Giordano Bruno


(1548 – 1600)





Writings of Giordano Bruno  

Bibliotheca Bruniana electronica  

Giordano Bruno by Walter Pater





December 21, 2008

Particle Man



GIORDANO BRUNO  Philosopher, Heretic

By Ingrid D. Rowland

335 pp. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $27


It has become an overused word, but Giordano Bruno may justly be described as a maverick. Burned at the stake in Rome on Ash Wednesday in 1600, he seems to have been an unclassifiable mixture of foul-mouthed Neapolitan mountebank, loquacious poet, religious reformer, scholastic philosopher and slightly wacky astronomer. His version of Christianity is impossible to label. Educated by the Dominicans — the guardians of Catholic orthodoxy in those days — he revered certain scriptures and the writings of St. Augustine, always doubted the divinity of Jesus and flirted with dangerous new ideas of Protestantism, and yet hoped that the pope himself would clear him of heresy.

Bruno was a martyr to something, but four centuries after his immolation it is still not clear what. It doesn’t help that the full records of his 16 interrogations in the prisons of the Roman Inquisition have been lost or destroyed. The enigma of Bruno runs deeper than that, as Ingrid Rowland, a scholar of the Renaissance who teaches in Rome, makes clear in her rich new biography, “Giordano Bruno.” Was he some sort of scientific pioneer, to be compared with Galileo, whose milder encounter with the Roman Inquisition — indeed, with the same inquisitor, Cardinal Bellarmine — followed not long afterward? Like Galileo, Bruno rejected the earth-centered cosmology and Aristotelian physics endorsed by the church. In the 19th century, historians of science saw him as an early proponent of atomic theory and the infinite universe. Or was Bruno an occultist dreamer, more magician than mathematician, as the renowned historian Frances Yates influentially argued in the 1960s? Either way, Bruno suffered for speaking his mind, though he also had a lot of bad luck, some of which he brought upon himself.

His story begins in Nola, a small city to the east of Naples. Bruno referred to himself as “il Nolano,” and Rowland echoes this, calling him “the Nolan” and frequently speaking of the “Nolan philosophy.” (This moniker may be harmless in America today, but it has awkward connotations for those who remember the Nolans of the 1970s and 1980s European pop scene, and their biggest hit, “I’m in the Mood for Dancing.”) The son of a well-connected professional soldier, Bruno entered the Neapolitan convent of San Domenico Maggiore at the age of 14 and was quickly noticed for two things. First, there was his prodigious memory: as a 20-year-old he was sent to perform his feats of recall before the pope. The ancient art of enhanced memorization was what he was best known for in his own time, and teaching it to others was his most marketable skill. Mnemonic feats were not only a practically useful party trick, but were often held to enable a practitioner to arrive at a systematic understanding of the world. Second, there was his religious unorthodoxy. As a boy, he removed all pictures from his convent cell, keeping only a crucifix, and he scoffed at a fellow novice for reading a devotional poem about the Virgin.

Although he was ordained a priest in 1572 and licensed to teach theology three years later, he was soon under investigation by the local head of the Dominicans for his irregular and outspoken views. By 1576 he had fled to Genoa and abandoned his clerical garb, teaching astronomy and Latin in a nearby town. The next 15 years were spent wandering through Europe on a hunt for patrons and professorships. First came Venice, then Padua, then Lyons, then a copy-editing job in Calvinist Geneva, where he was jailed and excommunicated for publishing an attack on a local philosopher. After two years of lecturing in Toulouse on Aristotle and astronomy, he had some success in Paris teaching the art of memory, with Henry III as royal patron. It was in Paris that he published a long philosophical drama, “The Candlemaker,” which Rowland implausibly suggests can be staged successfully, despite its five-hour running time. Its title page names the author as “Bruno the Nolan, the Academic of no Academy; nicknamed the exasperated.”

In 1583 Bruno joined the household of the French ambassador in London, where he published his major philosophical works, all dialogues, in which he espoused an infinite universe teeming with life. The timing was bad for such unorthodox cosmology. A century earlier, a German cardinal and mathematician, Nicholas of Cusa, made similar suggestions; but back then the church was not yet threatened by Protestant heresy and took a more relaxed attitude to strange views. A century later, a book by a writer of the early French Enlightenment, Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle,popularized the same idea. (Though technically banned by the church, Fontenelle’s “Conversations on the Plurality of Worlds” was a literary sensation.) Bruno was both too late and too early to paint a universe in which man and his planet were not the center of a cozy domain.

