Showing posts with label Savonarola. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Savonarola. Show all posts

4 August 2018

Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici - politician

Art enthusiast who was Botticelli’s major patron

Botticelli's 1479 Portrait of a Young Man,  is thought to be Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco
Botticelli's 1479 Portrait of a Young Man,
is thought to be Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco
The Florentine banker and politician Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici, who was a significant figure in Renaissance art as the main sponsor and patron of the painter Sandro Botticelli, was born on this day in 1463.

The great-grandson of Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici, the founder of the Medici bank, Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco belonged to the junior, sometimes known as ‘Popolani’ branch of the House of Medici.

In 1476, when he and his brother, Giovanni, were still boys, their father, Pierfrancesco de’ Medici the Elder, died. They became wards, effectively, of their cousin, Lorenzo il Magnifico - Lorenzo the Magnificenta member of the senior branch of the family and the effective ruler of Florence.

Relations between the two branches had been tense for some years and were not helped when Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco discovered, on becoming an adult, that Lorenzo had plundered a considerable sum from he and his brother’s joint inheritance in order to stave off a threatened bankruptcy of the family’s financial empire.

Although Lorenzo had provided the boys with the best education money could buy - the notable Florentine Renaissance humanists Marsilio Ficino, Angelo Poliziano and Giorgio Antonio Vespucci (uncle of Amerigo) were among their tutors - and given them a number of properties in compensation, the incident created a lingering bitterness.

Meanwhile, thanks to the curiosities stirred by the education he received, Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco developed a reputation as an art connoisseur. In around 1485, he commissioned an illuminated manuscript of Dante's Divine Comedy featuring artwork by Botticelli, to whom he had been introduced by the Vespucci family, who were neighbours of the Botticellis in Florence.

Botticelli's Primavera is thought to have been commissioned to celebrate Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco's marriage
Botticelli's Primavera is thought to have been commissioned
to celebrate Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco's marriage
Two of Sandro Botticelli’s most famous works may have been commissioned to celebrate the marriage that Lorenzo il Magnifico arranged between Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco and Semiramide Appiano, daughter of the Appiani lord Jacopo III of Piombino.

It is thought that Lorenzo il Magnifico commissioned Botticelli's Pallas Athene Taming a Centaur as a wedding gift to the new couple, while either Lorenzo il Magnifico or Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco himself had Botticelli paint his allegorical work Primavera as a celebration, with Mercury representing Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco and Semiramide by the central figure of Grace.

After the wedding, both paintings were displayed on the walls of Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco’s villa in the centre of Florence. Some accounts suggest that he also commissioned Botticelli's best known work, The Birth of Venus, one of the most famous paintings of the Renaissance by any artist.

The tension that still existed between him and Lorenzo il Magnifico came to a head in October 1484, when his cousin, determined to protect the primacy of the senior branch of the Medici family, had Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco's name removed from the lists of persons eligible for election to the Florentine political institutions.

Angelo Bronzino's portrait of the Florentine leader Lorenzo il Magnifico
Angelo Bronzino's portrait of the Florentine
leader Lorenzo il Magnifico
A settlement was agreed in 1485 by which Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco and his brother were given the Medici family property of Villa Cafaggiolo in the Mugello region. Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco was unhappy, though, at having to shelve his political ambitions.

When Lorenzo il Magnifico died in 1492, Lorenzo and Giovanni sided against il Magnifico's son, Piero. They were exiled as a result but returned when King Charles VIII of France invaded Italy and Piero was ousted from Florence by a Republican government.

The nickname Popolano - meaning ‘of the people’ - was coined for the brothers and Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco became a popular figure in the new administration. He extended his patronage of the arts to protect Botticelli, Michelangelo, Filippino Lippi and Bartolomeo Scala, and in 1494 he founded a workshop of ceramics at Cafaggiolo.

He was pushed out when the hellfire preacher Girolamo Savonarola swept to power in 1494 with his denunciation of clerical corruption, despotic rule and the exploitation of the poor, yet refused to return even after the controversial Dominican friar was burned at the stake in the main square of the city in 1498.

Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco died in Florence in 1503, aged only 39. Years later, his grandson Lorenzino de' Medici murdered Alessandro de' Medici, the last ruler of Florence from the senior branch of the Medici, thereby passing power to Lorenzo's great-grandson Cosimo I de' Medici.

The Villa del Trebbio, which Cosimo de' Medici turned into a fortified castle
The Villa del Trebbio, which Cosimo de' Medici turned
into a fortified castle
Travel tip:

One of the properties owned by Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco was the Villa del Trebbio, which he inherited from his grandfather Lorenzo the Elder.  Located near San Piero a Sieve in the Mugello region, the area from which the Medici family originated, it was possibly the first of the Medici villas built outside Florence, on top of a hill dominating the Val di Sieve. It had earlier belonged to Giovanni di Bicci de' Medici, the founder of the Medici bank, and was remodelled by his son, Cosimo de' Medici, whose architect, Michelozzo, restyled it as a fortified castle.

