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Exile in that Infinity: Giordano Bruno | posted November 8, 2015

Ed Simon

“If you had found planets circling one of the fixed stars, there among Bruno’s infinities I had already prepared my prison shackles, that is, my exile in that Infinity.”
– Letter from Johannes Kepler to Galileo Galilei, 1610

“I hardly ever read a book without wanting to give it a good censoring.”
– Robert Cardinal Bellarmine SJ, 1598

“O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space.”
– William Shakespeare, Hamlet, c. 1600

Ettore Ferrari, Giordano Bruno (1889)

Ettore Ferrari, Giordano Bruno (1889)

[1]  According to the Italian, the English were just as unimpressed with him as he was with them. On an Ash Wednesday in 1583 they sat in this dark-wood panelled dining room, tapestries keeping out the chill of late winter even as the cold couldn’t help but enter through the leaded window with its multicoloured glass diamonds. The Italian’s thin, stubbly black beard, his olive complexion and his shaggy dark hair that had grown out from his tonsure distinguished him from the gathering of fair skinned courtiers who had invited him to supper. Giordano Bruno, of Nola, born in the shadow of Vesuvius and raised on the peaches and lemons which grew in her fertile soil, and whose intellectual training was in Naples’ monasteries and chaotic streets, was very far from home here in damp, dark London. Chief among the English was Fulke Greville, author of arguably the first biography in English, who was perhaps dressed in his imposing ruffled Elizabethan collar and the rich satins and velvets of the aristocratic class. Greville was close friends with Sir Philip Sidney, who admired Bruno and who the Nolan dedicated a book to. Yet despite his affection for noble Sidney, for the cosmopolitan Bruno, who true to the humanist maxim had made wherever he happened to be residing at that moment his home, still found the English to be “disrespectful, uncivil, rough, rustic, savage and badly brought up.” While he disparaged their uncouth table manners and their inability to clean themselves before and after they ate, the Englishmen found Bruno to be obtuse and pretentious, answering his declarations about Copernicanism with snotty rejoinders quoted from Erasmus. And yet, in Bruno’s fictionalized dialogue Ash Wednesday Supper, which recounts the dinner, and which appropriated the form and structure of Plato’s Symposium and married it to the vulgar, obscene, practical and endlessly creative Neapolitan dialect of his youth, Bruno expressed some of the most sublime metaphysical speculation of the sixteenth century. It is as if Pulcinella, the clown of commedia dell’arte, was suddenly able to declare with utmost sophistication and beauty the infinite nature of the universe.

[2]  Almost exactly seventeen years later and also on an Ash Wednesday, the short former monk would find himself naked, chained to a bundle of cut faggots, with one spike pierced through both his cheeks and another one finishing a cross through his lips. Here, in the Campo de Fiori – the Roman “Field of Flowers” – he had finally returned to his homeland and faced Michelangelo’s massive and still unfinished dome as he was immolated. For what was the Nolan philosopher burned? He was executed because the Church feared what was printed in his dozens of books, spoken through his lectures at the top universities of Europe from Padua to Oxford, and scratched in the very margins of his personal library, composed as it was with the infernal syllabus that is the Index Librorum Prohibitorum. For several months in 1593 he was imprisoned by the relatively liberal Venetian Inquisition – the Doge always eager to keep his independence from the Pope – and then possibly tortured for the next seven in the dungeons of the Tor di Nona by the Roman Inquisition (for which no records survive, lost in the Napoleonic conquests). Bruno was made a martyr for his beliefs – but it remains difficult to classify those beliefs. Witnesses for the prosecution (and there was only a prosecution) claimed that he abjured Christianity, that in his earliest days as a friar in Naples he denied the Trinity, stripped his monastic cell of all but a crucifix (reminding his superiors of those iconoclasts beyond the Alps), that he defended the fourth-century heretic Arius, that he had consorted with and attended services amongst the Lutherans and Calvinists in the great schismatic capitals, that he had bragged about trying to start his own Rosicrucian religion, and that there were already cells amongst the swayable people of Switzerland and Germany who were attracted to Bruno’s hermetic faith with its blend of Christianity and the occult, his mythology as familiar with Thoth and Apollo as it was with Christ. A man who had been imprisoned with Bruno in Venice was brought forth as a witness to the many blasphemies in word and heresies in thought which the Nolan had supposedly uttered as he awaited trial. The prisoner – a cleric himself – claimed that Bruno denied that “bread transmutes into flesh” and “that he is an enemy to the Mass, that no religion pleases him” and that he claimed “that Christ was a wretch…. [and] that Christ….. was a magician.” This witness stated that while awaiting his trial Bruno often ironically compared himself to Christ, and claimed that the Son of God was no better than any of the prisoners, for even Christ wished to resist his execution during that human moment at Gethsemane. Sometimes the blasphemy was less sophisticated than that – sometimes in rage and frustration the philosopher would scream at God the Father “I despise you, fucked cuckhold, done and undone!” But Bruno also said more sublime things that for all their beauty enraged the Church no less, for he believed that “the world is eternal and that there are infinite worlds.”

