Today we’re welcoming Mary Hoffman as part of her UK book tour for David, released July 2011.
Two bonfires – Florence and Oxford
In the Piazza della Signoria there’s a round plaque set into the ground. It says – in Italian – “Here, where with his two fellow friars Fra Domenico Buonvicini and Fra Silvestro Maruffi, 23rd May 1498 by an unfair sentence was hanged and burned Fra Girolamo Savonarola, after 400 years this memorial was placed.”
In St. Giles in Oxford stands The Martyrs’ Memorial, commemorating the deaths of the other men. The inscription reads:
“To the Glory of God, and in grateful commemoration of His servants, Thomas Cranmer, Nicholas Ridley, Hugh Latimer, Prelates of the Church of England, who near this spot yielded their bodies to be burned, bearing witness to the sacred truths which they had affirmed and maintained against the errors of the Church of Rome, and rejoicing that to them it was given not only to believe in Christ, but also to suffer for His sake; this monument was erected by public subscription in the year of our Lord God, MDCCCXLI”.
Both nineteenth century memorials to men who died centuries earlier for their beliefs.
Savonarola was a Dominican friar from Ferrara, who became Prior of the San Marco convent in Florence, where Fra Angelico’s fabulous frescoes and Annunciation can be seen (written about in David). He was a fiery preacher, fiercely opposed to the de’ Medici family and all the luxury they represented.
He gave rousing sermons in the pulpit of the cathedral, to encourage Florentines to change their ways. He wanted them to give up their elaborate finery, their ways of dressing and live a more sober Christian life. He became a great influence in the city, particularly after the death of Lorenzo de’ Medici (the “Magnificent”) and the succession of his ineffectual son Piero.
In 1494, when Piero had been driven out of the city, the friar became the effective leader of Florence; for the next few years no-one else had as much power. His influence on a large part of the population led to the Bonfire of the Vanities, when Florentine citizens brought their clothes and goods like mirrors, fans, books – even works of art – and destroyed them in public in the Piazza della Signoria.
A lot of pressure was put on these citizens by Savonarola’s followers to give up their luxuries and ornaments. But not everyone was happy about this and there was still a strong pro-Medicean faction in the city. Even those who supported the idea of a Republic were not necessarily so keen on the idea of having the fanatical friar as their leader.
Eventually and mainly because the Pope was so against Savonarola, the friar lost his power and was arrested and tortured. He was put to death by hanging and then burnt on the same spot where the vanities had been destroyed. Even the ashes from the three bodies were collected up and thrown into the river Arno, so that his followers couldn’t secretly venerate them as relics.
But they missed some, since a character in David has a casket of these precious remains. The death of Savonarola has a huge influence on what happens in David. It’s only three years after the execution when Gabriele walks into the city and gets caught up in all the different political factions.
I saw that memorial plaque in the Piazza della Signoria first when I was twenty and got interested in what had happened and the stern, hook-nosed friar who had died so horribly there. Later when Oxford became an important part of my life (I went to Cambridge but my oldest daughter read English in Oxford) I saw not just the Martyrs’ Memorial but the cobblestone cross in the road that marks the actual spot where the three martyrs were executed in Broad Street.
That reminded me of Savonarola and his companions. We might feel relieved that we no longer burn people whose religious beliefs differ from what the government of the day says they should be. But there are still religious martyrs and we shouldn’t get too complacent about our modern freedoms.