The heretic

Giordano Bruno has been called a martyr to science and an occultist, but a new book argues that the brilliant philosopher's unconventional behavior did him in.

Published August 25, 2008 10:46AM (EDT)

The bronze figure of Giordano Bruno that stands at the center of Rome's Campo de' Fiori may be the most successful commemorative monument in the world. The average statue in a park or square usually rates no more than a glance: Either you already know who the guy is, or you don't care. But the hooded and manacled effigy of Bruno, with its haunted stare, immediately catches the eye, and the gruesome story attached to it -- Bruno was burned at the stake in that very spot, for the crime of heresy -- cements him in memory. Practically every tourist who comes to Rome tromps through the Campo and hears that story, even if they've never heard of Bruno before. The students who commissioned the statue in the 1880s, as an emblem for freedom of thought and the division of church from state, really got their money's worth.

But who was Giordano Bruno, and why was he executed in the Campo de' Fiori in 1600? A common misperception mixes him up with Galileo, who ran into trouble with the church 16 years later for embracing the Copernican model of the solar system instead of endorsing the Aristotelian belief that the sun revolves around the Earth. (In fact, the two men shared an Inquisitor, the implacable Cardinal Robert Bellarmine, canonized by the Catholic Church in 1930.) Bruno, too, thought that the Earth circled the sun, and subscribed to many other than heterodox ideas as well: that the universe is infinite and that everything in it is made up of tiny particles (i.e., atoms), and that it is immeasurably old. But as Ingrid Rowland demonstrates in her new biography of the renegade thinker, "Giordano Bruno: Philosopher/Heretic," Bruno was no martyr for science. What got him killed was a murky mixture of spiritual transgression and personal foibles, combined with a large dose of bad luck.

Born in Nola, a small city near Naples, the precocious Bruno soon made his way to the regional capital where he became a Dominican friar, despite the fact that one of the more ecumenical Augustinian orders would probably have been a better fit. The Dominicans ran the best university, but their dry, hidebound scholasticism might have been custom-made to rub the imaginative Bruno the wrong way. Why he made this choice and did many other seemingly self-destructive or simply wrongheaded things remains something of a mystery, mostly due to a lack of documentary evidence. Even the records of his trial before the Inquisition in Rome got lost when bales of Vatican papers were carted off to France and back again during the Napoleonic Wars. Some of his surviving works feature autobiographical elements, but since these are poems or plays written in service of various philosophical and personal agendas, it's hard to know exactly which parts of them represent actual events.

One thing can't be doubted: Bruno thought most of his fellow friars were "asses"; in fact, the stupidity and incompetence of other philosophers and religious thinkers may be -- along with his own brilliance -- one of the most enduring themes in his work and life. From the beginning of his career, when he stripped images of the Virgin and saints from his cell at the convent of San Domenico Maggiore (implying that such things were idolatrous), he struck his colleagues as odd and (worse yet) "suspiciously like a Protestant." Trained in the rigorous syllogism-based reasoning of the scholastics, he soaked up the ecstatic Neoplatonic ideas of Augustinian mentors on the side. When a professor ridiculed the Arian heresy (which denies that God is divided into three persons, the doctrine of the Trinity) as "ignorant," Bruno defended the learning of its proponents (if not the heresy itself), and won himself a scolding that he considered unjust and brooded over for years.

Eventually, Bruno's unconventional behavior and ideas got him into enough trouble in Naples that he fled to Rome. (Investigators later found a copy of Erasmus' "Commentaries" -- on the Vatican's list of forbidden books -- hidden in his latrine.) In Rome, he so excited the interest of the Inquisition that he finally left Italy entirely, taking off his habit and living as a secular academic. Not long after that, he was excommunicated, and commenced a nomadic life, traveling from one European capitol or university town to another, seeking work and patrons. He had, as Rowland notes, a knack for making friends in high places, and an even more pronounced habit of quarreling with everyone else.

