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The Pope’s Greatest Adversary

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I was really looking forward to reading this after reading Morris's book Cesare and Lucrezia Borgia: Brother and Sister of History's Most Villified Family as I enjoyed it very much. 

For those, like me who know little of Savonarola this is perfect for getting to know who he was, his life, his work and how he became a threat to the Pope. 

Morris brings Savonarola out of the shadows and explains how his journey from a child, scholar, friar through to his execution. 
Savonarola travelled to Florence to preach against corruption and vice, his preaching was much admired by many but became a nuisance to others including the Medici family who were eventually exiled. With the Medici gone, Savonarola had more power and his preaching and behaviour became more extreme resulting in the bonfire of vanities where painting, books and other items were burned on his orders. This was a step too far for some but it seemed nobody could silence the Dominican Friar. Even the Pope tried numerous times to silence him through bribery with a cardinals hat to excommunication but eventually Savonarola met his end with execution amid his own bonfire and his ashes thrown into the river. 

The Pope's Greatest Adversary is the result of much research which shines a light on a man who attempted to reform the Church but often falls into the shadows of other reformers like Luther.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading about Florence at this time, Savonarola's life and his relationship with some of the most famous people at the time such as the Borgia's and de Medici's. 

I'm very much looking forward to seeing what Morris writes next and hope it is around Renaissance Italy. 
I'd urge anyone with an interest in the Renaissance, Savonarola and the prominent families to give this a try, this was definitely an extremely interesting period of time and Morris captures the events perfectly. 

Thank you to Pen and Sword and NetGalley for the opportunity to read this in exchange for an honest review.
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This is a good starter book for people interested in Savonarola and the time period he lived in, so it’s a strong 3, weak 3.5. 
This is by no means an extensive look into him or his philosophy, but for those who may not know much about Florence, or Italy during the Renaissance it covers the history prior to him entering the city in a good way. You meet the big names and how he interacts with him. Some of the history of the Borgias and Medici’s can feel like the author has a bit of favoritism, but the facts don’t come across as skewed. One of the best parts of the book was looking at the through line of Savonarola’s push at cleaning up the corruption in the Church from Hus to him to Luther. 
If you ever heard of Savonarola or the Bonfire of the Vanities and you wanted a bit more than a Wikipedia read, this is a good place to start. Thank you to NetGalley and Pen & Sword for the copy of this book.
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The Pope’s Greatest Adversary is an apt title for this powerful orator who over-reached himself, all the while catching the public imagination at a  God-fearing time in history.
Girolamo Savonarola’s story is an interesting one of religious fervour and his battle against both political and religious establishments.
His was a swift rise to power, ousting the  Medici family and effectively ruling Florence whilst all the while preaching in a way that instilled both fear and admiration at the same time. 
Complicated and imperfect, he was considered dangerous - a fact  even Pope Alexander VI couldn’t ignore as he made an attempt to silence and excommunicate him. 
Samantha Morris has shone a light on Savonarola, as he is often pushed to one side when featured in a period of Renaissance Italy that is heavily influenced by the Medici / Borgia families.
This is  a narrative that is detailed but also accessible to those who, (like myself) did not know anything about him. 
An engaging perspective on a man, who could be described as one of history’s darker characters.
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Samantha Morris’ book explores the polemical life and courageous death of the Dominican Friar Girolamo Savonarola. The book opens by introducing us to a young Savonarola at his home in Ferrara where we meet a boy who is well schooled, “very intelligent, highly strung and fond of his family”. As a young man Savonarola is said to have studied classical authors, had a brief interest in poetry, and was introduced by his grandfather to the ideas of the philosopher Thomas Aquinas for whom he would have a “lifelong adoration”. As the narrative develops, we see an older Girolamo beginning to demonstrate his determined and somewhat intractable nature by withdrawing from his studies in medicine, abandoning his family and joining an Order of Dominicans. 

His ordination into the priesthood begins the most dramatic period of his life with his eventual move to Florence being the focal point of his biography.  In Florence Savonarola rises in popularity through his oratory, giving powerful sermons aiming to reform the city, and banish from it the vice and corruption he saw prevalent, particularly among the elite.  As a result of his efforts to purify Florence he made enemies of those with power and influence, which proved his undoing. His veiled references of corruption at the head of the church brought him into direct conflict with the then Pope, Alexander VI (Rodrigo de Borja). Efforts by the Pope to bring Savonarola to heel with repeated demands that he desists his attacks, failed to stop Girolamo from continuing his work to purge Florence and the church of malfeasance.  His struggles as a reformer culminated with an eventual fall from grace and death at the hands of the church. 

