Mona Niccolosa has brought us along the south side of Florence’s vast Cathedral and into this narrow street side street in order to show the birthplace of another of Florence’s charismatic holy men, whom most Florentines knew affectionately as Antonino – “Little Anthony”. Antoninus Pierozzi (1389-1459) was a famous theologian, and in 1446 was appointed Archbishop of the city. He had worked closely with Lorenzo de’Medici’s grandfather Cosimo to build up the Dominican religious house of San Marco, where he served as head, or prior. The two made San Marco into a centre of Florence’s civic religion, with active friars, impressive devotional artwork, and the first public library in Europe. Cosimo de’Medici even had a friar’s cell at San Marco, where he could go for devotional retreats with the brothers.
But while Antoninus worked with powerful merchants and politicians, he was not their servant. Florentines loved “Little Anthony” because he loved and defended the poor and helpless. He stayed out of politics, but held politicians to account. This is the humble spiritual leader that Mona Niccolosa remembers with respect and affection. Three decades later, in 1523, he would indeed be canonized as Saint Antoninus. While Niccolosa would not live to see that, she does have hopes for another Dominican friar, Savonarola, who now heads San Marco.
Savonarola expresses the simpler religion of repentance, devotion, and charity that Mona Niccolosa hopes can be revived in the Florence of her own day. A city put on edge by vendettas, murders, and death needs another prophet like Antoninus who can call its people back to the powerful message of a simple faith, honest devotion, and genuine care for the poor, the sick, the hungry, and those without clothes or shelter. Is Savonarola that prophet? Many think so initially, and the firebrand Dominican preacher will hold Florence spellbound for four years. He doesn’t stay out of politics as Antoninus did, and Savonarola’s preaching will help convince the Florentines to expel the Medici two years later in 1494. Yet that only increases the number of enemies in church and state who are determined to undo him. By May 1498, it is Savonarola who is executed and burned in the middle of the Piazza della Signoria, where a plaque still marks the spot. Religion in Florence is serious business.
To cite this essay, we suggest:
Nicholas Terpstra, ‘Telling truth to power’ published online 2019, in ‘Hidden Florence’, The University of Exeter, https://hiddenflorence.org/stories/niccolosa/nicc3_truth/
Peter Howard, Creating Magnificence in Renaissance Florence. Toronto: CRRS, 2012.
Lauro Martines, Fire in the City: Savonarola and the Struggle for the Soul of Renaissance Florence. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.