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The wanderings of Friar Savonarola

Report of a one day game which simulated Italian politics in the year that the French invaded.

1494 is a committee game. That is to say, each of the major states of Italy as well as France Spain and the Holy Roman Empire are run by a team and these teams have internal divisions that would make an interesting game even if other states did not exist. Each team had a Liaison Umpire who kept a note of the popularity of the government and if it fell too far the opportunity would arise for those members of the team who were plotting against the government to seize power. This was especially true of Florence where Savonorola, a radical monk played by myself, was on a collision course with Piero de Medici the ruler of supposedly republican Florence.

It is said that generals always fight the last war not the current one - so too revolutionaries. In the previous game of 1494 I had played Capponi who had been working to overthrow the Medici. Indeed as opposition to the Medici grew it did for one moment look as if we would succeed. Indeed I, as Capponi, found myself in the piazza of Florence surrounded by my adherents and indeed many other Florentine citizens calling for the overthrow of the Medici - at the very moment the mercenary men at arms entered the square to crush our revolt. This gave me a very strong fear of premature rebellion that that held me back, as Savonarola, at crucial points and may well have been my death.

My understanding of Savonarola at the beginning of 1494 was a moderate soon to be driven to extremes by events. Had Piero de Medici done something about the terrible problem of prostitution and provide the paltry sum of 10,000 ducats needed to provide dowries for poor girls in Florence I might have found myself a Medici sympathiser. Fortunately Piero totally blocked this and the stage was set for the confrontation. And it was the French who did it for him. Those marauding wolves who came down upon us, cutting our vines and who Piero foolishly believed could be bought off. It was clear the rapacious French needed to resisted. Savonarola proposed the arming of the militia. Piero agreed and by the time he realised that they were following Savonarola it was too late.

What I should have done is arrested Piero at that moment. Had I known the depth of treachery of that viper I'd have executed him as a tyrant - but that I was to learn latter.

At that very moment Piero chose to leave Florence. There were three members of the signory left in Florence..

"So where do we stand on Medici?" I asked.
"I am in Pisa, actually," said one notable obviously guessing the treasonous drift of the conversation and wishing to stay firmly on the fence.

"The Medici have failed Florence," said Vespucci.

That left Capponi. He glanced at 10,000 militia following me and noted my popularity over the Medici. "Yes, the Medici must go."

And that was it. The Great Bell was tolled, a parliament of the people of Florence was held. The democratic republic was restored. It was so easy. So why wasn't I jubilant?

Savonarola in Power

Revolutionaries usually take power in crisis. Worse they have been thinking only of the immediate problem of removing the unjust tyrants and have given no thought of what was to come next. Our problem was the big French army that was bearing down on us. Had we moved immediately we could have grabbed the passes that lay between Milan and Florence and so blocked the French advance. By the time we got things together a month late and it was touch and go whether we would reach the passes first. Should we gamble on reaching the passes or should we just try and hold the walls of the city? We decided to gamble.

And what was going on in the rest of Italy. There must be people against the French but we had little idea of who. My one brief visit to Rome to refuse the offer of a Cardinals hat had taught me that the Pope and all the Cardinals were irredeemably corrupt but little else.

Oh yes, the democratic republic had decided to forgive Piero and let him return on condition he accept the new democratic order. Soon Savonarola's support started to fall. The bonfires of vanities alienated many. [In point of historical accuracy the bonfire of vanities did not include great works of art, however that Savonarola would alienate people through his religious fervour was quite realistic so I played along with this.] And Piero started winning back his support my means of wild banquets. Had I had the time I would have denounced them as dens of debauchery they clearly were, but had I the time?

[Oh yes at that point Capponi started selling everything he owned. Our Liaison Umpire could not understand why we did not react. Should I have denounced Capponi as a rat leaving a sinking ship? And admitted Florence was a sinking ship??]

Our gamble failed. The French Army appeared before the walls of Florence and then the treacherous Medici opened the gates of the city to the French wolves.

I stayed in my priory denouncing in my sermons both the French and the Medici. Piero's popularity already collapsing as a result of his popularity fell further due to his premature proclamation of himself as King. At that point the French began negotiating. I'm still not quite sure why the French-Medici deal broke down but the French told us we could have our city back for 50,000. I told them Florence's freedom was not to be bought and sold. This principled stand was strengthened with the knowledge that the city would be back in the hands of the democratic faction as soon as the French Army left and would be ungovernable until then.

Then I was arrested by the French. It was on a Papal warrant. The new Pope who had ousted Alexander because he had offered a Cardinals hat to the 'heretic' Savonarola felt he would lose face if Savonarola was not burnt at the stake. He was also head of the shadowy anti-French coalition that we knew must be out there. Had I better understood what was going on outside Florence I would have realised that democratic Florence and France were natural allies.

The conversation with my captor the King of France began in a curious way.

"Do you want to be Pope."


"Would you let us make you Pope. We'll pull out of Florence now and if we manage to get you elected Pope you can move the see to Florence. All you have to do is a few trifles - disallow a marriage and make the King of France King of Naples. Please. Pretty please."

"No I couldn't. I DEFINITELY COULDN'T! Er can I think about this."

What a Faustian pact! I would like to say I resisted the French Kings blandishments but I did not. My choice was eased by the knowledge that at this moment the Pope who the French King wished to remove was burning my sympathisers in Rome. The price? Well that would be only paid if the French won. In meantime the deal would get the French out of God's chosen city.