The Piazzale between the two wings of the Uffizi, which links Piazza della Signoria with the Arno river
The Piazzale between the two wings of the Uffizi, which links
Piazza della Signoria with the Arno river
Travel tip:

Primavera, Pallas Athene Taming a Centaur and The Birth of Venus are among a number of Botticelli paintings displayed in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, which is one of the largest and best known art museums in the world. Its collection of priceless works, particularly from the period of the Italian Renaissance, owes much to Anna Maria Luisa de' Medici, the last Medici heiress, who bequeathed the family’s entire art collection to the city of Florence. The Uffizi was open to visitors by request as early as the 16th century, and in 1765 it was officially opened to the public.

More reading:

Why Lorenzo the Magnificent was seen as a benign despot

Cosimo de' Medici  - the first Medici ruler of Florence

How Sandro Botticelli's paintings became forgotten works of genius

Also on this day:

1521: The birth of Pope Urban VII

1994: The death of politician Giovanni Spadolini


8 April 2018

Lorenzo the Magnificent - Renaissance ruler

Patron of the arts who sponsored Michelangelo and Botticelli

A portrait of Lorenzo the Magnificent by the Florentine artist Agnolo Bronzino
A portrait of Lorenzo the Magnificent by the
Florentine artist Agnolo Bronzino
Lorenzo de’ Medici, the ruler of Florence usually known as Lorenzo the Magnificent, died on this day in 1492 in the Medici villa at Careggi, just to the north of the city.

He was only 43 and is thought to have developed gangrene as a result of an inherited genetic condition.  He had survived an assassination attempt 14 years earlier in what became known as the Pazzi Conspiracy, in which his brother, Giuliano, was killed.

The grandson of Cosimo de’ Medici, Lorenzo was a strict ruler but history has judged him as a benevolent despot, whose reign coincided with a period of stability and peace in relations between the Italian states.

He helped maintain the Peace of Lodi, a treaty agreed in 1454 between Milan, Naples and Florence which was signed by his grandfather.

However, he is most remembered as an enthusiastic patron of Renaissance culture, providing support for poets, scholars and artists, notably Michelangelo and Botticelli.

He contributed more than anyone to the flowering of Florentine genius during the second half of the 15th century. Respected himself for his poetry, he held lavish parties for his artistic friends at the Careggi villa and was the protector of artists such as Giuliano da Sangallo, Botticelli, Andrea del Verrocchio, and Verrocchio’s pupil Leonardo da Vinci.

A young Lorenzo as he appeared in Botticelli's Adoration of the Magi
A young Lorenzo as he appeared in
Botticelli's Adoration of the Magi
Lorenzo opened a school of sculpture, at which he noticed the great talent of a 15-year-old pupil called Michelangelo Buonarroti, whom he took under his wing and brought up like a son.

Sandro Botticelli repaid his patronage by using Medici family members as models in some of his most famous religious paintings. In his Madonna of the Magnificat, for example, one of the figures is Lorenzo, while the Madonna is his mother, Lucrezia Tornabuoni. Lorenzo also appears in Botticelli’s Adoration of the Magi, while Mars in his Mars and Venus is Lorenzo’s brother, Giuliano.

In addition to his patronage of artists, Lorenzo also expanded the collection of books begun by Cosimo, which became the Medici Library. He retrieved large numbers of classical works from the East, which he had copied and shared with other countries across Europe. He also supported philosophers such as Marsilio Ficino, Poliziano and Giovanni Pico della Mirandola.

Although the assets of the Medici bank were diminished during Lorenzo’s rule, partly through the family focussing more on power than the actual source of their power, i.e. money, they were still not short of jealous rivals and the Pazzi family fell into this category.

With the support of Pope Sixtus IV, Francesco Pazzi conspired with Girolamo Riario, the Lord of Imola, and Francesco Salviati, the archbishop of Pisa, to attack Lorenzo and Giuliano, who were joint rulers of Florence at the time, during High Mass at the Duomo.

The goal was to kill both and seize power, but while Giuliano was being stabbed to death Lorenzo escaped into the sacristy, where he hid from the assassins. The coup d’état therefore failed and it is estimated that around 80 people, either conspirators or their associates, were captured and executed in the months that followed.

Controversially, it was Lorenzo de’ Medici, taking advice from his friend, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, who was responsible for the return to Florence of the firebrand priest Girolamo Savonarola, who had left his position at the Convent of San Marco some years earlier after proposing sweeping reforms to the Catholic Church.  Savonarola’s preaching, in which he railed against despotic rulers and the exploitation of the poor, and persuaded people that works of art and literature were sinful and should be destroyed, would eventually provoke the overthrowing of the Medici family.

