Andrea Vitali's Essays

Triumphs in the Bonfire of the Vanities

Girolamo Savonarola and the Piagnoni in Florence in 1497

 

Translation from the Italian by Michael S. Howard, June 2013


We have seen in our previous essays (1) that the Ludus Triumphorum, because of its ingenious character, was basically tolerated by the civil authorities during the fifteenth century. Only in Assisi, which lay under a religious power, do we find in 1470 its explicit condemnation (2). Five years later Beato Pacifico of Novara placed it among objects the use of which produced a mortal sin (3), while in Padua the preacher Roberto Caracciolo, from Lecco, condemned it in one of his sermons in 1455 (4).

 

We have gleaned further documentation to that effect from the biography of Savonarola written by the Dominican  Pacifico Burlamacchi (1465/1466-1519), his apologist. The Vita del P. F. Girolamo Savonarola [Life of P[ater, father] F[rancesco]. Girolamo Savonarola] was published for the first time by Mansi in 1761 and subsequently in 1764 by Father Di Poggio.

 

First Ranke in 1877 and later Villari in 1890 questioned the authenticity of the biography as reported in the printed texts, as there were references to people and events that happened after the author's death. Villari later found a Latin life of Savonarola (5) which, in his opinion, would have been the source of the Burlamacchi.

 

Schnitzer (6) responded in criticism of Ranke and Villari, demonstrating: "1. that the printed edition of the life of Savonarola had several later additions, the work of Brother Vincenzo Bernardo, brother Timoteo Ricci, and especially brother Timoteo Bottonio of Perugia; 2. that the original text has not survived; 3. That the Latin life is a translation of the original, not the original text, a text that was written in the vernacular between 1512 and 1518 by a Dominican. This is none other than  Burlamacchi" (7).

 

This biography is of great interest because among the objects that were burned in the bonfires are mentioned in addition to cards and dice, also triumphs. This demonstrates that at the end of the fifteenth century the game with the latter was still called Ludus Triumphorum, and that this name was changed within a few years to Ludus Tarochorum, as we find in Ferrara in 1505 the first known document where that game was called with the term Tarochi (8).

 

The Bonfire of the Vanities took place in Florence on Shrove Tuesday of Carnival February 7, 1497, when, after the expulsion of the Medici, Girolamo Savonarola (1468-1482) and his followers (called Piagnoni,  literally meaning “whiners” but with the acquired meaning “bigots”), burned thousands of objects considered sinful in the Piazza della Signoria. A real disaster, as extraordinary evidence of everyday life was destroyed as well as Florentine artistic works of great value, including works by Botticelli, which he himself threw into the fire, other paintings, manuscripts containing the writings of Petrarch and Boccaccio, etc.. This testifies to the great subjugation that Savonarola was able to obtain, darkening even the loftiest minds.

 

Thus Vasari expressed on this event:

 

"It happened that Fra Ieronimo continuing his preaching and shouting every day from the pulpit that lascivious paintings and music and books often lead souls to love evil things, was persuaded that it was not good to keep at home, where there are girls, paintings with figures of naked men and women, to arouse the people by saying to them the following carnival, that it was the custom of the city to make on the piazzas some pyres of clutter and other fagots, and on Tuesday evening it was the ancient custom to burn these with love dancing, where holding hands a man and a woman turned around singing some ballads, so Fra Ieronimo that day had brought to that place many nude paintings and sculptures, many from the hands of excellent masters, and likewise books, lutes, and songbooks, which was great damage, but particularly of painting where Baccio carried all the studies from drawings that he had done of nudes, and also Lorenzo di Credi did the same and many others who had the name of Piagnoni" (9).


The passage in Savonarola's biography written by Burlamacchi regarding the subject matter of our interest is found in the description of the bonfire, "How all the vanities burned", which we quote in full for the time of the burning, feeling that crime worthy of commiseration. When a Venetian merchant present that day, understanding that they would set fire to such a wealth of art, he offered to buy some paintings and sculptures for 20,000 crowns. In response, there was made a life-sized portrait of him, which was then placed on top of the pyre to be burned. That merchant was subsequently hailed as the "Prince of all the Vanities".

 

