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‘But They Burned Giordano Bruno!’

Long ago, I went with friends to visit the Roman villa of Cardinal Bessarion on the one day in the year when it was open to the public. One of the great scholars and churchmen of the fifteenth century, Bessarion wrote profound studies of ancient philosophy and supported such innovative thinkers as Lorenzo Valla and Joannes Regiomontanus. His modest country house was charming: open to the soft Roman air, the traces of graceful paintings still visible on its ceilings, it looked like the perfect place to collect books, protect Greek refugees, and ponder the similarities and differences between Plato and Aristotle, all of which Bessarion did there.

A small crowd gathered, a learned-looking man took notes from his briefcase, and we awaited enlightenment. But it did not come. Another man, dressed in blue work clothes, began to shout: “But they burned Giordano Bruno!” The speaker and others explained that Bessarion, who died in 1472, had had nothing to do with Bruno’s terrible death by fire on the Campo de’ Fiori in 1600. They spoke calming words; they denounced censorship, torture, and the stake. Still: “But they burned Giordano Bruno!” The shouts simply became louder, and my friends and I never did hear about Bessarion and his house.

Giordano Bruno has always ignited tempers. In the nineteenth century, he ranked with Francis Bacon as a prophet of the modern—a materialist and iconoclast who somehow foresaw the industrial, scientific world that would come into being centuries after his execution. Many modern writers loved him: Victor Hugo, Ernest Renan, Ernst Haeckel, and George Ibsen supported the project to erect a statue of him in the Campo de’ Fiori, where he died. But some sharply disagreed. Pope Leo XIII, for example, insisted that Catholics study natural science and opened the Vatican Secret Archives to historians. But when the statue of Bruno was dedicated, Leo spent the day fasting and praying at the feet of Saint Peter. He was aghast to see “the hydra of revolution” raging through the streets of Rome.

Nineteenth-century Italian scholars rediscovered Bruno as a rigorous philosopher. Twentieth-century historians of science noted that he not only accepted and defended the heliocentric theory of Copernicus, but also envisioned the universe as infinite and matter as composed of atoms. In the 1960s, the great historian Frances Yates portrayed Bruno as a very different figure, the prophet of a new—or rather an ancient—religion, who died at the stake for his belief in the Egyptian revelations of Hermes Trismegistus. Debate still rages over everything from projects for critical editions of his work to his place in history.

One thing English and American readers have lacked is a reliable biography—a book that would help to clarify Bruno’s ideas by grounding them in his career. Ingrid Rowland has now provided a fine one. Trained in the classics, a longtime habitué of archives in Rome and elsewhere, she has previously written an innovative cultural history of Renaissance Rome and an elegant study of a seventeenth-century forger who tried his hand at Etruscology. Rowland comes to Bruno, accordingly, as one who intimately knows his world—both the early modern towns and cities in which he led his adventurous life and the intellectual cosmos in which he prowled for dangerous ideas.

She is also, as readers of The New York Review know, a powerful writer, imaginative, resourceful, and eloquent. Where some earlier translations of Bruno have turned his supple, powerful prose and verse into sludge (and a few into gobbledygook), hers reveal him as a writer in the league of Montaigne and Shakespeare. In Rowland’s hands, Bruno comes back to troubling life. She helps us see just why this slight, grumpy Neapolitan has posed such problems to everyone who has tried to understand what he believed, what he hoped to fight for, and why he returned, at the peril of his life, to the Italy of the Counter-Reformation, where his religious views had already dropped him into hot water as a young man.

Born in Nola, east of Naples, Bruno came to that huge and turbulent city as a boy, in search of education. His origins mattered. The small-town boy took with him, rather like Thomas Wolfe, indelible memories of Nola’s men and women, who reappeared in his writing, quarreling, articulate, and alive, decades later. But the urban experience was crucial. Naples was a huge, lively city, which challenged Bruno to make his way. It was also a city of writers and thinkers who challenged authority, from Lorenzo Valla, who was hauled before the Inquisition in Naples in 1440, to Giambattista della Porta, who was summoned to Rome to answer for his interest in worrying subjects like cryptography and magic.

