Art and Religion: Savonarola and Botticelli

On this day a person, who played a huge role in history of Italian Renaissance  in Florence was born in 1452 – it’s Girolamo Savonarola. Savonarola was Dominican friar. The talent for oratory made Girolamo an extremely influential person in the city: the power of his temperament allowed him to conquer thousands of people, when he was passionately preaching against earthly delights and entertainment, immorality and “pagan evil” spread by those in power.

Portrait of Girolamo Savonarola by Alessandro Bonvicino (1498-1554)

Savonarola had very strict requirements to art: depiction of nude was restricted, as well as portraits. He even encouraged people to burn all luxury things, like musical instruments and paintings. But it would be wrong to see Savonarola as a barbarian and a destroyer of Beauty. He tried to fight against the degeneration of art, which began to show in the art of Quattrocento, but probably ran into another extreme of the utmost sternness. Yet, Savonarola’s ideas had ‘infected’ some great minds – and particularly the soul of the sensitive Sandro Botticelli, who, according to Vasari, even threw a few of his works into the fire. Religion was his new inspiration and art of the past, which was supposed to be good and even saintly, was his new guide.

Savonarola was publicly burnt at the stake on May 23, 1498, in the Piazza della Signoria, where art pieces had been destroyed before. Botticelli was largely affected by this, changing the style and mood of his works: their tone became more tragic, created by the insuperable gap between physical and spiritual aspects of beauty; former fluidity of rhythms was replaced with sharp winding lines, leaving no place for the lyricism of his early paintings.

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Ludwig von Langenmantel, “Savonarola preaching against luxury and preparing the bonfire of the vanities” (1881)

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