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Review: Death in Florence by Paul Strathern

Death in Florence

Over 500 years ago in Florence lived two men who exemplified the struggle between ‘progressive materialism and the rule of spirituality,’ Lorenzo de Medici and Savonarola. Of course, in some aspects this struggle has been an intrinsic part of the human condition since Cain and Abel, but in Death in Florence Paul Strathern focuses on the beginning of the modern age.

Florence, a republic in which citizens nominally had a say in the government, was actually carefully managed by Lorenzo de Medici. This brilliant, cultured, and highly ambitious ruler believed that the de Medici fortunes were so closely linked to those of Florence that what was good for one was good for the other. Although this may have been correct, it led to behavior that began to drive a wedge between Florence and the de Medici family.

Savonarola, on the other hand, expressed his concern for the city of Florence in powerful sermons denouncing the sin that flourished everywhere. After Lorenzo’s death Savonarola’s sermons became more passionate and he became personally involved in city politics. This eventually backfired just as Lorenzo’s efforts did.

Now, here’s the interesting point of Death in Florence: Strathern maintains that these two men made a pact at Lorenzo’s death bed despite their radically different outlooks on life. He believes that Lorenzo asked Savonarola to back the succession of his son Piero and that Savonarola agreed in order to increase his own power over the city.

Strathern makes a good case for this and shows how, amidst the extreme corruption of Pope Alexander VI, economic and other disasters in Florence (such as plague, weather), political scheming and betrayal in Italy and beyond, and the controversy about Florentine morality, the effects of the pact played out in revolting earnest.

Savonarola struggled to preserve Florence both politically and spiritually and gained a huge following. The weakened Medici family and others sought political power. The pope as well as secular rulers wanted to gain control over Florence. Many of those involved in the various governments of Florence tried to balance the opposing forces to preserve their city but their efforts were in vain.  In all these aspects, Florence was also a clear indication of what the world was about to become.

Despite painstaking research into the affairs of Florence, the de Medici, and Savonarola, Strathern is hampered by understanding neither the religious spirit of the age nor the relationships possible between intellectual activity and faith.  Although Strathern respects and defends both Lorenzo and Savonarola, his whole book is written with the arrogance of one who imagines himself to be further evolved. Full of judgement, snobbish opinions, and—at least in matters I know well—errors in fact and understanding, Death in Florence assumes these times were about struggle between an evolutionist ‘progressive materialism’ and religion, as though Savonarola were a representative example of religion.

Be that as it may, Death in Florence is a complex and important book, mostly well-written (although in one section I almost lost interest and indications were that the author and editor had as well, at least in the advanced reading copy), and it will certainly be of interest to many. However, I would not recommend it for youth, both because of its complexity and its unstated assumptions. Older teens and adults will find it enlightening on two levels: a deeper understanding of the beginnings of the modern world, and a peek into the thought processes of one who consistently applies his faith in materialist evolution.

In terms of homeschooling, this is a good book for parents to read while teaching about Renaissance times in history, art, politics, or church history. For example, 12 of the 14 representatives of the Renaissance in Famous Men of the Renaissance and Reformation appear in Death in Florence.

If that one substandard section mentioned above has been improved in the final version of the book, I would not be surprised if Death in Florence were to be nominated for some major prize due to its vitally important subject matter, painstaking research, lively writing, and politically correct point of view.

This is yet another book in the in the 2015 52 Books in 52 Weeks Challenge and is also linked to Saturday Reviews, Booknificent Thursdays, Literacy Musings Monday, and The Book Nook

For more homeschool encouragement, visit Trivium Tuesdays, Finishing Strong.  

Disclosure: An advance reading copy was provided by Pegasus Books.

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