[3]  Like Erasmus, whose books he had hid in his monastic cell when he was young, he made no single town his home, but rather the whole of a rapidly disintegrating Christendom was his study. From a provincial settlement some thirty miles from Naples – which at the time ranked among one of the largest cities in the world – he would travel to, write in, and teach at universities in Paris, Venice, London, Geneva, Oxford, Prague, Wittenberg, Venice and Padua. He would meet the crowned heads of Europe: Henri III of France, humbled by the violence of the massacre on St. Bartholomew’s Day, when the Seine was bloodied by the martyred Huguenots; Elizabeth of England, who for some time seemed to offer the promise of toleration to persecuted Bruno but whose via media was more Machiavellian strategy than intellectual position; and Rudolf II of Prague, with his court filled with not just jesters and magicians, but astronomers and artists, and always with that regent’s aching desire to pierce that shadow veil between the world as it seems and the world as it is. On these journeys, over the course of a short life of only a bit more than a decade of writing, he had printed dozens of arguments, dialogues, plays, pamphlets, poems and even instruction manuals with exotic titles such as The Song of Circe, The Candlemaker, Ash Wednesday Supper, and On the Limitless and Numberless. In his writing, his lectures, and his private tutoring (to among others Henri III) he argued for a strikingly original interpretation of the universe. And what was this vision? For Bruno reality did not end at the conclusion of the nine crystalline spheres of the Ptolemaic world: it extended indefinitely into pure infinity, and was aged on a scale of eternity and not the prosaic few millennia that organized Christianity believed in. That in this immeasurable universe there are other suns, with other planets, which have their own inhabitants. That our reality is structured by atoms, and that we are unified in our compositional substance, and that as God is somewhere, God is everywhere. In On the Immense he writes “Now, if you please, ask me: Where is place, space, vacuum, time, body? In the universe. Where is the universe? In every place, space, time, body. Is there anything outside the universe? No. Why? Because there is no place nor space nor motion nor body.”

[4]  It would be easy to read this as a scientific world view (and it often still is read this way), but it would be a mistake. Bruno was conversant in the emerging new science, but Bruno was not a scientist. His was not an empirical world – at least not exactly. For Bruno it was the manipulation of numbers and symbols, memory and word, which generated knowledge of the cosmos. It is true that he embraced Copernicus’ heliocentrism, but not necessarily because it simplified complex calculations involving epicycle upon epicycle or because it explained the retrograde motion of Mars, but rather because in restoring the sun to the center of the solar system it gave due reference to Apollo. “Sun, who alone bathes all things in light” as Bruno said in his Apollonian hymn, his Copernicanism justified more by a type of Neo-Paganism than by the telescope. Kepler, for his witchy associations, or Tycho Brahe even with his astrological ones, and certainly Galileo (who sometimes seems so modern that he may be a refugee from the future), all began to speak in the language of science. Bruno was a hermeticist: however, his unseen forces were not things like gravity but substances of a more occult sort. Bruno’s laboratory was not Brahe’s Danish island observatory espying the supernova of 1572, but rather the libraries of Italian occultism. He was the embodiment of the mystical, otherworldly, transcendent perspective of men from the previous century like Giovani Pico della Mirandola or Marsilio Ficino, or even Plethon who still worshiped the gods of old, and who attended that Medici-funded Florentine conclave in 1438 which was the closest the Catholic Church ever came to suturing that amputation from the Greek east. None of this is to disparage the Nolan – far from it. It is merely to explain that his was not a modern heresy, but rather a golden thread of a heresy which stretched back to the beginning. Bruno was thinking of that thrice-great Hermes, who the Egyptians believed was baboon-faced Thoth, who first invented writing, and who the Christian kabbalists of Florence and Prague believed had even taught Moses in his youth, when he wrote that “Egypt is the image of heaven, and to state it more clearly, the colony of all things that are governed and exercised in heaven.” In believing that the reality could be infinite, and that time could be eternal, Bruno did not justify his beliefs by science, yet he still may have been right. And regardless, his vision remains beautiful. And he tried to spread that vision throughout that disunited continent. Giordano Bruno’s career is a story of cities – Naples, Geneva, Paris, London, Prague, Venice, Rome.

