Sunday, September 7, 2008

Giordano Bruno--visionary?...a new book

Giordano Bruno
1548 to February 17th, 1600

Giordano Bruno Moon Crater

Giordano Bruno...not exactly a household name to the populace or even scientists but from the perspective of the history of science, he is a significant and interesting figure. Under 30 bucks is not a bad price for a glimpse into the past of scientific history and I am sure used copies will be available as well as the library.

Two reviews:

"Giordano Bruno: Philosopher/Heretic"

Giordano Bruno was a philosopher before his time


M.M. Bennetts

August 22nd, 2008

The Christian Science Monitor

During the 15th and 16th centuries, Europe underwent an information revolution unprecedented in the history of mankind.

The invention of the compass, the printing press, and the telescope, the translation of the Bible into the vernacular, the rediscovery of classical Greek philosophy, and the discoveries of the New World, gunpowder, and that the Earth was not the center of the universe – all instigated radical shifts in the thinking that had dominated the mental landscape for centuries.

Occasionally the shifts were seen as good things. More frequently, they were fiercely resisted by church and state authorities. Moreover, the great thinkers, writers, pioneers, and scientists of the age – Leonardo da Vinci, Erasmus, Galileo, Luther, and Tycho Brahe to name a few – were often persisting in their work in the face of unparalleled persecution.

Giordano Bruno: Philosopher/Heretic is Ingrid Rowland's portrait of a lesser known, though no less daring, Italian, whose religious, philosophical, and scientific quests helped to usher in the modern age of science and mathematics.

Shaped by the priesthood

Filippo Bruno was born in Nola, in southern Italy, in 1548. He was the precocious only child of a mercenary soldier. At 17 he was sent to the convent of San Domenico Maggiore in Naples to train for the priesthood. There, in the rigorous academic atmosphere that was Renaissance Naples, he studied and learned to emulate or argue with the writings of Aristotle and Plato, as well as those of Thomas Aquinas, Marsilio Ficino, and Giles of Viterbo.

He took his vows as a friar of the order in 1566, and assumed the name Giordano. Although he would spend the next 10 years of his life pursuing his studies, including developing his own method of memorization, eventually the reactionary crackdowns of the Inquisition would force him into the life of a peripatetic scholar and teacher.

His travels took him from Switzerland to Paris to England to Germany to Prague and back to Italy. But wherever he went, an irascible nature and fiery intellectual pride drove him into conflict with local academics, whom he bitterly reviled and caricatured.

Profuse thinker, writer

Yet throughout his life, he wrote and published copiously: poetry, plays, books on the art of memory, philosophical tracts, and essays expounding his evolving theories of infinity. His attempts to find an adequate means to measure and calculate both the infinite and the infinitesimal led directly to his formulation of atomic theory.

Unsurprisingly, his theories were far too expansive and threatening to the dogmatic religious authorities of his day. Thus, after nearly a decade in prison, first in Venice and then in Rome, he was condemned as a heretic by the Inquisition in 1600 and suffered a heretic’s fate: burned at the stake.

Still, Ms. Rowland's "Giordano Bruno: Philosopher/Heretic" is less a biography of the man than a largely uncritical examination of his vast literary and philosophical output, with the few facts of his life offered as source material or a mere framework for the discussion of his writings.

The early chapters are a testament to the risks of speaking out or thinking originally in a society ruled by a repressive regime.

Because of the lack of factual information, the author frequently substitutes conjecture and inference such as "[he] must have read" or "must have known" or "must have met" for factual evidence.

Further, Rowland assumes a specialist's knowledge of Renaissance politics, religion, and philosophy which may leave one wanting for the nonexistent Cliff Notes on philosophers and significant figures of the Counter-Reformation in Rome and Naples.

And as Bruno wrote copiously, so does Rowland quote copiously – page upon 8-point-type page of it, much of it imponderably obscure. Only rarely does she attempt to convey the color, vigor, and clamor of life in a Renaissance city.

