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Was Giordano Bruno a Mole?

Giordano Bruno and the Embassy Affair

by John Bossy
Yale University Press, 294 pp., $29.95

One of the most delightful experiences, for a scholar, occurs when, afterlong search, or perhaps by chance, he discovers a small key which is found to open a long-locked door and reveal, beyond it, a totally unexpected new vista. John Bossy, known as a historian of post-Reformation English Catholicism, has discovered such a key, and the vista which it reveals will surprise, perhaps shock, all who have ever wondered what lay behind that door: the door which leads into the hidden life of that most mysterious of the “philosophers of Nature” of the Renaissance, Giordano Bruno.

Ever since he was burned at the stake in the Campo dei Fiori in Rome in February 1600, Bruno has been a problem to his interpreters. In his life-time he had a few disciples, but they soon vanished, almost without trace. The seventeenth century, the century of the Scientific Revolution, ignored him. Bacon, Galileo, Descartes had then created a new world, continuous with our own, behind which the “philosophers of Nature,” with their Hermetic, Pythagorean, cabalist fantasies, vanished and were forgotten. Bruno was more original than most of them—he had expounded Copernican astronomy, the relativity of motion, and an infinite universe with multiple worlds—but in spite of his martyrdom and his literary gifts he disappeared into an oblivion so deep that a century after his death the most learned encyclopedist of ideas in Europe, Pierre Bayle, could seriously express uncertainty whether he had really been burned. Bayle was corrected, the fact established; but even so this now autyenticated victim of superstitious tyranny was not hailed in the Age of Enlightenment. In all his works Voltaire only once, very casually, mentioned him: he showed much more interest in J.-C. Vanini, a far less interesting “philosopher of Nature,” who was burned at the stake nineteen years after Bruno. But perhaps that was because Vanini, like Jean Calas, suffered nearer home, at Toulouse.

In the nineteenth century all that changed. When the new, liberal, secular kingdom of Italy seized the city of Rome from the popes, Bruno became a protomartyr of anticlerical liberalism, of freedom of thought, of science against obscurantism, even of the Risorgimento. There was a “Brunomania” in Italy. Streets and squares were named after the martyr, his statue was set up in the place where he had suffered, his works were rediscovered and republished, biographies were written. But alas, he is a biographer’s nightmare. As the intellectual context around him was revised, so he was revised too. He became less modern, less liberal, less scientific. The street names were changed again. There was even a move to pull down his statue, which, however, was saved by Mussolini. But in one respect he did not change. He remains as mysterious as ever.

The mystery arises partly from the sources, or the lack of them. Bruno himself was an elusive character. He seems to have written no letters, or at least none which survive. He left—until his trial—very few traces in the public records. The most substantial sources now available are two: his own writings and the records of his examination by the Inquisition. But neither of these sources can be wholly trusted. His own writings, insofar as they pretend to be autobiographical, are compounded of fiction, fantasy, and allegory or satire. At his trial, he was fighting for his life: Who can blame him if he was economical with the truth? Both sources need careful interpretation; but against what corrective background can they be interpreted?

Let us begin with the hard bare facts of Bruno’s career. A Neapolitan, a Dominican friar, accused of heresy in 1576, he fled to Calvinist Geneva and was excommunicated by his own church. By 1581 he was in Paris, the Paris of Henri III, the last of the Valois dynasty. There he lectured, wrote, and published books on the “Lullian” art of memory. This brought him to the notice of the king, who took to him, made him his “reader,” and treated him well. Then, in 1583, for some reason—we do not know why—he decided to move on, to England. Henri III recommended him to his ambassador in London, Michel de Castelnau, seigneur de Mauvissière, who had been there for the last seven years. Castelnau accepted Bruno as one of his gentiluomini, gentleman-servants, and lodged him in the embassy, which was in Salisbury Court, between Fleet Street and the river Thames. There were evidently several Italians in the embassy, including John Florio, who taught the ambassador’s daughter and became afriend of Bruno.

