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Fire in the City: Savonarola and the Struggle for Renaissance Florence

3.53  ·  Rating details ·  297 ratings  ·  39 reviews
A gripping and beautifully written narrative that reads like a novel, Fire in the City presents a compelling account of a key moment in the history of the Renaissance, illuminating the remarkable man who dominated the period, the charismatic Savonarola.
Lauro Martines, whose decades of scholarship have made him one of the most admired historians of Renaissance Italy, here
Hardcover, 336 pages
Published April 21st 2006 by Oxford University Press, USA (first published 2006)
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Average rating 3.53  · 
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Jo Walton
Everybody is prejudiced about Savonarola, for or against, everyone, there's nobody in the world who's heard his name who doesn't have a bias. I've read so many things that are hagiographies and things that are attacks that it's really refreshing to re-read this one which is measured, calm, full of names and specific. While Martines is on Savonarola's side (everyone!), he's not viciously opposed to everyone else, and he can see positives and negatives. What I'm saying here, I suppose, is that I ...more
Depending on who you ask, Savonarola was a saint & a martyr or he was a fanatical extremist who subjected Renaissance Florence into a four-year reign of terror. He was a tyrant, or a promoter of republicanism. He was a prophet, or a self-aggrandizing liar. If I had to guess, I'd say he was probably all of them? I am not a fan of the guy at all, but he's one of those historical figures that's so enshrouded in myth that what you think about him probably says more about you than it does about ...more
Nov 15, 2019 rated it liked it
Shelves: history, winter
Girolamo Savonarola was either the prophet of the Protestant Reformation or the Mad Friar of Florence. The only bits I knew about him were that he helped to expel the Medici from Florence and that he was hanged and then burned at the stake (which was better than just being burned). Normally my lack of knowledge wouldn't make me hustle to find a book about an unknown subject. But since I was stuck at a dinner between two diners who were actually arguing about this dude (it was an awful dinner, ...more
Frank Stein
Mar 15, 2010 rated it liked it
This book tells a great story reasonably well, but becomes shockingly repetitive at points and gets bogged down in unnecessary details.

Savonarola was the fire-breathing Dominican monk who, in 1494, encouraged the overthrow of the Medici regime in Florence, and then became the most powerful figure in the city until his execution in 1498.

There is so much I didn't know about him that Martines brings to light. First, he recruited armies of "angels" or "enforcers" (children who were already members
Jul 06, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history, favorites
Girolamo Savonarola was a complicated character - compassionate, wise, intelligent, and deeply religious. However, he made many glaring errors during his brief time in power (1494-1498)- he supported the French King, Charles VIII; he defied the pope, Alexander VI (Rodrigo Borgia - yes, that family); he alienated many powerful Florentines; and finally, there was the trial by fire proposed by a rival preacher, which proved to be the final straw.

I already knew what happened in Florence at this
A.J. Deus
Martines prides himself in being opposed to all mystifications. This may be the source of one of the main problems in the Florentine story about Savonarola. As the Dominican Savonarola was exerting his power through sermons, understanding the mythical messages seems paramount. After the first 100 pages or so (of a hard to read translation), I felt left in the dark as to what the conflict was all about. Given that fifteenth century Florence is one of my favorite research areas and that I am not a ...more
Dec 22, 2008 rated it it was ok
In short:
Talks a lot, says very little.

A little longer:
Know how one is able to discern the meaning of a word through its context within a sentence or paragraph? And, as more words whose meaning is a mystery are added to the sentence/paragraph, your understanding of the meaning of those words gets fuzzier and fuzzier? Have you ever read a paragraph so full of foreign/unknown words that the book loses its grip (if there was one to begin with) on you altogether?
So it is with this book....

Phillip W.
Aug 07, 2014 rated it liked it
I give it three stars because it is well-written history of Savonarolan Florence, but not five because I don't think the book accomplished my hoped for goal: a deeper understanding of Savonarola the man, not just the milieu that he operated within.