Frequently tangled in the web of her own scholarship and Bruno's sophistry, she seems unable to distinguish between Bruno's flights of insightful genius, which, as in the works of many Renaissance authors, lie cheek by jowl with ideas we now find arcane or hopelessly naive.

For the sake of knowledge

But "Giordano Bruno: Philosopher/Heretic" is not without merit. It is a rare excursion into the cosmos of sumptuous prose and philosophical delight as exemplified by Giles of Viterbo, Erasmus of Rotterdam, and Giordano Bruno.

It is a venture into a lost world where man's pursuit of spiritual understanding and wisdom made for bestseller reading – and where such journeys into the uncharted territory of infinity led these philosophers to examine ideas which although rejected at the time, proved to be modern beyond their and our wildest dreams.

"The Forbidden World"

Did a sixteenth-century heretic grasp the nature of the cosmos?


Joan Acocella

August 24th, 2008

The New Yorker

In 1600, Rome's Campo de' Fiori, now a nice plaza lined with caf├ęs, was one of the city's execution grounds, and on Ash Wednesday of that year Giordano Bruno, a philosopher and former priest accused of heresy by the Inquisition, was taken there and burned. The event was carefully timed. Ash Wednesday is the primary day of Christian penance. As for the year, Pope Clement VIII chose it because 1600 was a jubilee for the Church—a festivity that would be enhanced by the execution of an important heretic. Bruno rode to the Campo on a mule, the traditional means of transport for people going to their death. (It was also a practical means. After years in the Inquisition’s prisons, many of the condemned could not walk.) Once he arrived and mounted the pyre, a crucifix was held up to his face. According to a witness, he turned away angrily. He could not speak; he had been gagged with a leather bridle. (Or, some say, an iron spike had been driven through his tongue.) He was tied to the stake, and the pyre was lit. When it had burned out, his remains were dumped into the Tiber. As Ingrid Rowland writes in "Giordano Bruno: Philosopher/Heretic" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux; $27), the Church thereby made Bruno a martyr. But "a martyr to what?" she asks. That is the question that her book, the first full-scale biography of Bruno in English, tries, with difficulty, to answer.

Bruno was born in Nola, a small city east of Naples, in 1548. His father was a mercenary in the service of the Spanish crown, which had ruled Naples since the beginning of the century. According to Rowland, he was a lonely, bookish boy. At the age of fourteen, he was sent to Naples to be educated—a move that apparently left a permanent mark on his mind. At that time, Rowland writes, Naples was the fifth-largest city in the world, housing masses of "fishermen, seamstresses, vendors, porters, laundresses, carpenters, sausage makers, blacksmiths, wheelwrights, and water sellers who went barefoot in the mild climate and lived largely on bread and figs." Above those plain folk were the grandees who ruled the city; below them were the beggars and prostitutes who swarmed the alleys. No one knows where Bruno lived during his first years in Naples, but Rowland imagines him in crowded student quarters, "a solitary teenager plunged suddenly into urban chaos." This experience, she says, taught him survival skills, which he would need in his life. It may also have been the source of what would later be his governing image of the universe: fullness, infinitude.

At seventeen, he entered the Dominican monastery of San Domenico Maggiore, in Naples, a learned institution staffed with sons of the nobility. That didn’t mean that they behaved any better than other priests—or noblemen—of the period. During Bruno’s time, friars of San Domenico were involved in cases of assault, theft, and forgery, not to mention the chronic problem of fornication. But this rich monastery was useful to Bruno. There, Rowland writes, he learned to move among the ruling class. He also acquired intellectual rigor. San Domenico was a conservative institution. It taught Scholastic philosophy—the world of Aristotle, revived and Catholicized by St. Thomas Aquinas and other scholars of the Middle Ages—as if no other philosophies existed. They did exist. From the early Renaissance onward, that world picture—limited, tidy, and comforting—had been challenged by a rebirth of the ideas of Plato, who had a very different slant on things: visionary, poetic. After Bruno’s Scholastic training at San Domenico, Rowland says, he encountered Neoplatonism, and it transformed his thinking. She gives this a lot of space. As a Renaissance historian—see "The Culture of the High Renaissance" (1998) and "From Heaven to Arcadia" (2005), a collection of essays for The New York Review of Books—she has been dealing with Neoplatonism for years, and she likes the idea of philosophy as rapture. That's probably why she decided to write a book on Bruno. She sees Neoplatonism as his beacon, but she is glad for him that, before he stuck his head up among the stars, his feet had been planted on the ground by Aristotle and Aquinas.

