Ferrara, Savonarola and his Bible

Written by  Alessandra Chiappini
From Ferrara to Ferrara: the peregrinations of a book of extraordinary historic importance (with a note by Luisa Pagnoni on the bibliographical exhibition in the Ariostea).
In Ferrara, the 24th of April is devoted to the city's patron saint (Saint George) and on that day in 1475 the Palio was held: first the horses, then the donkeys, and then the men and women on foot in the afternoon. In the morning races, victory went to the duke of Mantua's charger and another horse from the stables of Sigismondo d'Este, which got the better of the other nineteen Arab horses taking part.

The gay atmosphere of Ferrara that day had no effect on the young Girolamo Savonarola who, making his way through the crowd, was leaving his family home and the city forever. He slipped off on foot towards the silence of the monastery ot San Domenico in Bologna: he had made his choice.

A year later, in the first week of September, when Ferrara was in turmoil during the clumsy rebellion fomented by Niccolò, the son and heir to Leonello d'Este, amid the peace of the Dominican monastery in Bologna the young novice Girolamo was following the lessons of the theologist Pietro da Bergamo. And in that same period, in Venice, the very active printer Nicola Jenson was producing a new version of the Bible, which was to enjoy remarkable success on the book market.

Three years later Girolamo was invited for a stay in Ferrara at the monastery of Santa Maria degli Angeli, with a view to furthering his religious instruction. It was in this period that he acquired a copy of the new Venetian Bible and, in the course of his exegetical studies, he annotated it with care, writing down in the white margins of the pages the fruit of his meditations and study.

When, in 1482, he left Ferrara, first for Reggio Emilia and later for Florence, he left the Bible in the monastery, probably for the use of the next crop of novices. The Bible therefore remained in the library of the Dominican monastery in Ferrara, but it was absolutely anonymous, without a note to say whose property it was or a signature to the annotations to reveal their authorship. And while the friar's renown was growing, the book was not consulted in proportion to that fame: only the first pages are used; the remaining text is still in very good condition.

The presence in Ferrara of such an important treasure escaped the attention even of Ercole d'Este, who was an admiring devotee of Savonarola and followed with passion the glories and vicissitudes of the luckless friar. Only Savonarola's anonymous biographer mentions the book's presence in the Ferrarese monastery in 1528.

With the Napoleonic invasion and the suppression of the religious confraternities, the books were sent to the Public Library. But the Bible in question was not accepted: all memory of the author of the closely written notes had been lost and the volume was badly worn and half unbound while the text was deemed too worn and too heavily annotated. Not even the two initials illuminated in gold prevented it from being discarded.

This rejection marked the beginning of the peregrinations of Savonarola's Bible, which were to last a century and a half. The marquises Meli Lupi di Soragna kept it until 1926, when it was bought by Tammaro De Marinis, the bibliophile and essayist. But De Marinis did not recognize the treasure in his possession and, therefore, made no problems about selling it in his turn to Filippo Sartoni, a professional antiques dealer who was the first to hypothesize that the notes in that heavily worn volume might be in Savonarola's hand.

At this point the Bible crossed the ocean to America, where it had been purchased by the antique book dealer Erwin Rosenthal, who in 1957 commissioned the respected authority on Savonarola, Mario Ferrara, to carry out an analysis of the handwriting. His positive response was confirmed by subsequent analyses.

It was at this point that the Bible's connection with Ferrara was renewed. Through Leonardo Lapiccirella, the antique book dealer who acted as Rosenthal's agent, the Bible returned to Italy. Lapiccirella decided that Renzo Bonfiglioli, the refined Ferrarese bibliophile and highly knowledgeable collector, was the most suitable go-between for the task of sounding out the city's effective interest in and willingness to acquire the precious volume.

Renzo Bonfiglioli devoted himself to the task body and soul and his passionate efforts were rewarded with a hard won success: a joint effort by the Cassa di Risparmio and the Town Council made the purchase possible. What with red tape, supplementary expertises, and technical reports from the rare books department, the matter was carried on into the following year: on 10 March 1960 the Bible was solemnly handed over by the Mayor of Ferrara to Luciano Capra, the curator of the Biblioteca Ariostea.

That same volume, judged unworthy to become part of the city's public bibliographical heritage a little more than a hundred and fifty years before, and now even more unbound and worn, became the centre of a festive ceremony attended by all the city dignitaries.
Savonarola's Bible, one of the treasures that the Biblioteca Ariostea guards with justifiable pride, has been recently restored and, to mark the occasion of the fifth centenary of the friar's death, the Library has invited professor Claudio Leonardi of the University of Florence to make a critical appraisal of the handwritten annotations.
Once finished, this study will increase the importance of this possession for Ferrara, which harbours an imperfect sense of paternity regarding Savonarola: the young Girolamo had left the city too soon and, later, he spent too little time in residence there.

On the other hand, Savonarola attracts vigorous and contrasting sentiments. On the day after his execution many Ferraresi staged a vigorous protest against the Dominicans in the city as they were thought to be in some measure responsible for the death sentence.

But it is also true that from Paris the Ferrarese painter Giovanni Boldini inveighed against the friar and against the statue that the citizens had erected in his memory: "one would have need OF a bomb TO demolish the statue IN piazza del Castello, the murderer Savonarolla who the Ferraresi ARE honoured TO have AS compatriot, was NO MORE than a raving madman who had the most beautiful works OF art IN Tuscany destoyed: paintings by divine artists, jewels etc. etc. IN the MONTH OF September I shall come TO Ferrara AND will take ON the task OF HAVING it demolished: I have the means."
In commemoration of Savonarola
A bibliographical exhibition in the Ariostea

In conjunction with the Istituto di Studi Rinascimentali in Ferrara, the Historical Section of the Biblioteca Ariostea will celebrate the 5th Centenary of the death of Girolamo Savonarola with a bibliographical exhibition.

Among the over two hundred editions printed between the Fifteenth and the Eighteenth centuries of works by Savonarola in the Ariostea's possession, the curators have selected fifty-three rare and valuable exemplars of incunabula and Sixteenth century books that are also of interest because they contain a wealth of xylographs on the thoughts and preachings of Girolamo Savonarola: the illustrations strategically render all the visibility of the message contained in the writings.

The selection of the editions was carried out after an analysis involving the various methods of identification, ex libris slips, stamps and so on, by means of which it was often possible to decide on the provenance of the volumes.
The historic document of the greatest interest, insofar as it contains original material regarding the ideas of the young Savonarola during his time at the monastery of Santa Maria degli Angeli in the years 1479-1482, is the Latin Bible (Venetijs, Nicolaus Jenson, 1476) embellished by tiny, extremely dense handwritten annotations of biblical exegesis.