Michelangelo entered Florence for the first time at the age of barely one month, when his father, whose term as mayor of Caprese had expired, returned the family to the city where he himself had been born and raised. Michelangelo’s mother gave birth to three more sons in Florence, to complete a brood of five boys in all. Then, when he was just six years old, his mother died.

At the age of ten, Michelangelo was sent to live at a Florentine grammar school. As the name would imply, the primary purpose of such institutions was to teach their charges Latin, which was still the language of the Church, of most intellectual discourse in Europe, and, perhaps most importantly of all in this most commercial of all Italian cities, of contracts and other sorts of business correspondence. But, much to his father’s disappointment and shame, Michelangelo would never learn the language at anything more than a rudimentary level; throughout his life, he would have to sheepishly ask that documents of many stripes be translated for him into the Italian vernacular. Instead of learning Latin, he spent his time at the many art studios that surrounded the school, absorbing whatever he could from the bemused painters and sculptors who worked in them. This set the stage for a showdown with his father that has since become an inescapable part of the Artist’s Journey. “His father and his uncles, who held the art in contempt, were much displeased, and often beat him severely for it,” claimed Ascanio Condivi in his authorized biography of Michelangelo, which appeared while its subject was still alive and was in fact written in close collaboration with him. (Valuable though it is as a source in its own right, the book is also a testament to how Michelangelo would learn to control his own public image in a way that rings distinctly Modern).

Michelangelo’s family belonged to the age-old category of impoverished nobility — or at least they believed themselves to belong to it. Buonarroti lore insisted that they were a branch of the Canossa family, the most noble bloodline in Tuscany, who had wielded enormous political influence during the Middle Ages. (Pope Gregory VII, for example, was staying at Canossa Castle in 1077 when Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV came there to kneel in the snow and beg his forgiveness.) Modern historians have traced the Buonarroti family tree carefully, and have concluded that all of their pretensions of grandeur were originally just that: pretensions, albeit ones which had by the time of Michelangelo’s birth become earnestly believed. This was true not least of Michelangelo himself, who was in his heart of hearts as bothered as his father by his deeply felt calling to the role of artist, a profession that was still not considered to be respectable enough for a child of nobility. He was “not only a snob but one of a particularly conservative stripe,” admits his recent biographer Miles J. Unger. His lifelong insecurity about the mismatch between his bloodline and his profession seems fantastical today, given that the name of Michelangelo is now far better known to us, strictly on the basis of his own achievements, than that of Canossa. Yet it was a very, very real force in his life. He would try to square this circle by imagining himself to be an artist of a special type, one selected by God to stand above all others, one who created only for God rather than for the patrons whom he deigned to allow to pay him. “I never kept a shop,” he would say, looking down his nose at those artists who created merely for the purpose of pleasing their customers and making money.

Be all that as it may, Michelangelo’s father did finally allow him to become an apprentice at age thirteen in exactly the sort of artistic shop he would later mock. It belonged to the brothers Domenico and Davide Ghirlandaio, two of the busiest painters in all of Florence, who churned out flattering portraits and tastefully rendered scenes from the Bible and pagan mythology to order for middle-class walls. The 24 gold florins Michelangelo’s father was paid upfront in return for his son’s three-year apprenticeship probably had much to do with breaking down the perpetually cash-strapped man’s resistance.

To understand what that apprenticeship entailed, we must understand the standard methods of artistic production during the Renaissance. A painting that was signed by one of the Ghirlandaio brothers, or for that matter by a more celebrated artist such as Botticelli, was almost never entirely the work of said artist’s own hand. The artist who signed his name was rather the person who conceptualized and composed a work, then set his assistants to the task of making it a reality under his ongoing supervision. Only once they had done most of the grunt work of painting the background scenery and the like might he come along to paint in the finer foreground details. In some cases, the master did little of even this work.

That said, being allowed to apply paint to canvas at all was a privilege that had to be earned by an apprentice. Michelangelo would have started in the Ghirlandaio studio with the lowliest grunt work of all, grinding pigments and cleaning the brushes of his betters. Small wonder that he would later seek to elide these details in his biography; Condivi wrote only that Michelangelo, being already so advanced when he arrived in the studio, “received absolutely no assistance” from his masters, who were allegedly jealous of his God-given skill.