That dichotomy becomes the basis of her portrait of Bruno. He had three personalities, she says. One was Scholastic—strict, system-building. The second was "a Platonist’s poetic exaltation." He added a third, all his own: "a dark wit born in his parents' little house . . . and stiletto-sharpened on the streets of Naples." In time, the darkness came to rule his thoughts. In one of his books, he described himself as "irritated, recalcitrant, and strange, content with nothing, stubborn as an old man of eighty, skittish as a dog that has been whipped a thousand times." His nickname, he said, was "the exasperated."

He became a priest at the age of twenty-four and received the equivalent of a doctorate in theology three years later. He was apparently a brilliant student and also, now and then, an exasperated one. Upon moving into his cell at the monastery, he disposed of the holy art—pictures of the Madonna, St. Catherine of Siena, a pious bishop—that decorated its walls. Another time, in a discussion with an older priest, he defended the logic (not the substance) of an argument made by the fourth-century priest Arius that Christ was not fully divine—the so-called Arian heresy. Eventually, a copy of Erasmus's proscribed "Commentaries," with notes by Bruno in its margins, was found in the latrine that he used. Even at the height of the Counter-Reformation, which this was, such offenses, distributed over ten years in the monastery, seem trifling. They sound like notations from the F.B.I. file of some poor professor who dared to teach Gorky in the fifties. Nevertheless, Bruno, at around the age of twenty-seven, was informed that he was being investigated by the Inquisition. Was someone trying to get rid of him? (Why the latrine search, an unpleasant task in the sixteenth century?) Was he trying to get out of the priesthood? (Why annotate the Erasmus? Why not just read it?) Whatever the real story, Bruno, hearing of the proceedings, discarded his priest’s garments and headed north, eventually crossing the border into Switzerland. To the Church authorities, that was as good as a confession; they defrocked and excommunicated him in absentia. To Bruno, apparently, it was a liberation, and he became the man we know, or think we know: the freethinker, the heretic, the man who would be burned.

For fifteen years, he travelled—to Geneva, Toulouse, Lyon, Paris, London, Oxford, Wittenberg, Prague, Helmstedt, Frankfurt, Zurich, Padua, Venice—never staying more than two or three years in any city. Wherever he went, he looked for a job teaching philosophy, and in some places he got one. In Paris, he gave a series of thirty lectures on logic and metaphysics. Elsewhere, he had less luck. At Oxford, when he gave a tryout presentation, the audience laughed at his accent and his Neapolitan way of talking with his hands. (He hated the English ever after. They "look down their noses," he said, "laugh at you . . . fart at you with their lips.") Sometimes he damaged his own cause. During his stay in Geneva, he published a broadsheet listing twenty mistakes that a highly placed professor had made in a single lecture. He was sued for slander and had to leave town in a hurry.

By about the age of twenty-eight, he was publishing as well as teaching. In his lifetime, he produced some thirty works—treatises, pamphlets, dialogues, poems, even a play. Some of these writings were in Latin, the language of his schooling; accordingly, they were rigorous, systematic, Scholastic. The others were in vernacular Italian, and these were often ebullient, concrete, and dramatic—Neoplatonic, by Rowland's definition. Either way, they advanced the concept of the universe that he said he had begun developing soon after his departure from Italy.

