Arts in Florence under Savonarola: the crisis of Renaissance values.


The arts in Florence under Savonarola and the Renaissance crisis of values: origins, developments, artists, styles.

The end of Lorenzo the Magnificent’s rule, with the demise in 1492 of the de facto ruler of Florence, brought significant changes to the city’s political and cultural scene. Lorenzo was succeeded by the weak figure of Lorenzo’s eldest son, Piero de’ Medici. The latter, in 1494, the year of the descent of Charles VIII of France into Italy that would kick off the season of the so-called Italian wars, did not oppose the French king’s entry into Florence. This was the pretext that set off the spark: the anti-Medicean parties, which found their main figurehead in the Ferrarese friar Girolamo Savonarola, prior of the convent of San Marco, succeeded in ousting Piero de’ Medici from Florence and re-establishing a republic.

The figure of the Dominican Girolamo Savonarola, determined profound upheavals in the Florentine reality of the time. In fact, Savonarola, since the time of Lorenzo the Magnificent (with whom he had open clashes), carried on his heated sermons with apocalyptic tones, in which he lashed out against the vanity, vices and corrupt customs of the time in order to preach a lifestyle that was more rigorous and severe, as well as closer to a strict religious morality. With these assumptions, when Savonarola became the de facto head of the Republic refounded by the anti-medicean parties, he established a theocratic regime that was to have the goal of making Florence a beacon of Christendom. Because of this, his sermons provoked a climate of strong mysticism: the luxury and festivities that had characterized Medici Florence were replaced by religious rigor and public burnings of objects considered vain, worldly, and contrary to Christian dictate (the famous bonfires of the vanities).

Savonarola’s sermons soon also turned against the Church of Rome and the Papal States: Rome, at the time led by Pope Alexander VI, was seen as a repository of vices that found their personification in the very figure of the pontiff. Alexander VI first admonished Savonarola and then, in 1497, hurled an excommunication on the Ferrarese friar in addition to a charge of heresy, prompted also by the Florentine aristocracy that frowned upon the friar. Meanwhile, Savonarola was increasingly losing favor in the city: this was mainly due to the work of discrediting carried out by the main enemies of the piagnoni, that is, Savonarola’s followers, namely the party of the compagnacci, i.e., those who were opposed to the rigor imposed by Savonarola, the arrabbiati, a party composed of the Florentine aristocracy who were enemies of the Medici but nevertheless eager to put an end to the Savonarolian theocracy, and finally also the palleschi, i.e., the pro-Mediceans who, from outside Florence, were preparing the return of the Medici to the city.

The situation, for Savonarola, precipitated in 1498: having lost all support, following several riots that broke out in the city, Savonarola was captured, underwent a mock-trial accusing him of being a heretic, was tortured and then executed by hanging, and his body was eventually burned at the stake in Piazza della Signoria. The Medici, however, failed to return to the city, and the Florentine state continued in its republican form until 1512 under the leadership of Pier Soderini, who was elected gonfalonier (from 1502 for life).

The reflections of the political situation on art

This period of strife and crisis of values was also felt by the artists working in the Florence of the time. The first to suffer was Sandro Botticelli (Florence, 1445 - 1510), who was profoundly affected by the heated sermons of Girolamo Savonarola: having abandoned neo-Platonic philosophy, he turned to an almost visionary art, characterized by a very strong mysticism(Mystical Nativity, 1501, London, National Gallery). It was an art that led him to reject even the spatiality conquered by the Renaissance. Botticelli’s mystical crisis reached the point where he prematurely ended his career as an artist, so much so that no works by him are recorded in the eight years preceding his death in 1510.

In such a complex historical period, when the balance in Italy had completely broken down, art also began to become more restless and began to abandon the achievements of the early Renaissance, especially in terms of order and harmony. Another artist who deeply embodied the spirit of these years was Filippino Lippi (Prato, 1457 - Florence, 1504). The son of the great painter of the early Renaissance, Filippo Lippi, and pupil as well as friend of Sandro Botticelli, Filippino Lippi started from Sandro Botticelli’s linearism but revisited it in a more nervous, harsh and almost expressionist sense, with paintings in which often extravagant details found a place(Apparition of the Virgin to St. Bernard, c. 1484-1485, Florence, Badia), arriving at particularly visionary results charged with a restlessness that often resulted in particularly charged and expressive figures.

Particularly extravagant results were also achieved by the painting of Piero di Cosimo (Florence, 1462 - 1521), an eccentric artist with a character full of bizarre implications: Giorgio Vasari, in his Lives, recounts many of the character quirks of an artist whom we might today call a psycholabile. Piero di Cosimo was endowed, however, with an extreme imagination, which spilled over into his art, enabling him to create highly original elements, and an uncommon taste for description and narrative, influenced in part by the attention to detail he derived from reading Flemish art. Animated not only by a vast culture, but also by a remarkable sense of dynamism taken from the research of Antonio del Pollaiolo, Piero di Cosimo produced a strongly nonconformist art, in which Renaissance classicism was read according to an original and completely new point of view. Exemplary in this regard are two cycles of panels made for as many wealthy Florentine families of the time, the Pugliese cycle and the Vespucci cycle, now divided among several museums (e.g., Vulcan and Aeolus, c. 1490, Ottawa, National Gallery of Canada) in which Piero di Cosimo, revisiting the repertoire of classical mythology, came to create a kind of personal “prehistory” of humanity(read more about them here).

