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A Fanatical Monk Inspired 15th-Century Italians to Burn Their Clothes, Makeup and Art

He told Florentines the apocalypse was coming, and to save themselves through self-censorship

Although it's possible that Sandro Botticelli threw other works of his on the bonfire, the Birth of Venus thankfully survived. (Sandro Botticelli/Wikimedia Commons)
smithsonian.com

On this day in 1497, a Dominican friar named Girolama Savonarola had a bonfire.

What was lost? It was the 15th century, so it’s hard to know exactly, but “artworks, books, cosmetics, dresses and much more were burned,” writes History.com. According to historian David M. Reis, "sinful objects were collected for months leading up to the ritual, and on the day of the bonfire itself, Savonarola’s followers adorned themselves with white gowns, garlands and red crosses and went door-to-door collecting objects for burning. An enormous pyre was erected in the Piazza del Signoria and it was surmounted by an image of Satan. Representatives of the different Florentine districts symbolically lit the pyre, obliterating the objects of vanity."

Historians have named it the Bonfire of the Vanities—"vanities" being things that distracted Florentines from their religious duties in the eyes of their current ad-hoc leader, Savonarola. What’s important about the bonfire isn’t that it happened, but that people actually handed over things to be burned in the midst of a fairly brief period where Savonarola was the city’s ideological leader and told everyone to expect the coming of the end of the world.

The Dominican order that he belonged to was formed with the express purpose of “combatting heresy in the Christian church,” writes historian Kathryn Blair Moore. There were a number of "bonfire of the vanities" moments hosted by the Dominicans from the 13th-15th centuries in Italy and France where they operated, she writes.

What made this one the Bonfire, with a capital B, is the historical position it occupied. Beginning about 1490, Savonarola “began to preach with more insistence about the Apocalypse he believed would occur in the year 1500,” Moore writes. At the same time, she writes, the ruling family of Florence, the Medicis, were losing power and the respect of the people.

In 1494, “inflamed by Savonarola’s preaching,” mobs burned down the Medicis' bank, the center of their power, after the family fled the city. Savonarola took power and started criticising, among other things, contemporary art.

The art he rejected as heretical looked religious, but because the images of rich people who commissioned the paintings were often part of the picture, he said, it was modern and corrupt. Not surprisingly, Moore writes, the now-spiritual leader of Florence also took particular issue with the female Biblical figures in painting of the time.

Sandro Botticelli, painter of the famous Birth of Venus, may even have been so convinced by Savonarola’s account of the coming end days that he threw some of his work on the fire, she writes — though thankfully Birth of Venus, Primavera and the Venus de’ Medici still survive.

Although it was a powerful symbol of Savonarola’s sway, the Bonfire of the Vanities didn’t burn for many years. In fact, writes Reis, it contributed to his controversial status as Florentians felt their heritage and culture was being threatened. In the end, mostly because of his negative stance on the papacy, Savonarola was defrocked and executed by the church.

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