"The following year, 1497, for the coming Carnovale the P. [Savonarola, who was a Franciscan Father, or Padre] ordered the making of a beautiful procession full of mystery at 21 hours of the day, and he had made on the Piazza de Signori a large pyre, where they had gathered all the vanities and lascivious things, which the children had gathered from all parts of the city, the shape of which was this. The  carpenters took a tree, and erected it in the middle of the square, thirty braccia up from the ground, on top of which were affixed many beams around, which originated from the center, and lowered towards the earth in the form of a pyramid, or a Pavilion, which was 120 braccia wide, over which from last steps as far as the top of the tree was fifteen degrees, above which was an empty space around the trunk of the tree full of brooms and sticks and other dry wood, with a lot of dust from mortar. He had that frame eight faces around, and each set had fifteen degrees above which were placed and accommodated all vanity and wantonness as above said variously distant with admirable artifice. In the first instance were precious foreign clothes, but full of immodest figures on them, and in the second degree was a great number of figures and portraits of beautiful women & others from the hands of the most excellent Florentine craftsmen painters and sculptors. In another instance were game boards, cards, boards for print-making, dice, and triumphs [tavolieri, carte, tavole da stamparle, dadi, e trionfi]. In another, music books, harps, lutes, guitars, spinets, harpsichords, bagpipes, bugles, and other similar instruments. In another, vanities of women, wigs, veliere [semi-transparent veils worn over the breasts], ampoules, galipots, mirrors, perfumes, dust of Cyprus, headdresses, & other destructive fashions. In another, Books of vulgar Latin poets full of lust, Morganti & other Books of battle, Boccaccio, Petrarch, and the like. In another, masks, beards, liveries, & other instruments for carnival. There were many things of great value, such as noble paintings and sculptures, theaters of ivory and alabaster, so that a Venetian merchant offered the Signoria twenty thousand crowns, which brought the reward that his life-sized portrait was done, which was placed on top of that edifice on a seat as the prince of all these vanities. [Vi erano di molte cose di gran prezzo, come pitture e scolture nobilissime, scacchieri d'avorio e di alabastro, in modo che un Mercante Veneziano ne offerse alla Signoria ventimila scudi; del che riportò quello premio, che fu ritratto al naturale, e posto in cima a quell' edifizio sopra una sieda come principe di tutte quelle vanità.] There was also in the same place a figure of Carnival so deformed and monstrous that it would be difficult to imagine it. It thus formed the most superb edifice, the morning of Carnival [when] many thousands of people at the hands of P. took communion, many singing psalms & hymns, which seemed to be Angels come to live on earth with men. The P. sang a solemn Mass and gave blessing to all went at home, and after dinner began a beautiful procession through the city, in which the children bore a devoted child full of splendor, standing above a base of gold, and giving with his right his blessing, and with his left showed the crown of thorns, the nails, and the cross, & it was beautiful, wonderful, being a very rare work of the sculptor Donatello. This was carried by four beautiful angels on a rich portable altar, & beautifully decorated, and twelve children bore a beautiful canopy above it. All around were other children, singing psalms, hymns with sweet melody. And before them went all the other children neatly in pairs. Behind were the keepers with their officers, and alms-gatherers, who bore silver vessels to receive alms for the poor of S. Martino, who got more on that day than they ordinarily got in the year. Behind them were men with red crosses in their hands, and finally the girls with all the other women. With that order is brought to the Cathedral Church, where beautiful hymns were sung, all the people gave to the Queen of Heaven, the City of Florence; offering then a large amount of money to the officials of S. Martin, they afterwards came to the Piazza of the Signori, where half of  the young boys were accommodated on the railing, the other half in the procession inside the lodge which is in the square. And there he again sang an emotional invective made against Carnival. By then the four Guardians with a lighted torch caused to light the fire on the pyre with such festivity and joy of the whole people, which was an amazing thing, along with sounding the bells of the palace, and the trumpets, & the pipes, and cornets of the Signoria, this everyone at that point beheld, rejoiced and made merry. So the flames ascended to heaven, all the vanities being consumed by the fire" (10).

 

Notes

 

1 - See the essays Playing Cards and Gambling and San Bernardino and the Cards.

2 - See the essay Allowed Triumphs, Forbidden Triumphs.

3 - See the essay Playing Cards and Gambling, section entitled “Interrogationi de’ Mercanti” in Addenda.

4 - See the essay Laudabiles et Vituperabiles [Praiseworthy and Blameworthy, currently in Italian only].

5 - Biblioteca Nazionale, Firenze, codice J-VII-28.

6 - Burlamacchi and his Vita del Savonarola, in “Archivio Storico Italiano", XXVIII, 1901, dispensa 4.

7 - Innocenzo Taurisano (ed.): Voce Burlamacchi, in “Treccani.it”, Enciclopedia Italiana (1930).

8 -  The first known document in which the term Tarochi appears in reference to the game is a record of the accounts of the Este court for the second half of 1505 in a note dated June 30. It then appeared a second time in the same register for December 26. See the essay About the Etymology of Tarot.

9 - Delle Vite de' più eccellenti pittori, scultori e architettori scritte da Giorgio Vasari, [On the lives of the most excellent painters, sculpturs, and architects, written by Giorgio Vasari], Firenze, 1822, p. 82.

10 - Vita del P. F. Girolamo Savonarola dell’Ordine dei Predicatori scritta dal P. F. Pacifico Burlamacchi Lucchese dello stesso Ordine e familiare del medesimo [Life of P. F. Girolamo Savonarola of the Order of Preachers written by P. F. Pacifico Burlamacchi Lucchese of the same Order and familiar with the same], Lucca, Jacopo Giusti, 1764, pp. 113-114.