The book seems oddly disconnected from the character that is supposed to be its center. Martines has sharpened my understanding of the Savonarolan moment in Renaissance Italy, but a deeper understanding of charismatic friar still eludes me. Still,
Rob Roy
Aug 15, 2009 rated it it was ok
Fascinating story, poorly written
Sep 22, 2011 marked it as to-read
I can't take any more Herzen, Marx or Stalin at the moment - so I though a bit of Savonarola might afford a few days' diversion. We'll see. Nothing like a fire-eating fundamentalist.
While Martines' work takes Savonarola as its focal point, he becomes a lens through which to view the book's real subject, the city of Florence itself. In the whirl of events surrounding Savonarola's rise and fall, Martines does a commendable job keeping track of the city's moving parts: political structures, patronage networks, class divides, foreign affairs. The ambiguities and possibilities of Italian republicanism prove fascinating. Savonarola himself is treated quite sympathetically, even ...more
Anson Cassel Mills
Jun 02, 2019 rated it liked it
Martines has provided the general reader with a good life and times of the charismatic, fifteenth-century friar who turned the city of Florence upside down with his fearless preaching. As the author notes in the introductory pages, he could not write a true biography of Savonarola because we know so little about his private life. In fact, we don't know much more about his public life until he became a controversial figure. Martines wisely emphasizes the years 1494 to 1498, “when Savonarola’s ...more
Jul 31, 2018 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
I enjoyed this at first but eventually it was too much detail. I was excited to realize Savonarola is basically the high sparrow.
May 05, 2013 rated it liked it
Shelves: italy, biography
Murder of a Medici Princess piqued my interest in Renaissance Italy. I selected this book because the jacket of this book says it "reads like a novel"... but it didn't. It's a tough read. If you don't have any background in this era, I recommend trying something else. The author says the book is for the general public. He also says it is not a biography, but a rendering of Florence at the time through the impact of Savonarola.

I'm a general reader, I had 3 main problems in reading this book: 1)
Apr 12, 2014 rated it liked it
Savorarola (1492-1534)Long Italian names with titles, don't lend themselves to speed reading. Made it through the first 55 pages, skimmed the rest, gave up, read the chapter on Savonarola in Durant's Renaissance. The idea of "Bonfire of the Vanities" came from Savonarola's teenage boy disciples knocking on doors asking the householders for "vanities" any nice clothes, jewelry, art and literature or accosting richly dressed women in the streets. There were two "Bonfires of the Vanities" shortly ...more
Peter Dunn
A bit of a disappointment this. Though to be fair at least I now know much more about Savonarola and his times, which is why I selected this book as my understanding of him and his period was fairly basic. However the book has a significant flaw.

As an Ulster Prod I was already inclined to give this bogey man historical figure a bit of a break on the count of his anti clericalism and his confrontations with the papacy of his day. However even this bias of mine still wasn’t enough to allow me to
Mar 18, 2014 rated it really liked it
Savonarola was a profoundly interesting person. It surprises me how little is written about him because he and his writings are well worth discovering. He took the Christian message and vision to the limit and showed the people of Florence what that meant. Unfortunately, the leaders (and people) of Florence were not ready for this vision and hung him in the square, with the blessing of the Borgia pope. What is ironic is that the appearance of Florence, with all of those beautiful buildings and ...more
Lisa Spillane
Oct 29, 2012 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
Studied Savonarola ten years ago at university, as part of wider florentine renaissance history, so I was looking forward to a study of the man himself. While obviously well researched to be honest I found the book a bit of a slog. It took me a long time to read and I felt a bit like I was wading through it rather than actually enjoying what I was reading. Yes, it did provide insight into the period, but it felt a bit like penance reading it as well! It certainly didn't have the pace of some ...more
Dec 17, 2014 rated it liked it
This was a bit ponderous and difficult to digest, certainly not the "beautifully written" book the blurb suggests.

The author is clearly and unapologetically a Savonarola apologist, so bear in mind that everything in the book is written from that starting point. However, the material presented is quite interesting if you can get through the labrynthine style, name dropping, and excessive parentheticals.