Well the French were defeated next turn. I managed to get myself released. I immediately went into the streets of Florence to proclaim the republic restored. There were already two other Florentine governments (not to mention Pisa which was claiming to be independent) for Piero had proclaimed his government and so had the anti-Medici notables but I was the one on the spot in the city. However it was clear that the city was in chaos. I needed to combine my political capital with the anti-Medici notables so we combined forces. And then the victorious Italian League forces turned up and I was arrested. Counting a brief moment when I was arrested by the Medici this was my third arrest but I was not optimistic about surviving this one.

The Roman Labyrinth

In Rome I asked for the evidence that I was a heretic, but it was quite clear that these people didn't need such niceties as evidence. At that moment we found ourselves surrounded by Papal forces loyal to Rovere (a cardinal who in the real world became Pope). We were all under arrest. Nothing new for me but the Holy Father was a little perplexed by this - with good reason, he would soon be dead. I was given to Spaniards so they would get the blame for killing to me. I had an audience with the Spanish King, a good pious man, and took the opportunity to explain the necessity of doing something about the terrible problem of poor girls being driven to prostitution by poverty. He gave me a large sum of ducats to set up a foundation to provide dowries for poor girls in Madrid.

Unfortunately the time I spent in Madrid was put to good use by Piero. With Imperial backing he moved on Florence. A botched assassination attempt against Piero served to win him sympathy and the city fell. By the time I returned to Florence the anti-Medici faction was dead or in exile. I returned to my priory. I quietly concerned myself with spiritual problems but Piero wasn't fooled and arrested me on the Papal warrant and sent me to Rome. I was feeling my options closing in. More than that I was beginning to feel, seeing as I kept being arrested as a heretic, it was time I earnt the label. I began talking to the troops explaining the burning necessity for the church to be led by men free of corruption. They shuffled their feet in embarrassment. The Rovere Pope (I forget his Papal name - so did he) was at least not planing to burn me. He smuggled me onto a fishing boat which was to take me to some hermitage on some isolated rock. I made a sermon to soldiers on the fishing boat, calling for the church to be purged of coruption.

"You are a true pious man," said the soldiers, overcome with emotion, "to keep you prisoner is wrong. Where should we take you."

All through the game I had an obsession with Florence, God's chosen city. It was on the tip of my tongue to answer 'to Florence'. But these soldiers were from Rome - ought that not tell me something?

"To Rome!" I said.

So a few days later I found myself in the centre of Rome. The Cardinals thought I was a heretic? I'll give them heresy!

"People of Rome the Pope is evil, the Cardinals are corrupt. All are corrupt. The church must be cleansed!" And the people of Rome flocked to me. "Take back the right of the congregation of Rome to chose their Bishop. Chose a new honest man as Pope." Up till that point I thought there were no troops in Rome but then the Papal army turned up - having been bribed by a Cardinal who wished to be the next Pope.

Oh how easy it is to be wise after the event. What I should have done is gone straight to those troops and said, "I have no money to bribe you, but think ye only of the riches in heaven. Help me cleanse this cesspit of corruption." A long shot? But this was not a regime like the Medici who were mildly unpopular. This was a regime that had passed the "you are lynched - form new government" level a long time ago and they hadn't slowed down in their descent since. In short the papacy was so far past it's politico-religious sell-by date that the maggots were gnawing the cling film. Instead I began talking to the 'would be Pope' Cardinal. It was soon obvious that he had been as corrupt as the rest of them yet might he be sincere in protestations that he would live a simple life in the future? Or was I just being drawn into their web? But he did have those troops and that memory of another incarnation when Capponi found himself on the brink of a bloodbath at the hands of men at arms in Florence still gripped me.

Fatal indecision. That night a group of men came upon Savonarola, overcame his protectors and slew him. All through the game I had deliberately taken no precautions against assassins relying on the fact that the cost in popularity would be worse than the gain in killing me. The snag was in Rome no one had any popularity left to lose.

I asked for another role. I hate doing this but was finding myself giving advice as if as a ghost to the players and this I felt was wrong. Savonarola was dead. I had to let go. I was given a role as a noble in Naples. I felt I was losing touch with the incredible experience of being Savonarola. Yet it turned out to be just the right thing to do.

The Cardinals realised that they were on the brink of being torn apart by the Roman mob. They needed a honest man to hide behind and they plucked from obscurity a naive but uncorrupt bishop who the people of Rome trusted. The Liason Umpire briefly played Pope Innocent V and then I was called to the role. Innocent was not Savonarola, indeed he would surely have been chosen because the Cardinals believed he could be manipulated. The brief sojourn in Naples allowed me to start afresh so as to get into the head of this well meaning, somewhat bewildered man yet who was determined on his task of reform.

End as a new begining

It is said Megga games hardly ever come to a conclusion. Well the story of how the Papacy fought amongst themselves until they were totally discredited, of how Savonarola turned up to provide a focus for the discontent and how, in his death, the cause for reform which he espoused was victorious, that storey had a conclusion. But as in real life the resolution of one crisis have the seeds of the next, so this was also only a beginning.

As Rovere said "Our task is to outlive this Pope." Could Innocent build such a movement for reform that it would outlive him? And when Innocent eventually found himself confronting the corruption of the cardinals would he survive when they turned on him? From a player point of view, had the game gone on another day, I had the problem of six players and absolutely nothing for them to do. I couldn't trust them to root out corruption - they were just dead wood. The Cardinals would have plotted against me out of terminal boredom.

Related Pages

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Pope Alexander and corruption in the church

Nicolo Machiavell