A New Bonfire of the Vanities

My friend Margaret Perry over at Ten Thousand Places sent me an article last evening about a rather bizarre form of protest taking place in Italy at the moment.  The director of the Casoria Contemporary Art Museum in Naples has begun burning works of art from that collection, to complain about government funding cuts due to financial austerity measures. This is being done with the support of the artists involved, and took place again today.

This kind of excessive, histrionic behavior is not the exclusive purview of the left, as students of art history are well aware. The reader may have heard the term “bonfire of the vanities”, which refers to a practice that was particularly popular during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Preachers would invite their listeners to bring sinful objects, or objects which might lead one into sin, to a public place. These objects would be burned, as a sign of contrition and repentance.

The most infamous exponent of this practice, though he himself did not invent it, was the Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola (1452-1498). For a brief period at the end of the 15th century, Savonarola established what was effectively a right-wing theocracy in Florence, at the very height of the Italian Renaissance. It was perfect timing for him, given that the ruling Medici had been banished for their excesses and heavy-handedness in ruling the Florentine people. Of course, what replaced them arguably turned out to be even worse, in what came to be almost a trial run of the Reign of Terror in France three centuries later.

Savonarola sponsored numerous bonfires of the vanities during his period of influence over Florence, but perhaps the most famous was the one which took place on Mardi Gras in 1497, when hundreds of works of art, books, and other objects were burned in the Piazza della Signoria, the large square in front of the city hall. During this conflagration, and in the ones which preceded it, we can assume that many bad things were destroyed, which were indeed occasions of sin for some people: objects associated with gambling, pornography, drunkenness, and so on. Yet many beautiful things which were not evil in themselves were also destroyed, including secular works by some of the greatest artists of the Renaissance, as well as Greek and Roman antiquities, musical instruments and compositions, and works of poetry, drama, and literature.

True, not everything was destroyed that could have been; some objects remained out of the hands of the contrite artists who created them, or the mobs which Savonarola sent about the city finding this sort of kindling were not able to locate as many of these things as they might have liked. Imagine the loss to Western Civilization for example, if Botticelli’s iconic “Birth of Venus”, or his glorious procession of Greek gods in “La Primavera” had been destroyed, as they surely would have been if Savonarola had gotten his hands on them. Yet we do know that the great painter Fra Bartolomeo burned just about everything he had painted that was not of a sacred subject, and the loss to our culture of secular work from the hand of this brilliant draftsman is an incalculable one.

I have always loathed Savonarola, not because he was actually wrong about many of the excesses of the church and society in his day, but because of his arrogance and his methods, particularly with regard to encouraging the destruction of art.  It strikes me that something similar is going on in Naples at the present time.  The thinking behind Savonarola’s actions, and that behind the actions of the Casoria gallery, appear to be quite different, superficially. The former is ostensibly about conversion from sin, while the latter is about government funding of the arts. Yet ironically enough, both are expressions of personal vanity on the part of those advocating these extreme measures.

Rather than being what he ought to have been, an inspiring, fiery preacher, with a sense of his own personal humility as a created being and remembering his vow of religious obedience made before God, Savonarola set himself up as the ultimate arbiter of Christian orthodoxy, which he must emphatically was not. In the process of consolidating his temporal power and encouraging his followers to adhere more closely to his personal cult, he fostered a kind of reverse iconoclasm, where the only acceptable art was Christian in nature. And as devout a Christian as I am, I cannot imagine a world without portraits by Sargent, landscapes by Corot, still lifes by Zurbarán, and so on. The result was a cultural disaster, more designed to show the personal power of Savonarola over his subjects – who later rebelled and executed him – than to encourage a universal good.

In the case of the Casoria gallery, a museum director who genuinely cared about the art under his care would not be setting that work on fire, were he in fact acting selflessly in this matter. I suspect that this sort of stunt does nothing to tug on either the heart- or purse strings of the average, rational Italian citizen. The man in the street probably finds most of the type of art shown at the Casoria rubbish anyway, and is more concerned about not being able to pay his rising utility bills, or that his children cannot find a job, given the poor state of the economy at present.

These actions on the part of the Casoria are a perfect embodiment of the maxim against cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face. Chances are a pencil-pushing, number-crunching government bureaucrat in Rome, who has to make decisions about budgetary matters for a living, is not someone who is going to care very much if some ugly works of art are burned in the street by a publicity hound in Naples. If the goal is somehow to hold the Italian government hostage until it finds more money which it does not have, then I suspect a great deal more art will be burned at the Casoria before something is done.

At the end of the day, this bizarre publicity stunt is a new, fully secular incarnation of the age-old bonfire of the vanities as practiced by Savonarola and his regime. The stated intent of the old practice was to encourage the sinner to reform his life; the stated intent of the new is to encourage funding of the arts: both are good ends in and of themselves. Yet the means by which these ends are being sought say more about the egos and desire for personal fame of those coordinating these efforts, than about the causes which they claim to be advocating.

“The Execution of Savonarola” by Unknown Artist (1498)
Museum of San Marco, Florence.

4 thoughts on “A New Bonfire of the Vanities

  1. He should’ve just set him self on fire. He’s clearly not so “dedicated” to his cause…..quitter. The arts are never fully funded! Why didn’t he just use his energy and contacts to host a fundraiser in the spirit of austerity?


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