The Palazzo Pitti was acquired by the Medici family from the Florentine banker Luca Pitti
The Palazzo Pitti was acquired by the Medici family
from the Florentine banker Luca Pitti
Travel tip:

Florence has a wealth of preserved antiquity, but one of the finest examples of true Renaissance architecture is the Palazzo Pitti - the Pitti Palace - which was originally commissioned in 1458 as a house for the Florentine banker Luca Pitti, a friend and supporter of Cosimo de’ Medici. Designed by Luca Fancelli, a pupil of Filippo Brunelleschi, it is characterised by a strong, symmetrical structure, wide arches and rusticated stone pillars and walls. It was later sold to Eleonora di Toledo, wife of Cosimo I de Medici (not to be confused with Cosimo de’ Medici, who came from a different branch of the family) , and remained in the Medici family for centuries. Today it houses the biggest museum in Florence and a number of art galleries, and looks out across the Boboli Gardens, created on land Eleonora bought from the wealthy Boboli family.

The Villa Careggi, where Lorenzo died in 1492
The Villa Careggi, where Lorenzo died in 1492
Travel tip:

In common with his grandfather, Cosimo, Lorenzo died at the Villa Careggi, originally a working farm acquired in 1417 by Cosimo’s father to make his family self-sufficient. Cosimo employed the architect Michelozzo to remodel it around a central courtyard overlooked by loggias. Lorenzo extended the terraced garden and the shaded woodland area. Careggi, which is not far from Florence’s airport, is nowadays a suburb of the city, about 8km (5 miles) northwest of the centre.

More reading:

Cosimo de' Medici - founder of the Medici banking dynasty

Girolamo Riario - the papal military leader murdered after failed Pazzi plot

The rival in the court of Lorenzo who broke Michelangelo's nose

Also on this day:

1848: The death of the composer Gaetano Donizetti

1868: The birth of equestrian pioneer Federico Caprilli, who revolutionised jumping technique


28 December 2017

Piero the Unfortunate – Medici ruler

Ill-fated son of Lorenzo the Magnificent

Piero the Unfortunate's poor judgment  earned him his unenviable moniker
Piero the Unfortunate's poor judgment
earned him his unenviable moniker
Piero di Lorenzo de’ Medici, later dubbed Piero the Unfortunate or The Fatuous, died on this day in 1503, drowning in the Garigliano river, south of Rome, as he attempted to flee following a military defeat.

The eldest son of Lorenzo the Magnificent, Piero was handed power in Florence at the age of 21 following the death of his father.

He was a physically handsome young man who had been educated specifically so that he would be ready to succeed his father as head of the Medici family and de facto ruler of Florence.

Yet he turned out to be a feeble, ill-disciplined character who was not suited to leadership and who earned his unflattering soubriquet on account of his poor judgment in military and political matters, which ultimately led to the Medici family being exiled from Florence.

Piero took over as leader of Florence in 1492. Initially there was calm but the peace between the Italian states for which his father had worked tirelessly to achieve collapsed in 1494 when King Charles VIII of France led an army across the Alps with the intention to march on the Kingdom of Naples, claiming hereditary rights.

The young leader’s first bad decision had been to ally Florence with Naples rather than Milan, where his father had striven to maintain an even-handed relationship with both.

Ludovico Sforza, the former regent of Milan, was unimpressed, but at the same time saw an opportunity to re-assert his power in the city by scheming with Charles VIII to eject his nephew, Gian Galeazzo Sforza, and replace him as Duke.

Charles VIII of France
Charles VIII of France
In return he allowed Charles’s army, some 30,000 strong, to proceed unchallenged through his territories and arrive at the borders of Tuscany.  Piero’s decision to ally with Naples meant that Florence, by association, was France’s enemy

Piero at first attempted to mount some resistance, but at a time when the fanatical Dominican priest Girolamo Savonarola was undermining the authority of the Medici court he struggled to garner support from the Florentine elites.

He then made the extraordinary decision to seek a deal with Charles, taking the lead from his father’s great act of diplomacy in 1479, when Lorenzo reached a settlement with Naples by making a personal visit to the King of Naples.

Piero persuaded Charles to give him an audience, yet returned home having given away several important Tuscan castles along with the ports of Pisa and Livorno.

His poor handling of the situation and failure to negotiate better terms led to an uproar in Florence, and the Medici family fled. The family palazzo was looted, the Republic of Florence was re-established and the Medici formally exiled.

A member of the Medici family would not rule Florence again until 1512, after Piero’s younger brother, Giovanni, was elected Pope Leo X.

Piero and his family at first fled to Venice. In 1503, as the French fought the Spanish over the Kingdom of Naples, he travelled south. The two armies engaged in the Battle of Garigliano, named after a major river between Naples and Rome, and after the French were routed Piero attempted to escape to the south but was drowned as he tried to cross the the Garigliano river.

