The Beginning of the Calamities of Italy
The death of Lorenzo de’ Medici on 9 April 1492 signaled the end of an era.
Death mask of Lorenzo de’ Medici
A period of relative peace and prosperity came to an end.
Giorgione’s The Tempest
Painted around 1507-1510, The Tempest captures in a poetic register a feeling of impending menace, and Italians’ sense of vulnerability that was the result of those difficult times.
In the fall of 1494 Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan “invited” Charles VIII, King of France, to invade the Italian Peninsula.
Ludovico Sforza Charles VIII
The fresco below, painted between 1499-1502 in the Cathedral of Orvieto, gives an impression of the violence of those years.
Luca Signorelli’s The Apocalypse.
The troops of Charles VIII entered Florence peacefully, however, on 17 November, 1494.
Francesco Granacci, The Entry of Charles VIII into Florence
This was due, in part, to the intervention of an unlikely diplomat, a Dominican friar named Girolamo Savonarola.
Fra Bartolomeo Portrait of Girolamo Savonarola
Savonarola become a very popular figure in Florence, and he remains controversial.
On the one hand Savonarola directed an extreme reform movement, which included such activities as the famous “bonfire of the vanities” in which precious art, musical instruments, articles of sumptuous clothing, and books were burned.
However, Savonarola was not the only religious figure of the time to do so.
Below is an image of Franciscan friar Bernardino of Siena directing a similar bonfire:
Agostino di Duccio, St. Bernardino of Siena and His Bonfire of the Vanities
Savonarola also was an enemy of the Medici. He considered them tyrants and he encouraged the re-establishment of the Florentine Republic.
Savonarola supported the establishment of the Great Council (Maggior Consiglio), the largest representative government council ever until then in Florence, and the construction in 1495 of a great meeting chamber for representatives.
Salone dei Cinquecento, Palazzo Vecchio
The Salone dei Cinquecento reflects the tastes of the Medici Grand Dukes a century later; originally it was to be decorated by enormous frescoes on the facing walls, one by Leonardo, the other by Michelangelo. These two frescoes were meant to represent victorious battles of the Florentine Republic.
Neither fresco was completed; today we have only tantalizing sketches of the originals:
Leonardo’s preliminary sketches for the Battle of Anghiari
Michelangelo’s preliminary sketch for The Battle of Cascina
Savonarola also wanted to reform the church, railing against corrupt Pope Alexander VI Borgia.
Alexander VI in a fresco by Pinturicchio in the Borgia apartments in the Vatican
Borgia lavished gifts and favors from the Vatican treasury on his own children.
Pinturicchio is also said to have included a portrait of the pope’s daughter Lucrezia Borgia:
This portrait by Altobello da Melone is traditionally identified as the pope’s son Cesare Borgia:
Eventually Savonarola lost the Florentines’ support and was burned at the stake on 23 May, 1498
The Execution of Savonarola on Piazza della Signoria
One man who lived through those times and was a very perceptive observer was
Niccolò Machiavelli, author of The Prince
A portrait bust of Niccolò Machiavelli in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence:
After many years working as an envoy of the Republic of Florence, after the Medici returned to power in 1512,
Vasari Leo X Enters Florence 1515
Machiavelli was arrested. Though he was later released, Machiavelli was never allowed to return to public service, but was forced to live in obscurity in the country.
It was here that he wrote his famous treatises, historical works, comedies, and many letters…
The “albergaccio” in the town of Sant’Andrea in Percussina where Machiavelli lived his last years.
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