Anglo-French diplomatic relations, at that time, were very tense. Both countries were riven by religious and political factions. In France, Henri III was imprisoned between Huguenot rebels and the ultra-Catholic Ligue. In England, Catholic or crypto-Catholic nobles sought to destroy the Protestant regime of Queen Elizabeth. Neither Henri III nor Elizabeth had a direct heir, and the presumptive heirs were of the opposite religion, so a well-timed assassination could change everything. The presumptive heir in England, the deposed Mary Queen of Scots, was at the time a prisoner in England, but if Elizabeth should die, she would be brought out. The pope and the king of Spain approved of assassination in so holy a cause. The ultra-Catholics in France were on their side. Their leaders, the family of Guise, would have liked to see Elizabeth removed and their cousin, the queen of Scots, brought out to succeed her. Luckily for Queen Elizabeth, her secretary of state, Francis Walsingham, had a highly efficient secret service, with spies everywhere. Spies were especially necessary in the French embassy since the French ambassador—for the time being—was on the side of the Guises.

For the time being…but for the time being we can forget all this, for what has it to do with our philosopher? Described by an Italian friend as “a pleasant companion of epicurean tastes,” Bruno, in those years, was having a splendid time in England. Like many foreigners, he was disgusted by the brutishness of the English lower classes, but he did not see too much of them. Thanks to the ambassador, he moved among the elite. He became known at court. He was taken up by Sir Philip Sidney and his friends. When a Polish prince came to England, Bruno was in the party which accompanied him on a jaunt to Oxford. On the way back he visited the great magus Dr. Dee at Mortlake. On a second visit to Oxford he debated with the Aristotelian dons, whom he thought very stuffy. In London, he dined out, talked, taught, generated controversy, made converts, and wrote books. His five most famous works were written in England—not in Latin, the language of the Church and the dons, but in Italian, the language of the sophisticated metropolitan beau monde. He dedicated them to Sidney or to his host, the ambassador, and they contained Iyrical praise of Queen Elizabeth, to whom, in 1585, he presented the whole collection in a finely bound volume.

Then, at the end of that year, the ambassador was recalled. Things were hotting up in France; he was no longer in tune with the Guises; and he was replaced by a more reliable partisan, the baron de Châteauneuf. Bruno went back with the outgoing ambassador, but found France rather uncomfortable and after a few months moved on to Protestant Germany—to Luther’s Wittenberg, to the duke of Brunswick’s university of Helmstedt, to the half-Protestant Prague of Rudolf II. Finally—a fatal step—he ventured back into Italy. He had a patron, he thought, in Venice: Zuan Mocenigo, a young grandee who wished to learn the art of memory. But Bruno’s ideas, by this time, had passed far beyond the art of memory, and Mocenigo, instead of becoming his disciple, turned him in to the Holy Office, with results only too well known.

Such is the external history of Giordano Bruno. A typical wandering scholar of the Renaissance, he moves from city to city, university to university, offering to sell marketable skills—the art of memory was very marketable—announcing a new philosophy, challenging the academic establishment, often in bombastic, provocative language, distrusted by it, but making a few loyal disciples, and taken up, and then dropped, by princes and avant-garde patrons, interested in any new thing. By all accounts, his two and a half years in England were his most enjoyable and productive time. It was also, politically, a very exciting time. But was there any connection between his visit and those exciting politics? Why did he choose—if he did choose—to come? Or was he, as Frances Yates, the most erudite and original student of his ideas,1 supposed, sent by Henri III with a purpose: to preach a philosophy of Neoplatonic Catholic-Protestant union against the two forms of religious extremism which were tearing France and Europe apart?

It is at this point that Mr. Bossy comes in. He is not interested, at present, in Bruno’s philosophy, but he has made a particular study of “the relations, political and other, between France and theElizabethan Catholics” at this time. This has led him into the dark world of “Walsingham’s spies”—the beginning, according to the received tradition, of the British Secret Service. And there he has discovered, or believes that he has discovered, a hitherto hidden episode in the tortuous life of Giordano Bruno. He does not believe that Bruno was sent to England by Henri III. Bruno, he believes, came for reasons of his own. But once there, once established (thanks to the recommendation of Henri III) in the French embassy, and protected there by the benevolence of the ambassador, he was recruited by Walsingham and became an invaluable “penetration agent,” reporting to his new master all kinds of useful information: the secret contacts and conversations of the ambassador, the visits he received, the letters he wrote (for Bruno had recruited, in his turn, the ambassador’s secretary), the secret trade in Catholic books organized in the embassy, and also (since he was the embassy chaplain) the very useful secrets entrusted to him in the confessional. He exposed the Throckmorton plot against Queen Elizabeth. He informed on a fellow priest and his harborer, Lord Henry Howard, rendering both of them liable to execution “in a manner as barbarous as his own,” and though they escaped such a fate, “it is quite clear that that was what Bruno intended.” Thanks, in part, to him, Queen Elizabeth survived the plots against her life. She was luckier than Henri III, the duc de Guise, William of Orange. It was her Catholic rival, Mary Queen of Scots, who died. Walsingham must have been very well satisfied with his mole in the French embassy, and sorry when the recall of the ambassador took him away.

