This Week In History: Feb. 5 – Feb. 11 

Greetings historians, and welcome back to This Week In History! Known for both rich cultural heritage and fantastic pasta dishes, this week we’ll cover some interesting events surrounding the long and illustrious history of Italy! So let’s jump in! Illustration by Kaitlyn Tran/The Daily Campus.

Greetings historians, and welcome back to This Week In History! Known for both rich cultural heritage and fantastic pasta dishes, this week we’ll cover some interesting events surrounding the long and illustrious history of Italy! So let’s jump in! 

Out of all of the historical research conducted in Italy, perhaps the excavations of the ash-covered Pompeii ruins are the most iconic. Known for providing remarkable insight into ancient Roman life, historians and archaeologists have long picked the sight apart, hoping to learn as much as possible about the lives of humans living in the old empire.  

But while the fateful eruption that occurred in A.D. 79 is no doubt fascinating, this week marks an equally important precursor to the volcanic outburst: the Pompeii Earthquake of Feb. 5, A.D. 62.  

While largely overshadowed by the legacy of the later eruption, several accounts and even a relief carved in marble depicting the ruins of the forum have been preserved throughout the chaos of history. Pompeiians were no doubt shocked, and there is evidence that the city, as well as neighboring Herculaneum, were utterly ruined. 

Interestingly, the eruption led the notable intellect, Seneca, to comment about the supposed causes of earthquakes in his groundbreaking “Naturales Quaestiones” from A.D. 65. Seneca used various moral and philosophical concepts to prove scientific observations, leading to some very revealing conclusions. 

One can almost imagine the horror of those who experienced the shock of the earthquake when Seneca asks, “If the solid Earth fail, what can be done?” With no Richter scale or technology to predict tectonic plate movement, the Romans really believed something was dreadfully wrong with the Earth. In fact, Seneca later declares, “In an earthquake the earth shows itself mortal as men are.” 

Thankfully Seneca also mentions that many Romans fled from the region following the earthquake, so despite its destruction, maybe the earthquake saved more lives from the later eruption of Mount Vesuvius than it took itself. 

The next event this week shifts our focus northwards to the marvelous city of Florence. Despite undergoing a vibrant Renaissance throughout the 15th century, Florence was not entirely thriving by the end of the century. 

Imagine, that as a simple Christian monk and member of the extremely devout Dominican order, you are fed up with the Renaissance “vanities” — essentially all of the flashy new innovations of the day. Sinful things such as cosmetics, bright clothes, the sciences and humanist art all seem to invalidate Christian modesty. Wouldn’t you feel dismayed that such trivial human pursuits flourished at the expense of your faith? 

Well the flamboyant Girolama Savonarola did not just imagine it, he lived it. He was enraged at the idea of human developments rivaling the influence of his faith, and converting his anger into action, on Feb. 7, 1497, Savonarola ignited the “Bonfire of the Vanities.” 

While not the first bonfire to be held by the Dominicans, many historians believe that Savonarola’s actions proved to be far more impactful for the course of the Renaissance, and even Florence itself. Following the popularity of his bonfire, Savonarola took to a more political path to change Florence. Insinuating that an “apocalypse” would occur in the year 1500, Savonarola won over the hearts of many otherwise modern-minded Florentines, leading them to surrender their magnificent city to the ideologue. 

Florentines truly bowed to Savonarola. Among them, even the brilliant Renaissance artist, Sandro Botticelli was to cast his own works away — a great loss. Yet, his reign of terror was brief, and in a fantastic turn of events, his own Christian church would put an end to Savonarola by executing him for his overstep of religious power. He would be killed in 1498, in the same plaza in which he held his bonfire. 

The last event for this week shifts focus to the great capital of Italy, Rome. Now, when discussing the Roman Republic, your mind probably jumps back to the magnificent ancient republic which preceded the Roman Empire. But this week, on Feb. 9, 1849, a much more modern Roman Republic was founded. 

Following years of Papal rulership, and an aristocratic form of government, the Italian populace was desperate to taste the democratic systems taking root in neighboring France, and even the distant United States.  

Beginning with the assassination of a Papal government minister at the hands of republican sympathizers, Italian liberals flooded the streets, forcing out the Papal government and installing a triumvirate to form the new republic. Mirroring the triumvirates of ancient Rome, the republic was headed by three notable Italian figureheads: Giuseppe Mazzini, Carlo Armellini and Aurelio Saffi. While having their fair share of disagreements, this government issued remarkable reforms, such as religious toleration, the end of capital punishment and broad liberal reforms for expression. 

Sadly, despite fierce fighting and the brilliant victories of Italian hero Giuseppe Garibaldi, only a year later, the Republic would end at the hands of French soldiers who sought to restore the Papal government. Despite its brevity, the concept of a free Italy took root, and in the following decades the revolutionary spirit would not be so easily put out. 

Well that’s all for This Week in (Italian) History! See you next week! 

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