For all that this is laying it on rather thick, there can be no doubt but that the boy was precociously talented, so much so that within two years he achieved that most cherished dream of any budding young Florentine artist: that of winning the attention of the Medici family. Lorenzo de’ Medici, representing the third generation of his family to rule Florence, had decided to start a school for sculptors on the grounds of their palace. “Given the great love he had for both painting and sculpture,” writes Giorgio Vasari, “he despaired that in his time one could not find famous or noble sculptors to equal the many great painters of note, and so he determined to create a school.” It is unclear exactly how Michelangelo came to be selected for this school, but, however it came to pass, his apprenticeship with the Ghirlandaio brothers was cut short a year so that he could attend. (Needless to say, when a Medici asked for one of your apprentices, you didn’t dare refuse…) Ironically in light of our interest in his role as the eventual painter of the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo himself quickly came to see sculpting as his highest calling, considering it an art form much more rarefied than painting.

This sixteenth-century terracotta bust of Lorenzo de’ Medici is based on a wax sculpture executed from life by Andrea del Verrocchio. Lorenzo’s features were said to be so coarse that they wound up perversely handsome. (Public Domain)

Lorenzo de’ Medici, for his part, took a shine to the boy. He brought him to live in the palace, giving him a stipend for daily expenses and the finest Florentine silks and brocades to wear, and giving his father a post in Florence’s customs house that was more lucrative by far than any he had ever held. Lorenzo hired not just the best sculptors in Florence, such as they were, to instruct the boy, but also scholars to teach him and other young prodigies literature, history, theology, and philosophy. (Fortunately for the Latin-deficient Michelangelo, more and more texts were being translated into the vernacular.) Michelangelo’s oldest surviving works — student works, to be sure, but unusually accomplished ones — date from this period.

Michelangelo sculpted The Battle of Centaurs at the age of just sixteen. (sailko)

Michelangelo was already becoming the man he would remain throughout his long life — brilliant, driven, and full of a profound empathy for the subjects of his art, but as often as not arrogantly insufferable toward his peers. One of these, a fellow student at the Medici palace, got so aggravated that he flew off and punched him in the face one day. Many years later, the pugilist was still unrepentant: “He will bear that mark of mine as long as he lives,” he chortled. And indeed, all existing portraits of Michelangelo show him to have a misshapen nose.

Given his fame throughout much of his life, there are surprisingly few surviving depictions of Michelangelo; unlike many artists, he never painted or sculpted himself. This portrait, the best picture by far that we have of him, was painted by Daniele da Volterra when Michelangelo was about 70 years old. (Public Domain)

The budding artist had been living in the Medici palace for almost two years in April of 1492, when Lorenzo died at the age of just 43. This was to prove an important turning point in the life of Florence as a whole as well as Michelangelo.

Lorenzo was replaced by his son Piero de’ Medici, who shared his given name with his grandfather. He was only twenty years old when he became the fourth scion of his family in a row to rule the city of flowers. But the atmosphere at the palace just wasn’t the same after his ascent. The father’s prodigies became the son’s hired hands. Piero told people that his two favorite members of the household were Michelangelo, who made him such pretty pictures and sculptures — at one point, he was reduced to sculpting a snowman outside his youthful patron’s bedroom window — and his Spanish groom, who took such good care of his horses. Michelangelo was not one to stand such demeaning treatment for long. He soon left the Medici palace.

He now found himself rather at loose ends. For all his pretensions of nobility, he had no noble fortune to fall back on. And so Michelangelo — the very same Michelangelo who would so proudly claim later in life never to have “kept a shop” — did something far more disreputable than that: he became a forger, sculpting statues of mythological subjects that were in some cases at least passed off and sold as relics of Antiquity.

He also dissected a number of cadavers during this time to perfect his knowledge of the human form. The gruesome work “turned his stomach so that he could neither eat nor drink with benefit,” writes Condivi, but it would serve him well throughout his career. Michelangelo’s figures, whether nude or clothed, would always look more real than those of just about any other artist. There is an instructive comparison to be made here with Leonardo da Vinci, that only other character of the Renaissance who can rival Michelangelo for name recognition today. Leonardo too dissected cadavers. But he did it enthusiastically rather than gritting his teeth to the job like Michelangelo; being a scientist as much as he was an artist by disposition, he wanted to find out how people were put together for its own sake, wanted to find out how they functioned. For Michelangelo, on the other hand, it was always all about the art.