The ambassador himself, had he known, might well have felt differently. As Mr. Bossy puts it, Bruno

systematically betrayed his master Castelnau, who did nothing but good for him, was extremely loyal to him, and regarded him as a friend. He persuaded his secretary to betray him. He procured, in so far as it was in his power to do it, the arrest, torture and execution of Francis Throckmorton, whom Castelnau said that he loved as himself, and by whose fate he was appallingly harrowed. He did all this while buttering up Castelnau in three dedicatory epistles with fulsome expressions of esteem, friendship and undying gratitude for looking after him and sticking up for him. This was quite exceptionally disgraceful conduct, and it must gravely damage Bruno’s reputation from now on.

It must indeed, if it is true.

Is it true? That is the great question. The process by which Mr. Bossy has convinced himself of its truth is a marvelous exercise of detection and deduction, and no one is entitled to dispute it unless he can claim equal familiarity with the evidence. I do not claim that familiarity, so I shall merely ask a question. I shall come to my question shortly, but first I must set out his argument.

It is an argument of beautiful economy: the key which causes the closed historical door to swing back on its hinges and reveal this startling new vista is so small, so delicate, and so simple in its structure, and yet the whole operation depends entirely on its perfect function. It is presented to us by a mysterious stranger who uses the name Henry Fagot. This Henry Fagot is Walsingham’s spy in the French embassy. Ostensibly it is he who performs all the useful services which I have summarized. But Mr. Bossy, by a series of careful tests, has satisfied himself that Fagot and Bruno are the same person: that the name “Fagot” is merely the pseudonym chosen, by himself, with prescient, grim humor, by Bruno.

Once that identification is admitted, what a prospect lies before us! “A gaping hole” in the biography of Bruno is plugged; the evidence that can be extracted from Bruno’s enigmatical writings can be dovetailed into the evidence of Fagot’s secret espionage; and each can then be interpreted by the light, or rather the flickering half-light, of the other. The pieces, we find, can be fitted neatly together—only a few minor, and allowable, adjustments are necessary; and so, behold! a new person is before us: the daring philosopher of Nature, the Hermetic magician with his ambitious plans to reform the world by destroying Christianity and replacing it with the imaginary religion of ancient Egypt (i.e., Frances Yates’s Bruno) is also the devious conspirator who plunges into a life of treacheryand espionage, out of conviction, indeed, but also “for the money, and probably for the thrills as well,” a fantaisiste who delights in dissimulation and danger, private jokes, black humor, and savage personal revenge.

This all depends on the identification of Fagot as Bruno. If that is established, the rest follows. The case is proved and Giordano Bruno can never be quite the same as before. But if it cannot be proved, the whole ingenious construction trembles and Mr. Bossy’s new portrait remains, at best, a brilliant but hazardous speculation. So what is the evidence of identification? Once we ask this question, we have to admit that Mr. Bossy produces no hard evidence at all. All the evidence is circumstantial, coincidental, corroborative, by inference or exclusion. The case is brilliantly argued by counsel for the prosecution, but could a judge—would Mr. Bossy himself—declare it proved? I think not. And then there is one difficulty which, unless I have mistaken the argument, seems to me to open an opportunity for the defense.

The beginning of the case for the prosecution is the coincidence of dates. Fagot begins to operate (to “transmit” in Mr. Bossy’s phrase, for he uses, throughout, the language of the modern mole with a radio transmitter) in April 1583, the month in which Bruno arrives at the embassy; he is occasionally “shut down” thereafter, but resumes his “transmissions” irregularly until November 1585 when the ambassador and his staff return to Paris. Before leaving, Fagot, who is chaplain to the embassy, is questioned by the new ambassador, the baron de Châteauneuf, who, being a strong Catholic, a supporter of the duc de Guise, is rather suspicious. Fagot sends an account of this interview to Walsingham. Arrived in Paris, he makes contact with the English ambassador there, Sir Edward Stafford, who however is not on very good terms with Walsingham. He then finds employment with the duc de Montpensier. That promises to be useful as it brings him into the circle of the Guises. However, he does not last long there: he disappears finally from the record about the time when Bruno finds it advisable to move on to Germany. This is a very suspicious coincidence and makes a good starting point. How far can it be confirmed by other evidence?