At first Bruno followed a more conventional path. Gaining admission to the Dominican convent of San Domenico Maggiore, he eventually won access to the Dominicans’ college, which offered a rigorous grounding in Aristotelian logic, ethics, and natural philosophy and in scholastic theology. Bruno excelled in this demanding program, which assumed the basic correctness of Aristotle’s way of doing philosophy and treated his works as its central resource. Rowland believes, though, that he had already begun to think outside the curriculum. She has discovered that one of his teachers—an Augustinian friar—wrote speculative treatises of a more Platonic style. As she shows, moreover, the books of Egidio da Viterbo—the strange and brilliant Renaissance cardinal who conversed with Jews and Arabs, learned Hebrew to practice the kabbalah, and inhaled the smoke of burning straw to give his skin the proper, saintly pallor—were available in Neapolitan libraries. It is possible—though not quite proven—that Bruno’s career as a speculative thinker grew from these seeds.

Two points seem clearer. The first is that, from the start, Bruno excelled as a performer. A gifted linguist, he learned Hebrew, as many other Christian scholars did. Unlike the rest of them, though, Bruno gave a brilliant public demonstration of his skill in Rome, where he recited a psalm in Hebrew, first forward and then backward. What enabled Bruno to do this was his mastery of one of the most fashionable arts of the time, the art of memory: the formal art, created in ancient Greece and developed by ancient rhetoricians for use by orators, of learning long series of words (or anything else) by heart. Memory artists began by memorizing the façade of a building, or a group of buildings, window by window and plinth by plinth. In order to commit a text to memory, the artist imagined himself walking by the façade, and placed each word, in turn, in an appropriate niche. To recite his text, he returned to the façade and read off the component words.

In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, more than one original thinker made a name by his powers of recall. A century before Bruno, the brilliant philosopher Pico della Mirandola impressed his contemporaries, not only by his penetration and learning, but also by his ability to repeat forward and backward poems that he had heard once—exactly as Bruno did with his Hebrew psalm. Marc-Antoine Muret, a prominent French scholar who taught at Padua, told his readers with astonishment about a Corsican memory performer to whom he dictated “words in Latin, words in Greek, barbarous words, words that mean something, words that mean nothing, so varied, with so little coherence, and so many that I became exhausted just dictating them, and so did the boy who was deputed to take them down.” The Corsican remained daisy-fresh as he repeated this random list, forward and backward, again and again. One of his listeners, a young man from a prominent Venetian family, immediately became his pupil, and soon demonstrated his own prowess in public.

To readers who spend their days in front of computer screens, the art of memory sounds not just archaic, but antediluvian—the kind of thing that might be used in carnival performances, rather than a feat to astonish the learned. In Bruno’s world, however, memory mattered. Rowland suggests that it offered a way to impose order on the growing masses of files produced by the diplomats and bureaucrats of the time, some of whom complained that they were drowning in seas of paper.

This seems unlikely: clerks and lawyers all over Renaissance Europe were already devising new filing systems, which eventually grew into archives designed to handle exactly this problem. Rather, as Ann Blair, Noel Malcolm, and others have taught us, it was readers at every level, from kings to clerics, who needed help. Scholars had to master the classics so they could quote and imitate them, as Bruno himself regularly did; statesmen and merchants wanted tools with which to control, master, and evaluate the flood of texts that poured from Europe’s printing presses, offering information about lands that might be conquered, converted, or at least traded with. Readers of many kinds worked pen in hand, decorating the margins of their books with content summaries; often they copied out excerpts and stored them under topical headings in notebooks (card systems were developed in the seventeenth century). As shelves groaned and notebooks swelled to bursting, memory remained the only thread that could lead one back through paper labyrinths to the facts and data that mattered.

