Bonfire of the Vanities
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A Bonfire of the Vanities (Italian: Falò delle vanità) is a burning of objects condemned by authorities as occasions of sin. The phrase usually refers to the bonfire of 7 February 1497, when supporters of the Dominican priest Girolamo Savonarola collected and publicly burned thousands of objects such as cosmetics, art, and books in Florence, Italy, on the Mardi Gras festival. Such bonfires were not invented by Savonarola, but had been 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.
Fra Girolamo Savonarola was a Dominican priest who was assigned to work in Florence in 1490, largely thanks to the request of Lorenzo de' Medici- an irony, considering that within a few years Savonarola would become one of the foremost enemies of the Medici house and helped to bring about their downfall in 1494. Savonarola campaigned against what he considered to be the artistic and social excesses of Renaissance Italy, preaching with great vigor against any sort of luxury. His power and influence grew so that with time he became the effective ruler of Florence, and even had soldiers for his protection following him around everywhere.
Starting in the February of 1495, during the time that would normally have hosted the festival known as Carnival, Savonarola began to host his regular “Bonfire of the Vanities.” He collected various objects that he considered to be objectionable; irreplaceable manuscripts, ancient sculptures, antique and modern paintings, priceless tapestries, and many other valuable works of art, as well as mirrors, musical instruments, books of divination, astrology, and magic. He destroyed the works of Ovid, Propertius, Dante, as well as Boccaccio. So great was his influence that he even managed to obtain the cooperation of major contemporary artists such as Sandro Botticelli and Lorenzo di Credi, who reluctantly consigned some of their own works to his bonfires. Anyone who tried to object found their hands being forced by teams of ardent Savonarola supporters. These supporters called themselves Piagnoni (Weepers) after a public nickname that was originally intended as an insult.
Savonarola’s influence did not go unnoticed by the higher church officials, however, and his excesses earned him the disdain of Pope Alexander VI. He was eventually excommunicated on May 13, 1497. Savonarola was executed on May 23, 1498, hung on a cross and burned to death. Ironically, the papal authorities would take a leaf out of Savonarola's book on censorship, because the day after his execution they gave word that anyone in possession of the Friar's writings had four days to turn them over to a papal agent to be destroyed. Anyone who failed to do so faced excommunication.
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 1497, 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 novel "I, Mona Lisa" by Jeanne Kalogridis (2006), 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.
- Martines, L. (2006) Fire in the City: Savonarola and the Struggle for the Soul of Renaissance Florence. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. pp. 19
- Martines, L. (2006) Fire in the City: Savonarola and the Struggle for the Soul of Renaissance Florence. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. pp. 1
- Green, J. & Karolides, N. (2005) Savonrola, Fra Girolamo. In Encyclopedia of Censorship: New Edition. New York, NY: Facts On File, Inc. p. 495
- Martines, L. (2006) Fire in the City: Savonarola and the Struggle for the Soul of Renaissance Florence. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. pp. 168, 275-277
- 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