A liberating cry of joy

In an essay for the Atlas of Italian Literature (Einaudi, 2010), Elena Valeri recounted Savonarola’s expurgatory fires of 1497 in the Florentine Piazza della Signoria:

In the square, an enormous pyramidal pile was erected (around fifteen by twenty meters, according to contemporary sources) upon which the vanities were heaped to be incinerated, arranged hierarchically and topped with an effigy of Satan [the quote below is apparently from Pietro Parenti, a Florentine historian who took part in these events]:

indecent paintings, […] women’s hair, mirrors, cosmetics, dolls, perfume, painted tabletops, sculptures, Gods of Love, playing cards, dice, gameboards, checkerboards, lutes and other musical instruments, books by various poets, and similar objects associated with splendor and luxury.

Even works by Giovanni Boccaccio and Luigi Pulci’s Morgante were in the heap – as recalls the historian Iacopo Nardi, a “wailer” – as well as writings by Petrarch, Dante and many other authors: the quantity was large enough to induce a far-sighted Venetian merchant into making a blasphemous offer of twenty thousand ducats…

At an agreed-upon signal, fire was started at the four angles of the pyramid; to the sounds of trumpets, fifes and bells, together with the crackling of the flames, a liberating cry of joy rose from the square to the sky.

The day was February 7, says Valeri, the first day of Lent, right after the carnival. (But it was a Tuesday if my calculations are correct: the last day of the carnival, not the first day of Lent; a Shrove Tuesday rather than an Ash Wednesday.) The public burning of luxuries was not new to Italy: as Valeri points out, earlier preachers had resorted to it, from St. Bernardine of Siena (Bernardino da Siena, 1380-1444) to St. James of the Marches (Giacomo della Marca, 1393-1476) and St. John of Capestrano (Giovanni da Capestrano, 1386-1456).

It was not new for the Florentines more specifically: the blessed Bernardine (Bernardino) of Feltre, expelled from Florence in 1488 for urging the faithful to act against the Jews, was back in July 1493 overseeing one of these bonfires. From Bernardino’s Wiki entry:

Like many other missioners of his century, he had made a vast outdoor bonfire called “burning the Devil’s stronghold”. The crowds were asked to throw into the fire all objects of vanity and sin such as playing cards, dice, pornographic books and pictures, jewelry, wigs, superstitious charms, cosmetics, and so forth.

These Italian cities must have been obscenely rich to afford acts of penitence so spectacularly wasteful. Florence alone had at least three major bonfires, in 1491, 1497 and 1498. Valeri refers to them mostly as roghe or bruciamenti – pyres or burnings. Another term commonly used in this context is il/i falò, bonfire(s), from French falot, lantern. Hence the commonly used English term, “bonfires of the vanities.”

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