Bruno’s ability to stand before the public and muster all the facts clearly impressed people who spent most of their lives watching spectacles of one sort or another—Henri III of France, for example, who asked if Bruno achieved his effects by science or magic. And his art of memory offered more than access to known texts and facts. Just as we live in a swirl of new technologies and programs, sixteenth-century thinkers lived in a swirl of projects designed to manipulate and transform words—sometimes into hieroglyphs, images dense with meaning; sometimes into ciphers, to conceal political plans from enemies.

The thirteenth-century thinker Ramon Llull had devised a complex series of wheels, inscribed with letters and technical terms, designed to bring out the connections and differences between particular qualities and things. In place of static façades, Bruno adapted these wheels in his art of memory. Like Llull’s art, Bruno’s supposedly created new knowledge by combining existing elements in new ways. From the start of his career, in other words, Bruno was out to make a living by selling highly visible, widely valued techniques to potential pupils. By doing so he astonished academic audiences and won the interest of kings and patricians across Europe. And he did so, Rowland writes, in a recognizable Neapolitan way, showing off skills and striking impressive attitudes just as della Porta did when he astonished visitors with his optical instruments and ability to predict the weather.

At the same time, Bruno was already pushing at, and past, the narrow borders of the permissible—but not in the way that della Porta did. He was worried about religion. Bruno himself later admitted that as a student he had questioned the divinity of Jesus. Even in the convent, moreover, he acted out his challenges to authority with the same instinct for drama that made his career as an academic. He removed images of saints from his cell, leaving only a crucifix, and asked a novice why he was reading prayers to the Madonna in Italian rather than the lives of the Church fathers.

He made these little gestures of defiance, moreover, as the Catholic Church was regrouping to take on the challenge of Protestantism. In 1542 Pope Paul III created the Holy Office, which imposed censorship on Catholic publishers and readers. The Council of Trent, which settled the Church’s major issues of doctrine and authority, ended in 1563, while Bruno was still a student. Enthusiastic bishops and clerics fanned out to dioceses across Italy and beyond, eager to enforce orthodoxy and uniformity. Members of the religious order that Bruno chose to join—the Dominicans, known by a bad pun as Domini canes, dogs of the lord—specialized in running the Inquisition, among their other tasks. The order enlisted many self-anointed enforcers of true doctrine, though it also attracted a surprising number of defiant young men who hoped for something more than mendicant discipline and formal theology. An explosion was foreordained.

Bruno seems to have wanted a church more like the early one: hence his desire to live in a simple, white-washed cell and his advice to read the lives of the Church fathers. His illicit reading—as he confessed much later at his trial—also suggests a passion for the early church. It included “certain books with the works of Saint [John] Chrysostom and Saint Jerome, with the comments of Erasmus, crossed out, which I used secretly.” The same passion was made evident in an argument that flared up in 1572, when Bruno insisted, against an older colleague, that Saint Augustine held that the Son was not of the same substance as the Father—and used the argument as evidence that the fathers of the Church had written more clearly than the medieval scholastics. Coming under scrutiny, Bruno concealed some of his suspect texts in one of Naples’s legendarily deep and stinking latrines. But a systematic search ordered by the inquisitor brought them to light. In the spring of 1576, Bruno slipped away from Rome and took the road north.

For the next decade and a half, Bruno led the life of a road scholar—a displaced intellectual amid the crowds of beggars and merchants, Jews and soldiers who tramped the highways of Europe. As all universities used Latin as the language of instruction and recognized one another’s degrees as valid, his splendid Neapolitan training, the panache with which he spoke in public, and his ability, always helpful to an academic, to explain in a few sharp words why his art of memory was different from and better than those of his rivals gave him reason to hope that he could make a career. The varied Protestant churches of northern Europe, moreover, offered possibilities of a different Christianity, one more to Bruno’s critical taste. He first tried Geneva, Calvin’s city, but he evidently did not like the stripped, austere new church. More seriously still, he could not tolerate the pedantic sort of Protestant ass any more than he had been able to stand the Catholic ones. Lyon and Toulouse proved no more hospitable.

