During the Italian Renaissance the use of rhetoric as a political and spiritual tool began to re-emerge. Classical in origin, rhetoric means to write or to speak in order to persuade, and the style of delivery of a speech or sermon became almost as important as its content.
Preachers such as the Dominican Giovanni Dominici (1356–1419) and the Franciscan Bernadino da Siena (1380–1444) spoke not only about spiritual matters but also about the social, political, moral and economic issues of the day. Active in the city-state of Florence at a time when widespread political and cultural changes were taking place, they had a profound effect on people’s lives, both spiritual and earthly. They shaped views, and by extension legislation, affecting such issues as the treatment of Jews, homosexuality, and prostitution.
The most infamous Renaissance preacher is probably Girolamo Savonarola (1452–98). A charismatic and passionate preacher, Savonarola became famed for his sermons about the Apocalypse. After the overthrow of the de’ Medici family in 1494 Savonarola became spiritual and political leader of Florence. His strict moral reforms culminated in the Bonfire of the Vanities of 1497, when he burned many items that he considered representative of moral turpitude, such as mirrors, make-up and dresses but also paintings, musical instruments and sculpture. Savonarola became increasingly unpopular, was excommunicated, and finally executed in 1498. He was burned to death in the same place where he had lit the Bonfire of the Vanities.You can hear short excerpts from a selection of sermons, and contemporary reactions to them, in the audio below.