Study for painting Girolamo Savonarola e I delegati di Lorenzo de’ Medici nel 1492

Study for the painting Girolamo Savonarola e I delegati di Lorenzo de’ Medici nel 1492
Tito Lessi (1858–1917)
Pencil, charcoal with white highlights, red inscription.

Girolamo Savonarola (1452–1498) was born in Ferrara and educated by his grandfather, a prominent and wealthy physician, and at the University of Ferrara, in preparation for medical school. As a student Girolamo grew increasingly concerned over the state of the church and, as evidenced by his early poetry, developed an apocalyptic perspective. In 1475 he abandoned his course toward medicine to enter the Friary of San Domenico in Bologna taking up vows of the Order of Preachers and was ordained a priest the following year. His continued theological study was interrupted in 1478 by an assignment as Assistant Master of Novices at the Dominican Priory of Santa Maria degli Angeli in Ferrara where his opposition to easing Priory rules prohibiting the ownership of property may have placed Girolamo in difficulty with his superiors. By 1482 he was given a new position, teaching logic at the Convent of San Marco in Florence. He also preached to local congregations, although the lack of finesse and sophistication of his delivery limited his success in Renaissance Florence.

While studying Scripture at the Convent of San Giorgio Fra Girolamo experienced a realization and proffered seven reasons that a scourging of the church was inevitable and imminent, and renewal would follow. From 1487 he traveled throughout northern Italy preaching that vision and messages of repentance and reformation. As his sense of mission strengthened, so did his self-assurance and fervor, and the size of the crowds gathered to hear him increased accordingly. One who heard him preach, Humanist scholar Pico della Mirandola, convinced the premier authority in Florence, Lorenzo de’ Medici, to arrange for Girolamo’s return to Florence. In 1490, Girolamo agreed to return to the Convent of San Marco, and in 1491 was appointed Prior.

Citing the corruption of church leaders, the subjugation of the poor by the rich, and calling for wholesale repentance, Girolamo’s sermons became progressively prophetic. He condemned abuses and urged parishioners to seek redemption as a part of his prophetic calling, but also predicted the death of Lorenzo and the arrival of a conqueror who would bring Florence to realize its destiny as a New Jerusalem. Lorenzo died in 1492 leaving his son Piero as unpopular successor. In 1494 French King Charles VIII accommodated Girolamo’s prediction by sweeping across the Italian states with his army numbering some twenty thousand on a march to claim Naples for the French kingdom. Following Piero’s weak attempts to avoid the ransack of Florence Fra Girolamo led a delegation to the French camp and was able to negotiate with Charles to largely bypass the city. Girolamo foresaw spiritual glory, wealth, and power coming to Florence as a reward for repentance, and proclaimed the city the Ark on God’s floodwaters.

Those who had collaborated with the Medici were disenfranchised and a party of “Frateschi” which had formed around Girolamo gained political power. A new constitution was adopted that protected individual citizen rights, introduced democratic processes, and limited retribution for factional affiliation. Girolamo declared a “universal peace” and campaigned against vice in the city setting up regular patrols to correct infractions. Difficulties developed between Girolamo and Pope Alexander VI over several issues, including the unwillingness of Florence to join the League of Venice, or Holy League, an alliance of Italian states committed to resisting King Charles’s return following his annexation of Naples. Girolamo’s correspondence with Pope Alexander, as well as his published criticisms, led to animosity. The Pope took measures to silence him. Girolamo refused Alexander’s instructions to appear in Rome and continued to preach condemnations of the church and church hierarchy. He staged public events, including religious theater, sanitized Carnival processions with devotional music replacing the traditional bawdy songs, and Bonfires of the Vanities intended to destroy lavish objects of secular appreciation.

Pope Alexander excommunicated Girolamo in 1497 and threatened to censor any who would abet him. Submitting to pressure from the Florentine government in 1498 the Dominican gave up preaching and poured his energy into his magnum opus, Triumph of the Cross, a summation of his belief in the way of Christianity. That same year Girolamo, having recounted visions and suggesting that he had performed miracles, was challenged by a Franciscan to a trial by fire which devolved into arguments over the proceedings and finally ended in an extinguishing downpour. The crowd blamed Girolamo for the disappointing spectacle as the responsibility for proving his veracity was his, and they attacked the Convent of San Marco. Girolamo was arrested along with two Dominican brothers, and recanted his visions and prophesies under torture. He reasserted the truthfulness of his claims and then again confessed them as false. He continued to write while in prison, producing his final works, meditations on Psalms 50 and 51, “Our God is coming and will not keep silence: consuming fire runs before him and wreathes him closely round.” On May 23, 1498 the three monks were executed in public and their bodies, still on the gallows, were burned.

This study for a painting by Florentine artist Tito Lessi depicts Girolamo in 1492 refusing to grant absolution to the dying Lorenzo, a fictitious episode disproved by documentary evidence. The priest leans back into a table facing the grim-faced emissaries from Lorenzo de’ Medeci. Crown glass windows featured in several of Lessi’s works flood the room with light. Tito Lessi studied at the Accademia di Belle Arti di Firenze under Enrico Pollastrini and Antonio Ciseri. He began his career as a watercolorist. Following the invitation of the art dealer Charles Sedelmeyer, Lessi moved his studio to Paris. Although work included portraits and genre paintings Lessi is known for his dramatic historical interiors. The Visit of Milton to Galileo and I Bibliophiles were painting while he was in Paris. Toscanelli and the Ambassadors of Portugal, The Printer Bernardo Cennin in his Workshop, and Girolamo Savonarola and the Delegates of Lorenzo, were completed after his return to Florence. His last great works were illustrations for the Decameron, published by dall'Alinari in 1909. The location for Lessi’s painting Girolamo Savonarola and the Delegates of Lorenzo, exhibited in Milan in or before 1907, is unknown.

Two collections on the life and thought of Savonarola are available at Bridwell, The Selecman Savonarola Collection and the Mario Ferrara Library total 1,269 titles including thirty-two printed before the year 1500.

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Second Floor Corridor
Study for painting Girolamo Savonarola e I delegati di Lorenzo de’ Medici nel 1492