In Geneva, among Protestants whom he hoped to find more open-minded, he once again ran into irksome restrictions. Swiss professors could not be openly challenged in their classrooms, so Bruno decided to publish a broadsheet listing 20 errors of fact made by a particularly well-connected lecturer and wound up jailed for slander until he agreed to apologize to the offended party on his knees. Onward, then, to France, where he found favor with Henri III by promising to teach the court the secrets of "artificial memory," a method for memorizing prodigious amounts of material as well as a discipline associated with arcane powers.

Bruno's achievements in the "art of memory" were legendary. (The Dominicans had once sent him to Rome where he recited a psalm in Hebrew before the pope, then repeated it backward word for word.) It's this aspect of the philosopher's work that most interests scholars of the Renaissance today, particular the distinguished late British historian Frances Yates, author of "The Art of Memory" and other books on what's known as the hermetic tradition: gnosticism, Neoplatonism, magic and alchemy. Her 1964 book, "Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition," insisted that it was Bruno's interest in such forbidden matters that led to his execution. Rowland apparently doesn't agree, downplaying Bruno's contact with figures like the Elizabethan "magician" Dr. John Dee and arguing that Bruno's idea of magic was "pointedly natural and physical" rather than occult.

Still, the mental powers of Bruno and his fellow memory artists seem almost superhuman today. The basic principle, Rowland explains, is simple enough, "to link words with images." Nevertheless, the structures employed were mind-boggling: vast, elaborate patterns and nested wheels within wheels (like the color wheels used by visual designers) that could be used to juxtapose and rearrange huge quantities of information without recourse to any extra-mental form of storage (like writing). This ability makes the minds of Renaissance intellectuals radically different from our own, almost incomprehensibly so. Some of the more outlandish things that some of them believed -- such as the conviction that the universe is a series of rotating crystalline spheres with planets embedded in them, or that the space in outer space is a liquid -- seem merely eccentric by comparison.

Bruno's skill in the arts of memory was unparalleled, and he believed that such abilities bestowed some kind of power on those who mastered them. Random thoughts could be brought to "a distilled and developed order of conceivable species, arranged as statues, or a microcosm, or some other kind of architecture ... by focusing the chaos of imagination." Whatever that means, the discipline and practice required to master the arts were beyond the reach of most of Bruno's students, so he also taught astronomy and other forms of philosophy and natural philosophy (what we would call science) to wealthy Frenchmen. Religious tensions between Catholics and Protestants in France soon sent him scurrying to England, however, and there Bruno met with an unexpected setback while seeking employment at Oxford: The English found his small stature, volatile demeanor and Italian accent irresistibly comical. Soon, Bruno was offending his neighbors by writing satirical dialogues complaining that England's populace was "second to none that the Earth nurtures in her bosom for being disrespectful, uncivil, rough, rustic, savage, and badly brought up."

Rowland thinks that his rocky reception in England sharpened Bruno's ideas. There, but also later in Prague and Germany, he solidified his ideas about the cosmos. He reached his conclusions -- about the universe's infinite size and age -- largely through abstract contemplation. Unlike Galileo, Bruno had no gift for calculation or meticulous empirical observation; geometry and poetry were more in his line, and Rowland's own translations of his writings, amply quoted in this biography, testify to his literary talent. Bruno's mind inhabited the blurry territory between art and science, which at that time weren't seen as necessarily separated; his treatise "On the Immense," for example, is written in verse. Perhaps it's all the more impressive that, in spite of his own mathematical limitations, Bruno perceived the need for calculus (invented during the next century by Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz) to deal with numbers of great and infinitesimal sizes.

With all these theoretical conclusions came an increasing skepticism about Christianity -- particularly the various sacraments and doctrines of the church. He doubted not only the Trinity, but the personhood of God, the divinity of Christ, the Virgin birth and the transubstantiation of the eucharist into the flesh and blood of Christ. He was a universalist, meaning that he believed all of creation (even heathens, unrepentant sinners and demons) would ultimately be reconciled with and forgiven by God, and he apparently believed in reincarnation. Yet despite what are, in toto, a sweeping array of exceptions to the church's creed, he continued to think of himself as a Catholic and intermittently petitioned learned officials to intervene on his behalf and revoke his excommunication.

