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Bonfire of the Vanities

Bonfire of the Vanities

A bonfire of the vanities (Italian: falò delle vanità) is a burning of objects condemned by authorities as occasions of sin. The phrase usually refers to the bonfire of 7 February 1497, when supporters of Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola collected and burned thousands of objects such as cosmetics, art, and books in Florence, Italy on the Shrove Tuesday festival.[1] Francesco Guicciardini's The History of Florence gives a first-hand account of the bonfire of the vanities that took place in Florence in 1497.[2] The focus of this destruction was on objects that might tempt one to sin, including vanity items such as mirrors, cosmetics, fine dresses, playing cards, and even musical instruments. Other targets included books that were deemed to be immoral (such as works by Boccaccio), manuscripts of secular songs, and artworks, including paintings and sculpture.

Bonfire of the Vanities
IMG 0797 - Perugia - San Bernardino - Agostino di Duccio -1457-61- - Falò delle vanità - Foto G. Dall'O2.jpg
Bernardino of Siena organising the vanities bonfire, Perugia, from the Oratory of San Bernardino, by Agostino di Duccio, built between 1457 and 1461.
Native nameFalò delle vanità
Date7 February 1497 (1497-02-07)
LocationFlorence, Italy
TypeBurning of objects condemned by authorities as occasions of sin
ThemeSupporters of Dominican priest Girolamo Savonarola collected and publicly burned thousands of objects, such as cosmetics, art, and books


Although often associated with Savonarola, such bonfires had been a common accompaniment to the outdoor sermons of San Bernardino di Siena in the first half of the 15th century.[3]


Fra Girolamo Savonarola was a Dominican friar who was assigned to work in Florence in 1490, largely thanks to the request of Lorenzo de' Medici – an irony, considering that within a few years Savonarola became one of the foremost enemies of the Medici house and helped to bring about their downfall in 1494.[4] Savonarola campaigned against what he considered to be the artistic and social excesses of Renaissance Italy, preaching with great vigor against any sort of luxury. His power and influence grew so that with time he became the effective ruler of Florence, and even had soldiers for his protection following him around everywhere.[5]

Starting in February 1495, during the time in which the festival known as Carnival occurred, Savonarola began to host his regular "bonfire of the vanities." He collected various objects that he considered to be objectionable: irreplaceable manuscripts, ancient sculptures, antique and modern paintings, priceless tapestries, and many other valuable works of art, as well as mirrors, musical instruments, and books of divination, astrology, and magic. He destroyed the works of Ovid, Propertius, Dante, and Boccaccio. So great was his influence that he even managed to obtain the cooperation of major contemporary artists such as Sandro Botticelli and Lorenzo di Credi, who reluctantly consigned some of their own works to his bonfires. Anyone who tried to object found their hands being forced by teams of ardent Savonarola supporters. These supporters called themselves Piagnoni (Weepers) after a public nickname that was originally intended as an insult.[6]

Savonarola’s influence did not go unnoticed by the higher church officials, however, and his excesses earned him the disdain of Pope Alexander VI. He was eventually excommunicated on 13 May 1497. His charge was heresy and sedition at the command of Pope Alexander VI.[7] Savonarola was executed on 23 May 1498, hung on a cross and burned to death. His death occurred in the Piazza della Signoria, where he had previously held his bonfires of the vanities.[7][8] The papal authorities took a leaf out of Savonarola's book on censorship: the day after his execution they gave word that anyone in possession of the Friar's writings had four days to turn them over to a papal agent to be destroyed. Anyone who failed to do so faced excommunication.[9]


Although it is widely reported that the Florentian artist Sandro Botticelli burned several of his paintings based on classical mythology in the great Florentine bonfire of 1497, the historical record on this is not clear. According to the art historian Giorgio Vasari, Botticelli was a partisan of Savonarola: "He was so ardent a partisan that he was thereby induced to desert his painting, and, having no income to live on, fell into very great distress." Writing several centuries later, Orestes Brownson, an apologist for Savonarola, mentions artwork only by Fra Bartolomeo, Lorenzo di Credi, and "many other painters," along with "several antique statues."[10] Art historian Rab Hatfield argues that one of Botticelli's paintings, The Mystical Nativity, is based on the sermon Savonarola delivered on Christmas Eve, 1493.[11]

