Florence, like no other Italian city, remains frozen in the Renaissance. That era is also the setting for the historical novel of George Eliot, Romola, whose theme of faith clashing with science, and knowledge with belief, is still relevant today.
The book is a favorite of mine for the way it captures the grandeur and drama of Renaissance Florence in its story of a passionate, brilliant female scholar – the Romola of the title. Trapped in an unhappy marriage, a key figure in her life is the historic Dominican monk Savonarola, an apocalyptic preacher whose "Bonfire of the Vanities" – in which Florentines were encouraged to burn anything that might lead to vice – ultimately led to his own execution by burning in the Piazza dei Signora.
Eliot’s city is a Florence caught between a passion for scholarship and learning – the same passion I see reflected in the perfectly geometric architecture of the Renaissance main squares, in the stuffed animals catalogued at the Specola Museum at Medici Palace – and the religious fervor so evident in the churches of Santa Croce and San Mineato al Monte.
The Bonfire of the Vanities led to his own death
One of Eliot’s least popular novels in her lifetime, Romola has recently undergone a resurgence of critical interest. Despite its relative obscurity, however, it provides a fascinating insight not only into Savonarola’s 15th-century Florence, but also into the effect Florence had on English writers in the 19th century and beyond.