French artist Henri Philippoteaux's depiction of a scene from the 1503 Battle of Garigliano
French artist Henri Philippoteaux's depiction of a scene from
the 1503 Battle of Garigliano
Travel tip:

The Garigliano river, which flows into the Tyrrhenian Sea near Marina di Minturno, south of Formia, marks the border between Lazio and Campania.  Its strategic position has led it to be the scene of several notable battles. In 915 a coalition of the papal army, the Byzantines, Franks, Lombards and Neapolitans defeated the Garigliano Arabs there and in 1503 came the fateful Battle of Garigliano after which Piero drowned and Medici power transferred to his brother, Giovanni.  During the Italian Campaign of the Second World War, the Liri and Gari-Garigliano rivers were key elements of a system of German defensive lines around which the battle of Monte Cassino took place in 1943-1944.

The rebuilt Abbey of Monte Cassino
The rebuilt Abbey of Monte Cassino
Travel tip:

Piero the Unfortunate’s body was buried in the cloister of Monte Cassino abbey, one of the most famous abbeys in the world, established in the sixth century when Saint Benedict chose its mountain location as a place to host him and his fellow monks as they travelled from the monastery at Subiaco, outside Rome. At a height of 520m (1,700ft) it is a landmark for travellers on the A1 motorway and the Rome-Naples railway. The abbey has been destroyed four times – by the Lombards in 577, the Saracens in 887, an earthquake in 1349 and by the ferocious Battle of Monte Cassino in the Second World War, when the Allies made the controversial decision to bombard the site, which they suspected was being used by the Germans to launch artillery attacks.  Fortunately, the Germans smuggled out most of the priceless books and artworks to a place of safety prior to the bombardment and the abbey was rebuilt after the war had ended.

More reading:

Also on this day:

(Paintings: Portrait of Piero by Gherardo di Giovanni del Fora (1494); portrait of Charles VIII by unknown painter in the style of Jean Perréal, Musée Condé, Chantilly; Battle of Garigliano by Henri Félix Emmanuel Philippoteaux (1840), Palace of Versailles) 

(Picture credit: Monte Cassino Abbey by Ludmiła Pilecka via Wikimedia Commons)

28 March 2017

Fra Bartolommeo - Renaissance great

Friar rated equal of Michelangelo, Raphael and Leonardo

Bartolommeo's God the Father with SS Catherine of Siena and Mary Magdalene can be seen at Villa Guinigi in Lucca
Bartolommeo's God the Father with SS
Catherine of Siena and Mary Magdalene

can be seen at Villa Guinigi in Lucca
Fra Bartolommeo, the Renaissance artist recognised as one of the greatest religious painters, was born on this day in 1472 in Savignano di Vaiano, in Tuscany.

Also known as Baccio della Porta, a nickname he acquired because when he lived in Florence his lodgings were near what is now the Porta Romana, Bartolommeo created works that chart the development of artistic styles and fashion in Florence, from the earthly realism of the 15th century to the grandeur of High Renaissance in the 16th century.

His most famous works include Annunciation, Vision of St Bernard, Madonna and Child with Saints, the Holy Family, the Mystic Marriage of St Catherine, God the Father with SS Catherine of Siena and Mary Magdalene and Madonna della Misericordia.

Bartolommeo always prepared for any painting by making sketches, more than 1,000 in total over the years he was active.  Around 500 of them were discovered at the convent of St Catherine of Siena in Florence in 1722, where nuns were unaware of their significance.

Vision of St Bernard with SS Benedict and John the Evangelist, housed in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence
Vision of St Bernard with SS Benedict and John the
, housed in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence
He is also remembered for his striking profile portrait of Fra Girolamo Savonarola, the fanatical priest under whose influence he came in the 1490s.  He came to believe the message that Savonarola preached, that much of the art and literature of the Renaissance was sinful and that the sole purpose of painting should be to illustrate the lessons of the bible.

Consequently, he threw many of his own early paintings, particularly those which contained nudity or other sensual images, on Savonarola's famous bonfires.  When Savonarola was arrested, hung and burned at the stake in 1498, Bartolommeo gave up painting and entered the friary of San Domenico in Prato as a novice.

He entered the convent of San Marco in Florence in 1500 and was persuaded to return to painting in 1504 when his superior asked him to do so for the benefit of the order, who sold artworks to raise money.  He became head of the monastery workshop, a position occupied some 50 years earlier by another great Renaissance artist, Fra Angelico.

Before taking orders, Bartolommeo, the son of a mule driver, had been an apprentice in the Florence workshop of Cosimo Rosselli.  He set up a studio with another Florentine painter, Mariotto Albertinelli and soon came to be considered one of the greatest talents of his generation, his works standing comparison with those of Michelangelo, Raphael and Leonardo da Vinci.