The event has been represented or mentioned in varying degrees of detail in a number of works of historical fiction, including George Eliot's Romola (1863), E. R. Eddison's A Fish Dinner in Memison (1941), Irving Stone's The Agony and the Ecstasy (1961), Chelsea Quinn Yarbro's The Palace (1978), Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient – part two 1992, Roger Zelazny and Robert Sheckley's If at Faust You Don't Succeed (1993), Timothy Findley's Pilgrim (1999), Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason's Rule of Four (2004), the novel "I, Mona Lisa" by Jeanne Kalogridis (2006), the Showtime series The Borgias, The Sky (Italy) and Netflix (North America) series Borgia, and The Botticelli Affair by Traci L. Slatton (2013). Other references in popular culture include these:

  • Ray Bradbury's 1953 novel Fahrenheit 451 is a science fiction rendering of a bonfire of the vanities.

  • As a metaphor, Tom Wolfe used the event and ritual as the title for his 1987 novel The Bonfire of the Vanities and its film adaptation.

  • Margaret Atwood's works allude to the Bonfire, as in her dystopian novels The Handmaid's Tale (1985), and Oryx and Crake (2003).

  • The Bonfire is also depicted in the video game Assassin's Creed II, in which Savonarola is one of the antagonists.[12][13][14]

  • Jordan Tannahill's 2016 play Botticelli in the Fire is a fictional retelling of the events leading up to the bonfire of the vanities.[15]

See also

  • Book burning

  • The Birth of Venus (novel)

  • Bonfire Night


Citation Linkweb.archive.orgCovenantseminary.edu Archived 17 May 2008 at the Wayback Machine
Sep 29, 2019, 12:54 AM
Citation Linkopenlibrary.orgGuicciardini, Francesco (1970). The History of Florence. Translated by Domandi, Mario (1st ed.). New York: Harper.
Sep 29, 2019, 12:54 AM
Citation Linkopenlibrary.orgTemplate:Http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/02505b.htm
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Citation Linkopenlibrary.orgMartines p. 19
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Citation Linkopenlibrary.orgMartines p. 1
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Citation Linkopenlibrary.orgGreen, J. & Karolides, N. (2005) Savonrola, Fra Girolamo. In Encyclopedia of Censorship: New Edition. New York, NY: Facts On File, Inc. p. 495
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Citation Linkopenlibrary.orgMurray, Stuart (2009). The Library: An Illustrated History. China: Skyhorse Publishing. p. 80. ISBN 978-1-60239-706-4.
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Citation Linkopenlibrary.orgItaly: Savonarola. Encyclopædia Britannica. 2007.
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Citation Linkopenlibrary.orgMartines, pp. 168, 275–277
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Citation Linkweb.archive.orgOrestes Brownson, "Savonarola: his Contest with Paganism," Brownson's Quarterly Review, April 1851; available at Orestes Brownson society Archived 15 February 2009 at the Wayback Machine
Sep 29, 2019, 12:54 AM
Citation Linkopenlibrary.orgRab Hatfield, "Botticelli's Mystic Nativity, Savonarola and the Millennium", Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, Vol. 58, (1995), pp. 88–114
Sep 29, 2019, 12:54 AM
Citation Linkwww.ign.com"Sequence 13: Bonfire of the Vanities". IGN. Ziff Davis, LLC. 14 November 2011. Retrieved 15 May 2018.
Sep 29, 2019, 12:54 AM
Citation Linkkotaku.comPlunkett, Luke (24 February 2010). "Assassin's Creed II: Bonfire Of The Vanities Micro-Review: Once More, With Fleeing". Kotaku. Gizmodo Media Group. Retrieved 15 May 2018.
Sep 29, 2019, 12:54 AM
Citation Linkwww.eurogamer.netReed, Kristian (23 February 2010). "Assassin's Creed II: Bonfire of the Vanities". Eurogamer. Gamer Network. Retrieved 15 May 2018.
Sep 29, 2019, 12:54 AM
Citation Linkwww.thestar.comFricker, Karen (29 April 2016). "Jordan Tannahill gives us history for the disempowered". The Toronto Star. Toronto Star Newspapers Ltd. Retrieved 15 May 2018.
Sep 29, 2019, 12:54 AM
Citation Linkweb.archive.orgEchoes of Botticelli in Early Modern Sources
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Citation Linkwww.covenantseminary.eduCovenantseminary.edu
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Citation Linkweb.archive.orgArchived
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Citation Linkorestesbrownson.comOrestes Brownson society
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Citation Linkweb.archive.orgArchived
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