The book is an engaging and informative read providing a well-researched account of a lesser known but fascinating renaissance figure. The comparisons of Savonarola with other church reformers such as Luther and Calvin were germane to the narrative, but the authors observations comparing Savonarola to a recent political leader were tenuous and difficult to reconcile.

I enjoyed Morris’ book and would recommend it to others.
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A well researched book dealing with giralamo Savonarola and his history and his dealings with the church,the king and his people.His life has inspired others to follow him to a certain extent in their condemnation of church doctrines and the people’s slide into corruption.A thoroughly good read.
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I appreciated the style of writing, the vivid description of life in Florence and the research but I don't agree with the portrait of Gerolamo Savonarola.
The author seems to be fascinated by him to the point of saying that he's still loved in Florence. A Florentine friend of mine said: "We bring flowers to the place where he died once every year. But don't forget that we hang and burn him just to be on the safe side. He was a politician and not better than the other side". 
Savonarola would be considered a fundamentalist today and it's a bit hard to see him as a hero
I don't see Savonarola as a precursor of the Reformation as he contested the corruption of the Catholic Church but there were some other movements that were more radicals as Dulcinians or Peter Waldo (his follower are now member of the Evangelica Church).
It was an interesting read even if I don't agree with the author.
Many thanks to the publisher and Netgalley for this ARC, all opinions are mine
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I thoroughly enjoyed this account of the early life, rise and ultimate downfall of the scourge of the Medici, Giralmo Savonorola. It was fluently and compellingly written and brought the events and the era to the most vivid life. What was most interesting was that Savonorola was at heart an unsympathetic character and yet the author managed to render him fascinating. I loved it. Thank you to the publishers and to Netgalley for the opportunity to review an ARC. I would imagine the hardback version would be exquisite.
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When we think about men who challenged the Church and are known as Reformers, we tend to think of  Martin Luther, Jan Hus, and John Calvin. However, a man fought against corruption in his beloved Florence who should be included in the list of great reformers. He was a Dominican monk who was not afraid to preach against sin and took aim at the most powerful men in all of Italy, including Pope Alexander VII. His sermons were so scandalous that they would lead to his demise upon a pyre in the middle of Florence. His name was Girolamo Savonarola, and his story is told in Samantha Morris’s latest biography, “The Pope’s Greatest Adversary: Girolamo Savonarola.”

I want to thank Pen and Sword Books and Net Galley for sending me a copy of this biography. I read Samantha Morris’s previous joint biography of Cesare and Lucrezia Borgia and thoroughly enjoyed it. When I heard that she was writing a new biography about a famous figure in Italian history, I was intrigued. 

Girolamo Savonarola was a scholar, like his father and grandfather before him, destined to be a doctor like his grandfather. His plan for his life took a drastic turn when the girl he was fell for rejected his advances, so he decided to join the Dominican order as a friar. Talk about not taking a break-up well. Savonarola studied the Humanist teachings and incorporated them into the way he understood his faith. Of course, as a friar, he couldn’t keep his opinions to himself, so he began preaching against corruption and the vices that he saw during his travel. 

Savonarola’s preaching was appealing to the people of Florence, yet it did not sit well with the leader of Florence, Lorenzo de’Medici. Lorenzo tried to silence the troublesome friar, but his son Piero de Medici took on the challenge when he passed away. Piero was nothing like his father and was overthrown as ruler of Florence by Savonarola. Of course, Savonarola was not satisfied with reforming Florence, and he decided to take on the Catholic Church itself and attack another powerful family.   

Charles VII of France wanted to conquer Italy, which to the Dominican friar was a good idea, so Savonarola helped the king. This incident drew the ire of Rodrigo Borgia, also known as Pope Alexander VI, and Ludovico “Il Moro” Sforza of Milan, who just wanted the friar to shut up. Even with numerous ex-communications, Savonarola kept preaching against corruption and vices, leading to the Bonfires of the Vanities in 1497. He took artwork and writings deemed inappropriate and burned them in a humongous bonfire. A year later, on May 22, 1498, Girolamo Savonarola lost his life because of his heretic teachings. 