Fra Bartolommeo's portrait of Fra Girolamo Savonarola is in the San Marco museum
Fra Bartolommeo's portrait of Fra Girolamo
Savonarola is in the San Marco museum
Savonarola's influence changed the direction of Bartolommeo's career. If he had not entered Holy Orders, it is likely he would have become an even more famous name.  Where Raphael and Michelangelo went to Rome to work at the Vatican, he stayed behind in Florence.

After resuming his career he nonetheless made an indelible mark on the history of art.  Following the completion of his Vision of St. Bernard in 1507 for a chapel in the Badia Fiorentina, he befriended Raphael when the younger artist visited Florence and they were said to have influenced each other.  When Bartolommeo eventually did travel to Rome in 1513, Raphael completed two unfinished pictures in Florence.

In the meantime, Bartolommeo had spent time in Venice, where he painted a Holy Father, St. Mary Magdalene and St. Catherine of Siena for the Dominicans of San Pietro Martire in Murano. As the Dominicans failed to pay for the work, he took it back to Lucca, where it can be seen now.

Also in Lucca, he painted an altarpiece Madonna and Child with Saints for the local cathedral and was then commissioned to paint an altarpiece for the Sala del Consiglio of Florence, now in the Museum of San Marco.

In Rome, he painted a Peter and Paul, now in the Pinacoteca Vaticana, returning to Florence to execute his St. Mark Evangelist for the Palazzo Pitti in Florence and the frescoes in the Dominican convent of Pian di Mugnone, near Fiesole, just outside Florence. His last work is fresco of Noli me tangere also in Pian di Mugnone.

Fra Bartolommeo died in 1517 at the age of 44. The painter and art historian Giorgio Vasari recorded that he suffered a “violent fever” after “having eaten some figs.” But it is thought more likely that he died of malaria.

The Palazzo Pretorio in Prato
The Palazzo Pretorio in Prato
Travel tip:

The city of Prato is just half an hour from Florence yet is almost Tuscany's forgotten gem.  It has a commercial heritage founded on the textile industry and its growth in the 19th century earned it the nickname the "Manchester of Tuscany". Prato is the home of the Datini archives, a significant collection of late medieval documents concerning economic and trade history, produced between 1363 and 1410, yet also has many artistic treasures, including frescoes by Filippo Lippi, Paolo Uccello and Agnolo Gaddi inside its Duomo and the external pulpit by Michelozzo and Donatello. The Palazzo Pretorio is a building of great beauty, situated in the pretty Piazza del Comune, and there are the ruins of the castle built for the medieval emperor and King of Sicily Frederick II.

Check TripAdvisor's guide to Prato hotels

The Church of San Marco in Florence
The Church of San Marco in Florence
Travel tip:

The San Marco religious complex in Florence comprises a church and a convent. During the 15th century, the convent was home to both the painter Fra Angelico as well as the preacher Savonarola.  The convent was stripped from the Dominicans in 1808, during the Napoleonic Wars, and again in 1866, when it became a possession of the state.  Until recently, it still housed a community of Dominican friars, but is now home to the Museo Nazionale di San Marco, where Fra Bartolommeo's portrait of Savonarola is on display.  Also housed at the convent is a famous collection of manuscripts in a library built by Michelozzo.

More reading:

What made Michelangelo the greatest of all the great artists

The precocious genius of Raphael

Artist and inventor - the extraordinary talents of Leonardo da Vinci

Also on this day:

(Picture credits: Palazzo Pretorio by Massimilianogalardi; Church of San Marco by Sailko; both via Wikimedia Commons)


7 February 2017

The Bonfire of the Vanities

Preacher Savonarola's war on Renaissance 'excesses'

The statue of Girolamo Savonarola in  Piazza Savonarola in Florence
The statue of Girolamo Savonarola in
Piazza Savonarola in Florence
The most famous 'bonfire of the vanities' encouraged by the outspoken Dominican priest Girolamo Savonarola took place in Florence on this day in 1497.

Savonarola campaigned against what he considered to be the artistic and social excesses of the Renaissance, preaching with fanatical passion against any material possession that might tempt the owner towards sin.

He became notorious for organising large communal bonfires in the tradition of San Bernardino of Siena, urging Florentines to come forward with items of luxury or vanity or even simply entertainment that might draw them away from their faith.

Savonarola arrived in Florence from his home town of Ferrara in 1482, entering the convent of St Mark. With Lorenzo de' Medici at the height of his power, Savonarola became disturbed by what he perceived as the moral collapse of the Catholic church.

For a number of years he confined himself to speaking about repentance to congregations of believers in the parishes around Florence but on returning to the city in 1490 he began to campaign with more vigour about what he saw as the need for a return to piety.

