A friar and an astronomer
This is the medieval, western façade of the cathedral in Ferrara (Italy). It is the only medieval part of the cathedral that is still preserved; the rest of the building is a mixture of Renaissance and Baroque styles and has a very different, modern feel to it. The façade, however, is genuine 12th C. work that includes Romanesque and Gothic elements in a manner that is reminiscent of Lombard architecture. The façade today looks very similar to the way it appeared in the late 15th C. when Ferrara was home to two extraordinary figures. The first was born in Ferrara – Girolamo Savonarola was a Dominican friar and a powerful preacher who criticized the corruption and wealth of the church. He opposed the powerful Medici family as well as the Pope and used popular support to take control of one of Italy’s wealthiest cities – Florence. For a moment, it seemed his fiery speeches and visions gave him absolute control over the heart of Italy but eventually Savonarola was brought before the Pope and was tortured, branded as a heretic and executed. At the same time, another visitor to Ferrara was a Polish astronomer, Nicholaus Copernicus. After studying in the Cracow University, Copernicus went to the universities of Bologna and Ferrara to further his knowledge. In few years, he will return to Poland and publish a ground breaking work arguing that the earth is not the center of the universe but rather, that is orbits around the sun.
What did Copernicus think about Savonarola? I wonder, was he inspired or threatened by Savonarolla’s radicalism? Did he expect that his own, radical views about the universe will echo through the history of Europe and science? When Copernicus and Savonarola looked at the cathedral in Ferrara, did it bring them solace? Did they find it beautiful or were they so busy with their work that they paid no heed to the old building? Either way, the façade stands as a witness surviving one of the most dramatic periods in the history of Europe – the time of radical ideas and remarkable individuals like Copernicus or Savonarola who sought to bring change to the world around them.