In Italy … the tendency was strong toward everything ancient, whether in art of in books. Whatever was heathenish in painting, in sculpture, in pottery, in books, was welcomed, admired, treasured. More than all his contemporaries, Lorenzo de Medici fostered this taste.
The furor swept into the church. Scarcely a vestige or semblance of Christianity remained in it. Essentially the people were heathen amid all the splendor. “Italy was the darkest spot in all Christendom,” remarks one in speaking of that period.
This inclination backward and downward Savonarola clearly saw from the moment he entered Florence. The state of things sorely troubled him. Everywhere he protested against it. As soon as possible he meant to effect a reform, in every line of literature especially. No sooner was he prior of San Marco than he began the work.
Did his condemnation include all ancient literature?— Far from it. Few men were better versed in the classics than Savonarola. But the enthusiastic study of pagan authors and pagan art had corrupted the Christian faith, and displaced the Holy Scriptures. These, and not Greek fables, he believed to be the basis of all true education. Why should Livy and Thucydides engross the whole attention of students, and the historians of the Old Testament be neglected ? he would ask.
The study of the Old Testament was his delight, as has already been remarked. And when he would lead others into its rich fields, his words were spoken with thrilling effect. Often the telling of what he himself had found therein changed the plan and purpose of a human life. To too great an extent, perhaps, he attached a spiritual meaning to everything. But this faculty gave him an immense influence in teaching and preaching, as well as in quiet, earnest talks with friends. Thus, in urging the Florentines to shun intellectual idolatry, his prohibitions were strengthened and supported by text after text of Scripture. From every wandering path he brought them straight back to its lessons.
“Isaac,” he said, “commanded not to take a wife of the daughters of Canaan, warned Christians not to seek truth in heathen writings.” “The Jews, loathing manna in the wilderness, and sighing for the flesh-pots of Egypt, prefigured those who have the word of God but neglect it for the study of pagan philosophy.” To this symbolism he added the noble exhortation to “believe in the all-sufficiency of the word, and in the wisdom of Christ, who has left his precepts so clearly expressed that no human wisdom is required to explain them.” How contradictory is this last statement to the teaching of the papal church, which maintains that the common people cannot understand the Scriptures, and should not read them without explanation by the priests.
He exclaimed: “Go into all the schools of Florence, and you will find professors paid to teach logic and philosophy, the arts and sciences, but not one paid to undertake the teaching of Holy Scripture. Dost thou not perceive that faith is degraded by resting it on the profane sciences? Call to mind David going forth to meet Goliath, and, laying aside the armor of pagan study, arm thyself with a lively and simple faith, after the example of the apostles and martyrs.”
Prodigious was the evil effect of this exclusive cultivation of classical literature. All branches of education suffered from it. The standard of excellence in art was found in pagan models. Not only so, artists often selected their models from the most unworthy classes. “Madonnas, Magdalens, and saints were picked up anywhere, and under the artist’s transforming hand became holy, humble men and women, and even glorified saints.” Before such pictures the people paid homage. To Savonarola the thought of all this was torture. At the same time he realized that the mere putting away of impure things wouid not secure purity of heart. So, with all the energy of his soul, he implored his people to strive after inward cleanliness.
As he no doubt anticipated, loud voices were raised in opposition, and perhaps the most hostile were those of the priests, for some of them even refused absolutions to persons who attended the prior’s lectures. These things Savonarola well knew, and therefore looked for but little fruit of his labor in his own day. But from the youths and children who heard him, he hoped much. He delighted in filling their minds with his own healthy thoughts, and often tenderly urged them “to remember his words, and to see that they bore fruit when his voice should be heard no more.”
Sometimes he told them that in their hands might be placed the guidance and government of their country, the education of children yet unborn. Then, addressing the mothers, he entreated them “to restrain and guide their children as only mothers can. Now he admonished the fathers to secure to their sons the soundest education possible; to assure to them a knowledge of true Christianity, while they acquainted themselves with Virgil, Cicero, and Horace; thus would they acquire both eloquence and the truth.”
Great must have been Savonarola’s confidence that from his seed-sowing in the hearts of the youthful Florentines a rich harvest would be reaped, for at the close of one of these sermons, we hear him exclaim: “O Florence! deal with me as thou wilt. I have mounted the pulpit this day, to tell thee that thou wilt not destroy my work, because it is the work of Christ. Whether I live or die, the seed I have sown will not the less bear fruit. If my enemies are powerful enough to drive me from thy walls, I shall not be grieved. Some desert I shall find where I can take refuge with my Bible, and enjoy a repose which thy citizens shall not be able to disturb.”
Indeed, Savonarola’s career proved that with the children his influence was marvelous. Under his gentle, persuasive words and manner, the children of Florence, formerly rude and willful, yielded to his every request. They attended his preaching; joined most heartily with him in the devotional exercises; chanted the sacred songs and hymns which he himself had composed and adapted to music, and which, as he ardently hoped, would induce the older Florentines to discard the pernicious ballads provided by Lorenzo de Medici, to be-sung during the annual carnival.
[Savonarola, the Florentine Martyr, by Emma Hildreth Adams, first published in 1890, from Chapter VIII: “In Italy — Paganism Everywhere”]