Comparisons are a vital tool for understanding the world and events we are forced to live in and live through, especially events that pose a certain threat to the predictability of our lives and for which we may not know the outcome. Fortunately, there are historical instances for almost every socio-political process we are witnessing, even if it isn’t apparent at first glance.
Such instance is the Dominican friar and preacher during the early years of the Renaissance in Florence, Girolamo Savonarola. Today, his name is mostly known in conjunction with Rodrigo Borgia, aka Pope Alexander VI, the Medici family and being discussed by Niccolo Machiavelli in a chapter of his book “Il Principe”. He became a figure of public interest when he started preaching against corrupt clergy, tyrants usurping the freedom of the people and warning of an upcoming “Sword of the Lord over the earth”. Soon after, the army of King Charles VIII of France crossed the Alps and marched through Italy. Savonarola was attributed to have saved Florence from being sacked by the French, although they did occupy the city briefly, but were bought off to leave it soon after.
Kingdom of Christ
With the Medici expelled from Florence and the French army moving southward in 1494, Savonarola’s supporters quickly changed the power structure in Florence, removing everyone loyal to the Medici’s and empowering a new ruling class through the Consiglio Maggiore, the Great Council. He declared a new era of “universal peace” and declared Jesus Christ as king of Florence. He also portrayed himself as a prophet, claiming to have predicted the French invasion as well as the death of Lorenzo di Medici and Pope Innocent VIII. This is where he started turning Florence into a theocracy and began efforts to rid the city of “vice”. He passed, with the approval of many Florentines, laws against sodomy, adultery, public drunkenness, among many things. He facilitated organizing young boys to patrol the streets and punish inappropriate behaviour or clothes. Secular art and culture was destroyed.
No divine mission
If all of this sounds disturbingly familiar, it should be. There was, however, a higher earthly authority for who the fanatical friar became a political problem. Pope Alexander VI excommunicated Savonarola, but he still insisted on his divine mission. Only after a Franciscan preacher challenged him by walking through fire to prove his mission – a challenge Savonarola accepted, but avoided at the last moment – the Florentine crowd turned angrily against him. He was arrested and confessed under torture to have invented all of his prophecies. Along with his two main Dominican supporters Savonarola was executed on May 23, 1498.
In the years after his death, and with many of his sermons and writings preserved, the cherry-picking began. He inspired Protestant reformers, even Martin Luther or the Huguenots in France. In the 19th century some of his writings inspired the Risorgimento, the national movement for Italian unification. Some even saw him as the Catholic Church’s last chance for change to avoid the Reformation.
But, if we only consider his earthly four-year rule of Florence, the support of the disenfranchised masses, the mobilisation of religious zeal, we are able to draw comparison to existing theocracies today in the Muslim world. There is however one major difference between the rule of Savonarola and present theocracies, best said by Niccolo Machiavelli in “Il Principe”:
“If Moses, Cyrus, Theseus and Romulus had been unarmed they could not have enforced their constitutions for long – as happened in our time to Fra Girolamo Savonarola, who was ruined with his new order of things immediately the multitude believed in him no longer, and he had no means of keeping steadfast those who believed or of making the unbelievers to believe.” (Chapter VI)
No fanaticism without money and might
What Machiavelli was clearly saying is that Savonarola lacked the political and military might to impose his regime beyond its establishment. It could also be argued that many people after the initial zeal and excitement grew tired of the fanaticism he infected them with and would not keep up with the religious purity he demanded. This is only consistent of human nature, if not imposed by forces of state might or group dynamics, the latter taking many years to grow and root itself in society.
Today’s theocracies and the lessons of Samonarola
And there we are in the present living under the danger of Islamic fundamentalism, the so-called IS and Wahhabi and Salafist ideologies spreading not just in the Middle East, but in Europe and North America as well. What Savonarola’s present day brothers in fanaticism have, and he didn’t, is an abundance of cash and logistical support by states or individual donors. Where he has failed, they too can fail if they come short of the “means of keeping steadfast those who believed or of making the unbelievers to believe”. It is already happening to the so-called IS, lacking more and more the means to sustain their forces or to attract new ones. Countries like Iran or Saudi Arabia may seem unchangeable now, but there is a certain dynamic at play that could alter the parameters of their present constitution, albeit with different causes.
New political dynamics
Iran’s exhausting engagement in the Syrian war, while at the same time opening up to business to the West could (emphasis on could) under public pressure change its political priorities, except the animosity towards Saudi Arabia. The new leaders-in-waiting in Saudi Arabia are not only facing a stronger negative perception in the West, primarily in the United States, but also the negative results of their appeasement policies towards radical Islamic elements in their own country. A conclusion of this unholy alliance seems inevitable. Public discontent in Europe and North America towards radical Muslims is being channelled unfortunately as support of right-wing political parties and against ordinary Muslims, which could even lead to widespread violence. If the financial and logistical support for radical Islamic ideologies fades away, things may settle down, as they did in Florence on the eve of a new age.
Photos: Public Domain
Il Principe by Niccolo Machiavelli at Project Gutenberg (in English)
Savonarola – Der schwarze Prophet (Documentary, Youtube, in German)