In 1591 Bruno returned to Italy, where the real trouble began. A Venetian grandee, Giovanni Mocenigo, invited Bruno to teach him the art of memory, and Bruno moved into the family’s palazzo on the Grand Canal. After seven or eight months, relations between the two men began to cool (there are also suggestions that relations between Bruno and Mocenigo’s wife heated up), and the Venetian denounced him. Among the many unacceptable things Mocenigo claimed to have heard Bruno say, listed in a letter to the Inquisition in May 1592, were that Christ was a wretch and a magician, that the world is eternal but divine punishment is not, that bread does not turn into flesh in the Eucharist, that the Virgin cannot have given birth and that all friars are asses.

Bruno made a few unwise admissions to his Inquisitors, but denied most of the accusations. One informant was not enough for a conviction — a second witness was needed — and Bruno was willing to repent in order to gain release. The matter could have ended there, but the Roman Inquisition asked for Bruno’s extradition, and Venice, after months of negotiations, complied. The Romans interviewed many of Bruno’s old cellmates from Venice, and found one — an unstable Capuchin friar, himself later burned at the stake — who falsely believed that Bruno had denounced him and decided to return the favor.

Even with this second witness, it took the Roman Inquisition nearly seven years to bring the case to its sorry conclusion, and it managed to do so only when the Jesuit cardinal Robert Bellarmine took charge. Rowland quotes Bellarmine as once saying that “I hardly ever read a book without wanting to give it a good censoring.”Bruno’s fate was sealed when he unsuccessfully attempted to appeal over the heads of the Inquisition to the pope himself.

Though it can be hard to follow the story line in Rowland’s early chapters, where the background to Bruno’s later work is jumbled in with biographical fact, her telling of his end is gripping. As an intellectual biography, however, the book has too little examination of his ideas. Although Rowland would like us to see Bruno as a martyr to science, his work comes across more as theologically inspired science fiction. He was a poetic speculator, not an empirical or systematic investigator. Thus it is still not clear what the great master of memory should be remembered for.

Anthony Gottlieb is the author of “The Dream of Reason: A History of Philosophy From the Greeks to the Renaissance.”




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 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.





A Hungry Mind: Giordano Bruno, Philosopher and Heretic

By Paula Findlen

This article appeared in the September 29, 2008 edition of The Nation.



In the heart of Campo de' Fiori, one of Rome's oldest marketplaces, stands a statue of a solemnly hooded figure. Wrists bound, a book clasped in his right hand, his face virtually obscured by his cowl, he interjects a melancholy and reflective note into the otherwise irrepressible atmosphere of this famous piazza. Looking more closely, we see the philosopher Giordano Bruno, who died in this piazza on February 17, 1600, as his admirers wanted us to see him when they erected this statue, with the support of Rome's city council, on June 9, 1889--as Italy's most famous heretic after Galileo, a figure transformed into a political and intellectual icon by a young and radicalized Italian nation, which proclaimed its political secularism and liberalism, and recent acquisition of Rome, in plain view of the Vatican.

The historian John Bossy once described Bruno as Italy's Joan of Arc. This is an apt metaphor, up to a point. Bruno did indeed become a martyr to his beliefs, though his battles were fought with words rather than arms. His death, however, was of his own choosing, and it was a choice he came to in the course of his lengthy trial at the hands of the Roman Inquisition, not far from where Bernini's elephant now sits beneath the obelisk in Piazza Santa Maria sopra Minerva. The vast majority of heretics chose to abjure and repent rather than die, and this of course is what the church preferred, even in the sixteenth century, since restoring faith was a more powerful and persuasive message than executing the unorthodox. Bruno never recanted his beliefs. The Holy Office, under the leadership of the deeply learned and pious Cardinal Robert Bellarmine, declared him a relapsed heretic. Tongue bound or possibly pierced to prevent him from speaking, stripped naked and formally defrocked as a Dominican--he had been excommunicated from this order for almost twenty-five years at the time of his death--Bruno was burned on a pyre in Campo de' Fiori.

Just as today the rainbow-colored flags of peace hang from many Roman windows to protest the war in Iraq, on that second Sunday of June in 1889, while good Catholics celebrated Pentecost, Campo de' Fiori was festooned with flags bearing Masonic symbols. Fiery speeches were made by politicians, scholars and atheists about the importance of commemorating Bruno as one of the most original and oppressed freethinkers of his age. The spirit of the tribute reflected the fact that the idea of honoring Bruno by erecting a statue in the very piazza of his immolation was not simply a Roman or even an Italian project. Nineteenth-century philosophers like Hegel rediscovered Bruno's writings on the unity of truth and began to regard him as a forgotten forefather. Bruno's early advocacy of the Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus's idea of a heliocentric universe--the subject that precipitated Galileo's trial and condemnation in 1633--also inspired a misguided interpretation of Bruno as a martyr for science. The international committee that supported the installation of Bruno's statue included luminaries of science like Ernst Haeckel and Herbert Spencer, and leading literary figures like Victor Hugo and Henrik Ibsen. All of them saw the commemoration of Bruno as a symbolic victory for reason and progress.