Michelangelo’s clear affinity for the male over the female form in his painting and sculpture, along with the fact that he never married nor ever expressed any real interest in a woman, has led many Modern souls to more than suspect that he was gay. They find still more evidence in the tortured sonnets he began to write during middle age: “I want to want, O Lord, what I don’t want: between the flame and this icy heart a veil descends that extinguishes the fire.”

There may be a grain of truth to such judgments, but they must also be understood as the anachronisms which they fundamentally are. The concept of homosexuality as a fixed category, potentially genetically predetermined, didn’t even begin to arise until the late nineteenth century. Even today, science tells us that human sexual preferences are more accurately seen as a continuum than as two (or more) neatly labeled boxes. Certainly our closest genetic relatives, the great apes, are far more fluid in their sexual behavior than those boxes allow for. It would appear that only the extreme ends of the human continuum of sexuality are innately attracted exclusively to one gender or the other; the behavior of the majority in the middle is at least as much culturally as genetically determined. And in most times and places in history, the culture has allowed, whether tacitly or explicitly, more sexual fluidity than we tend to see in the Modern West. For all the Church’s condemnation of “sodomy,” relations between men and boys in particular were still quite commonplace during the Renaissance — relations between masters and apprentices, for example. If Michelangelo did happen to be subject to such treatment during his youth, or if he subjected the young assistants who later came to work for him to it, he would be by no means unusual in the context of his time. Please do not misunderstand me here: I believe we are amply justified in considering all such sexual relationships today to be unacceptable under any circumstances, as we do many others that involve similarly dramatic imbalances of power and life experience. It should merely be understood that these are our standards, not those of the Renaissance. Ditto when we pronounce matter-of-factly that Michelangelo was “gay.”

But we should return to our story: Michelangelo, still not yet twenty years old, was like all of Florence’s citizens about to be swept up by a storm of religious zealotry that no one could have imagined to be on the horizon during the libertine rule of Lorenzo de’ Medici. Yet the fact was that the city’s focus on commerce had long obscured a lingering strain of Medieval religious sentiment among the common people, one that sat uneasily beside so much humanist wealth and beauty. Now, the spoiled young Piero de’ Medici was doing a fine job of dragging it to the surface by flaunting his riches and his dissipated lifestyle around town in the ostentatious way that his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather had been wise enough to avoid, all while evincing no sign of the sense of noblesse oblige they had embraced. The people grew restless and resentful — a dangerous state of affairs for the absolute ruler of a purported republic, a monarch thanks to the vagaries of temporal politics rather than any explicitly declared divine right of kings. There soon emerged a challenger to Piero’s dominance in Florence, one who could hardly have been more different. And yet Girolamo Savonarola was not unacquainted with the Medicis, nor they with him.

When Lorenzo de’ Medici had been lying on his deathbed, he had begun to fear the consequences of the profligate life he had led on Earth. He decided that he needed the holiest of Florentine holy men to absolve him of his sins. The man who currently enjoyed that reputation was Savonarola, the prior of the city’s Convent of San Marco, known for his riveting, impassioned sermons and for his scouring of his flesh, for incessantly fasting and flogging himself. Lorenzo had him sent for.

But upon his arrival, Savonarola proved less accommodating than the ruler might have wished. He first asked whether Lorenzo repented of his personal sins. Lorenzo said he did. Then he asked whether Lorenzo would renounce his wealth, which he said was ill-gotten in the eyes of God. “Father, I will do so, or I will cause my heirs to do so if I cannot,” said the richest man in Florence. Finally, Savonarola asked whether the Medici family would step back from their all-pervasive control over the life of Florence, allowing it to become a true city of God, a “New Jerusalem.” But this was too much for Lorenzo, even with the fear of hellfire in his breast. He said nothing in response. Savonarola gazed at him severely for a while, then administered a perfunctory blessing and departed without another word.

