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.