The monastery of San Marco in Florence faces a quiet square, and is adorned with the paintings of Fra Angelico. There is the picture of the two disciples who invite the Lord to come and be their guest, and the picture of the brother with his finger on his lips in symbol of silence. In every cell is painted a Madonna, or a crucifix, or the figure of an angel, to help the prayers of the friars of St. Dominic. In one cell, somewhat apart from the others, meant for the prior, are treasured a desk at which Savonarola wrote and a chair in which he sat, and a portrait of him hangs upon the wall.
Savonarola had intended to be a doctor, like his grandfather; though even as a lad he was interested in theology, and looked out upon the world with serious eyes. At the age of nineteen, he was deeply in love with a girl whose parents would not allow her to marry him. His family, they said, was not so good as hers. This made him more serious still. He had never cared for the pleasures of society; now he hated them. He wrote an essay about this time, entitled, "Contempt of the World."
It was a bad world; that was plain even to a young man of nineteen. What Hus saw in the streets of Prague, Savonarola saw in the streets of Ferrara. There were pride and oppression, vice and drunkenness, men fighting with sharp swords and women looking on applauding, and no peace or order. Savonarola separated himself from it. He entered a monastery and became a Dominican. Presently he was sent to live in Florence with the brothers of San Marco.
The ruler of Florence was Lorenzo, called "the Magnificent." Under his government all bad things were growing in the city like weeds on a neglected farm. Lorenzo was intent on power and money, and cared little how he got them. With all his splendid titles, his robes of state and his palace, he was like the political bosses, who to-day get control of cities, throw open all the doors of wickedness, and tax honest citizens for their own advantage.
It was found that the new brother at San Marco could preach. Not very well, it seemed at first, when he took commonplace texts and treated them in commonplace ways. But one day, as he spoke in the pulpit concerning the Day of Judgment, a sudden inspiration came upon him. He denounced the sins of men in the light of the flames of that awful day of punishment, till his hearers wept and trembled. Afterwards they said that they saw a halo gleaming round his head.
And then, as he preached again, he had a vision of a flaming sword, and heard voices promising the mercy of God to the faithful and the wrath of God to the unfaithful, and, as he looked, the sword was lifted against the earth amidst the flash of lightnings and the crash of thunders.
With this new eloquence, in the spirit of the Day of Judgment, Savonarola attacked the city of government of Florence. He took his texts out of the Bible, and mainly from the prophets of the Old Testament, but in every text he succeeded in finding something against Lorenzo the Magnificent.
He was made prior of the monastery. It was a bold election, not only because some of the chief citizens had protested against his sermons, but because Lorenzo was the great patron of San Marco. The monastery had been rebuilt by his father, and he himself had enriched and adorned it. Suppose, now, that the richest, most generous, and most influential person in the parish is at the same time an unscrupulous political boss and a man of evil life; what shall the parson do? That was the question which confronted the new prior, and he answered by continuing his sermons against Lorenzo.
When Lorenzo lay upon his deathbed, he sent for Savonarola. He knew that there was one fearless and honest minister in Florence, and he wished his counsel in the preparation of his soul. Savonarola said, "You must repent, and trust in the mercy of God." To this Lorenzo assented. "You must give up the wealth which you have taken by dishonest means." To this also, after some hesitation, he assented. "You must restore the liberties of Florence." Then Lorenzo turned his face to the wall, and made no answer, and the prior in silence came away.
The liberties of Florence were restored by Savonarola. In the confusion which followed the death of Lorenzo, the prior was chosen as the natural leader of the decent citizens. The king of France was fighting the king of Naples. Down he came with his army, and entered Florence; and out he went again, by reason of the moral strength of Savonarola. When the king threatened the city, saying, "I will sound my trumpets," it was in the spirit of Savonarola that Capponi answered, "Then we will ring our bells."
Thus Savonarola prevailed in Florence. He drew up a new plan of government by which the magistrates were bound to the fear of God and the purification of manners, and to promote the public welfare in preference to private interests. Jesus Christ was solemnly proclaimed the king of Florence. People put off their gay clothes, and dressed soberly. Hymns took the place of the popular songs. One day, men and women brought their "vanities," their fine apparel, their adornments, and burned them in a great bonfire, while the Dominicans of San Marco, hand in hand, danced about the flames, to the glory of God.
But there were enemies. There were many people whose hearts were not touched by the preaching of Savonarola, and who disliked all this new plainness and simplicity. They honestly hated hymns, and desired the open doors of Lorenzo's time. There were also the Franciscans, who were jealous of the popularity of the Dominicans. And there was the pope.
The very name of the family to which the pope of that day belonged, is a synonym of shameless evil. He was a Borgia. He had abandoned all righteousness, and was suspected of having abandoned all Christian faith as well. He was a criminal and a heretic, and yet the pope. Savonarola denounced him, as he had denounced Lorenzo.
But the pope was possessed of all the power of great wealth and great position. He could bribe with one hand, and curse with the other. Powerful as he was, he yet saw that it was not safe to let himself be publicly abused by popular preachers. There were too many people who would listen to such preaching eagerly. The Middle Ages were drawing to a close. Already new ideas were beginning to stir the minds of men. The fall of Constantinople at the hands of the Turks, in 1453, had sent fugitive Greek scholars into Europe, and men were beginning to read the Greek Testament, with new understanding. The discovery of America, in 1492, was disclosing the greatness of the world; the invention of printing was making it possible for plain men to read books for themselves, and make up their own minds. The invention of powder was putting a new strength into the arms of peasants. The protests of the Albigenses, of the Lollards, of the Hussites, were revealing an increasing unrest in the face of the sins of churchmen. Reforming councils were deposing even popes. Alexander Borgia was afraid to allow Savonarola to preach his fierce sermons. People were so interested in them that they crowded the cathedral before the sun was up, on preaching days, each with his lighted candle.
Then all the enemies fell upon the prior. The pope excommunicated him. The Franciscans proposed a trial by fire, according to an ancient custom: a Franciscan on one side, and a Dominican on the other, were to walk across the wide square between rows of blazing fagots, and the one who got through safely would be proved to be in the right. The rows of fagots were built, and all Florence was there to see. But the Franciscans, though it was their champion who would not venture, contrived to put the blame on the Dominicans. Savonarola and his friars, as they marched back to San Marco, were hooted and stoned. It was evident that his righteous power was broken.
The monastery was stormed by a mob. The doors were broken down; citizens and friars fought together. Fra Domenico, Savonarola's faithful friend, defended the prior with a huge candlestick, which he wielded like a club. But Savonarola was arrested, and Domenico with him, and another also, named Silvestro. They were tried, as the manner was, by torture, and condemned. "I separate thee," said the bishop, "from the Church militant and from the Church triumphant." "Not from the Church triumphant," said the martyr: "That is beyond thy power."
A bronze tablet in the pavement of the great square of Florence shows where Savonarola and his friends were first hanged and then burned for their attack upon the wickedness of the world and of the Church.
Thus passes the procession of our twenty saints and heroes. The list ends with a martyr, as it began. And every man came into acquaintance with difficulty and danger. They might have lived in peace and comfort like their neighbors, but they had a strong longing to do good. They entered with great joy into the old war between wrong and right. That war is as new as it is old: it is going on in our neighborhood to-day. Indeed, we are all enlisted in it, on one side or the other.