Savonarola, Preacher & Prophet, Part II, The Final Act of the Drama

Author: Herbert Lucas


Part II, The Final Act of the Drama

By Herbert Lucas

"The vain efforts of the Papal commissaries," says Villari, "had only succeeded in making more evident the innocence of Savonarola." For our part, we cannot take this view of the matter. He had not formally taught heretical doctrine. And no wonder; for among those who had either heard or read his sermons, there could be no question as to the orthodoxy of his ordinary dogmatic teaching.

But on one point -- or rather on two points very closely connected with each other -- there can be no doubt whatever. He had endeavored to procure the deposition of the Pope, by means of a General Council, to be convoked by temporal sovereigns; and herein lay the head and front of his offending. This being so, it seems to us to be a mere perversion of the truth to say, with Villari, that the result of the trial from its inception to its close had been to bring the innocence of Savonarola into an even clearer light. The Papal commissioners sat to try not -- in the first instance -- his conscience, but his acts. His acts might be viewed by them as contravening, if not the letter, at least the spirit and purpose of the Bull of Pius II., which explicitly condemns an appeal from the Pope to a General Council. And therefore they might be regarded as involving constructive heresy and schism, as well as "contempt of the Holy See," the three counts on which the sentence was explicitly based.

Savonarola would of course have said that in fact his conduct involved no such contravention of the Bull; that Pius II speaks of an appeal from a lawful Pope, but that Alexander was not a lawful Pope; that his simoniacal election had been invalid from the outset, and that it could be only provisionally revalidated by his subsequent recognition at the hands of Christendom; and finally, that his unchristian life, subsequently to his election, amounted not merely to constructive heresy, but to constructive infidelity. Every student of ecclesiastical history is aware that in 1505 Julius II, the all but immediate successor of Alexander VI., decreed by his Bull, , that for the time to come a simoniacal election to the Papacy should be regarded as invalid, and incapable of revalidation by mere course of time or recognition. There can be no question that this Bull had its origin in the sad memory of the scandalous election of Alexander. Unless we carefully distinguish between resistance to a lawful Pope, and resistance to one who is least believed to be an intruder, it will be impossible to excuse the conduct of Julius II. himself when, as Cardinal Giuliano della Rovere, he did his best to procure the deposition of Alexander VI. Lest, however , we should be misunderstood, we hasten to say that the case of Savonarola is not on the same footing with that of the Cardinal, as we shall presently point out in detail.

Moreover, even if it were tenable as an opinion that Alexander was not a lawful Pope, he was certainly entitled to be treated as such by the faithful at large, and by private individuals, so long as he was in actual and undisturbed possession of the Holy See; and so, in fact, Savonarola had treated him for several years. Nor could Savonarola, as a private individual, be canonically justified in raising the standard of revolt, however much an error of judgement might excuse him before God. It was not for him, or for any other irresponsible person, to take the initiative in a movement which might have so seriously compromised the unity of Christendom. It is particularly noteworthy that even the Bull by no means leaves it open to all and sundry to raise objections against the validity of a papal election. The right of raising a protest is strictly limited to the Cardinals, and even among them it is restricted to those who have been present at the election. It is obvious, then, that even had the decree been in force in Savonarola's lifetime, it would have afforded him no justification for his action. Once more, the only ground on which he can be excused is that of an error of judgement of a very serious kind.

In the eye of the law, then, and in the judgement of the papal commissaries, Savonarola's guilt, in respect of the main charge against him, was abundantly proved, and the commissaries passed sentence accordingly. Could they have done otherwise? Of course it is easy for a man living in our own days to flatter himself that he, wise with the superior wisdom of the twentieth century, would have acted very differently; that he would, as a mere matter of course, have lifted up his voice against the wicked Pontiff, and would have told him to his face that if Savonarola had been guilty of contumacious disobedience, or even of a treasonable or schismatical plot, it was he who, by the shameless intrigues which had led to his election, and by the flagrant scandals of his life as Pope, had provoked the disobedience, and invited the treason; and that his duty now lay, not in the execution of justice, but in the exercise of mercy, and in the self-humiliation of the Christian penitent. But can we be quite sure that it even as much as crossed the mind of Torriano or of Romolino [Papal legates] that this was the wiser and the better course to take? Can we be even quite sure that it would have been wiser and better for them thus to protest against the sentence which they were bidden by the Pope to pronounce?...

