Savonarola returns to his priory cell

Terracotta bust of Girolamo Savonarola, late 15th/early16th c., by Fra' Mattia della Robbia. Photo courtesy Ministero della Cultura Direzione regionale musei della Toscana.A previously unpublished bust of Renaissance firebrand friar Girolamo Savonarola has gone on public display for the first time at the convent of San Marco where Savonarola was once prior. It dates to the late 15th or early 16th century and is also the only surviving in-the-round sculpture of Savonarola known to have been made in the Renaissance.

The polychrome terracotta bust is a departure from the classic representation of Savonarola in profile, black hood pulled low on his forehead, originally created by Dominican painter Fra Bartolomeo. The frontal portrait bust captures the severe expression and hooked nose seen in the Bartolomeo painting, but with piercing light blue eyes.

What’s more, it was made by someone who knew him personally. The sculptor was Marco della Robbia, aka Fra Mattia, son of Andrea della Robbia and fervent follower of Girolamo Savonarola. Mattia was one of the friars who took up arms to fight the authorities when they arrested Savonarola at San Marco on April 8th, 1498.

The bust is on long-term loan to the Museum of San Marco from lawyer and collector Alessandro Kiniger. It has been installed in the room where, according to tradition, Savonarola lived when he was prior. It is on display alongside the famous profile portrait by Fra Bartolomeo, another work by Bartolomeo depicting St. Peter with the face of Savonarola, and autograph manuscripts of sermons written and delivered by Savonarola.

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