Back in 1991, an Irish chain of video libraries called Xtravision ran the following ad on radio:

“'Bonfire Of The Vanities' is the new film from Brian De Palma, starring Tom Hanks, Bruce Willis and Melanie Griffith. 'Bonfire Of The Vanities' is also the worst film ever made. In fact, we hate this film so much that if anyone is stupid or desperate enough to rent this film, we’ll give it to you for free.”

Reviews don’t come much worse than that. The story of how one of the defining novels of the 80s turned into one of the worst cinematic disasters of the 90s is captured brilliantly in the wonderful book, The Devil’s Candy.

The novel by Tom Wolfe is a searing satire on yuppiedom. Sherman McCoy, an Ivy League stockbroker with a great apartment, sexy mistress and no soul, accidentally runs over a black kid in Harlem. A Farrakhan-esque black leader turns this into a PC cause celebre, leaving Sherman desperately trying to clear his name. It’s kind of like a funny American Psycho, in that it’s a scathing attack on 80s materialistic culture.

The phrase Bonfire of the Vanities refers to an event that took place in Florence, Italy on February 7th, 1497.

It was near the beginning of the Renaissance when a Dominican monk named Girolamo Savonarola, who some call ultra-conservative, others fanatical, preached to the population of Florence against the decadence of the times and pointed to the wealth of possessions held by the Florentines as a sin of vanity.

Savonarola told the people that they must (or more likely forced them to) destroy the possessions that had distracted them from God and reject the popular decadence that was emerging.

Savonarola persuaded or coerced hundreds of Florentines into bringing their wealthy possession to the Piazza della Signoria during the Shrove Tuesday festival of 1497, where they were burned on a great pyre. Some accounts say there were many bonfires while others say it was a single fire, 15 stories high. Books, paintings, mirrors, fine clothes and musical instruments were among the possessions destroyed.

Today there is a plaque set in the ground in front of the fountain of the piazza to commemorate the event.


Obviously, I've left out virtually all of the history of Girolamo Savonarola, since that's covered in a node of the same name.

The novel by Tom Wolfe is entitled The Bonfire of the Vanities, as is the 1990 movie by Brian De Palma.

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