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 …