The literal end of Savonarola, the charismatic churchman of Florence

For his part, Girolama Savonarola was very soon (in 1498) to be walking towards death. In March his support collapsed after an awkward failure.


The Franciscans of Santa Croce challenged Savonarola’s Dominicans to an ordeal by fire, to discover which was truly favoured by God. It ended on 6 April in a stand-off.

An elaborate raised structure, packed with brushwood and soaked in pitch, oil and gunpowder, was set up in front of the Palazzo della Signoria.

An assistant of Savonarola, Fra Domenico da Pescia, had volunteered to pass through this fiery passage, but the Franciscans made a series of objections to the arrangements and, eventually, it began raining.

The result was that nobody walked through the flames, but Savonarola was the loser.

The Florentines had expected a miracle, and no miracle was forthcoming.

The next day, the convent of San Marco was besieged; Savonarola and his lieutenants were taken prisoner. He was tortured, forced to confess to being a liar and a fraud, recanted, was tortured again and finally hanged with two of his companions on 23 May.

Their bodies were then burnt and Savonarola’s ashes scattered to prevent his relics becoming the focus of a cult.

That stratagem did not work. The friar’s death was the end of an epoch in Florentine history, but the cult of Savonarola was just beginning.

Gayford, Martin. Michelangelo: His Epic Life (p. 142). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.

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