Also affected by the heated mystical climate of Savonarola’s Florence was one of the most promising painters of Medicean Florence, Lorenzo di Credi, who even went so far as to destroy all his production on profane subjects in 1497 (the only profane work of his that survives is a 1493 Venus preserved in the Uffizi). An artist of extreme precision, he fused the naturalism of Verrocchio, whose pupil he was (and whose workshop he inherited), with the linearism and elegance typical of Sandro Botticelli’s style, while demonstrating a certain openness both to Flemish art and to the novelties of what was to be the mature Renaissance (in particular, he was able to take up some of Leonardo’s schemes). A typical example of his way of making art is theAnnunciation of about 1480 (Florence, Uffizi).

Sandro Botticelli, Mystical Nativity (1501; tempera on canvas, 109 x 75 cm; London, National Gallery)
Sandro Botticelli, Mystical Nativity (1501; tempera on canvas, 109 x 75 cm; London, National Gallery)
Filippino Lippi, Apparition of the Virgin to Saint Bernard (1484-1485; oil on panel, 210 x 195 cm; Florence, Badia Fiorentina)
Filippino Lippi, Apparition of the Virgin to St. Bernard (1484-1485; oil on panel, 210 x 195 cm; Florence, Badia Fiorentina)
Piero di Cosimo, Vulcan and Aeolus Masters of Humanity (c. 1490; oil on canvas, 155.5 x 166.5 cm; Ottawa, National Gallery of Canada)
Piero di Cosimo, Vulcan and Aeolus Masters of Humanity (c. 1490; oil on canvas, 155.5 x 166.5 cm; Ottawa, National Gallery of Canada)
Lorenzo di Credi, Venus (1493-1494; oil on canvas, 151 x 69 cm; Florence, Uffizi Galleries)
Lorenzo di Credi, Venus (1493-1494; oil on canvas, 151 x 69 cm; Florence, Uffizi Galleries)
Lorenzo di Credi, Annunciation (1480; oil on canvas, 88 x 71 cm; Florence, Uffizi Galleries)
Lorenzo di Credi, Annunciation (1480; oil on canvas, 88 x 71 cm; Florence, Uffizi Galleries)

The New Works of Luca Signorelli

One of the most important artists of this period was Luca Signorelli (Cortona, 1445 - 1523): the climate and anxieties of the time are easily discernible in his cycle of frescoes for the chapel of San Brizio in Orvieto Cathedral, one of the greatest masterpieces of Italian art of all time(read more here), with an Apocalypse in very excited and terrifying tones, but not because of the influence of Savonarola’s sermons. It was the exact opposite: Luca Signorelli began work on these frescoes in 1499, just a year after Savonarola was executed, and the purpose of the cycle was to terrify the Christian observer so that he would turn away from heresies and return to venerating the Church of Rome (Orvieto was part of the Papal States, which had led the fight against the friar of Ferrara at the forefront). Through this key of interpretation, it is also possible to identify in one of the frescoes, the Preaching of the Antichrist, almost an artistic transposition of the sermons of a Girolamo Savonarola seen in all his negative aspects. Luca Signorelli thus made himself the forerunner of a trend that distinguished religious art in the following century, namely, that of simplifying the messages of works of art while at the same time powerfully engaging the faithful.

But the novelties of Luca Signorelli’s language went even beyond these aspects. In fact, the artist from Cortona started from the achievements of his master, Piero della Francesca, but he was able to revisit them in a considerably more dramatic key: the painter thus came to elaborate a particularly energetic style, in which a fundamental role was played by the study of anatomies(Flagellation, c. 1480, Milan, Pinacoteca di Brera). A style that, in the 16th century, would also influence Michelangelo Buonarroti: with his works, Luca Signorelli anticipated (indeed, probably sanctioned) the birth of the period known as the mature Renaissance.

View of the Chapel of St. Britius
View of the Chapel of San Brizio
Luca Signorelli, The Preaching of the Antichrist (1499-1504; fresco; Orvieto, Duomo, Cappella Nova)
Luca Signorelli, The Preaching of the Antichrist (1499-1504; fresco; Orvieto, Duomo, Cappella Nova)
Luca Signorelli, Flagellation (c. 1480; tempera on panel, 84 x 60 cm; Milan, Pinacoteca di Brera)
Luca Signorelli, Flagellation (c. 1480; tempera on panel, 84 x 60 cm; Milan, Pinacoteca di Brera)

Arts in Florence under Savonarola: the crisis of Renaissance values.
Arts in Florence under Savonarola: the crisis of Renaissance values.


Warning: the translation into English of the original Italian article was created using automatic tools. We undertake to review all articles, but we do not guarantee the total absence of inaccuracies in the translation due to the program. You can find the original by clicking on the ITA button. If you find any mistake,please contact us.



en-US