This book has so many scandals and dynamic characters that you will forget you are reading a biography. Morris has done it yet again, and this was a brilliantly engaging and extremely well-researched biography. The way she can capture the thrilling world of 15th and 16th century Italy is astounding, and I hope she will write more about Italian history in the future. If you want a fun biography about a man who fought to reform the Catholic Church, I highly recommend you read “The Pope’s Greatest Adversary: Girolamo Savonarola” by Samantha Morris.
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Samantha Morris, noted for her fine biography of the Borgia sibling Lucretzia and Cesare, turns her attention here to the firebrand cleric of the late 1400s who brought "the bonfire of the vanities" to Florence and was a precursor to Martin Luther and the Reformation movement just a couple of decades later.  Savonarola has always been a controversial figure for his strident preaching against the corruption of the Catholic church and the Medicis, becoming a political as well as a religious figure.  Morris give a balanced look at his life and actions, outlining other historical figures such as the Medicis and Borgias when needed to place Savonarola's life in context for casual readers.  A good introduction to Savonarola and his world for adults and older students, and a valid biographical addition to any library.
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I quite enjoyed reading Samantha Morris' previous book, so I'm glad I got the chance to experience her writing and research once more. It's around the same period as her book on the Borgias, and naturally the historical characters are all somewhat connected to each other or the big events happening in Italy (or what, with time, became Italy).

There's not much to talk about the style or way of writing - it's straight to the point, with a few speculations made by Morris, naturally, since there's no way of actually knowing lots of parts of Savonarola's life and thoughts. Despite that, the author did use a lot of historical documents, and went the extra step of talking a bit more about other characters involved with Savonarola somehow, so we could get the bigger picture of the situation.

It was interesting, but I feel some bits were not very fitting, especially a bit where Morris compared Savonarola to Trump('s presidency). I admit such connection would literally never pass through my head, but despite being an original take, I feel like it's a bit to much; there's centuries between them, it's hard to even take this comparison seriously. It's so small, though, so I guess it doesn't really take much away from the book as a whole. Still worth reading as a quick introduction to Girolamo Savonarola.
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I read this ARC for an honest review
All thoughts and opinions are mine

The Renaissance is my thing and I will read anything even remotely connected.  Loved the subject matter.  Beautifully written and very accessible to the reader

Highly recommend
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A captivating biography of one of the most decried figures of the Renaissance, the uncrowned monarch of Florence who didn't hesitate to wreak havoc on the Italian Peninsula at the end of the 15th century, the uncompromising moralist who considered himself the sword of God. 
An unhinged prophet who fell prey to his own blind intransigence and saddly managed in the process to make too many enemies.
The dangerous and rather chaotic world of Florentine 
politics, the unquenchable desire of conquest set in motion by Charles VIII of France and the murderous shenanigans of a Borgia pope determined to crush any religious unorthodoxy threatening his powers made Savonarola's fiery downfall unavoidable. No matter how one looks at him & his dubious legacy, he was a very unsavory anomaly during the early years of the Renaissance and a very unappealing character who got what he greatly deserved at the end. Ms. Morris gives us a compelling & engrossing portrait of a religious crank who masterfully managed his self destruction on the bonfire of his own vanities...

Many thanks to Netgalley and Pen & Sword for this terrific ARC
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I picked up "The Pope's Greatest Adversary" driven by my interest in the Reformation, particularly figures who preceded Martin Luther in the effort to cleanse and reform the Catholic Church from within. And Girolamo Savonarola is not only someone his fellow Dominican brother in Germany admired but the man who could've been Luther before Luther had the circumstances (and not being too close by for the Pope to lay hands on him) of his time and place been different. His is a fascinating story, both because of Savonarola himself, his firebrand personality and controversial methods, and because of the people he chose to make a stand against, men vastly more powerful than an obscure friar like himself. Men like Lorenzo the Magnificent and Rodrigo Borgia, neither of which suffered from a lack of firmness in dealing with opposition.

Savonarola made a name for himself by preaching against the corruption and vice rampant in the city of Florence, which set him into collision course with the Medicis that ruled there and who'd be overthrown eventually, and then by rallying against the corruption of the Catholic Church like a fire & brimstone Old Testament prophet, that would have him earn the enmity of the then Pope Alexander VI, who tried every method imaginable to silence him: sending rival preachers to "counter-preach" Savonarola, writing to the friar to stop, sending high-ranking prelates, offering a Cardinalate as a bribe to shut him up, excommunicating him, placing Florence under interdiction, and finally, when it all failed, having him tried, tortured in prison, and executed by hanging and burnt afterwards, his ashes thrown into the river, and declaring a "damnatio memoriae" to erase his legacy.

One has to wonder what such a man had to have done to deserve this brutal fate, what threat did he pose to Papal supremacy that he'd attract such ire. Girolamo Savonarola is a large figure in the Renaissance, as recognisable a household name as the Borgias or Leonardo and Michelangelo, a position earned as a protagonist in and a direct cause of many of the events that shaped his times and that had consequences far more long-lasting than his short-lived rise to the hall of Florentine luminaries, as the author rightly states.

