Every May 23rd, Florence celebrates “La Fiorita” , a flower tribute to commemorate an event that occurred in 1498: the death of Girolamo Savonarola, a monk that upset the city after the death of Lorenzo the Magnificent Medici, spreading terror and “condemning” the Florentines for their luxurious tastes, for their worship of other religions, and for their pagan art.

But: who was this figure, and what did exactly happen?

Savonarola was born in Ferrara on September 21, 1452, from a family of noble origins, and still at a young age, he was destined to the medical studies, that he soon left to become a Dominican friar.

He arrived in Florence in 1482, called by Lorenzo the Magnificent himself, who was attracted by his fame as a great speaker, advised also by his men, and the monk entered the Convent of San Marco. He conquered the Florentines with his passionate sermons, and soon he gained an important group of followers. These were organized in a penitential sect called of the “Piagnoni” (“those who cry”), so called for the tears shed during Savonarola’s sermons, and also linked to the name of the bell in the Convent of San Marco, the “Piagnona”: this bell will ring continuously, asking for help, on the day the “Arrabbiati” assault the convent to arrest the friar. Strict punisher of the Church corruption and decadence, he preached penitence as the only way of salvation. Contrary to every kind of luxury, that he considered source of depravity, he took to trial anyone he judged as an immoral person, organizing the so-called “bonfires of vanities”, where artworks, books, musical instruments and other objects were burned.

His power grew after the death of Lorenzo the Magnificent and when the Medici were banned from Florence. Taking advantage of the moment of uncertainty and of the great void that the most enlightened Medici had left in the city, Savonarola continued his sermons about the end of the world, and took care of reforming the Florentine government: for example, he introduced the “Grand Council”, consisting of 1500 members, for whom the “Hall of the Five Hundred” in Palazzo Vecchio was built, because they were supposed to gather 500 at the time (due to its complexity, this council never worked).

In the bonfires of vanities, that took place in Piazza della Signoria (in front of today’s Neptune Fountain), Savonarola invited the Florentines to burn their luxurious, pagan and heretical objects. So, confused and panicked, many artists became his followers, and burned some of their paintings: the most famous was Sandro Botticelli, whose art, in fact, will radically change from this moment on.

This way he wanted to turn Florence into a city free from sin, a new Jerusalem, and for this purpose he created a theocratic republic. Despite the large number of “Piagnoni”, not all Florentines became followers of Savonarola, and so, a group was created, gathering his opponents, who were instead supporters of the Medici family, and their name was “Palleschi” (from “palle” = balls, the emblem of the Medici family), or “Arrabbiati” (“Angry”). Savonarola compares now this purified Florence with the corrupted Rome of the sinful Pope Alexander VI, Rodrigo Borgia. The pope forbids Savonarola to continue his sermons, and considers false all his prophecies. Furthermore, he invites him to the Vatican, but the friar refuses to do it. The monk was consequently excommunicated for heresy by the pope in 1497, and the following year the Florentines, under the threat of being as well excommunicated, assaulted the Convent of San Marco and arrested him. Savonarola was imprisoned in the “Alberghetto” (“Small hotel”, this is how the small cell in the tower of Palazzo Vecchio was called), where he was tortured. On May 23, 1498, he was then hanged and burned at the stake in Piazza della Signoria, in the same spot where his bonfires of vanities had taken place.

This episode is still remembered today in this same square by a round marble plaque with an inscription. Fearing the worship of relics, his ashes were thrown in the river Arno, so that nothing remained to be idolized.

The night after the execution (or the next morning, according to other sources), Savonarola’s followers filled the square with flowers to celebrate his memory: this is how a spontaneous celebration was born, called first “Pietosa” (“Merciful”), turned later into “La Fiorita”.

Every year on May 23rd a Holy Mass is celebrated in the “Chapel of the Priors” in Palazzo Vecchio, followed by a procession of civil and religious authorities that reaches the square for the official commemoration on the marble plaque. Here flowers are laid, and rose petals are spread. The procession reaches then Ponte Vecchio, were the flowers are thrown in the river.

A preacher that split the city in two factions (though this was nothing new in Florence), who spread terror, shame and chaos, but that more than 500 years later is still celebrated with a commemoration.. can we still talk about “Piagnoni” and “Palleschi” in the city???