In Lent, Jo Walton takes the life of Girolamo Savonarola both seriously and literally. Not only his life, the whole framework in which he lived that life: God, demons, Purgatory, the Rule of St. Benedict, the Dominican Order to which Savonarola was dedicated, his desire to create a new Jerusalem in Italy, and ever so much more. She opens the book with Girolamo and two other Dominican brothers called to a women’s cloister in the dead of night to banish an infestation of demons. Girolamo can see them in all their grotesqueries and hear their shrieking and their mocking laughter.
Brother Domenico can see nothing unusual, but “I think I can hear something—it sounds like distant laughter. It’s very unsettling. I can see why the nuns might be disturbed.” Brother Silvestro adds, “I don’t see or hear anything, but I feel an evil presence here.” (p. 12) Girolamo sees so many at the convent that he wonders whether the Gates of Hell have been opened, and he almost despairs that his brothers, the most sensitive among his order, can sense so little. He banishes them, even the one who has possessed a young novice, even the vast number of demons apparently drawn to a book that was a recent bequest by the King of Hungary. “‘God has given me these gifts, I must use them for the good of all,’ he says, in complete sincerity. ‘I will keep this book, if I may, or it will draw them here again. Them, or worse things.'” (p. 22)
Girolamo is sincere in his desire to help, and in his piety, but he is not above fault, as Walton shows just a few paragraphs later.
“Is it true that the Magnificent Lorenzo is dying?” [the First Sister of the convent] asks.
“Yes, everyone is saying his death will be on him soon.”
“And is it true that you foretold it?”
“Yes,” he says, baldly. It annoys him that she asks, treating him as some kind of oracle. It annoys him too that God has vouchsafed to him such a worldly prophecy, such a petty matter as the death of a gouty merchant prince. Girolamo has never met Lorenzo de’ Medici. He has in fact avoided him, for reasons that are partly pride and partly a confirmed distaste for hobnobbing with the rich. Easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, after all. (p. 22)
Lorenzo is in fact dying; he has already received last rites. Girolamo meets his impressive daughter and his petulant son, both kept from their father’s presence a little longer while he speaks with the Dominican. To the surprise of everyone except Lorenzo — and perhaps Marsilio Ficino, a Platonist and scholar in the Medici orbit, and also a Walton favorite from her Thessaly books — he is dying in a state of grace. “Not old, middle-aged only, but certainly dying. There is nothing unusual about him except the celestial light shining from him.” (p. 42) It’s not obvious at the time, but the scene with Lorenzo is pivotal for the whole book, and worth an extended quotation.
“I just wanted to get a look at you,” Lorenzo goes on.
“I came because the Count of Concordia expressed concern for your soul,” [Girolamo] says …
Lorenzo looks serenely up at him. “But now you’re not concerned?” he suggests.
“I don’t know what to think. There are snares and deceptions in this world.” He has seen many dying people, many who had received the last rites, but never anything at all like this. What is it? It isn’t a halo, at least not as portrayed in art. And why is it blue? He looks at the Count, who is staring at Lorenzo, and then back down at the glow. “Is this from God?”
“I am from God, you are from God, we are all from God.”
“It is not from Hell,” he says, feeling sure of it, because the things of Hell shrink from him in fear, and this light continues to shine undimmed from the dying man.
The Count lets out a sigh of relief. “You are speaking of the glow? I can see it, a little, and Marsilio sees it clearly.” … “It is from God. I thought so. The colour—everything. But I feared—the world is full of deceptions. I knew you’d be able to tell. That’s why I brought you.” …
Girolamo turns his attention to Lorenzo. “But what are you, banker, merchant, prince, to have this vouchsafed?” This is a miracle even greater than a camel passing through the eye of a needle.
“A man, only a man.”
Girolamo bows his head. He wishes now he had come before, to know how long this glow, this miracle, has been shining around Lorenzo. Had his stubborn pride, always his worst sin, kept him from knowing a saint on Earth? He prays to Saint Lucy that his eyes might be opened, and to the Merciful Virgin for forgiveness. “How long have you been like this?” he asks.
“I have been like this on occasion for some time, but continuously only since I have been dying.” …
“Will you give me your blessing?” Lorenzo asks.
“If you live, you must give up usury and manipulation of the state,” he says, as he has been planning to say.”
… “If I live, I will.” They both know he will not live. “Take care of my city, Brother Girolamo.”
Girolamo wants to protest, to say, as he had said to the Count, that Florence is God’s city. And yet, as Lorenzo lies there dying he is resplendent with the pure light of God’s love and favour. The glow shines through him like sunlight through the Virgin’s robe in a stained glass window. Who is he to shun a man granted a miracle of this kind? Furthermore, in asking him to care for Florence, Lorenzo is showing that he knows that it will fall to Brother Girolamo’s part to look after the city in future, which God must have given the prophetic gift to him, as He has to Girolamo. Their eyes meet. “I will take care of it.” …
“I wish I had known you,” Girolamo says, in all honesty. He has never known anyone else who had any gift of prophecy. They could have had such fascinating conversations. …
[There is a brief discourse about Plato.]
Girolamo can’t argue, not with the divine light so clear before him. He sighs and sets his hand on Lorenzo’s forehead. The light does not change, not even a flicker, nor does he feel anything beyond the natural heat of human flesh. He must have hurt Lorenzo inadvertently, though, because the dying man flinches for an instant at the touch, then stills himself and closes his eyes as Girolamo begins to speak the blessing. As Girolamo straightens and makes to rise, Lorenzo’s eyes open again. His face looks troubled.
