Florence is Burning

by Mark Calderwood

In February 1497, fanatical followers of the preacher Girolamo Savonarola rampaged through the streets of Florence, seizing ornaments and jewellery, musical instruments and works of art. These objects, deemed to be occasions of sin, were built into huge pyres in the Piazza della Signoria and set ablaze in the infamous “bonfire of the vanities.”

Historians often regard this incident as a slide back into medieval zealotry from the progressive mindset of the renaissance, so it is surprising to learn that among the rioters was the celebrated painter Sandro Botticelli, who destroyed a number of his own works in the flames. Such an act of self-censorship seems baffling to modern sensibilities, used to the liberal latitude afforded artists in twenty-first century society. Yet the tensions of the renaissance played out on a personal as well as a cultural level, and the incident reveals the potency of religious influence that seems hard to imagine today.

Artists were at the cutting edge of humanist activity in Florence, passionately engaged in poetry, philology, archaeology, science, every aspect of the new learning. No longer mere craftsmen, artists had come to be regarded as intellectual professionals, accepted into courtly circles and awarded a variety of civic and even diplomatic responsibilities. Although now an elite, the renaissance artist’s creative latitude was however constrained by the tastes of his patron, and more generally by the mores of his culture. Art was valued according to the subtlety of its dialogue with accepted convention.

In the same way, public taste and artistic convention had changed rapidly and dramatically. With the revival of Classical philosophies of the dignity of man, a new acceptance of the human body and its faculties had emerged, fostering a taste for gracefully ordered naturalism in art that went hand in hand with a vogue for Antique mythological themes. These changing attitudes impacted upon sacred representations as well as secular art: religious figures ceased being stiff icons and became imbued with a more human physicality, as their pictorial space became continuous with the viewers’ earthly reality.

This doesn’t mean that Florence was a freewheeling utopia: the intellectual classes held a high regard for civil order. Despite humanism’s expanding horizons, social roles were idealised, narrow and inflexibly prescribed, and social mobility was a limited option only for the educated, patrician few. Civic offences were clearly delineated and monitored through an intricate chain of magistrates, although penalties did tend away from the kind of corporal punishments typical of religious sanction in the middle ages.

It was in this setting that Alessandro di Mariano Filipepi (known as botticello, the “little keg”) enjoyed an illustrious career. His escapist fantasias were filled with statuesque goddesses and garlanded centaurs, diaphanously-draped nymphs and Antique heroes playing out myths or tracing complex allegories-  very much to the taste of Florence’s Medici dynasty. The Medici oligarch Lorenzo the Magnificent was an especially enthusiastic sponsor of such Classicism, as part of a patronage-driven campaign to revitalise the city’s grandeur, power and prestige…under his magnanimous rule, of course.

But in reality, the renaissance was a period of turbulent social reorganisation, as new ideas crashed against long-established beliefs. The Christian church remained- literally and metaphorically- at the heart of society, sustaining a cohesive communal identity and normative code of behaviour. As it had for centuries, the church maintained social control by encouraging a culture of guilt based on the confession of sins. Even though personal piety varied from individual to individual, renaissance Christianity broadly saw sin as a public concern rather than a private act, fracturing the social body. Repentance of sins also tended to be public, as was the Church’s response to institutional transgressors: excommunication or execution of heretics were grim spectacles designed to compel obedience.

Piety’s close relationship with civil authority became even tighter as Savonarola gained unprecedented influence over political power in 1494. An uncompromising and fiery zealot, Savonarola used pulpit politics to devastating effect, preaching divine punishment and exploiting harsh public feeling against social dissent, Jews and the corruption of Papal Rome. With the Medici expelled, Florence economically isolated and under his de facto rule, the people saw the Dominican prior as God’s agent. The shift from progressive Laurentian oligarchy to Savonarola’s brimstone-and-judgement theocracy was seismic.

Moreover, the ascetic Savonarola thundered against the sensual luxury, tyranny (i.e., lawlessness), intellectual vanity, and most especially, the thinly disguised paganism that had overtaken Florentine society. Even more than carnivals and carnality, the customary art of the day was the embodiment of these very vices: painting became a morally suspect activity. As one, the city’s leading thinkers and artists cringed as intellectual liberty and perceived social good were set on a collision course. Michelangelo wrote that as he long as lived, he could not keep the preacher’s voice from ringing in his ears.

virgin two angels

It seems difficult to understand how Botticelli may have seen his own work as blasphemous or heretical. He was hardly an intellectual renegade: his success stemmed from his creative application of current artistic conventions. In fact, Botticelli took to extraordinary lengths the custom of articulating Christian narratives and concerns in terms of pagan imagery and allegory. Primavera, for example, unmistakably fused the pagan goddess Venus with the Christian Virgin- although her presence is unusual in a didactic work about marital rape. So too his religious commissions presented his Medici patrons as saints and magi, to garner support for their political domination; these aspects likely overshadowed those works’ spiritual dimensions, or were construed as arrogantly presumptuous in the hard-line tenor of post-Medici Florence.

While steeped in sophisticated classicism, Botticelli doubtless understood that the wider public were not so literate or intellectually agile. In renaissance thought, the supernatural beings of Antiquity that populated his paintings were regarded as being in some way real, not just a figment of artistic imagination. While barely a consideration in liberal Laurentian Florence, humanism was ceding ground in the struggle for intellectual loyalties under Savonarola: such deviations from orthodox Christianity would have been troubling, and all too easily confused with outright paganism in the contracting ideological climate.

Botticelli may also have felt his works to be potentially sexually obscene. In renaissance art, the line between receiving intellectual elevation- or a sexual frisson- from a Classical or saintly nude was so blurred as to barely exist. Similarly, fluctuations in Christian doctrine about the physical incarnation and therefore sexuality of Christ and the virginity of his mother, affected the sexual accent that was prevalent in religious iconography. The rise of Savonarolan puritanism would render such sexualised content inappropriate and potentially dangerously transgressive.

Modern enquirers may be quick to impute recognisably modern motives to Botticelli’s actions, either suggesting political expediency or that the artist was simply going along with the mob. But by all indications, he appears to have acted out of genuine religious conviction. Almost 50 and troubled by the upheavals in his world, Botticelli became a genuine follower of Savonarola. Indeed, Vasari comments that he was driven to poverty by his reverence for the preacher “of whose sect 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.

This supposition is borne out by his later works, filled with fraught, intense emotion. His Calumny of Apelles (1494) transforms the bright, mannered paintings into a fevered vision of Florence become corrupt: where the Graces of Primavera dance with weightless beauty, here Slander and her maids float like shades of the dead, with awful, relentless triumph; only the ragged, nun-like figure of Repentance rebukes Truth, leading Botticelli’s contemporaries to regard the painting as a defence of Savonarola. His Mystic Nativity (1501) is outright medieval, concentrating religious intensity and literal religious figures in a re-separated divine space that directly references a sermon preached by Savonarola on Christmas eve, 1493.

It seems clear that in consigning his works to the flames, Botticelli had responded to his politically and religiously tumultuous times by internalising the censorial ideology promulgated by Savonarola. The most effective form of social control is one that removes awareness and conscious choice, and renders people, in any era, complicit in their own coercion.