In the 1490s, Girolamo Savonarola, a visionary friar, dominated Renaissance Florence, terrifying the city with his uncannily accurate prophecies. Best remembered for his 'burning of the vanities' - the destruction of 'profane art' in public bonfires - Savonarola has often been caricatured as a hell-fire fanatic. Yet Victorian England saw him as an Italian Martin Luther, while his career inspired George Eliot's novel, Romola. Acclaimed author Desmond Seward casts new light on this controversial and contradictory figure.
Savonarola prophesied the French invasion of Italy with alarming precision, and foretold the deaths of Lorenzo the Magnificent and Pope Innocent VIII. Yet there was more to him than prophecies of doom. He restored republican government to Florence and many of its citizens - including Michelangelo and Machiavelli - remained convinced that no better Italian government had ever existed.
Savonarola's undoing was his denunciation and attempt to depose of the Borgia Alexander VI, one of the most corrupt popes in history. Had he succeeded, the Reformation might have been avoided. But in the end Alexander turned the Florentines against Savonarola and destroyed him. They stormed his friary and , after a mockery of a trial during which he was tortured by the strappado and condemned as a heretic, he was hanged and burned in chains.
In this wide-ranging biography Desmond Seward portrays Savonarola as a surprisingly human figure. Exploring Savonarola's early years in Ferrara, his birthplace, Seward highlights the fact that an outsider had such an impact on Florence. He draws on Philippe de Commine's memoirs to analyse Savonarola's attitude towards the French invaders, examines Savonarola's eerie ability to see into the future, and looks at what really perished in the 'burning of the vanities'. Dramatic, colourful and compelling, The Burning of the Vanities brings to life an extraordinary man whose story is one of the great Renaissance tragedies.