After a day of prayer and fasting, Pope Leo XIII responded with his own interpretation of Bruno. He told the faithful that he considered the man from Nola, a small town east of Naples, to be a willfully unrepentant materialist and pantheist--in short, the embodiment of everything that sought to destroy or diminish the church. No nation that enshrined such a man could represent the Catholic vote. Indeed, two years earlier, when a summary of Bruno's trial had unexpectedly surfaced in the Vatican archives, Leo XIII hid the document. He actively wanted to avoid the kind of controversy that had occurred when the followers of Mazzini, having taken control of the Vatican in 1849, threw open the archives of the Roman Inquisition, symbolically liberating centuries of heretics trapped inside its documents. The surviving--and frustratingly incomplete--documentation of Bruno's trial emerged and was published in 1876. Interpreting these materials became part of the epic struggle between the Roman Catholic Church and its detractors.

Leo XIII, a judicious pope whose encyclical Rerum Novarum is one of the foundational documents of twentieth-century Catholicism, was in many respects an open-minded leader who struggled mightily to restore the papacy's tattered reputation. But he did not want further discussion of Bruno to destroy what he was trying to mend. He took the bold step of opening the Vatican archives to researchers, but he also put Bruno's trial summary aside, probably in his personal archive. A later prefect of the Vatican Library, Cardinal Angelo Mercati, rediscovered it in 1940 after a fifteen-year search. By then the vexed question of the Italian state's relationship with the church had been resolved by the mutual diplomacy of Mussolini and Pius XI.

Though a single document had remained hidden for centuries, there was no repressing the sentiments that the figure of Bruno inspired. Following Leo XIII's statements condemning Bruno and his latter-day admirers on June 30, 1889, the Giordano Bruno Society subsequently opened an office a short walk from St. Peter's Square to taunt the Pope with its banners. Politicians were heard to shout "Viva Giordano Bruno!" on the floor of Parliament as the battle cry of a new nation. Every February 17, modern-day Brunisti celebrate his audacity, his capacious intellect and his obstinate refusal to capitulate to religious orthodoxy. They gather in front of his statue, not far from where he met his grisly end, to pay homage to him as a visionary, philosopher and freethinker. For all these reasons, we too should pause before this monument to one of the most troubled minds of the Renaissance to ask ourselves: who was Bruno, and what did he do to inspire such divided views of his legacy?

Ingrid Rowland's Giordano Bruno: Philosopher/Heretic is an excellent starting point for anyone who wants to rediscover the historical figure concealed beneath a cowl on Campo de' Fiori. Her lively and learned biography removes Bruno from myth and polemic, where he has so often resided, and restores him to the time and place that inspired his dual passion for knowledge as well as faith. She also offers a far richer and multidimensional account of Bruno's peculiar and complex intellectual itinerary than earlier scholars like Frances Yates, who, in her brilliant and influential account Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition (1964), depicted him as a great Renaissance magus. She inspired a generation of readers to see him primarily as a Hermetic philosopher devoted to the restoration of Egyptian wisdom. Generously acknowledging the more recent work of Bruno specialists like Hilary Gatti, who have shown us how to read his politics, philosophy, science, plays and poetry seriously, Rowland describes how Bruno became the kind of person who fascinated and alarmed virtually everybody who came into contact with him. She takes us inside his head to see the interplay of theology, philosophy and poetry that shaped his worldview.

The son of a gentleman-soldier from Nola, the young Filippo Bruno took the name of Giordano when he entered the Dominican order in Naples at age 17. Even during his youthful initiation into the mysteries of faith, Bruno seems to have had his doubts. He reportedly stripped his monastery cell bare of all but a crucifix. He later recalled that he had doubted Christ's divinity. But he was intoxicated by the teachings of the church: its great libraries filled with pagan and Christian learning, its charismatic preachers and its appreciation for young men of talent. At 21 Bruno was called to Rome to recite Psalm 86 in Hebrew, forward and backward, for Pope Pius V. He was well launched onto the road to ecclesiastic preferment.

Eventually, however, Bruno's outspoken beliefs caught up with him. In 1575 he fled Naples as rumors about his unorthodox religious beliefs spurred an investigation by his order; he left behind his life as a Dominican--along with a copy of one of the banned commentaries of the Dutch humanist Erasmus in the monks' latrine. Concerns about his heretical denial of the Trinity led Rome to summon him to appear before the Inquisition in 1576. Bruno instead took to the road, an ex-friar in a search of a new life. He would not return to Italy until 1591.


Paula Findlen

Paula Findlen, a professor of history at Stanford University, is the author of Possessing Nature: Museums, Collecting, and Scientific Culture in Early Modern Italy and the editor of Athanasius Kircher: The Last Man Who Knew Everything.




Cosmic Crusader

The life of a little-known philosopher with some very big ideas.