He issued dire warnings about what would happen to Florence and its citizens if they did not renounce their sins, prophesising that a powerful leader would arrive from the north to punish Italy and reform the church.

Paintings by Botticelli were considered indecent under's Savonarola's moral code
Paintings by Botticelli were considered
indecent under's Savonarola's moral code
Savonarola's condemnation of what he considered the vice and corruption infecting the Catholic bishops and cardinals, and his attacks on the wealthy for ignoring the plight of the poor and sick, struck a chord with the common people and he became an increasingly powerful figure.

When Emperor Charles VIII of France invaded Italy from the north in 1494, many people saw this as confirmation of Savonarola’s prediction.  They rose up against the Medici family, the major sponsors of Renaissance art and literature, and drove them from the city, after which Savonarola became the effective leader of a new Florentine republic.

Savonarola began to host his bonfires in 1495, at around the time that used to be taken up with Carnival celebrations, which he cancelled.

At first, it was items of vanity such as mirrors, cosmetics, jewellery and fine clothes that were thrown on to the flames, along with playing cards, musical instruments and such pagan fripperies as books of magic and astrology. Savonarola employed street urchins to knock on doors, demanding luxurious and suspect items were handed over.

But the scope of what was deemed to be sinful grew. Soon, he was demanding that books he saw as immoral, such as works by Boccaccio, were burned, as well as paintings and sculptures, manuscripts and tapestries. Priceless works by Dante and the Roman poets Ovid and Propertius were said to have been consigned to the flames.

A painting by an unknown Florentine artist depicts the bonfire built in Piazza della Signoria in which Savonarola was burned
A painting by an unknown Florentine artist depicts the bonfire
built in Piazza della Signoria in which Savonarola was burned
At the same time, Savonarola spread fear among the people with ever more horrific visions of what fate would befall them if they did not live according to his strict moral code. Higher church officials viewed all this with increasing unease and for Pope Alexander VI, it seems, the huge bonfire of 1497 - in which the Florentine artist Sandro Botticelli is said to have burned several of his own paintings - was the last straw.

Already in defiance of a ban on his preaching imposed when he failed to support Pope Alexander's military response to the French invasion, Savonarola was excommunicated in May 1497. The following year, having confessed that his visions and prophecies were invented, he was condemned as a heretic and, with two other friars, hung from a cross in Florence's Piazza della Signoria, to be consumed by a bonfire built beneath him.

A statue of Savonarola, completed in 1875 by the sculptor Enrico Pazzi, from Ravenna, can be found in Piazza Savonarola, about 2km north-east of Florence's centre,

Travel tip:

Florence's Piazza della Signoria has been the focal point of the city since the 14th century. Overlooked by the imposing Palazzo Vecchio, it was the scene of the triumphant return of the Medici family in 1530, three and a half decades after they had been driven from the city by the supporters of the fanatical Savonarola. The controversial priest's bonfires of the vanities were built in the middle of the square, where his own body was burned at the stake in 1498 after he was denounced as a heretic. A marble circle inscription on the piazza shows the spot where he was burned.

Florence hotels from

The Piazza della Signoria is Florence's main square
The Piazza della Signoria is Florence's main square
Travel tip:

The Piazza della Signoria contains several important sculptures and statues, including a copy of Michelangelo's David - the original is in the Galleria dell'Accademia - outside the Palazzo Vecchio, which is said to be a symbol of defiance against the tyranny of the Medici.  The family apparently installed or appropriated their own symbols of power in the shape of Bandinelli's Hercules and Cacus, just to the right of the David, and the Nettuno by Ammannati, which celebrates the Medici's maritime ambitions.  Giambologna's equestrian statue of Duke Cosimo I is a tribute to the man who brought all of Tuscany under Medici military rule.  Under the Loggia dei Lanzi, to the right of Palazzo Vecchio, the statue of Perseo holding Medusa's head, by Benvenuto Cellini, is a stark reminder of what happened to those who crossed the Medici. Giambologna's Rape of the Sabines can also be found in the Loggia dei Lanzi.

Hotels in Florence from Expedia

More reading:

The execution of Girolamo Savonarola

Sandro Botticelli - Renaissance master forgotten until the 19th century

How scheming Pope Alexander VI married off his children to secure power

Also on this day:

1622: The birth of Vittoria della Rovere, Grand Duchess of Tuscany

1941: The birth in San Marino of pop singer Little Tony

(Picture credits: Savonarola statue by liviathana; Piazza della Signoria by Zolli; via Wikimedia Commons)


17 November 2016

Giovanni Pico della Mirandola – philosopher

Writer of the 'Manifesto of the Renaissance' met an early death

Giovanni Pico della Mirandola: this portrait by Cristofano dell'Altissimo hangs in the Uffizi
Giovanni Pico della Mirandola: this portrait by
Cristofano dell'Altissimo hangs in the Uffizi
Renaissance nobleman and philosopher, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola died on this day in 1494 in Florence, sparking a murder mystery still not solved more than 500 years later and that led to the exhumation of his body in 2007.