[5]  It was Naples that gave the Nolan his tongue. The dedication to his Expulsion of the Triumphant Beast reads “Giordano speaks the common language, he names names freely…. He calls bread bread, wine wine, a head a head, a foot a foot, and other parts by their proper name.” Neapolitan is a frank, no-bullshit dialect, which trades freely in wit, insult, obscenity and casual blasphemy. At Oxford they laughed at him when he lectured because his accent was so thick, and even in Venice fellow Italians had trouble understanding what he was saying. But it was in that low dialect that he was able to express that which was highest. He would learn not to fear authority in Naples, whether among his own Dominicans, or later among the Calvinists of Geneva who would excommunicate him from a faith which wasn’t even his, or among the fearsome and brilliant new Jesuits. He once quipped that Naples was a paradise inhabited by devils, and indeed life was not always at a premium in a city that existed under the threat of continual volcanic annihilation (and which still does). This was the dirty but also the beautiful city, where that fellow heretic, the utopian Thomas Campanella would dream of his City of the Sun and of an Age of Spirit which would commence in 1600, and where half a century after Bruno’s death the fishmonger Masaniello would expel the Iberians in Europe’s first modern revolution. In Florence there was magic practiced in the institutes of the Medici, and the hermetic corpus and the Sibylline oracles were consulted as Plato’s Academy was reopened. But Naples was a different city, full of not just philosophers and monks, but pick-pockets, prostitutes, and murderers. Where Pico della Mirandola consulted the writings of Plotinus and Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, the young Nolan would have seen magic of a more practical manner – the buttara la fava of men forecasting the future by throwing beans, of women scrying oil floating on water. Here, in Naples, the Renaissance was maybe not always the high-class affair it would be in Florence, but it was a crowded, dynamic, confusing, and violent one. It is only appropriate that in the heat-blanched fields of the Mezzogiorno that a man like Bruno could turn his eyes to that celestial orb and see infinities of light. And yet the Church did not take to Bruno’s philosophical improvements upon Catholicism, and so they expelled him from the community of the faithful, and he exiled himself from Italy.

[6]  It was Geneva that gave him division. The Inquisition would make great purpose out of Bruno’s attending of Calvinist services in that Swiss city, but the philosopher had always maintained that he was simply following local custom. It was an unusual town for him to migrate to. Though Italian Protestants had been crossing the mountains now for two generations to find amnesty here in Beza’s theocracy, it was not a place conducive to the temperament of a scholar like Bruno. Surely he knew the cautionary tale of the Spaniard and possible marrano Miguel Servetus. Some decades before Bruno, that unfortunate had come to Geneva fleeing from the Spanish Inquisition only to find himself the first heretic ever condemned and executed by a Protestant regime. Some say that his incineration was a sort of perverse favor that the Catholic Church had asked of their Calvinist enemies. That earlier heretic, whose life and fate so mirrors that of Bruno’s, was guilty of Socinianism, of denying the Trinity, something which Bruno had flirted with since he was a teenager. Servetus’ prosecutor was John Calvin, who had failed at everything he had ever tried – be it the Parisian legal trade, or a career as a rakish, humanist dandy penning homoerotic poetry. And so, since he had failed at everything to that point, he decided to move to Switzerland and redefine God. And some half-century before Bruno’s arrival, Calvin had looked at Servetus and with those cold eyes with their cold gospel he sentenced the Spaniard to a burning flame. The only reason Servetus’ work survives is because a sole copy not consigned to the bonfire of the vanities was maintained by that old scholar himself, whose name was once Jean Chauvin, and who ironically couldn’t part with the Spaniard’s book. When the Nolan arrived Geneva was still a city dictated by Calvin’s interpretation of biblical law, and for Bruno with his exultation of human freedom the dark theology of double predestination was as psychologically restrictive as the town’s puritanism was socially. The Calvinists excommunicated the Italian for the second time in his life: once an exile from the faith of his fathers, he was now an exile from those that had rebelled against the same fathers Bruno had.

