[i] See a good article on Girolamo Savonarola at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Girolamo_Savonarola