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.

Book Review: “Cesare and Lucrezia Borgia: Brother and Sister of History’s Most Vilified Family” by Samantha Morris

51351927A family mired in myths and rumors of incest, murder, and intrigue for centuries. A brother and sister caught in the middle, attracting the attention of gossips and historians alike. No, I am not referring to a royal family in England. In fact, this story starts in Spain with Alonso de Borja, who moved to Italy and helped create the infamous Borgia family. Caught in the middle were the son and daughter of Rodrigo Borgia, Alonso’s nephew, and his mistress Vanozza Cattanei; Cesare and Lucrezia Borgia. How close were these famous siblings? What were their lives really like? In Samantha Morris’ latest biography, “Cesare and Lucrezia Borgia: Brother and Sister of History’s Vilified Family”, she dives deep into the archives to find out the truth about the legendary Borgia family.

I would like to thank Pen and Sword Books and Net Galley for sending me a copy of this book. I will be honest and say that I did not know much about this family before I started reading this book. I knew about the rumors and that they had to do with the papacy, but that was it. I was excited to learn more about them and to understand why so many people are so fascinated with the Borgia siblings.

To understand how the Borgias rose to power, Morris takes her readers on a journey through papal history and the many different councils that occurred in the 14th and 15th centuries. This was familiar to me as I took a class in college on Church History, in which we did discuss these councils, but for those who are not familiar with them, Morris takes the time to explain the significance of each event. We see how Alonso de Borja rose through the ranks to become Pope Calixtus III and how his nephew, Rodrigo Borgia, was the complete opposite of his uncle. Rodrigo, later Pope Alexander VI, was a ladies man, and his children by his mistress, Vanozza Cattanei, were all illegitimate, including Cesare and Lucrezia.

It is the lives of Cesare and Lucrezia Borgia that historians, including Morris, tend to focus on. These siblings created so many enemies that rumors were bound to be associated with them. From incest between them to murder using poison, and numerous affairs, Cesare and Lucrezia endured scandals that made the Tudors look like a normal family. Morris takes on each myth and rumor head on to explore the truth about these siblings, which is of course more complex than the fictional tales of their lives.

I found myself enthralled in the true-life tales of Cesare and Lucrezia Borgia. Like most historical tales, the truth is much more compelling than the fictitious tales. The trials, triumphs, and tribulations of the siblings are so compelling and to realize that they lived when the Renaissance in Italy and the Tudor dynasty was still new in England is remarkable.

This book made me fall in love with the Borgia family. The story of their rise to greatness and what Cesare and Lucrezia had to endure to protect their family and its name was nothing short of extraordinary. Samantha Morris’s writing style is easy to understand but you can tell how much care she took in researching these simply sensational siblings. I want to study the Borgia family even more because of this book. If you want an engrossing nonfiction book about the Borgia family, I would highly suggest you read, “Cesare and Lucrezia Borgia: Brother and Sister of History’s Most Vilified Family” by Samantha Morris. A fabulous introduction to the Borgias and their tumultuous times.