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.

By Laura Miller

Aug. 25, 2008 | 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 

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