In this system, there were three main ideas. One was heliocentrism, the notion that the sun, not the Earth, was the center of the universe. This revision of the standard, Ptolemaic cosmos was, of course, not original to him. It had been made by the Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus in 1543, five years before Bruno was born. But while Copernicus's repositioning of the earth and the sun was a radical proposal—indeed, a heresy (the Church needed the Earth, the arena of salvation, to be the center of the universe)—in other respects his cosmos was quite orthodox: a finite structure consisting of fixed spheres that revolved in concentric circles, just as in Ptolemy. Bruno, on the other hand, proposed an infinite cosmos, consisting of innumerable heliocentric worlds. This, his second and most important idea, was also not new. It had been put forth by Nicholas of Cusa, a German cardinal, in the fifteenth century. But here, too, Bruno went further, claiming that the universe was a vast, wheeling, unknowable thing, and that all theories about it, including his own, were not descriptions but merely approaches—"models," as we would call them today.

Finally, Bruno developed an atomic theory, whereby everything that existed was made up of identical particles—"seeds," in his terminology. Other people, notably Lucretius, had had this idea, but, again, Bruno expanded it. Not only were all parts of the cosmos constituted of the same elements, but God, whom the Church strictly set apart from the material world, resided in these elements. It was his love, informing every "seed," that unified the world.

In all these ideas, there seems to have been a single preoccupation: immensity—things incalculably large and incalculably tiny, and all joined together in a kind of choral exultation. I think that this mental image, more than any quarrel with the Church, underlay Bruno's philosophy. In an Italian dialogue that he wrote in his mid-thirties, he paints a fanciful portrait of his home town, Nola. There, he says, fate has decreed that Vasta, wife of Albenzio Savolino, when she means to curl her hair at her temples, shall burn fifty-seven hairs for having let the curling iron get too hot, but she won’t burn her scalp and hence shall not swear when she smells the stench, but shall endure it patiently. That from the dung of her ox fifty-two dung beetles shall be born, of which fourteen shall be trampled and killed by Albenzio’s foot, twenty-six shall die upside down, twenty-two shall live in a hole, eighty shall make a pilgrim’s progress around the yard, forty-two shall retire to live under the stone by the door, sixteen shall roll their ball of dung wherever they please, and the rest shall scurry around at random. . . . Antonio Savolino’s bitch shall conceive five puppies, of which three shall live out their natural lifespan and two shall be thrown away, and of these three the first shall resemble its mother, the second shall be mongrel, and the third shall partly resemble the father and partly resemble Polidoro's dog. . . . Paulino, when he bends over to pick up a broken needle, shall snap the red drawstring of his underpants, and if he should blaspheme for that reason, I mean for him to be punished thus: tonight his soup shall be too salty and taste of smoke, he shall fall and break his wine flask.

Here the structural rule of Catholic theology, and of Western thought—hierarchy—is serenely discarded. The things of the world are numberless, and they are all equal, and interesting. In Bruno's cosmology, that rule applied not just to humble matters like the goings on in Nola but also to great and sacred things. In his book "The Song of Circe" (1582), the sorceress calls the universe to order, beginning with the sun: "Apollo, author of poetry, quiver bearer, bowman, of the powerful arrows, Pythian, laurel-crowned, prophetic, shepherd, seer, priest, and physician. Brilliant, rosy, long-haired, beautiful-locked, blond, bright, placid, bard, singer, teller of truth. . . . Reveal, I pray, your lions, your lynxes, goats, baboons, seagulls, calves, snakes, elephants. . . . The turtle, butterfish, tuna, ray, whale, and all your other creatures of that kind." To enumerate was Bruno’s joy and, in some of his writings, such as these, the engine of his dizzying prose.

Another idea of his, which has not attracted as much attention, because it is not a heresy, had to do with "artificial memory," the science of improving recall. This was not a side project. It was the subject of many of his Latin writings, and often the source of his income during his wandering years—he tutored people in memory skills. Ancient orators had used artificial memory systems, mentally attaching their ideas onto statues, or objects in the rooms of a building, so that later, in their minds, they could revisit those statues and rooms, retrieve their ideas, and thus give seven-hour speeches without note cards. Closer to Bruno's time, a Catalan mystic named Ramon Llull had refined the method, imagining memory as a system of concentric wheels. Bruno adopted Llull’s schema and enlarged it. Rowland bravely tries to summarize the methods he developed. One involves storing words by their syllables, she says: "the first syllable as an 'agent' who is a mythological figure (the Egyptian Apis bull, Apollo, the witch Circe); the second syllable as an action (sailing, on the carpet, broken); the third syllable as an adjective (ignored, blind, at leisure); the fourth as an associated object (shell, serpent, fetters); the fifth as a 'circumstance' (a woman dressed in pearls, a man riding a sea monster)." Given these rules, Bruno described to his readers how, for example, one would remember the word numero, "number." In Rowland's paraphrase:

The "NU" . . . is the Apis bull, "ME" is "on the carpet," "RO" is "neglected." . . . Bruno, clearly influenced by Ramon Llull, advises envisioning these stored sets of syllables and their imagery on concentric wheels, each with thirty compartments corresponding to the various combinations of letters. The outermost wheel in the system stores the agents (or first syllables of words), the second wheel stores the actions (or second syllables), the third wheel stores adjectives (or third syllables), and so on inward to the fifth wheel. A single sentence thus becomes a pageant of mythological characters set in strange places, engaged in strange actions in strange company.

How marvellous, and how utterly incomprehensible! And this was only one of his systems. But Bruno may have used such methods—he was known for his prodigious memory—and with their endless numbers of combinations, as in a giant slot machine, they obviously contributed to his vision of an infinite cosmos.

Inconveniently, that vision was heresy from end to end. If there were countless worlds besides ours, this sidelined the Christian story. Creation, expulsion, salvation: such things might have happened, but somewhere off in a corner, while other things were happening on other planets. Also eliminated was God's difference from humanity. If, as Bruno saw it, God was present in every atom of the universe, then transubstantiation became a silly idea. (God was already in the wine.) Ditto incarnation. Bruno later said that he started having doubts about Jesus at the age of eighteen; in his mature philosophy, the Messiah has no place. Nor does original sin, or pretty much any sin. God "makes his sun rise over good and bad," Bruno wrote. Even devils were going to be pardoned. To lead a virtuous life, you had only to do unto others as you would have them do unto you. As the reader may have noticed by now, much of this constitutes liberal Christian thought in our time. (What Bruno discarded was the Church's literalism—exactly what many of today's believers have done.) Likewise, Bruno's cosmology anticipated modern physics and astronomy. But it did not accord with the views of the sixteenth-century Church. It sounded like Protestantism, or worse.

That was why he had fled his homeland. For fifteen years, he lived in relative safety in the cities of the North, which, if not Protestant, were more tolerant than Italy. Then he did something inexplicable. Was he homesick? Had he become overconfident? In any case, he returned to Italy, and within a year he had been captured by the Inquisition.

Soon after recrossing the border, he took a job tutoring a Venetian nobleman, Giovanni Mocenigo, in artificial memory, but Mocenigo made little progress, and he came to suspect that his teacher was cheating him, holding back some key to the method. So one day he locked Bruno in the attic of his palazzo and called the Inquisition. In his deposition, he accused Bruno of the heresies listed above, plus some more, and of saying (in Mocenigo’s words) "that our Catholic faith is full of blasphemies . . . that our opinions are the doctrine of asses, that we have no proof that our faith has any merit with God, and that he marvels at how many heresies God tolerates among Catholics."

