August 2018: CENSORSHIP IN RENAISSANCE ITALY
One late May afternoon in 1498, after a tortuous, twisty trial under Alexandre VI, a Dominican friar took his final walk to the scaffold at Piazza della Signoria. From a distance, Michelangelo sketched the pious prophet who imposed a rigid censorship ban on creative and literary works of Florence. Wearily, he turned to face his accusers. His name was Girolamo Savonarola, and his life and death can be used as an example of how censorship can be used by one political entity to undermine the leadership of another. In plain English, as Savonarola's story reveals, even though censorship represents the conflict of individuality versus the good or safety of the public, it must never stand in the way of creative genius or truth.
If there is any lesson to be learned about past censorship bans, it can never start too early, and it should teach that censorship is a symptom of civic unrest and typically leads to cultural dissent due to an obsessive restraint of self-expression in every form. During the years leading up to Savonarola’s rise to fame and his downfall, the Holy League was engrossed in the First Italian War of 1494, when this friar was passionately expounding social reform to purify the populace of moral sin. To introduce a policy on censorship, Savonarola sponsored the Bonfire of the Vanities in a bid to purify Florentine culture from further corruption. That raging bonfire was by far one of Italy’s most intense crackdowns on censorship. Thousands of books and artworks burned to ash. Even Botticelli, a famous Italian painter, grew ashamed of his own secular creations and cast them into the fire.
This is not history’s only example of censorship. In 399 BC, the Athenian philosopher, Socrates, was charged with inciting rebellion to Greek boys, although that was likely not his intention. Around 43 BC, Rome’s first humanist, Cicero, was silenced when his 13th Philippic spoke out against Mark Antony’s instigation of war in Northern Italy. But even Botticelli may have concluded that uninhibited expression is as fundamental to open communication as oxygen is to humanity. As for Savonarola, he himself was to be permanently censored for inciting false ideas about his link to God.
The Florentines spoke up to protest the strict ban and tried to find a way to censor Savonarola, but it was hard to break the destructive cycle perpetuated by this well-meaning prophet. By 1493, Savonarola denounced prominent wealthy patrons for neglect of the poor and promotion of scandalous ideas on Classical secular culture. When the Medici’s trust in Charles VIII of France almost led to Florence’s destruction in 1493, Savonarola’s false prophecies still coincidentally inspired hope for the future. Ultimately, Savonarola’s intervention with a French military raid prevented Charles from completely destroying Florence. Nevertheless, Rome’s most lavish and indulgent pope, Alexandre VI, still was furious with Savonarola.
Savonarola’s wholehearted preaching drew public crowds. One day he was abruptly challenged to display his miraculous powers by walking on fire. Savonarola’s pristine image promptly disintegrated. Alexandre VI immediately put Savonarola on trial, even though it was the diversity of their military ideas that posed the real conflict: Savonarola disapproved of Borgia’s enthusiastic military campaign against France. An atmosphere of cultural resistance was demolishing Italy’s cultural center, Florence.
Despite Savonarola’s spiraling downfall, his later veneration as a saint inspired a new martyr cult in the century that came after his death; nuns especially followed his mystical tradition of faith. By 1512, after the Medici returned to political power, they eventually replaced Savonarola’s radical but well intended religious movement into one of cultural blossoming.