However, "The Pope's Greatest Adversary" didn't rise up to the task of telling Savonarola's life in a manner befitting his historical importance. There's a few reasons for this I'd like to mention, as I'm sure would also be of interest to others. The first is that, merely a couple of chapters into the book, this reader was put off by remarks that were gratuitously and unnecessarily anti-American. Remarks like these (bolding of the relevant lines is mine):

"He was certainly no saint, and yet he fully believed in the message that he was sending out to the people of Florence – tyranny was unwelcome in the city and belief in God could <b>‘make Florence great again’"

"Unlike the modern United States that hijacked the name and concept of the senate, pre-Christian Rome was not remotely a democracy."

"Make Florence Great Again"? "Hijacked" the concept of the senate? This wording had me pausing and doing a double take, it outright shocked me out of reading. It's never easy to tell intention in writing, and I did allow for the possibility that this was sarcasm, which is easy to miss in writing, or an attempt at humour gone awry. But, then, this paragraph came along near the end:

"To make a modern comparison with Savonarola’s reactions to his enemies, it can be described as Trumpesque. In much the same way as the 45th President of the United States took to social media to condemn the ‘witch-hunt’ of those who spoke out against him and the ‘hoax’ of the impeachment proceedings against him and his government, Girolamo Savonarola stood in the pulpit of the cathedral and roared to his congregation that those who stood against him were doing so to tarnish the name of the government, the new Jerusalem of Florence, the word of God and he himself, a simple and lowly friar. After all, was not trying to ‘Make Florence Great Again’? There are many comparisons that can be made with Trump’s presidency, despite the general consensus that the historian should not judge individuals from the past with a modern mindset. In this case, however, that is easier said than done."

That clarified it wasn't sarcasm or ill-timed humour. The author did make a deliberate choice to take her antipathy for a modern politician and her condescension towards a country not her own and insert it into a history book. The author is apparently not American and took no care to be well-timed or well-placed with her personal extra-historical opinions. I'm not American either but also have my opinions about American politics and politicians, yet I know where to voice them, and a history book about a cleric from a time before the Americas were even colonised isn't the place.

It felt like an uncalled for dig at a country's dirty laundry, and not even past history but current events. The word choice lends itself to questions about the historian's credibility, not to mention her objectivity. I'm speaking here of using "hijacked" as the descriptor for the United States' founders taking Rome as a model. Practically every Western country has taken Rome as a model one way or another, but somehow that the Americans used it as a model is negative? Why isn't Italy's or Spain's or England's use of Rome as a model deemed a "hijacking," too?

The false analogy fallacy is troubling, too. Savonarola may have railed against his accusers and counter-accused them of witch hunting, falsehoods, slander, and all the sins in the book, no question about it. But, why exactly is it "Trumpesque"? Is Donald Trump the only person to ever have reacted with insults and verbal aggression towards his opponents? Did he invent this behaviour? Of course not. Of all the myriad of similes to choose from, similes far more fitting and closer to Savonarola, the author let her own political bias take over and thus incur into a false analogy argument. This argument is made even shakier because, in the last chapter entitled "Legacy," the author does actually draw analogies with other personages, like Hus, Wycliffe, Calvin, etc., that are definitely good comparisons and perfect for compare/contrast comments precisely because they were not only closer in time to Savonarola but in the same business of reforming the Church. 

The "easier said than done" argument is a strawman, and it also reveals there's no willingness to present objectivity in educational material and a tendency to present personal political statements disguised as historical fact.

That's my main criticism, but by no means the only one. The book is written as basically a grade paper report. There's too much speculation, a lot of "must have felt/thought" type of commentary about things we simply have no way of knowing, and repetition of facts over and over. The Pazzi murder attempt on the Medici brothers, for example, is told at length twice in chapters far apart, and in both instances the information is repeated. There's also more on other personages than on Savonarola himself, to the point that in some chapters he's merely mentioned as if to remind us it's a book about him. The book would probably be much shorter if it spent as much time on only Savonarola as on the Medicis and Borgias; and it's not something bad per se, given that we don't know all that much about the friar, but padding up the scarce information with repetition of facts makes for a tedious read.

There's also a noticeable favourable bias towards the Borgias in this book, which I was expecting given that this family has attracted a following in recent years thanks to shows and books about them. Nonetheless, the excuses found in the book for this family's actions were disappointing. For example, take this quote:

".. enemies of the Borgia family would start the rumour mill that simony, bribery and corruption were rife in Rodrigo’s bid for power, and perhaps they were, but it has to be said that he was fair."

