Julia LaPlaca’s essay “The Historiography of Savonarola and the Arts: From Iconoclast to Savior” was selected as the winner of the 2014–15 Honors Contract Competition. Julia is a third-year student at Calvin majoring in English and Art History.
Abstract: The historiography of Fra Girolamo Savonarola’s relationship to the arts presents perennial complexity. As the director of San Marco, Savonarola served as the de facto ruler of Florence from 1494 to 1498, after the Medici had fled from the French invasion. His dramatic career and sermons leave room for both an iconoclastic and ‘pro-image’ vision of Savonarola. Early biographers, such as Vasari, labeled Savonarola as an iconoclast citing his infamous ‘Burning of the Vanities’. However, nineteenth-century scholars such as Fra Vincenzo Marchese, Alexis Rio, and Pasquale Villari reinterpreted the friar as a pious force—the savior of Italian art from impending paganism. Savonarola’s sermons are filled with positive art-making metaphors that nicely paralleled nineteenth-century cultural interests in ‘purifying’ art. More recent views of Savonarola take a less polarized and more contextualized view of the troublesome friar. Ronald Steinberg argues Savonarola, though connected to art, should not be read as an art critic: instead, for Savonarola, art always served a theological (rather than an aesthetic) end. Likewise, Paul Barlosky posits that Savonarola’s art rhetoric makes sense in the context of Florence—a city full of art-aficionados. Thus the historiographical narrative of Savonarola comes full circle from iconoclast, to savior, to a reinvestigation of Savonarola’s complexities within his own time.