The only known portrait of Girolamo Savonarola, by Fra Bartolomeo. Will Durant: “As the intensity of his feelings and purposes increased they wrote themselves upon his features in the furrowed brow and frowning forehead, the thick lips tight with determination, the immense nose curving out as if to encompass the world, a countenance somber and severe, expressing an infinite capacity for love and hate; a small frame racked and haunted with visions, frustrated aspirations, and introverted storms.” (Public Domain)

As we have seen, Piero de’ Medici most definitely did not abide by Savonarola’s second demand of his father, much less his third. And so Savonarola began to actively preach against him and the rest of his family. His theology was a foretaste of what was to come in the following century, when large swaths of Christendom would break away from the Church in Rome, denouncing it and all of its opulent trappings as perversions of Jesus Christ’s real message. Savonarola was an ascetic, and what we might wish to label a fundamentalist, a man who took every passage in the Bible literally and regarded every tenet and practice of the Church that wasn’t to be found laid out in black and white there with extreme skepticism. Taking to heart Jesus’s admonition that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God,” he adjured the Florentines to cast aside wealth and all of its trappings — not least among them the works of art that adorned their private walls and the city’s public spaces equally. For these were an affront to God rather than the celebration of him they frequently claimed to be, a distraction from what really mattered. What right had mere mortals to depict the divine in crude paint and marble? Did not the second of the Ten Commandments say that “thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in Heaven above, or that is in the Earth beneath, or that is in the water under the Earth?”

“I want to give you some good advice,” Savonarola told the people. “Avoid those artifacts that belong with the riches of this world. Today they make figures in churches with such art and such ornamentation that they extinguish the light of God and of true contemplation, and in these you are not contemplating God but the artifice of the figures.”

He condemned equally the artifices which Florentines applied to their own persons.

Ye women, who glory in your ornaments, your hair, your hands, I tell you you are all ugly. Would you see true beauty? Look at the pious man or woman in whom spirit dominates matter; watch him when he prays, when a ray of the divine beauty glows upon him when his prayer is ended. You will see the beauty of God shining in his face. You will behold it as if it were the face of an angel.

Like so many of a similar bent before him, Savonarola believed that the Apocalypse was nigh; he thought it would come in the year 1500, a neat millennium and a half after Jesus’s birth. By all reports, his vivid descriptions of the destruction that would follow the return of Jesus were enough to make anyone’s hair stand on end.

He found grist for his mill in current events on the Italian Peninsula. The late Lorenzo de’ Medici’s moderating influence had been felt well beyond Florence; he had played a pivotal role in keeping the peace among the other, often headstrong city-states of Italy. Piero was constitutionally unequipped to assume the same role. When a quarrel broke out between Naples and Milan, he cast Florence’s lot wholeheartedly with the former rather than stepping in as a neutral peace broker. Unfortunately, Milan happened to be an ally of France. Now, King Charles VIII of France was rumored to be preparing an army with which to invade Italy. “It is known to all Italy that the chastisement hath already begun!” thundered Savonarola from the pulpit, both feeding off of and amplifying a deepening sense of insecurity in Florence.

Yet there was more to Savonarola’s preaching than fire and brimstone. It wasn’t only spiritual justice that he sought to instill before Jesus’s return; it was also social justice. “The poor are oppressed by grievous burdens,” he declared. “And when they are called to pay sums beyond their means, the rich cry unto them, ‘Give me the rest.'”

The poor of Florence couldn’t get enough of it. They convinced themselves that Savonarola was more than half divine himself, comparing him to John the Baptist, even to Moses. They thronged to wherever he appeared, and frequently marched through the streets after one of his sermons singing songs and chanting slogans, while the wealthy families who were accustomed to lording it over them peered out nervously from behind their barred doors. Florentines in between the two extremes of wealth — a group that tended to include artists — were left with an unpalatable choice: to support either a fiery-eyed religious fanatic in Savonarola or a dissipated, tyrannical man-child in Piero de’ Medici. Sometimes the choice they made was surprising. For example, Sandro Botticelli gave up his happy-go-lucky lifestyle to become a committed disciple of Savonarola. He didn’t give up painting, but his work took on a new austerity; he abandoned the nymphs and fawns of Antiquity in favor of an obsessive focus on the passion of Jesus Christ on the cross, etching the suffering on his face and the pained contortions of his limbs with infinite care.

