Tuesday, February 7, 2017

The Bonfire of the Vanities

Today is the 520th anniversary of the Bonfire of the Vanities, led by Fra Girolamo Savonarola in Florence, Italy. As the History Channel summarizes the event:

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.

There is a new recording from the ORA project, combining Renaissance polyphony with a modern commissioned work in honor of Savonarola:

Following the stunning success of their best-selling debut, Suzi Digby’s crack vocal ensemble ORA presents their new album: ‘Refuge from the Flames’. Dedicated to the legacy of Girolamo Savonarola, 15th century Dominican and religious reformer, this new CD further showcases ORA's commitment to bringing together Renaissance choral masterpieces and commissioned reflections from contemporary composers. ORA bring a wealth of experience that gilds these pieces, both new and old, into the lustrous works of art they truly are.

“We begin and end this second ORA album with two contrasting settings of the Miserere mei (Psalm 50, Vulgate). Over the centuries this text has inspired reflections by many Christian writers, none more influential than those by Girolamo Savonarola, and we have devoted much of this album to his extraordinary legacy. Central to the recording is Savonarola’s meditation on the psalm, 'Infelix Ego', written shortly before his execution. We present it here in William Byrd’s justly famous setting, and in a newly commissioned masterpiece by the Latvian composer Eriks Ešenvalds.”
Suzi Digby OBE [artistic director & conductor]

1 Allegri: Miserere [edited by Ben Byram Wigfield]
2 Animuccia/Savonarola: Iesù, sommo conforto
3 Anon/Savonarola: Alma, che sì gentile
4 Anon/Savonarola: Che fai qui, core?
5 Bettini: Ecce quam bonum
6 Verdelot: Letamini in Domino
7 Byrd: Infelix ego
8 Eriks Ešenvalds (b.1977): Infelix ego *world premiere recording commissioned by ORA*
9 Richafort: O quam dulcis
10 Le Jeune: Tristitia obsedit me, magno
11 Anonymous: Ecce quomodo moritur
12 Clemens non Papa: Tristitia obsedit me, amici
13 James MacMillan (b.1959): Miserere

There was a CD set dedicated to Savonarola last year too, from Magnificat, centered around the Miserere by Josquin de Pres, but with the same works by William Byrd, Le Jeune, and Non Papa.

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