Monday, May 15, 2017

Book Review: Death in Florence: The Medici, Savonarola, and the Battle for the Soul of a Renaissance City

by David Ryan, Librarian, Business, Science and Technology Department

Death in Florence: The Medici, Savonarola, and the Battle for the Soul of a Renaissance City
Paul Strathern

Growing up, I loved reading tales of the Italian Renaissance. The beautiful city of Florence, birthplace of the Renaissance, figured prominently in these stories. The authors I read painted the city as a place of winding, dark alleys where assassins in the pay of the great city-state families practiced their nefarious trade. Inside the marbled, domed churches artists like Sandro Botticelli produced some of the most breathtaking art Europe had ever seen. On the outskirts of the city were beautiful fields of golden grain where mercenary generals, or condottiere, led troops in brilliant military maneuvers which resulted in stunning victories, but few fatalities. Paul Strathern in Death in Florence disabuses me of some of my childhood romantic misconceptions, and by focusing on the intertwined lives of Lorenzo d’ Medici, known as the Magnificent, and "the little friar" Savonarola, reveals the Italian Renaissance as byzantine, lethal, and morally corrupting.

Strathern begins his story with Lorenzo Il Magnifico (1449-1492) on his deathbed. Lorenzo the Magnificent deserved his sobriquet. He had steered the city of Florence through so many diplomatic crises that Pope Innocent VIII called him "the needle of the Italian compass." Perhaps of more importance, he had created an atmosphere in Florence where not just the arts, but religious and secular culture could flourish side by side. Where would his death lead? Would Florence take a leap backward, or continue to embrace an open environment where the sacred and the profane could co-exist peacefully? Lorenzo had already drawn in his mind a vision of Florence that would live generations after his death. It began with his son, Piero de Medici, inheriting control of Florence, the Medici banking and trading empire that stretched across Europe, and even wearing the red hat of a Cardinal.

On the other side of the spiritual scales was Girolamo Savonarola (1452-1498), a Dominican friar who preached to the poor and saw visions, or revelations as he called them, revealing that God would soon “scourge the world.” From contemporary accounts we know that Savonarola was a sincerely pious man who regularly fasted, prayed, and followed the strict life of his order. This was not a man who sought worldly power. At least not initially, but Florence had a way of changing people. Soon Savonarola found himself at the center of a political fight between the wealthy families of Italy, a corrupt Pope, an emperor, kings, and the many Florentine social classes. Some of these figures began to appear in his sermons, and these “sermons were based on the Old Testament and featured an angry God” preparing vengeance for the wealthy and corrupt of Florence.

This book is an historical snapshot of the spiritual versus the temporal, idealism against naked power, and “the clash between materialism and fundamentalism.” On a human level, it is the story of a monk’s fight to remain pure and spread the word of God—“Savonarola’s stated aim was to return the Church to the physical poverty and utter spiritual devotion of its origins.” Lorenzo Medici, on the other hand, schemed for his family to rule Florence, Italy, and possibly the Church, indefinitely. The city of Florence could be as beautiful as a painting by Botticelli, or as ugly as a fiery execution, but only one image could rule its soul at a time.

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