Reviewed by Marc Kaufman

Sunday, August 10, 2008; Page BW04


GIORDANO BRUNO Philosopher/Heretic

By Ingrid D. Rowland

Farrar Straus Giroux. 335 pp. $27


In Rome's Campo de' Fiore, a square bustling with restaurants, markets and charmed visitors, stands a bronze statue of a man in a friar's habit and cowl, arms crossed, looking down with great sorrow. A plaque says simply, "To Bruno, from the generation he foresaw, here, where the pyre burned."

To those relatively few who know who Bruno was, the somber monument and its enigmatic inscription capture well the life being memorialized. Giordano Bruno -- philosopher, cosmologist and master of memory techniques -- was, in the Papal Jubilee year of 1600, burned at the stake in that square for the crime of obstinate heresy.

A former Dominican priest with no political ambitions, no history of violence or subversion and no real following beyond a few scholars at some obscure universities, Bruno was tried and condemned by the Inquisition for what he thought, wrote and said. And while some view him as the world's first martyr to science -- a free thinker punished for holding a distinctly modern view of the cosmos -- Bruno was no Galileo or Copernicus. He was, instead, a serious man with expansive views on the nature of God and the universe who had the misfortune of living during a time when Catholic orthodoxy was being challenged and the church was fighting back.

Nonetheless, he and his death have inspired a range of notable people such as Baruch Spinoza (who shared parts of Bruno's philosophy and was also excommunicated by his people), Gottfried Leibniz, James Joyce (who alludes to Bruno often in Finnegans Wake) and Umberto Eco. Ingrid D. Rowland's new biography of him is well timed -- not so much because the kind of intellectual intolerance that led to his death is rising (it isn't, at least in the West), but because some of his more visionary and intriguing ideas have a new relevance.

In particular, Bruno was among the first to write about the universe as infinite in both time and space. He also was entirely comfortable with the idea that the universe contains many worlds and that some of the others might well be inhabited. This kind of thinking has given rise to astrobiology, the multidisciplinary science behind a concerted and well-financed effort to find life forms beyond Earth. Such a search would have no doubt delighted a man like Bruno, whose fascination with the workings of the universe and the possibility of life elsewhere turned him, in his era, into a tragic version of space visionary Arthur C. Clarke. Giordano Bruno: Philosopher/Heretic gives some support to the view of Bruno as a visionary of and martyr to science, but Rowland, who teaches in Notre Dame's school of architecture in Rome and writes about Italian cultural history, knows too much about him and his times to accept that simple picture. Rather, she tells the story of a bright, thin-skinned, rebellious and inquisitive young man from outside Naples who became a precocious Dominican priest, had some original thoughts, wrote some interesting treatises and long poems, and pretty quickly got in trouble with the authorities.

He did untoward and, to the displeasure of his superiors, rather Protestant-like things, such as throwing out most of his religious and personal belongings and keeping a spare monastery cell. He fled Rome when he learned he might be brought before the Inquisition and for years moved around Europe, traveling from Toulouse and Paris to London and Oxford, from Frankfurt and Geneva to Padua (where he applied for an astronomy position that was later held by Galileo.) He gained and lost numerous university positions as well as royal and aristocratic benefactors across Europe before returning to Venice at the request of a wealthy young nobleman who wanted to learn Bruno's memory skills, which were based on mnemonic associations but were sometimes attributed to "magic."

Bruno was handed over to the Inquisition after the young client concluded he wasn't getting the memory training he paid for, and Bruno spent the next eight years confined in Venice and then in Rome. Rowland describes in some detail the contorted -- but by the standards of the time entirely legal and accepted -- logic that led to Bruno being declared a heretic. His personal philosophy, which he called Nolan after the town where he was born, appeared to be a high-minded and exuberant distillation of Greek atomists (who saw the universe as infinite), St. Thomas of Aquinas (a fellow Dominican whose "natural theology" sought to prove the existence of God through philosophy), and Copernicus (who moved Earth out of its formerly central position in the universe), along with a view of God as within (as opposed to transcending) nature and man and a fondness for ancient Egypt . To the Inquisition, all this was dangerous and occult and outrageous.

Rowland's tale reads like an academic treatise at times, and it would be fascinating to know more about Bruno's personal life. But perhaps that's too much to ask, considering the times in which he lived and his peripatetic existence. Maybe it's enough simply to know more about the career of the brooding man whose statue looms over Campo de' Fiore. ·

Marc Kaufman, a science writer for The Washington Post, is working on a book about astrobiology.




August 25, 2008

The Forbidden World

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

by Joan Acocella

Giordano Bruno fled the Inquisition to write and to speak across Northern Europe.


In 1600, Rome’s Campo de’ Fiori, now a nice plaza lined with cafés, 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. AshWednesday 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.