Bonfire of the Vanities
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Bonfire of the Vanities (Italian: Falò delle vanità) refers to the burning of objects that are deemed to be occasions of sin. The most infamous one took place on 7 February 1497, when supporters of the Dominican priest Girolamo Savonarola collected and publicly burned thousands of objects like cosmetics, art, and books in Florence, Italy, on the Mardi Gras festival. Such bonfires were not invented by Savonarola, however. They were a common accompaniment to the outdoor sermons of San Bernardino di Siena in the first half of the century.
The focus of this destruction was nominally on objects that might tempt one to sin, including vanity items such as mirrors, cosmetics, fine dresses, playing cards, and even musical instruments. Other targets included books that were deemed to be immoral, such as works by Boccaccio, and manuscripts of secular songs, as well as artworks, including paintings and sculpture.
Although it is widely reported that the Florentine artist Sandro Botticelli burned several of his paintings based on classical mythology in the great Florentine bonfire of 1492, the historical record on this is not clear. According to the art historian Giorgio Vasari, Botticelli was a partisan of Savonarola: "he was so ardent a partisan that he was thereby induced to desert his painting, and, having no income to live on, fell into very great distress." Writing several centuries later, Orestes Brownson, an apologist for Savonarola, mentions artwork only by Fra Bartolomeo, Lorenzo di Credi, and "many other painters," along with "several antique statues." Art historian Rab Hatfield argues that one of Botticelli's paintings, The Mystical Nativity, is based on the sermon Savonarola delivered on Christmas Eve 1493.
The event has been represented or mentioned in varying degrees of detail in a number of works of historical fiction, including George Eliot's Romola (1863), E. R. Eddison's A Fish Dinner in Memison (1941), Irving Stone's The Agony and the Ecstasy (1961), Chelsea Quinn Yarbro's The Palace (1978), Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient - part two 1992, Timothy Findley's Pilgrim (1999), Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason's Rule of Four (2004), the Showtime series The Borgias, and The Botticelli Affair by Traci L Slatton (2013). As a metaphor, Tom Wolfe used the event and ritual as the title for his 1987 novel The Bonfire of the Vanities and its film adaptation. Margaret Atwood's works allude to the Bonfire, as in her dystopian novels The Handmaid's Tale (1985), and Oryx and Crake (2003). It is also depicted in the video game Assassin's Creed II, in which Savonarola is one of the oppressors the fictional hero Ezio Auditore da Firenze fights against in the name of free thought, though the circumstances of the friar's demise are at variance with historical record.
- Orestes Brownson, "Savonarola: his Contest with Paganism," Brownson's Quarterly Review, April, 1851; available at Orestes Brownson society
- Rab Hatfield, "Botticelli's Mystic Nativity, Savonarola and the Millennium", Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, Vol. 58, (1995), pp. 88-114
- Echoes of Botticelli in Early Modern Sources Explores primary sources related to Botticelli and Savonarola