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Savonarola himself called scholastic ‘divisions and arguments, irrelevant digressions and excessive citations’, instead preaching Apocalypse and the End of Days. As Lorenzo de’ Medici’s grip on power weakened in the face of papal hostility and the imminent invasion of King Charles VIII of France, Savonarola’s impassioned message that Florence might still represent the New Jerusalem if its citizens confronted their sins became irresistible. By 1494 he had positioned himself at the heart of Florentine politics, tacitly supporting the exile of the Medici, celebrating Charles VIII as a latter-day Cyrus liberating the city from tyranny, and deftly negotiating the creation of a new republic.
Weinstein’s absorbing narrative ultimately focuses on the extraordinary four years between 1494 and 1498, when Savonarola virtually ran Florence as a theocracy in which his ‘moral and political authority’ extended ‘into every part of the city’s life’. Weinstein provides a balanced assessment of his progressive initiatives – such as demanding the political right of appeal to those sentenced to death for challenging Medici rule – and his more draconian demands, capital punishment for sodomy being the most notorious. The more sensational accounts of episodes from Savonarola’s life, such as taking the deathbed confession of Lorenzo and encouraging the bonfire of the vanities, are calmly ascribed to PseudoBurlamacchi, Savonarola’s first hagiographer. Weinstein concentrates instead on the dizzying factional vicissitudes of Florentine political life and the friar’s remarkable ability to manipulate them – in which he was at least as successful as he was at swaying a congregation – before they finally began to turn on him in 1497.
Weinstein’s greatest contribution is his deft interpretation of Savonarola’s confession, extracted under torture over several agonising weeks throughout April andMay 1498. Observing how all previous academic interpretations ‘tend to confirm their authors’ biases’, either castigating Savonarola as a fraudulent prophet or praising him as a righteous believer whose confession was fabricated, Weinstein reaches a different conclusion. Savonarola’s confession maintained a clear distinction ‘between moral leadership and active political citizenship’; he refused to accept that he had unlawfully tampered with civic political life. The accusations of false prophecy were a different matter: ‘what he confessed was not the falsity of his prophecy but the falsity of his claim to divine illumination for it’. He regarded his torture and trial as punishment ‘by the God for whom he had presumptuously claimed to speak’. In a wonderfully humane and rather moving conclusion, Weinstein reflects that it is unhelpful to reduce Savonarola to the status of either a saint or a fanatical charlatan. The challenge instead is to reconcile ‘the irascible puritan at war with his world, the charismatic preacher who, as Machiavelli would have it, adapted “his lies” to the times’.
If Paul Oppenheimer appears to elide such complex resolutions by concluding that Machiavelli’s political vision is ultimately a ‘restlessness, or a constant modern uncertainty’, he could be forgiven, because it remains much more difficult to produce a genuinely innovative and original life of Machiavelli. The main problem is to integrate successfully Machiavelli’s career with the sheer diversity of his writings, from the political and historical works neglected in his own lifetime but which have been subsequently pored over by centuries of academics and politicians (The Prince and the Discourses on Livy), to the later, slighter, dramatic works (such as La Mandragola) which brought him public acclaim towards the end of his life. Oppenheimer’s response is to offer an intriguing if contentious thesis: the ‘treacherous milieu of social anarchy’ in which Machiavelli operated – a
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£10 uk (£12 elsewhere) inc. p&p email: email@example.com world of wars, riots, coups, assassinations, disease, religious fanaticism and random murder – was ‘an ideal if unusual laboratory in which to study politics in the raw, so to speak, or politics without ideology’. For Oppenheimer, Machiavelli’s greatest insight is that ‘the inevitability of treachery renders inevitable an invalidation of all ideologies’. It is a debatable argument, especially when Oppenheimer claims that comparable political thinkers such as Hobbes, Bodin, Danton and even Marx emerged from ‘stable’, ‘well-policed environments’ in contrast to the violent, murderous political world that shaped Machiavelli. Nor is it pursued convincingly through readings of his key works, which often come as terse supplements to the otherwise fluent and carefully researched history of Machiavelli’s career, from his rise to power under the new republic to his disgrace, torture and exile at the hands of the returning Medici.
In their own ways both Savonarola and Machiavelli longed for a ruler to unify their fragmented theological and political worlds. For Savonarola it was briefly Charles VIII, and for Machiavelli it was Cesare Borgia, the charismatic and ruthless condottiero who for a short while threatened to conquer northern Italy in a series of bloody military adventures between 1500 and 1502, episodes that provide Oppenheimer’s book with its most vivid and persuasive chapters. Ultimately neither could endorse any one individual – Savonarola for obvious religious reasons, and Machiavelli because of his enduring belief in the arbitrary power of fortuna, the great leveller of all political careers. Although both men could identify their historical conditions more clearly than their contemporaries, neither could offer an immediate way out of them, consumed as they were by what Oppenheimer calls the ‘macabre shadows of the age’. Savonarola and Machiavelli represent two of the greatest examples of Renaissance Men, artfully constructing their own individuality in the face of extraordinary theological and political turbulence, and both these books reveal the terrible personal cost suffered by them in exercising such individuality. To order these books, see the Literary Review bookshop on page 39
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