Well, Fagot’s French (for he writes in French) is not perfect. It is not the French of a fully literate Frenchman. He could be Italian. In his reports, or the reports which are assumed to originate from him (for he has a cut-out), he shows himself an enthusiast for Queen Elizabeth and dislikes the pope, but that would go with the job anyway. There are other details which could corroborate but do not demonstrate the identification. Finally “both of them”—Fagot and Bruno—“were Catholic priests.” This is the clinching evidence, for Fagot’s account of his interview with the new ambassador indicates that (at any rate at that time) there was only one priest officiating in Castelnau’s household, and that was the embassy chaplain, Fagot himself. So where does Bruno fit in? There is no room for him—unless he is the same person as Fagot.

It is here that I ask my question. What is the evidence that Bruno served as a priest in the embassy? He was, of course, a friar; but he had been excommunicated and could not, without grave consequences, perform priestly offices. According to the evidence, he was taken on by Castelnau not as a priest but as a gentiluomo, a gentleman attendant. At his trial, he denied that he had acted as a priest. That was natural enough, but may he not have been telling the truth? Is it probable that he would have taken that risk, that a Catholic king would have recommended him, or that a Catholic ambassador to a Protestant court would have accepted him, in that capacity? If Walsingham had a spy in the French embassy, might not the Spanish ambassador have had one too? Think what trouble he could have made if he could show that his French colleague was employing as his chaplain a heretical and excommunicated friar. The ambassador could surely have discovered this. Bruno was, after all, as a Neapolitan, a Spanish subject.

In fact Mr. Bossy himself answers my question. “One of the bigger bombshells in Bruno’s biography, which follows from identifying him with Fagot,” he writes (my italics), “is that, while he was in Salisbury Court, he functioned as a priest, and was, indeed the embassychaplain”; and he admits that had it been known “that he had acted as a priest in London, that bombshell would have blown to bits” his defense before the Inquisitors. But if his function as embassy chaplain “follows from identifying him with Fagot,” how can it be used to prove the supposition on which alone it is based? Is not this petitio-principii?

I emphasize this because the statement that Bruno officiated as chaplain in the embassy is the central argument in Mr. Bossy’s case. All other arguments are circumstantial but this is presented as demonstrative. It is established, he writes, “that when Castelnau went home, he had only one priest to take with him. Since both Bruno and Fagot went home with him, they must have been the same person” (my italics). They must indeed if Bruno was his priest; but the only evidence given for this is the identification which it is said to prove. If there were other evidence which I have missed, the alleged revelation could not be described as a bombshell.

If I were entrusted with the defense of Bruno against charges which, if untrue, would justify “exemplary damages,” it is here that I would make my stand. But would I believe my own argument? Would a jury believe my summing-up? I am not sure. Mr. Bossy’s erudition is so great, his virtuosity in handling it so enviable, the story he tells so fascinating, and he tells it so well, with such verve and subtlety and wit—he clearly enjoys watching the gyrations of the serpent he has hatched—that I, and they, would probably surrender, and my client would be dispatched to the scaffold with perhaps no more justice than he received when the Roman Inquisition sent him to the stake.

So then I leave it. This is a marvelous book which, whether right or wrong, equally multiplies rather than resolves the mystery of Giordano Bruno. Perhaps it is right. Can we believe in this new character: this highpowered Hermetic philosopher whose opaque and enigmatic works can still find a publisher and (presumably) a public,2 this sophisticated, epicurean good companion, of such agreeable manners and conversation, who was yet, at heart, so cool, ruthless, and treacherous, leading a precarious double life in the household of a patron who generously nourished him, protected him, and was betrayed by him? Well, I suppose we can: I have known one such.

  1. 1

    Frances A. Yates, Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition (University of Chicago Press, 1964; 1990), p. 204; and especially, Lull and Bruno: Collected Essays (Routledge Kegan Paul, 1982), pp. 156–179.

  2. 2

    Giordano Bruno, On The Composition of Images, Signs, and Ideas, translated by Charles Doria, edited and annotated by Dick Higgins (Willis, Locke and Owens, 1991).

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