Donald Weinstein


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

Cover Interview of February 28, 2012

The wide angle

As an historian I have always been interested in the problem of defining historical periods and understanding the transitions between them.

How, for example, did the Middle Ages, with its religious, world-denying culture, give way to the world-embracing, life-affirming culture known as the Renaissance?

This was the perspective from which I began to study Savonarola, seemingly a representative of the first of these worlds who was embraced and exalted in the second.

Gradually I arrived at a new understanding of Fra Girolamo and his reception. In so doing I had to discard the conventional labels that distort him and also to reject the practice of freezing history into such hard and fast designations as “Middle Ages” and “Renaissance.”

I would also like to share two historical lessons I have learned: one, the inadequacy of historical labels such as “medieval” and “modern,” and the limitation of moral judgments—such as “saint,” “fanatic,” “charlatan,” and “demagogue”—in explaining the behavior and ideas of charismatic figures; two, the complex psychological, social, political and ideological reasons behind peoples’ belief in and rejection of their heroes and leaders.