Girolamo Savonarola | Jo Tempest

Girolamo Savonarola

I am sure you have probably heard of the film called ‘Bonfire of the Vanities,’ based on the book by the same name written by Tom Wolfe, both really good. But do you know where the phrase originated from? 

Well, it dates back to the fifteenth century in Italy, Florence to be precise. This was a wonderfully prolific time for writers, artists and sculptors but not everyone appreciated the art at that time.

There was a Dominican priest called Girolamo Savonarola who saw much of the writing and art as ‘Sinful’. Girolamo was born in 1452 to a noble family in Ferrara, Italy. When he was just 22 years old, he entered a Dominican order in Bologna and six years later he was preaching in Florence on the sins of art.

Fortunately, he was not well-received and soon packed off to Brescia where unfortunately, he perfected his preaching and in 1489, he was back in Florence. Sadly, he managed to collect a following for his sermons and soon lots of manuscripts, paintings and sculptures were seen as – maybe they could lead people to sin. If you think about it, both the art and the sculptures at that time were often barely clothed figures. 

Anyway, our zealous Girolamo decided to hold a ‘Bonfire of the Vanities’ on the 7th February 1497. It wasn’t the first, but it was the largest ever seen in Italy. His followers went into the beautiful homes of Florence and took mirrors, make-up, exquisite gowns, manuscripts, playing cards, paintings, sculptures and even musical instruments.

They were all put on a huge fire and destroyed. Can you imagine what wonderful art was destroyed on that day? It has even been rumored that Botticelli added some of his own work, as he was a follower of Girolamo at that time, but fortunately he came to his senses. 

There was a huge outcry against this devastating ‘Bonfire’ and within a year, Girolamo found himself on trial for ‘Religious Error and Sedition’. After being tortured, he was found guilty and some would say he had a befitting death. On 23rd May 1498, he and two of his Dominican disciples were hung and then put on a bonfire!  

So, now you know the origin of ‘Bonfire of the Vanities’.


Jo Tempest.



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