Venice was a modern-minded commercial city, far less conservative than Rome or Naples. Furthermore, Bruno eventually recanted. Therefore the Venetian inquisitors let him live, but they did not release him, because the Vatican had got wind of the case and was demanding extradition. Venice complied, and in Rome Bruno was retried on essentially the same charges, with a few additions obtained from his cellmates in Venice. One of them reported that Bruno had called Christ “a dog cuckold fucked dog” and had given him the finger—a not unreasonable action on the part of a man who had been locked up for months in a Venetian hellhole, with four other, equally maddened prisoners. The proceedings in Rome, however, lasted longer—seven years. The Roman jurists, eventually headed by Robert Cardinal Bellarmine, an eminent Jesuit theologian (he was later canonized), were more methodical than the Venetians. They tracked down his books, and read them. According to Rowland, they may also have worried that to execute Bruno, who in his exile had enjoyed the patronage of various noblemen, might be politically unwise. Bruno parried with his inquisitors. Twice he offered to recant and then withdrew the offer. We don’t know all the particulars of the inquiry. (The trial records are lost. Only a summary, discovered in the Vatican in 1941, survives.) But, in the end, Bruno gave his inquisitors an unanswerable ultimatum: he told them that if the Pope came forward to certify that the actions he was charged with were definitely heretical, or that the Holy Spirit had said they were, then he would recant. If not, not. The Pontiff did not condescend to join in this discussion, and the inquisitors probably did not invite him to. They insisted on their own ability to recognize false doctrine. So, as in other heresy trials, the conflict came down to a simple quarrel: the Church's word versus the individual's understanding of his own experience. The Church won. Bruno was declared an "impenitent, pertinacious, and obstinate heretic," and he was condemned to die.

Rowland does the best she can with this material, but she has a big problem, which is that very little is known about Bruno's life. She is unable to tell us much of anything about his childhood, his teaching, his friendships, or his moral character. And, when she does have something to report, it is often a wild card, which she has trouble fitting into the rest of the story. She says, for example, that Bruno, after being thrown out by the Roman Catholic Church, was also excommunicated by the Calvinists, in Geneva, and by the Lutherans, in Helmstedt—clearly, organized religion was not for him—but we hear nothing about his prior conversion to these faiths. She also tells us that in his exile he applied repeatedly (she cites three separate occasions) to be taken back into the Roman Catholic Church, and was refused each time. That is curious. Returning to the Church, as Bruno knew, would have involved a major act of penance, including the disavowal of most of his writings. How could he—famously intransigent, a champion of free thought—have contemplated that? And, if he did, what possessed him, in a public lecture in Helmstedt, to compare the sitting Pope to the Medusa head, infecting the world with "ignorance and depravity"? Did he think that this would get him back into the Church?

What about his love life? Rowland writes that after his departure from the priesthood he "pursued women with Falstaffian matter-of-factness." Whom, when, where? She doesn’t say. Whatever his sexual activities, a passage that Roland quotes from one of his dialogues suggests that he did have strong feelings about women. How could men pine, he asked, for that bosom, for that white, for that crimson, for that tongue, for that tooth, for that lip, for that hair, that dress, that mantle, that glove, that slipper, that high heel, that avarice, that giggle, that scorn, that empty window, that eclipse of the sun, that throbbing, that disgust, that stench, that sepulcher, that cesspit, that menstruation, that carrion, that malaria, that uttermost insult and lapse of nature?

This is something other than matter-of-factness. Rowland tries to argue that Bruno didn’t really hate women. She says that since this dialogue, written in England, ends with a tribute to Elizabeth I, Bruno "must have believed on some level, that male and female made no difference in the potential of an individual soul." But evidence for such a belief is nowhere in sight. Rowland is well aware of the gaps in her portrait of Bruno’s life, and she tries to fill them with other material. For his years in the monastery, she again has almost no facts to go on, so, once she deposits him there, she switches gears and offers a series of history-of-ideas chapters—on Neoplatonism, on Kabbalah, and so forth—in order to let us know what intellectual trends might have influenced him at that time. She is a lively writer, and these chapters are interesting. Still, we're sitting there wondering, How's he doing in the monastery?