Pico became famous for writing the Oration on the Dignity of Man, which was later dubbed the Manifesto of the Renaissance.

At its heart, the Oration proposed that man is the only species of being to which God assigned no specific place in the chain of being and that man could ascend the chain through the exercise of his intellectual capacity, and for that reason it stresses the importance of the human quest for knowledge.

Renowned for his memory as well as his intellect, he could recite Dante’s Divine Comedy line-by-line backwards and by the time he was 20 he has mastered six languages.

But he made enemies and it his thought that his death at the age of just 31 was the result of poisoning because of concerns that he had become too close to hellfire preacher Girolamo Savonarola, an enemy of Florence's ruling Medici family.

It was Savonarola himself who delivered the funeral oration when Pico was buried at the Convent of San Marco in Florence where he was the Prior.

The philosopher was born into a noble family at Mirandola, near Modena, in 1463. He was the youngest son of Gianfrancesco della Mirandola, Count of Concordia, who lived in the Castle of Mirandola and was closely related to the Sforza, Gonzaga and Este dynasties.

Pico studied at the University of Padua, where he wrote sonnets in Latin and Italian, which because of the influence of Savonarola, who encouraged his followers to burn possessions that might tempt them into sin, he destroyed towards the end of his life.

Portrait of Lorenzo de' Medici by the Flemish Baroque painter Peter Paul Rubens
Portrait of Lorenzo de' Medici by the Flemish
Baroque painter Peter Paul Rubens
He travelled to Paris, the most important centre in Europe for Philosophy and Theology and it is thought while he was there he began writing his celebrated 900 Theses on religion, philosophy and magic, and came up with the idea of defending them in a public debate.

When he returned to Florence in 1484 he met for the first time Lorenzo de' Medici, also known as Lorenzo the Magnificent, who seems to have been charmed by him and wished to help him.

On his way to Rome, where he intended to publish his 900 Theses and debate them with other scholars, Pico stopped off in Arezzo, where he had a love affair with the wife of one of Lorenzo de' Medici’s cousins. He attempted to run away with her but was caught, wounded and imprisoned. He was released only after the intervention of Lorenzo himself.

While recovering from his wounds he became interested in Hebrew writings, which he believed educated people should study. He travelled to Rome to publish his 900 Theses and offered to pay the expenses of any scholars who came to Rome to debate them publicly.

But Pope Innocent VIII halted the proposed debate and condemned part of his 900 Theses as heretical.

Pico fled to France where he was arrested and imprisoned but at the instigation of Lorenzo de Medici he was released and allowed to move back to Florence. He settled in a villa near Fiesole provided by Lorenzo and carried on writing.

After the death of Lorenzo, Savonarola became increasingly influential. This led to a wholesale destruction of books and paintings in Florence.

Pico was determined to become a monk and destroyed his own poetry and gave away his fortune.

When he fell ill in 1494, the King of France, Charles VIII, whose armies would take control of Florence on the day of Pico's death, driving the Medici into exile, sent his own physicians to tend to him but after two weeks of suffering he passed away.

The Castello dei Pico in an image from a 1940s postcard
The Castello dei Pico in an image from a 1940s postcard
It was rumoured that Pico was poisoned by his own secretary, who is said to have made a confession to that effect two years later after being arrested by Savonarola, who by then had taken control of Florence from the French.  Some historians believe it was Piero de' Medici, the son of Lorenzo, who ordered his killing.

Another theory was that Pico had died of syphilis but when his body was exhumed in 2007, as part of a project led by Giorgio Gruppioni, a professor of anthropology from Bologna, tests showed toxic levels of arsenic in his remains.

Travel tip:

The small city of Mirandola, which is about 30km north-east of Modena in Emilia-Romagna, developed as a fortress city in Renaissance times and was once an independent principality.  The Palazzo Communale and the Castello dei Pico can both be found in Piazza della Costituente.  The castle was forced to close its door to the public because of damage sustained in an earthquake in 2012.

Hotels in Mirandola from

Fra Angelico's stunning Last Judgment
Fra Angelico's stunning fresco The Last Judgment
Travel tip:

The Convent of San Marco in Florence, which holds the major collection of the works of Giovanni of Fiesole, known as Fra Angelico, stands on the site of a 12th century monastery. It was rebuilt in 1437 by Cosimo il Vecchio de’ Medici, who entrusted the work to Michelozzo, with the decoration of the walls carried out by Fra Angelico and his assistants, who included Benozzo Gozzoli.   His masterworks are considered to be the The Last Judgment and the The Crucifixion.

