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The bushfires of the vanities

  • 20 November 2019


The Bonfire of the Vanities is associated with Girolamo Savanarola, the ardent preacher of moral reform in late 15th century Florence. Following a devotional practice of the time he had people burn cosmetics, mirrors and frivolous garments as a sign of embracing simplicity of life. Later manuscripts of secular literature were added to the list. He made enemies and was eventually tried for heresy. He, too, died hanged over fire at in the square where he had the books and other frivolities burned.

The tone of the phrase, Bonfire of the Vanities, with its echoes of delight, drama, renunciation, moral fervour, danger and opportunism, suggests the danger that fire brings.

In Savanarola's case the story of the burning of the vanities and his own execution in Florence brings together the rise and fall of a social and religious reformer, the resentment of his young followers who flocked to feed the fires, the exclusion of the poor and luxury of the wealthy in the society of Florence, the political scheming of French King, the Medici family and Pope Alexander VI, the passions expressed in religious and Republican zeal, and the fears of the Pope and others who saw religious fervour and Republicanism out of control.

With such dry and combustible wood to stoke a fire, the men who died on it, and centrally Savanarola, inevitably became lost from view. Only in recent years has he been studied as a person and not as a cipher of a thousand causes and a hundred fears.

In Australia we don't do bonfires so melodramatically, but we do take bushfires seriously. In the fires still threatening New South Wales and Queensland, and feared in the other states, it was impossible not to feel for the people whose lives, hopes, possessions and histories were threatened by the flames. Bushfires are a human catastrophe evoking awe and compassion.

As with the bonfires in Florence, however, the bushfires also put on view all the relationships between people and with the natural world that shape a society. The passions and interests evoked by these relationships can similarly distract from the plight of the people threatened by the fire.

In Australian bushfires these passions were aroused when attention turned to the reasons why the fires are so dangerous, and particularly to the part that climate change plays in them. This question threatens political and economic interests. Once it was raised it led to vicious argument, to