Renaissance Man

The Heroic Frenzies

by Giordano Bruno, translated with Introduction and notes by Paul Eugene Memmo Jr.
North Carolina, 274 pp., $5.50

Giordano Bruno
Giordano Bruno; drawing by David Levine

Born near Naples in 1548, burned at the stake in Rome in 1600, Giordano Bruno is one of the most striking figures among the Italian philosophers of the Renaissance, and has been one of the most misunderstood. His old reputation as martyr for modern science and the Copernican theory has had to be radically revised in the light of better understanding of the Hermetic basis of his philosophy, and this involves a new approach to the works which he wrote in England between 1583 and 1585. Among these is the remarkable one, the title of which is here translated as The Heroic Frenzies, in which Bruno presents his philosophy in the form of love poetry and love emblems.

In the dedication of this work to Philip Sidney, Bruno states that his love poetry is not addressed to a woman but represents heroic enthusiasms directed towards a religion of natural contemplation. The pattern is formed by a succession of emblems, meticulously described in words, the images of which are embodied in poems and discussed in commentaries on the poems. The images are mostly Petrarchan conceits about eyes and stars, arrows of Cupid, and the like. This work shows the philosopher as poet; or the magician who seeks identification with the divine through intense cultivation of the imagination. The recurring poems on Actaeon who hunts after the vestiges of the divine in nature, until he is himself hunted and devoured by his dogs, express a mystical identification of subject with object and the wildness of the chase after the divine object, the naked Diana or “the beautiful harmony of the body of nature.” Until there appears amidst the woods and waters of contemplation a vast vision of Amphitrite, embodying the enthusiast’s imaginative grasp of the One behind the multiplicity of appearances.

It is difficult to convey in words the impact made on the reader by this extraordinary work which is now made accessible in English in the translation by P.E. Memmo. What is most striking is the intense visualization of the emblems, conceits, and mythological figures. For the poet-magician these images are not so much explained by the philosophico-religious commentaries that follow them; they are themselves the imaginative means of achieving the insights therein described. The stars-eyes that wound the lover, the arrows that pierce his heart, are more than images or allegories (Bruno insists that his poetry is not allegorical) of his experience of receiving intuitions of the divine splendor from the “innumerable individuals and species of things.” They are the forms of his prayer, the expression of the intentions of his will towards receiving such experiences.

Though much has been done on the history of Petrarchist poetry in the Renaissance, particularly in the way of source-tracing, it is perhaps less important to find out whether a poet is copying Bembo or Ronsard than to ask with what kind of inner intentions he…

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