Hotels in Florence from

More reading:

Girolamo Savonarola and the 'Bonfire of the Vanities'

Cosimo de' Medici - banker who founded the dynasty

Why Cosimo II de' Medici was the patron of Galileo

Also on this day: 

1878: Umberto I survives assassination attempt


23 May 2016

Girolamo Savonarola executed

Death of the friar who was to inspire best-selling novel by Tom Wolfe

Painting of Girolamo Savonarola
A stark portrait of Savonarola, painted by
Fra Bartolomeo shortly before his death
The hellfire preacher Girolamo Savonarola was hanged and burned on this day in 1498 in Piazza della Signoria in Florence.

By sheer force of personality, Savonarola had convinced rich people to burn their worldly goods in spectacular bonfires in Florence during 1497, but within a year it was Savonarola’s burning corpse that the crowds turned out to see.

Savonarola had become famous for his outspoken sermons against vice and corruption in the Catholic Church in Italy and he encouraged wealthy people to burn their valuable goods, paintings and books in what have become known as ‘bonfires of the vanities.’

This phrase inspired Tom Wolfe to write The Bonfire of the Vanities, a novel about ambition and politics in 1980s New York.

Savonarola was born in 1452 in Ferrara. He became a Dominican friar and entered the convent of Saint Mark in Florence in 1482. He began preaching against corruption and vice and prophesied that a leader would arrive from the north to punish Italy and reform the church.

Painting of the execution of Savonarola in Florence
A depiction of the execution of Savonarola in Piazza della
Signoria in Florence, by an unknown artist
When Emperor Charles VIII invaded from the north many people thought Savonarola’s prediction was being fulfilled. At the height of Savonarola’s success the Medici were driven out of Florence and he became leader of a republican movement in the city.

Savonarola’s sermons against vice in the church attracted the attention of Pope Alexander VI, who excommunicated him after he defied his orders.

Eventually popular opinion also turned against Savonarola and he was arrested. Under torture he confessed he had invented his visions and prophecies and he was condemned to death.

Travel tip:

Ferrara in Emilia-Romagna, where Savonarola was born, was the city of the Este dukes. With its winding cobbled streets, medieval houses and stunning castle, it is well worth visiting.

Travel tip:

You can still see the spot in Piazza della Signoria in Florence where Girolamo Savonarola was executed. The Piazza has been at the heart of Florentine politics since the 14th century and is like an outdoor sculpture gallery, with magnificent statues commemorating major events in the city’s history.

2 January 2016

Piero di Cosimo – painter

Florentine artist achieved world wide recognition

A Renaissance artist famous for his elaborate landscapes, Piero di Cosimo, was born on this day in Florence in 1462.

Piero di Cosimo's Immaculate Conception with
Saints is housed at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence
His paintings are now in galleries all over the world and experts credit him with bringing the Renaissance spirit into the 16th century, while adding vivacity and lyricism.

The painter was born Piero di Lorenzo di Chimenti, but he became known as Piero di Cosimo after being apprenticed to the painter Cosimo Rosselli, with whom he frescoed the walls of the Sistine Chapel.

Early in his career he was influenced by the Flemish artist, Hugo van der Goes, and from him acquired a love for painting the countryside with all the plants and animals in great detail.

Piero di Cosimo eventually moved to Rome where he began painting scenes from classical mythology and he also developed a reputation for eccentric behaviour among his fellow artists.

But he was regarded as an excellent portrait painter and regularly received commissions. His most famous portrait, of a Florentine noble woman, Simonetta Vespucci, who was the mistress of Giuliano dè Medici, is now in a gallery in France.

Later in his life Piero di Cosimo became profoundly influenced by hellfire preacher Savonarola and turned his attention to painting religious subjects.

The Immaculate Conception with Saints in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence is an example of his religious fervour at the time, as is The Adoration of the Christ Child, an oil painting on wood, in the Galleria Borghese in Rome.

But many of his most famous paintings are now in galleries in America, Canada, Brazil, Britain, Germany and France.

It is believed that Piero di Cosimo died after contracting the plague in 1522.

Travel tip:

The Uffizi in Florence is one of the oldest and most famous art galleries in the world and houses a wealth of Renaissance art treasures. Located in Piazzale degli Uffizi close to Piazza della Signoria and the Palazzo Vecchio, it was originally built as a suite of offices in 1560, but later became used by the Medici family to display their art treasures. Visit

The Uffizi houses a wealth of Renaissance art treasures
The Uffizi Gallery in Florence by night
Photo: Chris Wee (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Travel tip:

Galleria Borghese in Villa Borghese in Rome was built in 1613 for Cardinal Scipione Borghese to display his magnificent art collection. The gallery now houses masterpieces by Caravaggio, Titian and Lotto as well as sculptures by Bernini and Canova. To visit the gallery it is necessary to reserve tickets. For details visit