[7]  It was Paris that gave him memory. Henri III had invited Bruno to be his personal tutor, to explain to him the Ars Magna, the art of memory, which he travelled the continent teaching at universities. Bruno had been inspired by the medieval Catalan Ramon Llull, a thirteenth-century Franciscan who invented a complex calculus of intellectual interconnectedness, finding parallels between disparate phenomena and ideas to generate new concepts. Llull’s method of intellectual computation involved a simple yet ingenious mechanism – paper wheels turning within wheels marked with a complex set of symbols representing various forms and thoughts, with different categories lining up and generating new concepts, and intricate tree-like diagrams that he used to create a type of spiritual physics, hoping to generate the doctrine of Christianity through calculation and pure reason and thus to demonstrate to Jews and Muslims the intellectual superiority of the Catholic Church. The Muslims of North Africa were less than impressed with his theological calculating machine, and ended up stoning him to death. But from his Ars Magna came the earliest articulation of what could be thought of as a computer, and Bruno’s inspiration for his own great art, a complex mnemonic system for improving one’s memory. Inspired by how Llull’s rotating circles within circles made connections between different phenomena, Bruno invented a method of combining various divergent concepts so as to better commit to memory tremendous amounts of information and text. Drawing not just from Llull, but from classical rhetorical theory as well, Bruno developed a system whereby ideas and words were metaphorically associated with elements of actual physical buildings, and in recalling the details of their architecture one could almost magically bring forth the memorized works in question. It was a system of memorization by divide and conquer, texts broken down into their smallest elements, and then perhaps arbitrarily wed to some element of a place so that when the student mentally returns to said building they only need to imagine themselves walking throughout to recall all of the stored information. Brought to Paris by the king, Bruno may have taken a concrete space such as Notre Dame Cathedral to explain to Henri how a given text, say something from Bruno’s long-dead yet respected sparring partner Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica, could be memorized as effortlessly as the ancient druidic bards were once able to recall their epics. A few sentences may be associated with one stained glass pane, a whole chapter with the window, a book with the side of the nave, the conclusion with the altar. Bruno converted text into space, and made calling forth whole books as simple as visiting a place in your imagination. With all the enthusiasm of some sort of back-woods confidence man, Bruno advertised his amazing skills by writing “This art required much less work, industry, and practice than all the others you might read about, so that within three or four months it offers an easier, more certain method for those who choose it than those who follow other methods will attain in three of four years.” But for Bruno this was no parlour trick, this was, as it was for Llull, the very physics of thought, the means by which the great code of reality could be interpreted.

[8]  It was London which gave him debate. That northern city was cold, and was unlike Apollo’s hazy land of the midday sun which had birthed the Nolan. It may have been a few decades since the Thames had frozen over and it was possible to walk from Fleet Street to Southbank without crossing at the city’s only bridge, but that early March Ash Wednesday when he dined with Greville there would have still been the unfamiliar chill which marked this planet’s last mini-ice age. For Bruno, London seemed encased in cold, though in other ways it was not dissimilar to Naples – it had the same mélange of cut-throats and cut-purses – a canting underclass with a colourful vocabulary who crowded the just opening theatres across the river from London, as well as her brothels and her bear-baiting pits. Ruling over that island was Spenser’s Gloriana, the Virgin Queen, Elizabeth. She was the monarch of a small island at the very western edge of the world, speaking a honking, guttural, monosyllabic branch of West Germanic, and like Bruno’s fellow countrymen under constant threat of attack by the seemingly omnipotent Spanish with their treasures of Aztec and Incan gold. And despite these seeming limitations, Elizabeth had apparently created a very Golden Age, her courtiers had taken the fourteen-line parsimony of the sonnet (so amenable to the easy rhymes of the Romance languages) and hammered earthy English into something that would perfect that form. The theatres south of London began to stage dramas by Marlowe, Shakespeare, and Jonson which conveyed a type of interiority no literature had achieved before, and the difficult reformations she inherited from her sister, her brother, and her father made this Protestant island a surprisingly fertile field for all manner of creative thought. Here Bruno met and immensely admired the great Sir Phillip Sidney. They shared a name – Giordano was his confirmation name, his birth name was Filippo. And both Sidney and Bruno were named for the same Philip, ironically the one who sat on the Hapsburg throne at El Escorial. Many of Bruno’s teachers at the monastery of San Domenico Maggiore died in the Neapolitan revolt against Spanish rule; Sidney would be felled by a bullet at Zutphen as he aided the Dutch in their war of independence against Spain. There were other connections between them, Bruno and Sidney were like two divergent categories on concentric wheels of Llull’s apparatus rotated onto one another. How could Bruno not appreciate the aristocratic courtier-poet, whose magnificent sonnet cycle took that most astronomical of titles, Astrophel and Stella? But on the whole Bruno did not enjoy the English – their island cold, their people unappreciative. It is possible that he, like other continental refugees, could have found a home among the British. Despite the growing Puritan faction within the Church, Hooker’s burgeoning live-and-let-live latitudinarianism was at least for some a matter of genuine Anglican policy. But Bruno, who always loved the sun, could not abide this kingdom of short winter days, and he began his way back southward. Some believe however that before his departure he was recruited as an espionage agent by Sir Francis Walshingham, the reptilian head of the Privy Council. Knowing how he remained unwelcome by the inquisitions of many of the city-states of Italy, Bruno cheekily and ultimately appropriately took the codename “Faggot”, after the bundle of sticks that heretics were burnt alive on.