After 1581, however, possibilities seemed to open up. In Paris, Bruno’s prowess as a lecturer and memory artist won the attention of King Henri III, who made him a royal professor—one of the cadre of scholars who offered instruction in new subjects like Greek and Hebrew. Though his efforts to return to the Catholic Church failed—he could not accept the doctrinal demands of his confessors—he went on teaching and writing. In 1583 he moved to London, where he lived in the house of the French ambassador. Insulted and attacked by the xenophobic Londoners every time he ventured into the dark, narrow streets that ran with mud and shit, Bruno also became acquainted with brilliant men like the lexicographer John Florio, the jurist Alberico Gentili, and the statesman and poet Philip Sidney.

Bruno’s literary life flowered: he wrote a spectacular set of dialogues in Italian, the Ash Wednesday Supper, on cosmology and astronomy, and the extraordinary sonnets that became his Eroici furori.* When Bruno argued a technical point—for example, that the moderns should know more than the ancients—he did so with a deadly wit and clarity not seen in academic writing in Latin on the same themes, and that Rowland’s translations bring out wonderfully:

And if those closer to us in time have been no wiser than those who went before them, and most people today have no extra wit, it is because (what’s worse) they have lived their lives as if they were dead.

But an effort to gain a position at Oxford led only to humiliation, since the dons made fun of his Italianized pronunciation of Latin. Worse still, one of them caught him plagiarizing Marsilio Ficino. Bruno withered his enemies with a magnificent verse invective:

On spiderwebs a fly should not intrude;

A rat that follows frogs is good as dead;

Hens and their brood all foxes should refuse.

And trust the Gospel verse

That tells you, kind and terse:

For him who sows a field with errors and lies,

A harvest of regret shall be the prize.

The chilly reception Bruno received from Oxford’s expert mathematicians and astronomers inspired him to move in more constructive directions as well, as Mordechai Feingold has shown. He now began to gain the deeper mastery of natural philosophy and cosmology that underpinned his late works on the universe. In practical terms, though, Bruno’s invasion of England was a catastrophe. When the French ambassador, Michel de Castelnau, lost his position and could no longer offer hospitality and protection, Bruno returned to Paris.

Lonely and miserable, furious at Catholics and Protestants alike, the would-be reformer had become a Christian without a church and a professor who hated the standard curriculum. Bruno waged war on Aristotle, whose authority all Paris university teachers accepted. But the public debate that he staged ended, at best, without a clear-cut victory. Crossing the Rhine, he tried the waters of the Holy Roman Empire, which proved surprisingly pleasant. Wittenberg, Martin Luther’s city, turned out to be strikingly cosmopolitan and open, and Bruno enjoyed the short time he spent in its Italianate central square and excellent university. But he had to leave when the religious situation changed. A trip to the magic city of Prague, where Rudolf II, the Holy Roman Emperor, supported speculative thinkers of many kinds, yielded only a gift, not a paid position. After short stays in Frankfurt, the great printing center, where he saw his last works through the press, and Zurich, Bruno made his strangest decision of all: he returned to Italy.

Bruno taught briefly in Padua, Venice’s university town, and then moved to the metropolis. Reluctantly, he settled in the house of a nobleman, Giovanni Mocenigo, to whom he gave lessons in the art of memory. He prowled the city’s great bookshops, and with his host attended philosophical discussions. But they fell out, and Bruno determined to return to Frankfurt, where he would publish an encyclopedic work that might, perhaps, restore his position in the Catholic world. Mocenigo, who claimed that Bruno’s lessons had not lived up to the claims made for them—and, perhaps, resented the Neapolitan’s attentions to his wife—locked Bruno up and demanded that he teach what he had promised. When Bruno refused to compromise, Mocenigo denounced him to the Venetian Inquisition. The stage was set for the long and terrible last act of Bruno’s life.