Our readers will, we trust, be thankful if we pass rapidly over the closing scene. Shattered by the repeated tortures which he had undergone, his soul was yet strong in His strength who is the support of the downcast; and he had spent the weary days which elapsed between his second and his third examination (25th April to 20th May), days of solitary and rigorous confinement, in well--nigh uninterrupted prayer. His very beautiful meditations on the Psalms, "Miserere" (Ps. li.), and "In te Domine speravi" (Ps. xxx), composed during his imprisonment, and the "Rule of a Christian Life" which he drew up for the use of his gaoler, are a touching record of his thoughts and aspirations during that time of tribulation. His last sleep, during the night which preceded his execution, was taken with his head resting on the knees of one of the members of the pious confraternity of the Battuti, whose office it was to assist the dying. After a brief interval of this peaceful repose he once more rose to pray, and at daybreak he received at his own hands the Holy Communion, and communicated his two companions. Having been kept apart since the night of their arrest, six weeks before, they had been allowed an interview on the previous evening, and now they met again for the last consolations of religion.

Admonished that the time for the execution had arrived, the three came forth to die. From the Palazzo Vecchio, a long narrow platform extended across the Piazza towards the Tetto de' Pisani. It terminated in a circular scaffold heaped high with the fuel that was to consume the dead bodies of the condemned men. Above the plle of wood rose the gibbet with its three halters.

"On the marble terrace of the Palazzo were three tribunals; one near the door for the Bishop (Pagagnotti), who was to perform the ceremony of degradation of Fra Girolamo and his two brethren...another for the Papal Commissaries, who were to pronounce them heretics and schismatics and to deliver them over to the secular arm; and a third, close to Marzocco, at the corner of the terrace where the platform began, for the Gonfaloniere, and the Eight, who were to pronounce the sentence of death." (George Eliot, , Ch. 72.)

Before each of these tribunals, in turn, the three companions were led to hear their sentence pronounced, and, strange as it may seem, to receive at the hands of the Papal delegates a plenary indulgence, as if in recognition of at least the possibility that they had acted in good faith. Then, stripped of their religious habit, they were conducted to the scaffold and Savonarola once more stood face to face with the people of his beloved Florence. In the words of the authoress of , he saw "torches waving to kindle the fuel beneath his dead body" and "faces glaring with a yet worse light"; he heard, as His divine Master had heard, "gross jests, taunts, and curses"; he was well assured that in the background were many hundreds of weeping Piagnoni, faithful still; and he knew that the very moment of his cruel ignominious death would be for him the moment of a great moral victory.

And so on a very true sense it was. Fra Girolamo Savonarola had sounded the long-drawn and wailing blast of a fearless challenge to all the powers of wickedness. He had slipped and fallen in the shock of the first onset. But the notes of his trumpet-call reverberated through Christendom, and through the century that was so soon to dawn upon the world, and woke many an echo which heartened other men and women besides S. Philip Neri and S. Catherine of Ricci for their own combat with evil. The Church was scourged after another manner than that which he had foreseen. The face of the Church has been renewed, though not so "soon and speedily" as he had imagined. In substance, however, more than one of Fra Girolamo's "conclusions" have been made good, even though his revelations have been for the most part disallowed. And, all his errors and their consequences notwithstanding, the Church and the world owe him a debt of gratitude.