I agree that the Borgias' reputation owes a lot more to slander than to reality, but the admirative undertones in the description of Rodrigo Borgia's character as well as the justifications historians have come up with to dispel the myths surrounding his family are just as bad as taking the rumours at face value. The arguments in favour of Borgia can be summed up along these lines: Sure, he did this and that bad thing, but it was the norm in the Renaissance to do this and that bad thing, all the rich and powerful did the same. Oh, and look at this Sforza/Farnese/Della Rovere! He was much worse! What a psychopath! This kind of excuse-making is patent in the quote above, which basically states that Alexander VI was the corrupt and vice-ridden Pope that Savonarola said he was, but at least he was honest in his corruption and vices because, you know, he paid the Cardinals' bribes conscientiously... I get it, they weren't as bad as rumours say, but this misses the point and goes into the other direction, much like the "Stalin killed more people" arguments. The point is never that Stalin killing more makes the other baddie any less of a baddie on his own. And neither does the other chaps being more vicious make Rodrigo and Cesare Borgia any less bad on their own. This isn't a competition over proportions of evil. This is about moral relativism and fairness with your bribes somehow being noteworthy rather than the simony by itself being condemnable.

The portrayal of Savonarola is mixed. There are times when he's shown to be right and justified, having a noble cause if misguided in his methods, and other times he's shown like a repellent zealot. This quote...

"...many see him simply as a fanatic who burned priceless works of art and fought against the Catholic Church."

... is basically how the author presents him, if I were to take the book as a whole, but especially the parts lamenting the burnt pieces of art. The book closes with a rhetorical question on what Savonarola would think of plans to rehabilitate him and make him a saint, to which I can't speak either, but I can tell that he wouldn't be the first person the Church burnt at the stake whom they later rehabilitated and placed on an altar. The history of Catholicism is full of ironies like that, and sense or humour or no sense of humour, ultimately Savonarola had the last laugh from beyond the grave over the Pope who executed him. That much is for sure.
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Girolamo Savonarola has always been a divisive historical character. His story is one of religious fervour and a continual battle against the political and religious establishment. Savonarola’ s self belief in many ways could be compared to extremist leaders around the planet today building up followers through speech and propaganda and creating division,. He battled the Medici through building up power in Florence and even claimed the city would be the “ new Jersualem “ but ultimately the desire for power through his “ fundamentally extremist views” lead to his downfall against the church and the Borgia Pope Alexander VI. The term “bonfire of the vanities “will always be associated with his desire to rid society of non religious frivolities including artworks, literature and objects of beauty.  Samantha Morris has shone the light on to Savonarola , who often plays a side role to the Medici / Borgia stories , and produced a narrative that is detailed but also accessible to those who do not know him .The desperation  to control and wield power through unwavering belief clearly lead to his downfall ;ultimately this is engaging historical perspective on one of history’s darker characters .
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A lively and intelligent young man who was hungry for knowledge, Girolamo Savonarola’s unrequited love for the “girl next door” led him to depression and a hatred of corruption in the Church and the profligate ways of the rich. Resolving to take Holy Orders after hearing a friar delivering a passionate sermon, he set out on the path which would eventually lead him into conflict with Italy’s most powerful rulers and a brutal public execution, the grisly details of which we are not spared in these pages. 
“The Pope’s Greatest Adversary - Girolamo Savonarola” by Samantha Morris is aptly titled. A powerful orator who over-reached himself, he caught the public imagination at an incendiary and God-fearing time in history, and was said to preach with a “voice of thunder” as he predicted cataclysmic events, one of which ostensibly came true and only added to his power. One could argue that Savonarola was a kind of Renaissance Rasputin, who also had a swift rise to influence and power, had both powerful friends and enemies and met a brutal end. Was Savonarola a positive force for change or simply a clever demagogue? The speed and simplicity with which he was able to oust the ruling Medici family and effectively rule Florence seems incredible to our modern eyes, but these were very different times.
And what are we to make of the “Bonfire of the Vanities” - public burnings in which thousands of works of art and literature were destroyed for being ungodly in the eyes of Savonarola and his cronies. A complicated and imperfect man, then, but an important one; certainly he was considered dangerous enough for Pope Alexander VI to attempt to silence and then excommunicate him. By the time of his downfall, Savonarola had obviously begun to believe he was untouchable. 
Fully illustrated with paintings of Savonarola and photographs of relevant locations in Florence, this is a concise and vivid slice of history. Featuring a colourful cast of characters including everyone’s favourite hedonists, the Borgias, (a singular family on which Samantha Morris has previously written very successfully), it is a solid biography of a remarkable man who still divides opinion today.
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