Finally, in an act of profound miscalculation, Bruno returned to Italy in the employ of a Venetian nobleman who wanted to be taught the memory arts. The nobleman turned out to be a bit of a crank and incapable of the considerable discipline and effort required, but when Bruno tried to leave, his patron accused him of chicanery, locked him in the attic and ultimately turned him over to the Venetian Inquisition. The man also submitted a letter cataloging the philosopher's heresies, including Bruno's boasts of an ability to perform "magic" tricks exceeding the so-called miracles produced by Christ and "plans to make himself the head of a new sect under the name of a new philosophy ... he said that the Virgin could not have given birth, that our Catholic faith is full of blasphemies against God, that friars should have neither the right to debate nor incomes because they pollute the world and are all asses," and so on, much of it all too plausible, given Bruno's penchant for ranting about the idiocy of church figures.

Under the Spanish Inquisition a single anonymous denunciation was considered sufficient evidence of heresy, but both the Venetian and Roman Inquisitions required the public testimony of two witnesses in order to convict. The Venetians ultimately acquitted Bruno, but only after holding him for months, crammed in a cell with several other accused heretics, where tempers ran understandably high. Then they extradited him to Rome, a concession the Venetian republic would not ordinarily have made to Roman power, but that just so happened to be politically expedient at the time. The Romans held Bruno for a further eight years before convicting him of heresy and handing him over to secular authorities for execution. (The Inquisition itself was not supposed to shed blood; like American authorities today, who deliver accused terrorists to Egyptian prisons, they relied on outsiders to do their dirty work.)

It was what Rowland calls Bruno's "combative personality" that finally did him in. The Roman Inquisition, in an especially insecure and punitive mood on account of widespread Protestant agitation against the church, had only the Venetian nobleman's testimony against the philosopher. Then one of Bruno's former cellmates, a man he'd slapped during a dispute and who feared that Bruno had informed on him as well, stepped forward to relate the various blasphemies and heretical convictions Bruno had spouted during their time together behind bars.

Their fellow prisoners confirmed that Bruno had cursed God, Christ and the church. Of course, many Italians (then and now) have been known to do this in moments of pique, but the Inquisition also had ample evidence of the philosopher's contempt for friars, Jesuits, scholastics and other church figures (not to mention his very real objections to key Christian doctrines) in his printed works. He had vented as much bile as the most virulent Internet troll, but he was much more eloquent and far from anonymous. Eventually, he ran out of friends and second chances.

The last straw was Bruno's refusal to accept the authority of the Inquisition itself. Even so, his rebellion was peculiarly Catholic: He kept insisting he'd recant if the pope personally confirmed to him that his beliefs were heresy. This infuriated Cardinal Bellarmine, known for his conviction that harsh punishments make good teachers. Sixteen years later, Galileo managed to elude the more extreme penalties meted out by Bellarmine and company with a public (and essentially politic) repudiation of his heliocentric views; he lived to fight another day under a relatively comfortable house arrest. Bruno was characteristically less prudent, and died naked and gagged (by some accounts with an iron spike through his tongue), in flames.

As Rowland points out, Bruno, irascible as he was, had committed no crime, not even the disruption of mass, a common practice by militant Protestants of the day (and also punishable by death). He "had done nothing in his life except talk, write and argue." When his fate was pronounced, he told his condemners, "You may be more afraid to bring that sentence against me than I am to accept it." It took a long time for that to prove true, yet thanks to those idealistic 19th-century students, everyone who comes to Rome to behold the splendor of the Vatican is also presented with a reminder of its bloody, repressive past. Every year, on the anniversary of his death, free-thinking Romans cover his statue with flowers. While the church has since expressed "profound regret" for his persecution (which it simultaneously tries to palm off on "civil authority"), this can't be comfortably reconciled with the canonization of Bellarmine a mere seven decades ago. Dead 400 years and largely unread but immortalized nevertheless in bronze, Giordano Bruno is still a thorn in their side.

By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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