Florence - Piazza della Signoria
Bonfire of the Vanities
What you will see:
The city of Florence is the center of The Renaissance, and the Piazza della Signoria is the main civic center of Florence. As such, this square and nearby museums are bursting with art, and bustling with tourists. The square almost feels like an open-air sculpture museum. It includes many pre-renaissance and pagan statues as well as a fake "David" statue located on the spot where the authentic "David" statue resided for centuries. Located about 10 paces in front of a Neptune sculpture is a man-hole sized "plaque" inlaid in the pavement. There's writing on the disk which I've been told is Italian. It looks like Latin to me, but I don't understand Latin or Italian, so it may as well be jibberish. Even knowing the English translation doesn't make the plaque impressive or attention-grabbing. The plaque reads: "Here, Girolamo Savonarola and his Dominican brothrers were hanged and burned in the year (1498)" First question that pops up in my mind is: why both hanged and burned? Was someone trying to kill these guys twice?
What you won't see:
Several centuries before Girolamo Savonarola and his brethren were killed twice in Florence for heresy, there was another Dominican named Giovanni, but better known as Francis, who had preached many of the same values as Savonarola. In 1209 Francis taught his followers a simple rule known as the "primitive rule": "Follow the teachings of our Lord Jesus Christ, and walk in His footsteps". Francis and his followers renounced all wealth and strove to help the poor. Francis presented his ideas to the Pope and was granted permission to form a new order, and today we have the Franciscan Order. Savonarola also renounced worldly possessions, and in particular, sought to be rid of art and music. Savonarola would hold "bonfires of the vanities" in Piazza della Signoria on the spot that now bears the aforementioned plaque. Followers of Savonarola (some might call them reluctant subjects) were invited (compelled) to bring their paintings, musical instruments, playing cards, etc to the town square and cast them upon the great bonfire. The fact that buyers in Venice and elsewhere were eager to buy these items, the proceeds of which could have gone to help the poor, was disregarded. The Pope tolerated Savonarola to a point, but rather than go to the Pope to request permission to from a new order, Savonarola publicly denounced the corruption of the Papal court. (if you want to know how the Popes feel about art, just visit the Vatican Museums to see one of the most extensive art collections in the world). Savonarola was excommunicated.
Almost immediately after Francis died, he was made a saint, and a giant cathedral was built in his honor in Assisi. The walls of the cathedral are elaborately painted to depict not only the life of Christ but also the life of Francis. Relics of Francis have been preserved here, and the order he formed bears his name. People make pilgrimages to Assisi to see the art and architecture of the cathedral and to venerate Francis' bones. I don't think that Francis would be at all happy about these things. His message was to follow the teachings of Jesus and to walk in His footsteps, not to have people follow him or to have his life presented in parallel to Christ's. Savonarola would not have wanted these things either. The Pope did not want Savonarola to be venerated like Francis had been, nor did he want him to even be remembered. So, after Savonarola died (by hanging) his body was burned, and the remains were tossed into the Arno river. Today, the square where Savonarola attempted to rid the world of art with his "bonfires of the vanities" is littered with sculptures, and two of the world's great art museums are next door (the Uffizi, and the Academia). Savonarola would not be happy about that, but at least the centerpiece of the art show is a Biblical piece by Michaelangelo (David). There are no statues of Savonarola and no churches named for him, but his relics are there to "see" if you look beyond the bricks. (o.k. beyond the water)
Beyond the Bricks:
Today the Piazza della Signoria in the heart of Florence is full of sites for fans of art and architecture, and yet, if you look around you will see countless people taking selfies and otherwise distracted on their cell phones. Try to imagine a roaring bonfire in the middle of the square and all these people lining up to cast their phones upon the fire. You too will be expected to toss your vanities into the flames. Now imagine a world without the distraction of cell phones. It's not going to happen, just as Savonarola was not successful of ridding Florence of art. But you could put the phone away and enjoy the fruits of Savonarola's failure. Enjoy the art, you're in Florence.
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The Daily Walk
looks for stories beyond the bricks that you see. Places are interesting because of the back story. Sometimes the back story explains that which you see, and sometimes the back story gives you a perspective when there is nothing to see.