Little Bits of History

Bonfire of the Vanities

Posted in History by patriciahysell on February 7, 2014
Fra Girolamo Savonarola (assumed)

Fra Girolamo Savonarola (assumed)

February 7, 1497: Fra Girolamo Savonarola institutes a bonfire of the vanities. This was not the first of these events as they had been around for decades. The focus of the bonfire was to rid the city of Florence of objects which might induce the natives to sin. These included such things as cosmetics and mirrors as well as fine dresses, playing cards, and even musical instruments. Also included were books, especially on secular topics as well as art when it was not religious in nature. All these things could lead the unwary into sin and cause God to turn from the city and lead them into chaos as Renaissance Florence was fighting for its survival.

Sandro Botticelli was a famous Florentine painter who had studied under the patronage of Lorenzo de’Medici. He was part of what became known as the “golden age” of art. He is said to have been so moved by Savonarola’s preaching that he destroyed several of his paintings which were based on classical mythology during this bonfire. Botticelli was such an ardent follower that he stopped painting and thus had no income and fell on hard times. He died in 1510 and his work was eclipsed for longer than most of his contemporaries. His most famous painting is probably The Birth of Venus, which apparently would have distressed him greatly.

Savonarola was born in 1452 and was a Dominican friar, entering the order in 1475. He denounced clerical corruption which was rampant at the time as well as despotic rule and the exploitation of the poor. He became quite popular with the masses. He predicted trouble for his adopted home – Florence. Trouble came in the form of Charles VIII of France’s invasion of persent-day Italy and threatening Florence. On December 10, 1494 Savonarola preached a new sermon, Florence’s victory and greater glory. As a cleric, he was ineligible to hold public office but this did not keep him from exerting support for those who would follow his plans.

Things were going well until Savonarola accused Pope Alexander VI of corruption. The Pope banned Savonarola from speaking in public but the ban was ignored so the Pope excommunicated him, a fate worse than death for a religious person. Savonarola’s message became more extreme, strident, and onerous and eventually the Florentines tired of his teachings and turned against him. Savonarola hinted at performing miracles and was arrested for heresy, along with two other supporting friars. Under torture Savonarola confessed to having invented prophecies and visions. He recanted, confessed again, and was finally found guilty and sentenced to death. He and his compatriots were hanged while fires were set beneath the gallows to consume the corpses so that no relics would remain.

The truest characters of ignorance are vanity and pride and arrogance. – Samuel Butler

Vanity and pride are different things, though the words are often used synonymously. A person may be proud without being vain. Pride relates more to our opinion of ourselves; vanity, to what we would have others think of us. – Jane Austen

The herd seek out the great, not for their sake but for their influence; and the great welcome them out of vanity or need. – Napoleon Bonaparte

Ladies of Fashion starve their happiness to feed their vanity, and their love to feed their pride. – Charles Caleb Colton

Also on this day: Pluto v. Neptune – In 1979, Pluto moved inside Neptune’s orbit.
Finally – In 1971, Switzerland gives women the vote.
The Little Tramp – In 1914, Charlie Chaplin first plays The Little Tramp in the  Kid Auto Races at Venice.
Mud March – In 1907, the Mud March took place in London.


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