From 1592 to 1600, Bruno remained in the Inquisition’s prisons, first in Venice and then in Rome. He underwent a trial in Venice, the records of which survive, and a second one in Rome, the transcript of which was probably lost in 1814, when Napoleon shipped large parts of the records of the Roman Inquisition to Paris. The wheels ground slowly, but they ground. In Rome, the greatest of censors, Robert Bellarmine, as erudite and intelligent as he was chillingly intolerant, took a hand in Bruno’s trial. At first, Bruno argued, bargained, tried to evade his fate. Eventually, however, confronted with evidence of his heresies and threatened with torture, he defied the tribunal and appealed to the Pope.

The appeal was denied. Forced to his knees, Bruno was degraded from the priesthood, formally excommunicated from the Church, and handed over to the secular authorities for punishment. According to the Roman gossip, he gave a defiant answer: “You may be more afraid to bring that sentence against me than I am to accept it.” As always, the authorities tried to convince him to repent. But even when given a last period of eight days to reflect, Bruno refused. Gagged and stripped naked, he was burned alive on the Campo de’ Fiori: his last voluntary act, supposedly, was to turn his face from the crucifix held up before him.

Rowland tells this great story in moving, vivid prose, concentrating as much on Bruno’s thought as on his life—many details of which even this uniquely talented document-hunter cannot fill in. As she shows, Bruno became over the years a powerful, innovative thinker. A philosopher in the classic mode of Plato—and, indeed, of Socrates—he willingly suffered ostracism and an unimaginably brutal death rather than give up his pursuit of truth.

His restless mind, as she makes clear, not only explored but transformed the heavens. The traditional universe—the cosmos of Aristotle, Ptolemy, and pseudo-Dionysius, taught in the universities and supported by all the weight of authority—was hierarchical in nature and bounded in size. At its center, the inhabited world consisted of four elements, earth, water, air, and fire, consistently forming and reforming, never still. Outside the center, in the heavens, perfect planets, embedded in crystalline spheres, moved in unchanging paths—not circles, as is sometimes said, but more complex figures generated by combinations of circular motions. Every link had its place in what A.O. Lovejoy called the great chain of being—and every link was better than the one below it and worse than the one above it.

Bruno imagined a radically different world. Like Copernicus, he set the sun at the center of the solar system. Unlike Copernicus, however, he refused to believe that the planets were attached to spheres. They moved through space, propelled by central forces from the sun. Outside the path of the planet farthest from the sun, Saturn, Bruno envisioned not a great sphere with stars embedded in it but a crowd of stars, each as warm as the sun itself, spread through an infinite, cold space.

Everything in this unimaginably huge universe—from the earth to the stars and planets—consisted, as the ancient Epicureans had held, of the same tiny particles: atoms. In Bruno’s egalitarian universe, particles and forces accounted for everything—or almost everything. He searched endlessly, Rowland argues, for a mathematics that could link the infinitely large to the infinitely small, though as a numerologist he had no chance of finding one. For all his use of traditional genres like the philosophical dialogue and the didactic poem, Bruno was a radically modern thinker—more so, for Rowland, than some more famous men of his time, such as Johannes Kepler.

Bruno’s contemporaries would have agreed with Rowland, to a point. Bruno won respectful attention from William Gilbert, the master of magnetic studies. Kepler discussed Bruno’s cosmology with friends of advanced views in Prague, like the diplomat, scholar, and atomist Johannes Wacker von Wackenfels, whom he called a “lover of nothing.” Though the great astronomer disliked the idea of an infinite universe, not ruled by mathematical or geometrical harmonies, he also found it impressive.

