Sometimes it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that we are living in a period of unique chaos, of unprecedented trouble, of totally new ways of driving ourselves and our societies completely, utterly mad. As a history buff, though, you look upon your acquaintances’ social media posts with a combination of bemusement, wry amusement, and a deep despair that calls to mind George Santayana’s famous quote. We are all too tempted to go “here we go again,” a response that both belies our reading and can lead to a callousness that breeds apathy towards those suffering in the present. Today, I’d like to draw attention to a recent historical novel that seems particularly attuned to such moments, a story of an early modern culture war that was much more fiery than those today.
That book is Denise Mina’s novel Three Fires, about the bonfire of the vanities, the massive burning of the riches of the city of Florence after a fanatical uprising led by firebrand preacher and proto-Protestant Girolamo Savonarola in 1494. His seizure of power comes as a reaction to the gross violations of Christian virtue by the Catholic Church in the period, such as the infamous debaucheries of Alexander VI or the widespread sale of indulgences. Reading enough about the medieval church, you begin to see why so many people saw this institution as one totally severed from Jesus and his lowly followers, and why they wanted something to replace them. It also came at the heels of so many miserable wars; in this period, the whole of Italy was divided into a spangle of city-states, often fighting one another and often allying with one power or another (France, Spain, the Papacy, the Holy Roman Empire) and just as often being invaded by them (just before Savonarola takes power, the French attack Florence, and during his childhood, depicted movingly in the book, we see a war between Italians in all its savagery). You can almost feel the pulse of Italian nationalism taking form, if only as a desire for a reprieve from it all, to be the invader rather than the invaded (such was the fate of Libya, Ethiopia, Somalia, Albania, and Greece).
Three Fires is a short book, just shy of a hundred and fifty pages, and if you’re dedicated you can read it in a single sitting (I did). Historical events like these may tempt a writer to go for a James Michener-esque door stopper, but Mina wisely economizes her writing here. She writes the book as a character study, a deep inquiry into the soul of a man whose ultimate goal was to save souls, and purge sin wherever he saw it.
The book moves at the pace of a thriller, surprisingly so given how deeply character-focused it is. In every scene, there is something of great importance, societal importance, religious importance, but also psychological importance. The infernos that are lit to expunge the corrupt church are written with such intensity you can practically feel the heat, and the scenes of war are some of the most visceral I’ve ever read. Mina made the inspired decision to write this book, like her previous book Rizzio, using almost entirely present tense, propelling the narrative along here with electric force. There’s a gravity here that most thriller writers can’t hope to match, and it is an exhilarating experience.
Girolamo himself is convincingly drawn. He is a firebrand, a zealot of a kind disturbingly familiar today. He is rejected in love (in the novel, although my understanding is that this is based on an account that is held to be dubious by historians - in any case, it makes a great story) at the altar, the worst place to be rejected in that way, and then he throws himself into the church after seeing his home city ransacked by invaders. Unlike so many careerists (a problem that afflicts any sort of powerful institution, doing so here in a way that reminds me of many Communist parties) in the church, he truly believes. He demands that the church militant live up to its lofty ideals, and is distraught when they refuse to do so (for those curious about the Papacy in this period, I recommend the relevant sections in John Julius Norwich’s tome Absolute Monarchs: a History of the Papacy). He becomes furiously aware that the Dominicans, the monastic order which he ultimately joined, used their emphasis on poverty and individual salvation to launder the reputations of cruel elites. He learns the different types of priests, and only so many of them are in this job for things other than to serve the Lord. He becomes a cynic at first, for a cynic is a disappointed idealist, but he channels that anger into an incandescent rage that sets all Florence ablaze.
It’s hard to put Savonarola in today’s political terms. He was, in some sense, a populist, demanding that the poor be cared for. But he was no liberal, mandating strict adherence to a draconian interpretation of Christian scripture. He insisted that women be kept at home, he hated any art that was not religious, and he utterly despised the Jews of Florence. His hatred of what he perceived as a depraved, fallen world, culminates in his most famous act, the burning of art, fancy clothing, non-religious literature, and anything else he detested in the bonfire of the vanities. Mina’s portrayal of the man, in all his dysfunction, all his personal misfortunes, all his jealousy, all his theological pedantry, and all his searing misanthropy, reminds me of John Ganz’s theory of ‘creep-loser’ fascism, although he lived centuries before Mussolini (and would have hated the latter’s open promiscuity and hatred religion, even if he eventually cozied up with the church later in his rule). He is a reject, angry at those who rejected him, and in some sense wants nothing more, or nothing less, than utter revenge on them. He does so by striking at the very core of their legitimacy, their alleged connection through the apostles all the way back to Jesus Christ himself. It’s not for nothing that Martin Luther was inspired so much by this man.
There’s a very particular narrative choice here that ramps up the novella’s relevance to contemporary political issues: the use of a third-person omniscient narrator who has no issues with breaking the fourth wall. The narrator refers to current culture wars directly, and explicitly compares the savagery of the Italian Wars of this period to the Vietnam War (an aside: if anyone is interesting in reading in more detail about how wars in Europe were fought in this period, I highly recommend Furies: War in Europe 1450-1700 by Lauro Martines), a comparison that gets more appropriate the more you know about both conflicts. It’s a choice that is not particularly subtle, but it feels appropriate; the rest of the book is written in a maverick enough tone that it feels only natural. It’s a very odd way of telling a story like this, but I swear it well and truly works here.
Three Fires is an electrifying read. It brings history to sordid, zealous, furious life. It does so through the focus on a figure, Girolamo Savonarola, that feels too strange to be from a novel, with too big a personality to be conjured from an author’s mind. Fortunately, Mina did not have to make up Savonarola, so she could focus her creative energies on telling this story with the verve of a thriller and the cunning of a crime story. You’ll wish there were more to the story here; all I can say is, if you liked this, read Rizzio. I’m not sure I can get enough of her writing now.
Highlights: the perfectly brisk pacing
Nerd Coefficient: 9/10
POSTED BY: Alex Wallace, alternate history buff who reads more than is healthy.