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Rudolf II (1590-1)

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Rudolf II (1590-1)

[9]  It was Prague that gave him magic. Here the eccentric Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II forged a strange and occult kingdom, very different from the Counter-Reformation police state that his cousin Philip ruled over in Spain. Rudolf, who some saw as mad, was obsessed with oddity, aberration, and the spectacular. Here he assembled collections of Wunderkammer filled with ancient artifacts, exotic taxidermy, shells, minerals, and curiosities collected from around the world. Rudolf fancied himself a type of Prospero, and true to his desire to be both king and wizard he had summoned the greatest scientific and magical minds to Prague in an era in which the demarcation between those two spheres of knowledge was less clear than it is today. This claustrophobic capital of winding cobbled streets snaking over the Bohemian hills and of mist falling on the red-tiled roofs of its small stone houses was for a time the most occult city in all of Europe. Here, in the shadow of its gothic cathedrals and synagogues were gathered at a time not just Bruno, but also the astronomers Brahe and Johannes Kepler, the English-court astrologer and communicant with angels John Dee and his assistant Edward Kelly, and the Italian painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo with his fantastic paintings of men composed of books, fruits, and mechanical devices. It was in sixteenth-century Prague that the great kabbalist Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel had taken mud from the Vlatava and fashioned a golem, using incantations to imbue this pile of dust with life, taking motes of adamah and making his own Adam. The creature was to protect the Jews of the Prague ghetto, and was controlled by the inscribing and erasure of a single Aleph on his forehead, that primordial letter being the simple difference between the words for “truth” and “death.” Supposedly the remains of Yoselle the Golem are still entombed in the attic of the Prague synagogue. Less evidence remains of that other necromancer, the historical Johann Faust, who though he mostly resided in that capital of division that was Wittenberg, spent some time in Prague decades before Bruno would be a resident.

[10]  It was Venice that gave him prison. Returning to Italy should have never been considered an option by the Nolan, and yet years living among the descendants of Goths in the lands of cold winters, warm beer, and bland food had convinced him to return to Italy. Still, that most Serene Republic of Venezia was not necessarily an inappropriate place for Bruno to take up residence, even if it was on that Catholic peninsula. It was a transitional place, between east and west, buffeted by the Holy Roman Empire, the Spanish, and the Ottomans. The Venetians had grown rich on massive trade, opening up the orient centuries before, and in the marketplaces of the Piazza San Marco there were artefacts from the Levant, spices from India, textiles from central Asia and cloth from China all being haggled over. The canals of that wedding-cake city were traveled by not just Catholics, but Protestants, the Orthodox, Jews, and Muslims. Venice was nominally Catholic, but her true faith was trade, and in the ecumenical spirit of capitalism the Other was mostly welcome within her watery byways. Despite the worst intentions of the papacy, Venice remained the capital of southern European publishing, now rivalled only by Frankfurt, and the city honoured the long dead printer Aldo Manuzio who saw accessible books as a birthright for all scholars. Venice had an independent and liberal spirit, and she had buffered herself against the political machinations of Rome as affectively as the dams which kept the city from sinking. The Venetian Inquisition was more to pay lip-service to Rome, being comparatively forgiving. And the doges, always careful to never acquiesce too much to any foreign power, either sultan or pope, ordained their own bishops without intercession from the Vatican (which is why many Hussite heretics received the collar in Venice). But Venice’s fortunes were falling – the defeat of the Armada off the coast of England began to move the centre of sea-faring commerce from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic– and the memory of her spectacular vanquishing of the Turks at Lepanto was beginning to fade into history. The doge needed the support of the Papal States as the Spanish began to hem him in, and so Bruno was arrested by the Venetian Inquisition. And in the course of his deposition, shadow diplomacy secured the Nolan’s extradition from Venice to Rome.

