Death in Florence

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 July, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 July, 2011, 12:00am


Death in Florence
by Paul Strathern
Jonathan Cape

Admirers of Florentine Renaissance art do not always recognise that it often served for political promotion. The Medici banking family, dominant in Florence, used the arts to burnish the image of their city.

The high art compensated for low morals, political violence, and a 'soft' dictatorship. Lorenzo Medici, called the Magnificent, who ruled for 22 years after succeeding his father in 1469 - he was only 20 when he came to power - was a shrewd diplomat, a talented poet and also had the popular touch. He promoted an early version of consumer society.

However a short, red-haired monk, Girolamo Savonarola, blew the whistle on a society which seemed to be abandoning Christian standards for hedonism influenced by the Renaissance-era rediscovery of ancient Greek and Roman culture. Savonarola preached vehemently against moral laxness, particularly sodomy, and society's indifference to the needs of the poor.

But Savonarola became embroiled in an even bigger conflict with the corrupt Borgia pope Alexander VI: he was condemned as a heretic and burnt at the stake.

It is a story full of drama, double crosses and cruelty but also of famous figures such as Sandro Botticelli, Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci.

Paul Strathern, a British novelist and historian, narrates the story meticulously although is longwinded about the intellectual background. He emphasises its relevance by presenting Savonarola's clash with Lorenzo as between religious fundamentalism and modernity but Savonarola did not oppose all progress and learning and he championed wider participation in Florentine democratic processes.

Lorenzo provides a more topical cautionary tale as a charismatic leader who employed his wealth to buy a consensus and encourage a society where people knew the price of everything but the value of nothing. He used artists of genius whereas his contemporary equivalents use pop culture, the media and sport to bolster their power. Savonarola chose the wrong way to resist but the question still remains: what is the right way?