Suggested for those who already have some familiarity with fifteenth century Italy, as the
Phillip Thompson
Jan 27, 2015 rated it really liked it
The Dominican, Savonarola, is a very enigmatic and complex figure. This book is a fairly sympathetic portrayal and makes Savonarola's action much more understandable. He is certainly is right in many of his criticisms of the Church, the Medici, the papacy, and Florentine morals. His tactics for this time period were not that radical by any means and he did plead for leniency on a number of occasions. I recommend this book about a figure who lived on the cusp of the Reformation and shared some ...more
Lauren Albert
I couldn't get into this. Partly it was because of the flood of names and that the people named switched sides frequently and sometimes only for protective coloration. I realize that nothing is black and white but the 'sides' in this were so vague that it was hard to follow the narrative. I'm sure this was part of the author's intent--to show how complex the events were. I did learn some things of course. I never knew anything about Savonarola before.
Apr 19, 2014 rated it it was ok
I'm about halfway through this and it's a rough read. I'm well read in the Italian Renaissance, Medici dynasty, and Papal history- but this is painful. The last half hopefully will be better.

A word of warning for those interested in this book, be aware of the dryness and be informed of Medici, Florentine history, and Papal history.
Justin Evans
Apr 24, 2010 rated it it was ok
Shelves: history-etc
The blurb claims that this reads like a novel. That would be a novel written by someone who was simultaneously writing their dissertation, and had accidentally mixed up the chapters I guess. Martines has a couple of narrative chapters, and a couple of thematic chapters, and a couple of wtf chapters... and it doesn't really work. On the upside, lots of information about a great story.
Steven McCarthy
Sep 01, 2015 rated it liked it
An interesting and engaging read. Rich in historical detail, but not as fully explicative of Savonarola's theology as I would have expected. Also, despite the historical detail, I felt like I was being asked to rely on Martines' own evaluation at points where more evidence and argumentation would have been helpful.
Rose Joyce
I have read a few books about the Renaissance in the past few months. Savonarola was mentioned in all these works and that peaked my curiosity about the fervent, ascetic, charismatic friar.
This book was very detailed .I am have a casual interest in history so I found the book informative but a bit dry.
Doug Wells
Jan 10, 2009 rated it liked it
As someone who's interested in the Renaissance - I was a bit disappointed in this book. Maybe what was odd to me was that this was the only book I've read where the author was a Savonarola apologist and even defender.
Nov 22, 2014 rated it liked it
Shelves: italy
Starts off slow with lots of stuff written as background. Half way through it picks up and is very entertaining. Part of the initial slowness is due to some overlap from his previous book, April Blood, about Lorenzo Medici.
Sep 25, 2007 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: italy
The Savonarola story has been on the fringes of my reading for some time, so I was excited when I heard Martines was writing a book about it. I wasn't disappointed. This book was a perfect follow up to "April Blood."
Jun 17, 2008 rated it liked it
Shelves: scholarly-works
An in-depth account of the rise and fall of Savanarola, who instigated the famous "bonfire of the vanities." A bit dry, and too much for the layperson I should think, but anyone interested in really understanding this aspect of Renaissance Florence ought to read this book.
May 14, 2013 rated it liked it
Was not the "reads like a novel" book we were promised but overall not bad.
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Lauro Martines , former Professor of European History at the University of California, Los Angeles, is renowned for his books on the Italian Renaissance. The author of Power and Imagination: City-States in Renaissance Italy, and most recently of Strong Words: Writing and Social Strain in the Italian Renaissance, he reviews for The Times Literary Supplement and lives in London with his wife, ...more
“It follows that the one thing we should not do to the men and women of past time, and particularly if they ghost through to us as larger than life, is to take them out of their historical contexts. To do so is to run the risk of turning them into monsters, whom we can denounce for our (frequently political) motives—an insidious game, because we are condemning in their make-up that which is likely to belong to a whole social world, the world that helped to fashion them and that is deviously reflected or distorted in them. Censure of this sort is the work of petty moralists and propagandists, not historians (p. 5).” 4 likes
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