Just half an hour from Bologna by train, and a little over an hour from Venice, lies the university city of Ferrara. Kirsty Jane Falconer lives in Ferrara and here explores her home town through the life and work of the city’s most famous son.
In 1490, Girolamo Savonarola wrote to his mother to explain — not for the first time — why he would not be coming home. As a member of the Dominican order, also known as the Order of Preachers, his was not a cloistered life. His vocation was to go out and preach. But this was not always an easy task, especially on home soil. Not even Christ himself had been taken seriously in his own home town, a predicament which Savonarola entirely understood: “That’s why many times, in Ferrara, people who see me doing this work of walking from town to town [to preach] have said to me that our brothers must be short of men. Almost as if they were saying: if they are employing you in all these things — you, who are so contemptible then they really must be short of men.”
If required to return to Ferrara, he would; but so long as he were not required, “then I think it would be a grave sin to abandon God’s works, which he has committed to me, for little reason.”
Savonarola kept his word. From the moment he left his parents’ house in 1475, at the age of twenty-two, until his death in 1498, his only substantial sojourn in Ferrara was a posting as junior lector at the Dominican priory of Santa Maria degli Angeli from 1478/79 to 1482. The priory no longer stands, but a relic of that time remains: an illuminated Latin bible densely annotated in Savonarola’s handwriting. Long overlooked, the volume passed from hand to hand and even crossed the Atlantic before it was authenticated by the great Savonarola scholar Mario Ferrara in 1957, and finally reacquired for the city in 1959 with the cooperation of the Communist-led municipal administration under mayor Spero Ghedini, a former partisan. “Savonarola Bible Returns to Italy”, announced the New York Times on 3 March of that year, with the interesting qualifier: “Leftist Regime in Ferrara Buying Relic of Reformer from US Collector.”
Today, that Latin bible is the jewel of the Savonarola collection at Ferrara’s Biblioteca Ariostea. The prophet is honoured, and more than honoured, in the home town he left behind.
Most travellers who encounter Savonarola will do so in Florence. It might be a conscious encounter; perhaps a visit to his cell at the priory of San Marco, where his hair shirt and rosary are displayed in a glass case. But one can easily run across Savonarola without realising it. The last eight years of his life were dedicated to Florence, which he saw as the New Jerusalem of a coming apocalyptic age. His footprints are everywhere in the Tuscan city.