Death in Florence

Written by Paul Strathern
Review by Kristina Blank Makansi

This book, subtitled The Medici, Savonarola and the Battle for the Soul of the Renaissance City, examines a period which helped to change the course of European history. Florence was the Renaissance city par excellence. Originally set up as a democracy, by the mid-15th century the powerful Medici family was effectively in control, and Lorenzo de Medici championed a progressive humanism expounded by such thinkers as Mirandola and patronized artists like Michelangelo and Botticelli.

It is a complex story. Italy comprised many states, all jostling for power. Militarily, Florence was weak, and it needed all Lorenzo’s diplomatic skill to keep the city one step ahead of its neighbours on the look out for any weakness. And not all Florence’s citizens were happy about being politically sidelined. When the fanatical monk, Savonarola, began to preach against the meretricious glitter of the court, the disenfranchised populace listened. Savonarola wanted to establish a ‘City of God’, to reform the corrupt papacy from within, and to eschew worldly vanities. Inevitably, this clashed with Medici secular humanism and the resulting conflict led to invasion by France and a war which threatened to engulf not only Florence but also the papacy and many of the Italian states.

This eminently readable and well-researched book not only brilliantly illuminates the complexities of the period, its sweep encompassing the history, culture, religion, and even the psychology of Renaissance Florence, it also includes a subtle awareness of similar 21st-century ideological conflicts. The author provides the reader with a map of Florence and a Medici family tree and a cast list. Highly recommended.