Donald Weinstein


On his book Savonarola: The Rise and Fall of a Renaissance Prophet

Cover Interview of February 28, 2012

In a nutshell

This is a biography of Girolamo Savonarola the fifteenth century penitential preacher who captivated Florence, the first city of the Renaissance, with his prophecies of civic glory and millennium.

Fra Girolamo has often been dismissed as an anachronism, a throwback to a more credulous and pious Middle Ages. Some still venerate him as a holy prophet and propose him for sainthood, believing that he sacrificed himself to protect the Christian faith and save the Catholic Church on the eve of the Protestant Reformation. Still others dismiss him as a demagogue and opportunist who faked his visions in the interest of personal fame and power.

I tried to escape the constraints of these tendentious and moralizing categories and view Savonarola in his multiple dimensions, a person of intellectual depth, burning conviction, inner tensions and half-perceived contradictions.

In trying to account for his astonishing success with the sophisticated Florentines, I examine the city’s myths and aspirations and reappraise its famous culture of Renaissance humanism. I argue that this movement toward “modernity” owed more to medieval traditions and values than many have been aware. Finally, I follow the path of Savonarola’s downfall, the spectacular failure of the trial by fire, the attack on his convent of San Marco, his imprisonment and torture.

I also analyze his confessions, neither endorsing them as fully genuine nor dismissing them as complete fabrications. Instead, I try to find what they can tell us about his belief in his prophetic gift, his self-doubts and his decision to go to his death in silence.