We do not get a firm hold on his ideas, either. In the past half century, there have been two large trends in Bruno scholarship. In the nineteen-sixties, the English historian Frances Yates claimed that he was a hermeticist, carrying on the tradition of the Renaissance mystics and alchemists. She called him a "poet-magician." Later, in the nineteen-nineties, this view was disputed by Hilary Gatti, a historian of science, who argued that Bruno’s contributions were mainly to natural science, which grew so fast during his time. (Nine years after Bruno died, Galileo invented his telescope, and the information that he gained from it landed him, too, before the Inquisition, under Bellarmine. Rowland thinks that Bellarmine, feeling guilty over Bruno, may have pressed Galileo to recant, and thus saved his life.) Rowland wants nothing to do with the hermeticism theory, and though her book is dedicated to Gatti, she is also skeptical about Bruno's credentials as a scientist. To her, he was primarily a philosopher. Her discussions of his philosophy are often sketchy, however. Trying to explain why the Roman inquisitors took seven years to decide Bruno's case, she guesses that maybe they didn't understand his books. I think she had the same problem. At one juncture, poignantly, she suggests that Bruno may have held back some of his material, so as not to give away the store—the same charge that Giovanni Mocenigo made. As she wrote eight years ago in an essay in The New York Review of Books, but apparently could not bear to say in the biography, where so much more was at stake, "His surviving work supplies no clear explanation" of what constituted his philosophy.

The book has one great, compensating virtue. Whatever else Bruno was, he was wild-minded and extreme, and Rowland communicates this, together with a sense of the excitement that his ideas gave him. She quotes from a poem of his:

Suddenly I am raised aloft by primordial
I become Leader, Law, Light, Prophet,
Father, Author, and Journey,
Rising above this world to the others
that shine in their splendor.
I wander through every part of that
ethereal country;
Then, far away, as they gape at the
marvel, I leave them behind me.

That sounds thrilling, and Rowland relates it to other instances of the exuberance of the late Renaissance; for example, the language of Shakespeare. ("Hamlet" was written within a year or two of Bruno's death.) It’s that feeling for the explosiveness of the period, and her admiration of Bruno for participating in it—indeed, dying for it—that is the central and most cherishable quality of the biography. Mocenigo, in his deposition, reported that one day, when he and Bruno were going to church, Bruno told him "that he knew how Christ had performed his miracles, and using the same art he intended to do as much and more." Rowland seems to smile as she considers this "excitable little Neapolitan," in a gondola, on his way to church, "bragging more and more extravagantly" about how he's going to displace the founder of the Church. Even when he's acting crazy, she is fond of him, and I like her for that.

Bruno's writings were placed on the Church’s "Index of Forbidden Books," so that they would not lead the faithful astray. As always, important people found a way to get hold of the proscribed material. Kepler told Galileo that one of his (Galileo’s) ideas was a steal from Bruno. After the seventeenth century, Bruno seems to have dropped from view, but then, in the nineteenth century, he rose again, as a hero to the revolutionary movements of that time. In 1889, soon after Italy's establishment of a secular republic, a group of Roman students, with the help of eminent thinkers from across Europe—Victor Hugo, Herbert Spencer, Ernst Haeckel, Henrik Ibsen—raised a statue in his honor in the Campo de' Fiori. According to Rowland, the statue, which shows Bruno going to his death, looks nothing like him. It depicts a tall, glowering figure, in a cowl, with a book between his manacled hands. The real Bruno was a short, skinny man, who at the time of his execution hadn’t worn a Dominican habit for twenty-four years. Furthermore, he was burned naked. The inscription at the base of the statue begins, "To Bruno, from the generation that he foresaw." In other words, the students claimed him for their story. Every year, on the anniversary of his execution, various groups of freethinkers—Masons, atheists, pantheists—gather at the monument, and a representative of Rome’s mayoralty places a wreath at its feet. If Bruno had not been burned, would he receive these tributes? Maybe not, but he was burned, and he thereby entered our history. Fittingly, a crater of the moon was named for him, in 1960.

Giordano Bruno: Philosopher/Heretic


Ingrid D. Rowland

ISBN-10: 0809095246
ISBN-13: 978-0809095247
[Thanks to stringer Tim for the notification.]

Additional material:

Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition


Frances A. Yates

ISBN: 9780226950075

Frances Yates and the Hermetic Tradition


Marjorie G. Jones

ISBN: 978-0-89254-133-1


herstory said...

The first biography of Frances Yates, author of Giordano Bruno & the Hermetic Tradition, was published in June by Ibis Press: Frances Yates & the Hermetic Traditon by Marjorie G. Jones

Mercury said...


Thanks for the additional information.

See main post.