f i r e b r a n d s j e r r y b r o t t on
The Mad Prophet and Mach the Knife avonarola: The Rise and Fall of a Renaissance Prophet
By Donald Weinstein (Yale University Press 379pp £25) Machiavelli: A Life Beyond Ideology
By Paul Oppenheimer
(Continuum 337pp £25)
On 2 and 3 March 1498, the 29-yearold aspirant civil servant Niccolò Machiavelli (1469–1527) was among a crowd that gathered at the Convent of San Marco in Florence to hear a fiery sermon given by the Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola (1452–98), recently excommunicated by Pope Alexander VI. Machiavelli described Savonarola’s apocalyptic preaching in a letter to a friend in Rome, concluding coolly that the friar, whose voice Machiavelli never forgot, said ‘things that you might say of the wickedest man there is. And so he goes, in my judgment, adjusting to the times and colouring his lies.’ The moment captures the two apparently incompatible dimensions of Florentine civic life in the 1490s: the visionary religious rhetoric of Savonarola and the sceptical, pragmatic realpolitik of Machiavelli. Within just three months Savonarola was dead, having been tortured and then hanged and burned by the republican Florentine government he had done so much to create; Machiavelli was appointed its Second Chancellor.
power, exemplified by the enduring appeal and popularity of The Prince (1513). But as both Weinstein and Oppenheimer imply, this was not necessarily the case in Renaissance Florence. Nor is it today, when many people seem as hungry for the fundamentalist religious rhetoric of modern-day Savonarolas as they are for an account of Machiavelli’s apparently immoral insights into political survival, the most egregious recent example being The New Machiavelli, Jonathan Powell’s memoir of Tony Blair’s years in power.
Of the two books, Weinstein’s Savonarola is the more fully achieved by virtue of the fact that it represents the culmination of a lifetime’s research on his subject. Weinstein first wrote an academic study of Savonarola, prophecy and patriotism in
1970, and this new biography represents the definitive English-language account of its subject. It offers the kind of exhaustive yet balanced assessment of the controversial friar’s life that can only be produced by an expert writing at the culmination of his academic career. Beginning with Savonarola’s birth in Ferrara, the repudiation of his family and his embrace of the Dominican order in Bologna, Weinstein moves effortlessly from a detailed account of the nature of fifteenth-century religious fraternities to his subject’s early, tortured works, including On Contempt for the World, with its scorn and indignation at human weakness and contempt for ‘vile and proud people, these greedy youth, lascivious old men, [and] fawning paupers’. Such sentiments set the scene for his subsequent visionary intemperance, and also partly explain his difficulty in reconciling his religious belief with prevailing academic scholasticism.
Having ‘declared war’ on the classical, ‘pagan’ authors, Savonarola struggled as an orator, and his first visit to Florence in the early 1480s left him disillusioned and largely unnoticed. However, his return in 1490 marked a new style of preaching. According to one observer, ‘he introduced an almost new way of speaking the word of God’, abandoning what
The virtue of reading Donald Weinstein’s towering Savonarola: The Rise and Fall of a Renaissance Prophet alongside Paul Oppenheimer’s absorbing Machiavelli: A Life Beyond Ideology is that they offer an insight into how the archetypal Renaissance city of Florence managed to produce two such seemingly irreconcilable individuals who also rubbed shoulders with a veritable Who’s Who of the Renaissance, from Leonardo, Michelangelo, Ficino, Pico, Donatello and Botticelli to the baleful politicians of the Borgian and Medici dynasties. As Machiavelli’s political star rose in inverse proportion to Savonarola’s, we might assume that the future belonged to the former and his detached, ironic analysis of political
Savonarola: hot under the collar m a r c h 2 0 1 2 | Literary Review 5