It was Kitchener, not Gordon, who conquered the Soudan. Yet had it not been for Gordon's tragic death, there had been no Soudan expedition under Kitchener, And it may be that the leaders of the great Catholic revival of the sixteenth century were more indebted than they were aware to Fra Girolamo Savonarola. The Reform of the Church was to be effected by methods other than his. Not "cito et velociter"; not by that brilliant kind of warfare which wins a battle and loses a campaign; but slowly and surely, through patience and long preparation, and a careful adaptation of means to ends, by the assiduous training of a body of men who, in their turn, were to drill others one by one in the principles of the spiritual life, and little by little to leaven the world. And again, not by the decentralization of the Church, and the reduction of its rounded circle to an ellipse with rival foci at Rome and Florence, but by the uncompromising assertion of the duty of loyalty to the Vicar of Christ in his official capacity, whatever might be his personal shortcomings or even vices; by the full and explicit recognition of the truth that, "de Sion exhibit lex et verbum Domini de Jerusalem." And yet, who shall say how far the "excursions and alarums" of the great Florentine preacher not merely preluded and heralded, but helped to clear the ground for, the organized religious campaign of the sixteenth century?

"When Savonarola, degraded and unfrocked, ended his life on the gallows, his cause seemed to be irretrievably lost, and his enemies triumphed. Nevertheless, he died a conqueror and he died for the noblest cause for which a man can give his life -- for the spread of God's kingdom on earth. The future belonged to him, and he to the Church."

So writes Dr. Schnitzer, and we may make his words our own without either justifying the disobedience of Fra Girolamo, or unreservedly condemning his judges. Even though his disobedience may have had its root in pride, and may have made his condemnation inevitable, no one can call in question the burning zeal for the kingdom of God which was the dominant motive in his life; and the fire which consumed his mortal remains may be deemed to have purged his fault, at least before the tribunal of human judgment.

We have said: "All his errors notwithstanding"; for those writers have, in our judgement, done a real disservice to Fra Girolamo's memory who have striven to show that the life and character of their hero were all but flawless, and to justify well-nigh his every word and action. To do this is to miss the lessons which are writ large on the very surface of his career, and to call aloud for the cold and calculating application of a discriminating criticism where the veredict of common-sense might have sufficed. The lessons to be learned from the life and death of Fra Girolamo Savonarola are, in our judgement, so obvious that, but for the unmeasured encomium of his panegyrists, it had been needless to draw the obvious moral.

The severe austerity of Fra Cirolamo's life, his truly wonderful gift of prayer, his fearless intrepidity, his boundless confidence in God, his keen insight into the true condition of the Church and of civil society, his surpassing eloquence, his marvelous influence over the minds and hearts of men, an influence wielded on the whole for the noblest of ends -- all these things claim the admiration which is due to a truly great and good man. Yet the story of his life reminds us that even exalted gifts and noble qualities such as these may yet be unavailing to save a man from being misled by a subtle temptation into an unacknowledged self- esteem, which may end by snapping the very roots of obedience, by luring him onwards till at last he makes private judgement -- in matters of conduct if not of doctrine -- the court of final appeal. And when this point has been reached only two issues are possible if the conflict becomes acute; spiritual ruin or temporal disaster. It was, perhaps, well for Fra Girolamo that temporal disaster overtook him, and that his baptism of fire came to him in time. The life's story of Girolamo Savonarola is, in fact, in the truest and fullest sense, a tragedy. For the very essence of tragedy lies in this, that under stress of critical circumstances, some flaw in a noble character leads by steps, slow perhaps, but sure, to a final catastrophe, and that in and through the catastrophe itself that which was noble survives in the mind and memory of men, and does its work more effectively than it would have done had there been no catastrophe to arouse attention and awaken sympathy.

From Fra Girolamo Savonarola (1906)

This article was taken from "The Dawson Newsletter," Summer 1994, P.O. Box 332, Fayetteville, AR 72702, $8.00 per year.