Savonarola: A Martyr Getting Walked On
One Italian reformer got trampled underfoot in 1498. In a sense, he is still being walked on today.
Martyrs are among the most captivating of figures in history. While their lives are arrested, their ideas transcend the forces that sought to destroy them. Sometimes their fingerprint is deep, yet their personal contribution is only remembered on the surface. In the case of Savonarola, “surface” takes on new meaning as his memorial plaque gets stepped on by almost 10 million visitors a year.
The Italian church reformer is one of the most overlooked and inspirational of the Reformation martyrs. The Dominican friar was a captivating preacher in the birth place of the Renaissance during its cultural apex. He called for a renewal of the faith through social justice, alms to the poor, redirecting of rebellious youth, and repentance from the opulence of the era. He preached on the impending doom that would come to a society who remained unrepentant as the forces of France marched southward to the city. He exhorted Florence to collect its jewelry, fashion, silks, and vanities to be thrown on a fire of purification, called “Bonfires of Vanity” in the town square. There, materialism was consumed by fire. Ironically, as his message eventually crossed the local and papal authorities, it led to his own bonfire on the exact same spot.
His oversight is no more evident than when one visits Florence, Italy. Resting in the Piazza della Signoria, under the shadow of Michelangelo’s towering David and at the feet of the Fountain of Neptune sits a circular plaque on the spot where the Dominican friar was burned alive. It also rests at the feet of millions of visitors a year who seem to ignore it, their eyes gazing up at the tower of the Palazzo Vechio, the old town hall of the medieval city. They walk across it like it’s a drain tile leading the sewers of the city. Yet, it rests there under toes, quiet and unassuming, welcoming a simple translation from the Italian while marking a heroic spot: “Here with his blessed Dominicans brothers….on March 23, 1498, by unfair judgment was hanged and burned Girolamo Savonarola.”
Two stories can I recall that witness to this ignoble inheritance of having crowds shuffle across your commemorative plate. In 2017 I eavesdropped on an English tour in which the pyre marker rested directly between the tour guide and her audience. She described the monuments of marble, the old town hall, and the civic legacy of this one square. She said nothing about the plaque, while in those days I was deeply invested in writing a chapter for Zondervan’s Legacy of Preaching on Savonarola himself. When a tourist inquired about the marker, the guide showed her unfamiliarity when she could only state that he was a religious reformer. “Now let’s move closer to the Equestrian Monument of Cosimo I,” she quickly added. Unable to pass up the teachable moment, I waited for the tour to advance, stepped alongside the curious tourists, and offered my own free supportive tour of the life of Savonarola in a few sentences. If only I had flyers for the new book.
Then, in 2019, I deemed to make a greater tour guide impact as I co-led a group of college students to the holy ground of the death spot of Savonarola. Trying to emulate the greatness of the reformer himself, my inspirational description of his legacy rang to me like a bell across the ears of this small crowd of students. They listened attentively to the drama of the fifteenth century, to the Protestant-type figure that was swallowed by the flames. Thinking that I had rescued the plaque from the daily traffic of chacos, my demeanor slouched as the students responded by putting their feet around the perimeter of the plaque for a picture.
Yet, the friar might not have it any other way. He certainly would not want a statue of himself erected in the town square alongside Renaissance statuary. Preaching against the monetary abuses of the church only twenty years before Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses, his memory is captured in the theology of the Christian faithful. Then, we realize how Savonarola reminds us of the transcendence of ideas and how the legacy of our ancestors are in the minds and hearts of those who come after. This is true even if they do walk across your memorial plaque.
(For more on this martyr, see Brian Shelton’s “Savonarola” in A Legacy of Preaching: The Life, Theology, and Method of History’s Great Preachers, vol. 1, Benjamin K. Forrest et al. eds., Grand Rapids: Zondervan : 260-275.)