In 1610, when Galileo used the evidence collected through his telescope to show that the Milky Way consisted of individual stars, Kepler drew on Bruno’s speculative triumphs in an elegant display of academic lifemanship. Always a stickler on questions of intellectual property, Kepler pointed out that Bruno had been the first to imagine that the stars were like the sun, and scattered over vast spaces: Galileo had merely provided empirical confirmation. Galileo’s envy was understandable, Kepler remarked, but he should have credited the predecessors whose work he confirmed and corrected with new data—though of course Galileo, writing in Italy ten years after Bruno’s death, could not possibly have praised or cited him.

Rowland traces the complex arcs of Bruno’s life and thought with passion and, for the most part, with precision. But she presses the case for her protagonist’s modern qualities a little farther than the evidence can bear. Though she admits that Bruno completely lacked the passion for empirical evidence that in different ways impelled both Galileo and Kepler, she does not quite come to terms with his failure to see how much data matter. More seriously, she suggests that magic—the arcane arsenal of techniques for pulling power down from the stars and up from the elements, based on a cosmic cat’s cradle of occult sympathies and antipathies—played only a subsidiary role in Bruno’s thought. Yet overwhelming evidence suggests that magic mattered greatly to him. When Bruno tried to impress the Oxford dons, he quoted Ficino’s work on astrological therapies, a locus classicus of Renaissance magic (Rowland tries, with an elegant Talmudic argument, to excuse his plagiarism).

Bruno wrote his fullest accounts of natural and demonic magic and of the “bonds” they and other forces could create not at the beginning of his career but at its end. In those treatises he revealed that his materialist cosmos was still inhabited, as the old one had been, by spirits and demons of every kind—for example, the ones who bombarded him one night, when he was walking “in a desolate place” near Nola, “with many stones which violently exploded at a very short distance from my head and other parts of my body.” More important still, he argued that magicians in his own time could still use a language of symbols—a language like that of the ancient Egyptians, or of dreams—to communicate with the spirits, a process he described, with characteristic eloquence, as “no easier…than it is for an eagle to converse with a human.”

Bruno, in short, was a modern, as Rowland powerfully argues—but he also managed to be a magus, as Frances Yates believed, with the visionary insight that took her where other scholars could not soar. As the natural philosopher looked forward, the magus looked back. Bruno’s magic may have played a role—as important a role as his materialism—in his final confrontation with the Church. More than one of those who denounced Bruno testified that he had described Christ as a conjurer who had won followers with magic, and that he claimed even greater powers for himself. These denunciations come, as Rowland shows, from witnesses whose credibility is questionable. But they also make sense, in period terms. Both Christopher Marlowe, who knew some of the same brilliant London thinkers that Bruno frequented, and Tommaso Campanella, his fellow Dominican, made similar statements.

Campanella, as we know from multiple sources, promised the poor of Calabria that he would use his magical powers to lead them in revolution against the Church and the rich. Magic, after all, appears in Christian tradition as the canonical enemy of true religion—the weak weapon that breaks in the hands of Pharaoh’s enchanters and, much later, of Simon Magus. There is every reason to think that Bruno, like Campanella, reimagined the triumphs of Moses and Peter as those of the magicians they defeated, and sometimes thought of himself as the magicians’ modern heir. If so, he was not quite the Christlike figure, or the humble, betrayed Christian, portrayed by Rowland.

“The true test of a first-rate mind,” according to F. Scott Fitzgerald, “is the ability to hold two contradictory ideas at the same time and still function.” For all the brilliance with which Rowland paints Bruno as a consistent thinker and believer, he seems, in the end, more Fitzgerald’s sort of first-rate mind than hers: someone who, like Kepler, could both inhabit contradictory mental universes and use them creatively. The deep tensions and contradictions in his thought help to explain why, where Bruno is concerned, the shouting never stops. Anyone interested in learning more about these questions—and in exploring the real worlds Bruno knew, from Nola to Wittenberg and royal courts to Inquisition prisons—should do so, from now on, in Ingrid Rowland’s erudite and elegant company.

  1. *

    A translation by Rowland, under the title On the Heroic Frenzies, is forthcoming in 2009 in the Lorenzo da Ponte Italian Library, published by the University of Toronto Press