Book Review: “The Pope’s Greatest Adversary: Girolamo Savonarola” by Samantha Morris

57165112When we think about men who challenged the Church and are known as Reformers, we tend to think of Martin Luther, Jan Hus, and John Calvin. However, a man fought against corruption in his beloved Florence who should be included in the list of great reformers. He was a Dominican monk who was not afraid to preach against sin and took aim at the most powerful men in all of Italy, including Pope Alexander VII. His sermons were so scandalous that they would lead to his demise upon a pyre in the middle of Florence. His name was Girolamo Savonarola, and his story is told in Samantha Morris’s latest biography, “The Pope’s Greatest Adversary: Girolamo Savonarola.”

I want to thank Pen and Sword Books and Net Galley for sending me a copy of this biography. I read Samantha Morris’s previous joint biography of Cesare and Lucrezia Borgia and thoroughly enjoyed it. When I heard that she was writing a new biography about a famous figure in Italian history, I was intrigued.

Girolamo Savonarola was a scholar, like his father and grandfather before him, destined to be a doctor like his grandfather. His plan for his life took a drastic turn when the girl he was fell for rejected his advances, so he decided to join the Dominican order as a friar. Talk about not taking a break-up well. Savonarola studied the Humanist teachings and incorporated them into the way he understood his faith. Of course, as a friar, he couldn’t keep his opinions to himself, so he began preaching against corruption and the vices that he saw during his travel.

Savonarola’s preaching was appealing to the people of Florence, yet it did not sit well with the leader of Florence, Lorenzo de ’Medici. Lorenzo tried to silence the troublesome friar, but his son Piero de Medici took on the challenge when he passed away. Piero was nothing like his father and was overthrown as ruler of Florence by Savonarola. Of course, Savonarola was not satisfied with reforming Florence, and he decided to take on the Catholic Church itself and attack another powerful family.

Charles VII of France wanted to conquer Italy, which to the Dominican friar was a good idea, so Savonarola helped the king. This incident drew the ire of Rodrigo Borgia, also known as Pope Alexander VI, and Ludovico “Il Moro” Sforza of Milan, who just wanted the friar to shut up. Even with numerous ex-communications, Savonarola kept preaching against corruption and vices, leading to the Bonfires of the Vanities in 1497. He took artwork and writings deemed inappropriate and burned them in a humongous bonfire. A year later, on May 22, 1498, Girolamo Savonarola lost his life because of his heretic teachings.

This book has so many scandals and dynamic characters that you will forget you are reading a biography. Morris has done it yet again, and this was a brilliantly engaging and extremely well-researched biography. The way she can capture the thrilling world of 15th and 16th century Italy is astounding, and I hope she will write more about Italian history in the future. If you want a fun biography about a man who fought to reform the Catholic Church, I highly recommend you read “The Pope’s Greatest Adversary: Girolamo Savonarola” by Samantha Morris.

Guest Post: “Cesare and Lucrezia Borgia: Brother and Sister of History’s Most Vilified Family” Q & A with Samantha Morris

Today, I am pleased to host the final stop in the “Cesare and Lucrezia Borgia” book blog tour. I would like to thank Pen and Sword Books and Samantha Morris for allowing me to finish this delightful tour with a Q and A discussion with Samantha Morris.

Why did you want to explore the lives of the Borgia family?
I first discovered the Borgia family while I was at University – I was supposed to be working on a piece of work for my archaeology degree but found myself wandering the library instead. It was there that I first found Sarah Bradford’s wonderful biography on Cesare – something just clicked in me at that moment. Who was this handsome guy (please don’t judge me) on the cover with the strange name? After reading Bradford’s biography I was hooked – I read everything I could get my hands on about them, watched everything I could but I wanted to know more. In particular, a lot of the books and sources that I read on them were quite dry, full of dry politics (which of course does have an important part in their story) – why wasn’t there much out there that was approachable? Why wasn’t there something out there that could tell their fascinating, yet complicated, story in a way that would suit everyone? That’s when I decided that I wanted to tell their story, starting out by writing a very small introductory biography on Cesare himself. After writing that I knew that they needed more, the siblings in particular.

Why did you combine the stories of Cesare and Lucrezia into one book
instead of two separate biographies?
Quite simply, there was nothing out there that concentrated on the both of them together. There were biographies of them separately, that dipped briefly into the other siblings part of the story but never something that was just about them. Their lives were so intertwined and I wanted to tell their story.

Why do you think the myths about these siblings still exist centuries
after their deaths?
Because people love scandal. And let’s be real, the myths really are scandalous. People love a good story and the more scandal within it, the better. The idea that they were incestuous, that Lucrezia poisoned her enemies etc really is the stuff of great fiction and it’s something that people both back then, and now, love to get their claws into. This is a real shame, and I hope I’ve shown this in the book, their real story is much more exciting.

What was the hardest part of writing this biography?
I’d like to say that this work was a breeze from start to finish but honestly that would be a lie. In total, I think it took me 4 years from start to finish with this one, from coming up with the idea of getting it started to get a publisher interested in it. There were times during that initial process where I thought that it would never happen – I was approaching publishers and getting rejected time after time so when the fabulous guys at Pen & Sword said they would commission it I was over the moon.
The research and writing part of it was relatively easy but I think it was the editing that I found the hardest. Going through what you’ve written time and time again to make sure it’s perfect is actually really hard work, and I would put off doing it because I hated doing it. Still, the pain was worth it because now the biography is out there and there really is no better feeling in the world than seeing people reading and appreciating your work.

If you can talk about it, what is your next project?
I’m currently editing a biography on Girolamo Savonarola which is due out at some point next year. I’ve also started the research for a biography on Gualdim Pais, Templar master of Portugal during the twelfth century. It’s certainly a bit different from what I usually concentrate on, and it’s going to be very hard work but totally worth it.

Where can people find you on social media?
I’m on Facebook – https://www.facebook.com/theborgiabull

Instagram – https://www.instagram.com/smorrisauthor/

and Twitter – https://twitter.com/SMorrisAuthor