February 7, 1497: The Bonfire of the Vanities

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A Brief History

On February 7, 1497, the followers of Dominican priest Girolamo Savonarola of Florence, Italy, gathered and burned a large quantity of objects they referred to as “vanities,” objects such as cosmetics, books, artwork, mirrors, fancy clothes, playing cards, and musical instruments, any objects these religious zealots thought could lead people to sin.

Digging Deeper

Misguided people have engaged in burning books and other articles that they have seen as contrary to their view of what is “proper,” “right,” or “moral” throughout history, and of course the Florence incident was not the first or largest of these burnings, though it is one of the more famous examples.  Little evidence exists that such public burnings ever accomplish the purification of a culture that is sought by the fanatics doing the burning.

This painting shows the Florentine preacher Girolamo Savonarola (1452–1498) denouncing frivolous possessions and activities, in preparation for a bonfire of vanities.

In fact, this incident inspired the title of a Tom Wolfe novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987) and a subsequent feature film based on the book by the same title (1990).  The film, starring major Hollywood actors such as Tom Hanks, Melanie Griffiths, and Bruce Willis, is about a hit skip accident caused by a rich White stockbroker that is subsequently tried and acquitted for the crime, nothing to do with the original basis for the name of the book and film.

The violent attempt to force one’s morality and ideas of propriety upon others in a society by destroying books or other symbols of “decadence” have resulted in spectacular book burnings such as those seen in Nazi Germany during the 1930’s, when books by Jewish authors (even prominent scientists) were burned in enormous piles and glorified on Nazi news films, while being condemned by Walt Disney and others.  Sadly, this sort of deranged mentality as exhibited by the Nazis has also often resulted in people later being burned instead of or in addition to the objects, again most blatantly exhibited by the Holocaust when millions of people were murdered and burned.  In the United States we saw rabid “patriots” burning Dixie Chicks CD’s when lead singer Natalie Maines made the mistake of disrespecting President GW Bush in public by denouncing the imminent US invasion of Iraq and saying the singers were ashamed that Bush hailed from Texas.  This sort of idiocy has resulted in tragic loss of historical documents and records, such as the burning of the Library of Baghdad (1258), the burying and burning of scholars as well as their works in China under the Qin Dynasty (213-210 BC), and the destruction of everything today’s ISIS (or ISIL) Islamic extremists deem un-Islamic, including priceless ancient treasures.  At other times burning sacred objects is purposely confrontational, such as the threatened 2010 burning of the Quran in the US.

Protest against International Burn a Quran Day held in Delhi, India.  Photograph by Shabiha.

Today this sort of activity can be staged through electronic means, involving the cyber destruction of information such as the “deletionism” of articles on Wikipedia by persons that think they know better than everyone else what should or should not be available for reference.

Obviously, we at History and Headlines condemn any sort of Bonfire of the VanitiesQuestion for students (and subscribers): What do you think?  Is such action ever justified?  If so, under what conditions?  Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

Killing the Scholars and Burning the Books in 210-213 BC (18th century Chinese painting).

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see here.

The featured image in this article, a picture by Giovanni Dall’Orto of Bernardino of Siena organising the vanities bonfire, is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Italy license.

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About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.