Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Savonarola, Lent and the 'Bonfire of the Vanities'

Anonymous painting of the burning of Girolamo Savonarola from Wikimedia Commons

      I'm currently reading Pasquale's Angel by Paul MacAuley, an alternate history science fiction novel set in Florence at the time of Leonardo daVinci. It's sort of steampunk in that it posits that daVinci's inventions, which only existed as drawings or rudimentary blueprints in his lifetime, were actually built, jump-starting the industrial revolution a bit early. Other changes involve the lives of some famous and prominent Florentine citizens, such as Fra Girolamo Savonarola, who in this reality was saved from being burned at the stake by a providential bit of lightning. 
     The book is a bit vague on the details, but since Lent is about to start, and the events for which Savonarola are known are connected with Lent, I thought I'd ruminate about it.
     First, a little background: In college, one journalism class had us read The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe because Wolfe had been an advocate of and editor of an anthology of The New Journalism, a style of journalism that was more literary in nature, and because the novel was written in a similar, expository style. We had the option for one of our class assignments to write an essay explaining the title, which I don't believe Wolfe ever explicitly stated. Much of what follows is what I learned in researching that paper, and it contains information that the online Catholic Encyclopedia and Wikipedia do not include in their entries on Savonarola and the burning of the vanities.

Fra Girolamo Savonarola, from Wikimedia Commons

     Savonarola is sometimes considered a reformer, a heretic or a martyr, sometimes all three by the same people. A Dominican friar, he was excommunicated by the Pope, tortured and his body then burned at the stake (though not alive; he was hanged first).
     The irony is that he was burned on the same spot where he exhorted the citizens of Florence to burn their vanities. These so-called vanities included works of art, and they weren't always voluntarily contributed. Savonarola had what was essentially a group of street thugs, his fanciulli, collect these vanities in much the way latter day gangsters might collect protection money.
     When did Savonrola have these bonfires? Mardi Gras. Savonarola thought that preparation for Lent shouldn't involve a last day (or week) of licentious conduct or indulgence, but instead the burning of impious, frivolous items.
     In Wolfe's novel, Wall Street broker Sherman McCoy, a self-described Master of the Universe, is involved in a hit-and-run (his car, but he was a passenger at the time; a young black man -- described as an honor student, although he had planned to hijack the car -- is injured and put into a coma), and tortured by the fanciulli of New York: the politically sensitive and at times opportunistic news media and law enforcement (he's the Great White Defendant, a prosecution for which they might get recognition and fame). At first hapless and pathetic (he's going broke even though he has a million-dollar income, making him a symbol of conspicuous consumption and avarice, plus he's an adulterer), he eventually becomes sympathetic because the forces opposing him are so vile and fights back.
     It's not a perfect parallel, but Wolfe has thrown in other details that the careful reader and historian might note. My favorite involves the novel's denouement. In a pseudo news story afterword, set a year after the end of the previous chapter, McCoy is again on trial.
     At one point, he raises his fist in a Black Power salute. Earlier in the book, McCoy reminded his wife how he used to make that gesture when he started on Wall Street as a symbol that he wouldn't completely buy into the hype, the power, the money. In the context of the novel, it's a gesture for his wife.
     In historical context, it may be a reference to Savonarola. As his body was burning, the rope that tied his arms to his side came loose, and -- according to some accounts -- his arm swung out as if he was blessing the spectators, forgiving them for his death. Maybe McCoy or Wolfe was expressing a similar forgiveness.


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