(Public Domain)

Life was quickly becoming untenable for Florence’s other artists, the ones who were less willing to upend their whole aesthetic to portray a markedly different interpretation of the Christian religion. And so they began to leave the city, a great diaspora to other urban centers that became the rest of Italy’s gain even as it was Florence’s loss. In September of 1494, the nineteen-year-old Michelangelo left the city for Bologna.

His timing was fortunate. Just a month later, Charles VIII’s long-rumored army actually materialized in Tuscany. Piero de’ Medici, knowing that very few in Florence were likely to take up arms on his behalf, threw open the gates of the city to the French and hightailed it out of town. Charles stayed for only a few weeks — he was more interested in delivering a comeuppance to Naples than in occupying Florence — but when he moved on he left behind a power vacuum that Savonarola was ready and willing to fill. The latter effectively became the new supreme leader of Florence. (Piero would die from his excesses in exile nine years later, while King Charles would leave Italy again the following year, driven off by an alliance of more southerly Italian city-states and by diplomatic pressure from many of the other kingdoms of Europe.)

Savonarola now abolished all taxes on the poor and forgave their debts to Florence’s notoriously rapacious moneylenders. But he also outlawed horse races, carnivals, profanity, gambling, secular music, dancing, and sodomy, recruiting gangs of boys to roam the streets looking for such sins against God. These measures were necessary, he said, to turn Florence into New Jerusalem.

Meanwhile in Bologna, Michelangelo was taken in by a rich family. With them he got to live much as he once had in the Medici palace; in between painting and sculpting, he read The Divine Comedy aloud for the patriarch, who liked to hear it delivered in the same Tuscan accent as its author Dante. Nevertheless, Michelangelo left Bologna again after a little over a year; perhaps his arrogance had worn through his hosts’ patience, or perhaps he judged even Savonarola’s Florence to be more congenial than Bologna, a city known for its university rather than its art studios. It was an antipodean Florence to which he returned, where the pious and austere ruled the roost and patrons and creators of art had virtually all either moved away or gone underground. Those Medicis who were still to be found in Florence had taken a new surname: “Popolano,” which means “of the people.” Lorenzo Popolano, a cousin of the Lorenzo de’ Medici who had once ruled the city, had commissioned Botticelli’s Birth of Venus during a more auspicious time for Florentine art. Now, he took Michelangelo and other artists under his wing — among the others was Michelangelo’s old master Davide Ghirlandaio, whose brother had recently died — protecting them as best he could while they all rode out the storm.

With no commissions for original art to be had, Michelangelo returned to making forgeries of ancient art. Ironically, this disreputable work which he would later do his utmost to conceal became his ticket to fame and fortune beyond even his not inconsiderable dreams.

It was all down to a winsome sculpture of Cupid, Venus’s arrow-shooting young attendant, which Lorenzo Popolano was able to sell on his behalf to a Cardinal Riario in Rome for a fair amount of money. By some means that we don’t know, Riario eventually figured out that his purchase wasn’t the genuine article, and got his money back. And yet he was so impressed with the skill with which the statue had been sculpted that he sent an agent to Florence to find out who had made it. The agent found the young forger living and sculpting in a cramped little room, surrounded by other works that left him “stupefied” by their craftsmanship. Forgiving the fraud Michelangelo had perpetrated upon him in the face of such clear evidence of genius, Cardinal Riario invited him to Rome. Michelangelo rushed to oblige his latest patron, thrilled to be leaving Florence.

For the city he had grown up in was becoming still more unrecognizable to him, as Savonarola grew more and more extreme. His militant bands of boys were to be seen everywhere, singing hymns loudly and knocking at the doors of the well-heeled demanding “gifts” for charity. In time, these gifts became “vanities” that were worthy only of destruction, being all of the things that distracted from a life in Christ: jewelry, wigs, mirrors, perfume, fine clothing, dice, playing cards, gaming tables, chess sets, musical instruments, and of course paintings and sculptures, especially those of a lascivious bent. They rounded up books as well, from Boccaccio to Ovid, Petrarch to Plato. Although all of these things were ostensibly offered up voluntarily by their owners, the threat of violence hung in the air every time a door was knocked upon, the product of long-buried class resentments as well as religious fervor.

