Death of liberty.
To live in the Repubblica di Firenze in the 1480s was to reside in a place where art, politics, and intellectual exploration fermented to create the most vibrant and culturally rich hub on the face of the world at the time. But amidst the humble simplicity of cobbled streets, the grandeur of ornate palaces, and the artistic brilliance that permeated every level of society, it was easy to forget that the lives of citizens of Florentine citizens were controlled in almost every way by a single family: the Medici.
If anything at all, the Medici family were a dominating octopus whose tentacles penetrated almost every level of society in Florence. Through its Medici Bank, it funded and controlled economic interests at home and throughout Europe. As patrons of artists like Leonardo DaVinci, Botticelli, and Michelangelo, the family ensured influence over society in culture and the arts. And via embedding family members in positions of governance—including Florence’s highest office of Gonfaloniere—it cemented its ability to rule the people for its benefit. They were even able to censor undesirable philosophies being taught in universities and schools, ensuring the ideals of future generations would align with de’ Medici interests and values.
At the helm of this formidable empire stood Lorenzo de' Medici, who was more commonly called Lorenzo the Magnificent. Lorenzo, a supremely adept and cultured leader, commanded the resources and authority of one of the most influential dynasties of his time, seemingly poised for unrivalled dominance. Yet, his path was destined to be persistently challenged by a formidable adversary; the zealous preacher Girolamo Savonarola. A man who would become a relentless thorn in Lorenzo's side at nearly every twist and turn of his rule.
Born in the city of Ferrara to the north, Savonarola was a Dominican friar who first came to Florence in 1490. Almost immediately, his fiery sermons began to stoke the embers of rebellion within the hearts of Florentine citizens, who came to follow him for his vehement opposition to the corruption within the city. Savonarola regularly preached against the moral failings he saw within the church, and the lives of decadence and luxury practised by many within the organisation. If attacking the Catholic church wasn’t enough, he also spread his ire of the Medici family, challenging the stranglehold they held over the city.
Savonarola regularly took to the streets to boldly reprimand the de’ Medici in public. He believed the family was the root of the moral and political corruption spreading throughout the city, publicly berating them for controlling the ideas and speech of the people, and disseminating the view that they should be ousted from power in order to install a theocratic republic to govern the city. One where a council of righteous citizens would shepherd Florence into a more prosperous future.
To the de’ Medici, Savonarola was initially nothing more than a vocal nuisance. But as his following grew, the public image of the Medici family began to shift from them being perceived as cultural benefactors, to tyrants who exploited the poor and downtrodden for their own benefit.
But the people of Florence wouldn’t have to wait long for their deliverance from the de’ Medici oppressors.
After King Charles VIII crossed the Alps in 1494 and began his sacking and conquest of Italy, Savonarola cemented his place as a champion of the people by meeting the French king outside the city in November of that year. This resulted in Florence being saved from a similar fate to much of Italy’s north, the Medici and oligarchic allies being barred from holding office, and a new political party advised by Savonarola to now rule over Florence.
The humble preacher had beaten the Medici family, and even saved his city from an invading king. But neither of these victories could protect him from the pope.
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