Bonfire of the Vanities

Many of us have heard of the bon fire of the vanities in reference to modern plays and movies.  But did you know the real event took place in Florence Italy in 1497?

A monk by the name of Girolamo Savonarola had become frustrated with the excesses of the Church. Savonarola was particularly frustrated by the of selling guarantees against worldly sins to gain access to heaven; a practice known as indulgences.  Given the human propensity for always being one up on the Jones, just about any member of the Church could buy an indulgence.  While the practice was originally reserved for those giving themselves to practices of good, the matter became out of hand. They were assured that no matter how lecherous their life they had a ticket to the clouds. This was after all the Renaissance and the social norm had turned to social and artistic excesses.

Savonarola was not impressed as buying penance was contrary to the idea of being humble not to mention that most of the known planet at the time was in poverty. He started what was an annual event about the time Carnival usually was scheduled. He attracted those seeing life as a humble process and started burning items of luxury. By 1495 his preaching was so popular that he was seen as ruler of Florence and had soldiers to protect him.  

In 1497 he had amassed a following that took to the streets. They burned everything that was unnecessary to basic existence including many works of; art, make up, ancient manuscripts, furniture and even rare tapestries.

Church officials condemned his activities as a critic and sensor, which they saw was excess and contrary to their efforts to raise money.  In particular he attracted the wrath of Pope Alexander VI – himself a Borgia.  

Savonarola was excommunicated.  About a year later he was executed by being hanged from a cross and burned to death in the very square his destruction of vanities had happened.  The populous was given a decree to produce any of the monk’s illegal works within a day of his death to be burned in an act of public censorship. 

I was unable to locate a book or contiguous writing on this event and so present you with a historical note so the real event and the reasons leading to it will not be overshadowed by its recent modern commercial interpretation.

Joel Patience is an independent writer and watercolor artist drawing inspirations from travels with his wife Dale Bonn.