Bonfire of the Vanities

Bonfire of the Vanities

On this day in 1497, the Bonfire of the Vanities took place in Florence, Italy, as supporters of the Dominican priest Girolamo Savonarola burned thousands of objects deemed to be associated with vanity, temptation, and sin. Artworks, books, cosmetics, dresses, mirrors, musical instruments and much more were burned. It was seen as a religious act, as a cleansing of the soul and a rejection of worldly pleasures. His bonfire took place on the day of the Mardi Gras festivities—traditionally a series of carnival celebrations beginning on the Epiphany and ending on the day preceding Ash Wednesday.

Although the 7 February Bonfire of the Vanities was the most notorious of these fanatical fires—involving thousands of objects all going up in smoke in front of the Florentine public—it was not the only one. Rather, these sorts of burnings had been a regular accompaniment to the Franciscan missionary San Bernardino di Siena’s outdoor sermons in the first half of the 15th century, only on a smaller scale.

Many great cultural works were incinerated in Girolamo Savonarola’s day of destruction, including copies of books thought to be immoral, including works by Boccaccio, as well as manuscripts of secular songs. Many antique sculptures and paintings were burned, including pieces by successful artists such as Fra Bartolomeo and Lorenzo di Credi. It is even thought that several masterpieces by the great Sandro Botticelli—most famous for painting the Birth of Venus—were willingly burned by the artist, who was a follower of Savonarola’s. According to Giorgio Vasari’s The Lives of the Artists (the first ever book of art history), “Botticelli 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!”

The Bonfire of the Vanities was orchestrated by the charismatic, passionate Savonarola, who was known for his apocalyptic sermons. After the ruling Medici dynasty was overthrown in 1494, he was effectively the political—as well as spiritual—leader of the city of Florence, and his great bonfire was the high point of his career. However, his popularity fell away at an astounding rate afterwards, and the following year he was excommunicated and executed.

Photo Caption: A depiction of the Bonfire of the Vanities.