The madness culminated on February 7, 1497, the day of the “Bonfire of the Vanities.” This day used to be one of Florence’s carnival days, when the fashionable and wealthy promenaded and danced in the city’s central Piazza della Signoria, seeing and being seen. Now, their possessions were stacked there in a seven-tiered pyramid, representing the seven deadly sins. The edifice rose to a height of 60 feet (18 meters), with a circumference at its bottom of 240 feet (73 meters). At its very top stood an effigy of the Devil. A torch was touched to the pyramid, which had been packed with straw and kindling. As the flames rose high into the air, an army of Savonarola’s boys sang hymns, their faces reddened in the heat. From time to time, an explosion shook the square, the result of small caches of gunpowder that had been artfully hidden in the pyramid. Looking upon the scene, a stranger could almost believe he was a witness to the Apocalypse — although it may not have been immediately clear that the people singing and cavorting in front of the flames were the ones on the side of God.

Savonarola was playing a high-stakes game. Following the lead of the Book of Revelation and other Christian writings of the early centuries before Constantine, he had taken to condemning Rome as the “Whore of Babylon” and worse. From there, it was a small step to denouncing the pope himself, a crime punishable by death in the eyes of the Inquisition. “At the court of Rome, men are losing their souls for all time!” he lectured in his homespun diction. “If you meet people who enjoy being in Rome, you know they are cooked. He’s cooked, all right. You understand me?” Everyone understood him perfectly: “He” was the pope.

This sort of thing couldn’t be allowed to continue — least of all right here in Italy, so close to the bosom of the Church. On June 18, 1497, Savonarola’s excommunication was announced: “We judge him damned, with the Devil and his angels, to the eternal fires of Hell.” The target of this judgment was defiant. Now he would not need to hide behind pronouns anymore when he railed against God’s enemies. “Let him be declared excommunicate [instead],” he said of Pope Alexander VI.

Savonarola’s words and actions were beginning to give even some of his supporters pause. An open rebellion against the pope did not seem likely to end well. And other portents boded still worse. On July 29, there came a total eclipse of the Sun, a mysterious event which had been regarded as long as human beings had existed as a sign of divine displeasure. Indeed, a plague was now present in the city, killing as many as 60 people every day, and torrential rainfalls that spring and summer had raised the specter of famine in the countryside. All of this could be taken equally as omens of the Apocalypse which Savonarola prophesied or as signs of God’s anger at a false prophesier.

More and more were coming to suspect the latter. The Florentine economy was in shambles, and many people craved a return to stability and normalcy. A group of the city’s old-school business interests promised just that: they would replace Savonarola’s theocracy with a functioning republic, they said, like the old Medici state but fairer.

Savonarola responded by growing still more extreme. With Florence teetering on the brink of a civil war between the zealots and the pragmatists, he played his last hand. In the spring of 1498, he took the fight directly to Pope Alexander, via an open letter which he sent to all the major leaders of Europe.

The time to avenge our disgrace is at hand, and the Lord commands me to expose new secrets, revealing to all the world the perilous waters into which the ship of Saint Peter has sailed. Such circumstances are due to your lengthy neglect of these matters. The Church is filled with abominations, from the crown of her head to the soles of her feet, yet not only do you neglect to cure her of her ailments, but instead you pay homage to the very source of the evils which pollute her. Wherefore, the Lord is greatly angered, and has for long left the Church without a shepherd.

I now hereby testify that Alexander is no pope, nor can he be regarded as one. Aside from the mortal sin of simony by which means he purchased the papal throne, and daily sells Church benefices to the highest bidder, as well as ignoring all the other vices which he so publicly flaunts — I declare that he is not a Christian, and does not believe in the existence of God, and thus far exceeds the limits of infidelity.

In a throwback to Medieval ways of thought that Renaissance Florence had once believed itself to have left behind forever, a Florentine friar named Domenico da Pescia, an ardent supporter of Savonarola, offered to subject himself to a trial by fire in his name. Savonarola would bless him and anoint him with holy water, and then he would walk into the heart of a blazing conflagration. If he died, Savonarola would be proven a fraud and a charlatan. But if he survived, the miracle would prove Savonarola to be a saint and a prophet, sent by God to heal a sick Church. Another monk then came forward, one who was loyal to the pope. He would join Domenico in walking into the fire, only in the name of Pope Alexander, he said, and all the world would be able to see which one burned. Thereby would the rightful patriarch of Christendom be indubitably determined. (No apparent thought was given to the scenario which might occur to us Moderns as the most probable of all: that of both men being consumed by the impartial flames.)

