Date of this Version
The George Eliot Review 44 (2013)
2012-2013 marks the one hundred and fiftieth birthday of Romola. Originally published in the Comhill Magazine from July 1862 to August 1863, it later appeared in a three volume edition in 1863. An illustrated edition followed in 1865.
George Eliot had begun work on the novel in 1861, when she was forty-one. She had recently published Silas Mamer, and The Mill on the Floss, preceded by Adam Bede, had come out not long before that. The genesis of Romola came in May 1860 when George Eliot and George Henry Lewes spent two weeks in Florence. Lewes noted that, 'while reading about Savonarola it occurred to me that his life and times afford fine material for an historical romance'.1 The idea appealed to George Eliot and they began on some preliminary research. The writing of Si/as Mamer intervened, but the couple were back in Florence a year later and stayed in the city for a month.
In deciding to write a novel about Florence in the late fifteenth century, just after the death of Lorenzo de Medici, and in the time of Fra Girolamo Savonarola, a novelist as conscientious and thorough as George Eliot felt obliged to do her homework. She and Lewes spent much of their time in Florence in galleries, palaces, churches and libraries, and we can gather some idea of their activities from letters and diaries. Like many historical novelists, she chose to write about an era of transition, from the Middle Ages to the full-blown Renaissance, rich in works of art.
Like many Victorians, George Eliot believed that the Papacy had become corrupt in the second half of the fifteenth century. The Popes of the period were worldly princes from prominent families with little religious zeal. The Pope who battled with Savonarola was Rodrigo Borgia who took the title of Alexander VI. Savonarola himself was a visionary, espousing the path of religious purity, and urging the Florentines to examine the state of their own souls. Although a devout Christian and a priest, his position led him into conflict with the great Florentine families and with the Papacy who regarded him as a dangerous revolutionary. He was doctrinaire and authoritarian in his puritanical denial of humanism and the arts. Florence had been in the forefront of Renaissance thought and culture and remained an enlightened city.