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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.