The well-meaning Domenico had inadvertently backed Savonarola into a corner: he had little choice but to agree to the trial. And so, on the windy and damp morning of April 7, 1498, thousands gathered on the Piazza della Signoria. In a bizarre pantomime of a sporting event, the square had been divided into two by wooden barriers, one side for supporters of Savonarola, one for his opponents. Right down the middle ran a long strip of earthwork, piled with logs and brushwood soaked in flammable oils. The mood was rowdy, the two camps shouting and jostling with one another over the barrier, occasionally coming to blows. Savonarola, who normally was so sure of himself in all things, was weirdly reluctant to begin; he kept raising objections and fussing over seemingly inconsequential details of protocol and costume, all while his acolyte Domenico stood serenely by his side, by all indications far more ready to walk into a fire on his behalf than Savonarola was to send him. The appointed hour of noon came and went, and still the fiery pathway remained unlit. Then the rain that had been hanging in the air all morning suddenly poured down, drenching the wood such that it would be impossible to light.

The whole fiasco proved as disastrous for Savonarola as a burnt Domenico and an unburnt supporter of Alexander would have been. Even before the rain had struck, many in Florence had been asking why he was subjecting one of his followers to the trial instead of walking the path of fire himself. Now they were asking even harder questions about his conduct on the scene; it looked to them like he had been deliberately stalling, waiting for the rain. If there was one thing Florentines couldn’t stand, it was a fraud. And they could stand even less the feeling of having been duped by one; call it a legacy of Florence the commercial hub, where men had been making shrewd deals and carving out fortunes for centuries. The last of Savonarola’s support ebbed away like the rainwater off the square on that day. It was as if half the city woke up all at once from a collective fever dream. Even many of those who stood on Savonarola’s side of the barrier there in the piazza now bellowed for his head.

Savonarola beat a hasty retreat to the Convent of San Marco, his one remaining redoubt in a suddenly hostile city. The next day a force arrived to take him into custody. A pitched battled raged for hours between this force and the monks and friars of the convent, fighting incongruously in their holy robes. But at last, at three in the morning on April 9, he was captured.

He was now subjected to the torture of the strappado: his wrists were tied behind his back and his body was hoisted high into the air by his bindings. Most people would confess to anything after only a moment or two of such agony, and Savonarola proved no exception. He said that he had never had the communion he claimed with God, that he had wanted only “glory in the world, in having credit and reputation.” Wracked with guilt after the tortures and confessions were finished — not for having done what he had confessed to, but for having made what he considered to be a false confession — he dictated a last testimonial to a monk who was allowed to visit him in his bare prison cell. However one judges the man, it is difficult not to feel moved by it.

Unfortunate am I, abandoned by all, I who have offended Heaven and Earth. Where am I to go? With whom can I seek refuge? Who will have pity on me? I dare not raise my eyes to Heaven because I have sinned against Heaven. On Earth I can find no refuge because here I have created a scandalous state of affairs. Thus to thee, most merciful God, I return filled with melancholy and grief, for thou alone art my hope, thou alone my refuge.

Pope Alexander sent two Inquisitors to decide the final fate of the prisoner. Their verdict was never in doubt. He was condemned to death, alongside the ever-loyal Friar Domenico who had offered to walk through fire for him and another unrepentant supporter. On May 23, 1498, the three were hanged side by side on the Piazza della Signoria. A bonfire was lit below the gibbet so that they could feel the flames licking at their flesh as they strangled, and the crowd was encouraged to hurl stones at them.

Girolamo Savonarola remains a complex and controversial figure for the historians of today to grapple with. Looked at in one way, he was a Medieval man who attempted to shove an encroaching Modernity back into its shell. Looked at in another, however, his demands for social justice can almost be seen as a precursor of Enlightenment thought. Certainly he mounted strong arguments against the complacent corruption of the Renaissance popes. Many historians therefore place him among the ranks of the “proto-Protestants,” a succession of devout Christians who attempted to reform the Catholic Church in one way or another before Martin Luther decided that reform was not possible, breaking from it irrevocably instead. His theology was by no means identical to Luther’s, but Luther was nevertheless influenced by him; he read Savonarola’s writings with great care, coming to consider him a saint and a martyr. We will return to Savonarola’s legacy later in these pages, when we turn in earnest to the challenges to the Church’s authority that surrounded and arguably influenced the second stage of Michelangelo’s work in the Sistine Chapel.