“I will pray for you,” Lorenzo says.
“And I for you,” Girolamo replies, surprised.” (pp. 42–44)
The book from the King of Hungary, which Girolamo brought back from the convent, contained a flattened green stone that fit his hand and thumb well. In the course of conversation, Girolamo shows it to Lorenzo, who seems to recognize it, possibly as the Stone of Titurel though he just says it has many names. In his final words to Girolamo, he says that the Dominican can use it, that he should take it when he goes, and to “Remember the harrow, and remember me, and the love of God.” (p. 45)
The whole of Lent is like the scene with Lorenzo: humane, concerned with building a just city, trying to balance earthly and heavenly concerns. To anyone who vaguely remembers Savonarola as the fanatic portrayed in history surveys, Walton’s Girolamo seems almost a different person entirely. Sure, he’s intense at times, and he’s proud, but he cares so deeply about the people he ministers to and about the city they all live in. Florence can be a new Ark, a new Jerusalem, he can see it so clearly and he wants to help the people get there, to live an exalted life. Even the bonfire of the vanities is something that emerges from a committee meeting, after other activities have been rejected as too licentious, too dull, or having been done too recently.
Here is Girolamo conversing with another dying man, a friend who is succumbing to a slow-acting poison.
“Any more great sins on your conscience?” [Girolamo] asks.
[The friend] starts to shake his head, then stops, shivering, and huddles down under the covers. “No,” he says, taking the water and drinking. “Will there be poetry in Heaven?” he asks, like a child, as he hands back the cup.
“I think there will be something better,” Girolamo confides. “Something that poetry reminds us of, and that is why we are drawn to love it. I think loving all earthly beauty is a way to lead us to love Heavenly beauty. So there will not be sunsets or poetry, but there will be something like them but even better.” (p. 71)
Nor does he have a pat answer for everything, as for example when he speaks to the unmarried partner of another friend who has died. (Lent is not shy about the amount of dying that went on in Florence on the cusp of the Renaissance.)
“I can assure you I didn’t do anything he didn’t do, and he did it with others before me, which I did not. If he could confess and be clean of it, surely so can I.”
“It isn’t the same for men and women,” he stammers.
“Why not?” she asks.
Why not, he asks himself. For worldly reasons. Because people wouldn’t trust their daughters and widows in a convent that accepted women who were neither virgins nor widows. They would think women like Isabella would be a bad influence. But he could see that she wouldn’t, any more than the Count would have been a bad influence at San Marco, or Angelo. … But men were different. His mind skitters away from the question, he has to force himself to face it.
Humanizing Savonarola and giving readers a living, breathing Florence in a story that respects the characters’ religious viewpoints and vocations would have been achievement enough, but attentive readers of Lent will have noticed that events in Girolamo’s life are proceeding much faster than the pages of the book are going by. In history, Savonarola crossed too many powerful people too many times, and eventually lost much of his support among the populace. In May 1498, he had an appointment with a noose and a stake. Will the same fate await Girolamo?
About a third of the way through the book, Girolamo keeps his appointment with the executioner and dies. To immediately return to consciousness in Hell. Where he is a demon.
The knowledge hits him in the instant of landing and strikes harder than his impact. He knows all at once that he is damned, and that this is his torment. He is a demon, beaked and bat-winged and foul; he was sent into the world to live without this knowledge only to make this moment of returning what it is: Hell. …
It is the utmost imaginable anguish. Of course it is, for this is truly Hell, and torment is Hell’s only handicraft. This moment of utter knowledge and despair is his earned and well-deserved punishment for opposing God. For he had been an angel, long ago, spending all of his days praising God, in Heaven, in a happiness of which [the monastery of] San Marco and the canonical hours were a pale shadow. And from that, he had, through his own will, fallen to this. (pp. 171–72)
Which is why this brief second part of the book, three pages in Hell, is called “Returned.” Earth was an interlude, all of his efforts to steer Florence toward righteousness apparently a mockery, part of his deserved punishment. “Yet it is only now that he realises the full horror of his predicament. He has been lent to Earth again and again, and in endless iteration will go on being lent, be born again and go through that same life of hope and ignorance, only to return again and again to this first appalling moment where he must face the fact that he has forever lost God, and all hope and possibility of God’s love. This is what it means to be damned.” (p. 175)
With that, he is lent back to Earth, and Walton picks up the narrative at Lorenzo’s deathbed. The dialog is exactly the same until the moment when Girolamo sets the stone on Lorenzo’s palm. This time, his memory of Hell and damnation comes to him on earth. At first, he is crushed by the knowledge. “He has lived this mortal life and lived it and lived it, and died and died, awakening in Hell over and over, the same life, endlessly iterated as part of his torment, the lineaments of his damnation.” (p. 178) But that in itself is a difference. “He has changed it, and the weight of repetition is lifting. He has free will, for the first time since the Fall he is free to act where it matters.” (p. 178)
From that moment onward, Lent is not just an explication of Savonarola and Florence, it becomes a search for redemption, an exploration of possibilities within history, within human choices, and within the hope for grace for even the worst beings. As touching and smart as the first life in Lent was, the others make the book deeper and more brilliant. Working out what to change, experiencing many different kinds of human life all make the multiple Girolamos more affecting. Why did he rebel as an angel? Why was he part of the Fall? That is just one part of what he hopes to understand, as Ficino and others hold out hope that he, too, might find a way to grace. He knows that his punishment is just, but when he is not in Hell and has hope, he hopes that punishment is not the last word. Is it?