For now, though, when he have not yet arrived at even the first stage of said work, suffice to say that Savonarola’s shadow would linger over Florence for a long time to come. Sandro Botticelli, for example, never recanted his allegiance to the religious leader that so many others now dismissed as a charlatan. As a consequence, he was ostracized by the artistic establishment. He eked out a living on small commissions until his death in a barren loft in 1510, a far cry from the flamboyant playboy who had painted The Birth of Venus.

No matter how hard the Florentines might try to convince themselves that all was as it once had been, the proud, vibrant Florence of Botticelli’s heyday and Michelangelo’s youth would never entirely return. This is not to say that great art wouldn’t be created there in the sixteenth century; it would, some of it by Michelangelo himself. But Florence fell into decline in political and economic terms, even as its cultural life was no longer as unique as it had once been, thanks to the Florentine diaspora that had reached many other cities of Italy during the straitened times of Savonarola.

The revolution in thought and spirit that had been born in Florence had now taken on a life of its own, radiating outward from its source to spread across Italy and in time all of Europe. Michelangelo could be numbered among its ambassadors. So, we too should set aside events on the ground in Florence now and follow the young artist to Rome, where he began to sculpt his first masterpiece just a few months after Savonarola suffered the ultimate scouring of the flesh on the Piazza della Signoria.

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(A full listing of print and online sources used will follow the final article in this series.)

8 Comments for "Chapter 11: The Artist and the Zealot"

  • Peter Olausson

    Magnificent! I recognized the picture of Savonarola, but had no idea about who, where or what; now, I will never forget.

    I looked him up in a certain encyclopedia, and found some details which seem to have been left out in your text. It was a rival Franciscan preacher who proposed to test Savonarola’s mission by walking through fire. That’s when Domenico offered his service, to the detriment of Savonarola. It’s also stated that it would have been ”the first trial by fire in Florence in over four hundred years”, which ignites my curiosity even further …

    • Jimmy Maher

      I did deliberately elide some of these details in the name of readability and a strong desire to avoid getting into lengthy discussions of rival orders of monks. (That is actually something I’ve been avoiding throughout this series…)

      But for the record:

      It was a Franciscan monk named Fra Francesco who first broached the subject of a trial by fire a year before the event. However, as Paul Strathern writes in his (excellent) Death in Florence, “all evidence indicates that Fra Francesco was in fact being rhetorical here; he did not seriously expect anyone to accept his challenge to such an outmoded ritual.” It’s worth noting here that the Franciscan order was the least inclined to superstition and magical thinking of all of them, being known as a sober-minded bunch who approached the world from almost a pseudo-scientific mindset and were very hesitant to ascribe to the miraculous what could be understood in other ways. (William of Baskerville, the monk detective in The Name of the Rose, was a Franciscan.)

      Fra Francesco repeated his challenge, again seemingly more facetiously than not, after Savonarola said from the pulpit that “I entreat each one of you to pray earnestly to God that if my doctrine does not come from him, he will send down a fire upon me, which shall consume my soul in Hell.” It was at this point that Domenico da Pescia, who like Savonarola was a a member of the much less sober-minded Dominican order and who appears to have been rather a naive sort even by their standards, suddenly took up what he believed to be an earnest challenge from Fra Francesco on Savonarola’s behalf, taking everyone in both camps by surprise.

  • Lee Hauser

    As a longtime reader of the Digital Antiquarian ebooks, at last I am able to point out a typo in a timely manner:

    “he adjourned the Florentines” should be “he adjured the Florentines.”

    It’s an honor to do this, I enjoy your writing a great deal.

    • Jimmy Maher

      Thanks! And thank you for becoming a patron…

  • Martin

    “their flesh as they strangled”. Is the word “were” missing?

    Good though sobering stuff.

    • Jimmy Maher

      No, I believe that the passive voice there would imply someone else actively doing the strangling.

      • Martin

        Maybe too much detail, but you mean they were hanging with ropes around their necks over the fire?

        • Jimmy Maher



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