[11]  And it was Rome that gave him death. In a lifetime of traversing many rivers – the Seine, Danube, the Thames – he now faced the Tiber. Giordano – Jordan. He was obsessed with waterways almost as much as he was with the sun, but unlike in the conclusion of his poem The Heroic Frenzies he would not find baptism at this Jordan. Instead he found Robert Cardinal Bellarmine. Bruno’s career intersected with virtually every important intellect of the late sixteenth century, and while many of them were geniuses and were his equals, perhaps no piercing intellect understood him and took him as seriously as Bellarmine did. He was the first Jesuit cardinal, made so by Pope Clementine VIII, and often when he explained why he joined the Society of Jesus he said it was because it precluded the possibility of his ascending higher office since before him Jesuits had been barred from being made princes of the Church. But for all his stated humility, he was also a dogged and zealous enforcer of orthodoxy who fully lived the Ignatian zeal to affirm that black is white if the Church so decrees it. But Bellarmine also belied the old and naïve slur that the zealous are always stupid, for in the cardinal Bruno ironically may have found the first equal who truly absorbed and understood his system and what precisely was so dangerous about it. There were scores of heretics not just in Rome and Italy, but throughout Europe. Men and women were routinely brought in by the inquisitions, and overwhelmingly acquitted and released. Eccentric aberrations in proper theology were in some ways tolerated, punished just enough so that everybody would remember who was actually allowed to write doctrine. But Bruno was a different matter: here was a well-travelled and well-connected man who preached a strange gospel of pantheism and apocatastasis, who denied all miracles so as to enshrine the world itself as the only miracle, who saw organized faith as superstition and her clerics as ignorant asses. Using the analytical prowess that to this day has rightly earned the Jesuits their reputation as the intellectual vanguard of the Church, Bellarmine encapsulated the Nolan’s philosophy into eight positions untenable to Catholic orthodoxy, which Bruno was asked to repudiate. By the conclusion of the trial, after six years of imprisonment, and possibly torture with devices that had names like the strappado (which wrenched your limbs from your sockets as you were hoisted upon a pulley) and the Judas Chair (in which one was partially impaled upon one’s anus), Bruno refused to recant and couldn’t explain away the seeming heresy, and so his execution was ordered in that Roman field of flowers on an Ash Wednesday, in that jubilee year of 1600. According to one witness the philosopher told Bellarmine and the Inquisition that “Maiori forsan cum timore sententiam in me fertis quam ego accipiam”, that is, that he thought that they feared delivering the execution sentence more than he feared hearing it. If Bellarmine was troubled by this seeming curse from the Neapolitan magician, we do not have a record for it. And yet sixteen years later, perhaps haunted by the memory of the little monk being burnt alive in that Roman square, the once fearsome inquisitor would be uncharacteristically charitable when presented with another heretic, the astronomer Galileo, whom the cardinal spared from the auto da fé.

Ettore Ferrari, (1889)

Ettore Ferrari, Giordano Bruno (1889)

[12]  The question is still unanswered: what was Bruno a martyr for? It’s been cliché for centuries that he was the original sacrifice for the new science, a scapegoat delivered by the hands of a backward and superstitious church. But none of it is as easy as that, for, as I have said, Bruno was no scientist. And his own biography denies that he had a personal opposition to the very church which would ultimately condemn him; after his excommunication Bruno attended Mass every week (and when in non-Catholic countries attended the services of those lands), while faithfully and respectfully abstaining from the Eucharist, in accordance with the terms of his expulsion from the Church. Several times in his life he tried to have the bill of excommunication reversed, pleading with confessors that he be readmitted, but with these cases only able to be nullified by a bishop or the pope. In 1889 a group of Italian free-thinkers emboldened by the anti-clericalism of Garibaldi’s Risorgimento commissioned the sculptor Ettore Ferrari to place a statue of the Nolan in the Campo de Fiori as a monument to early science and secularism. In his hooded cowl, which the historical Bruno had not actually worn for years, and which made him look like a character from one of Mathew Lewis’ gothic novels, Bruno seemed to face accusingly in the direction of the Vatican. At least that’s how his directional stance has usually been interpreted. Who is to say that the look on his face isn’t one of longing?

[13]  It is an inconvenient fact that while Bruno was certainly a heretic in his era, he’d remain one today as well, albeit one not sacrificed in a public square. In the sixteenth century he perhaps naively and unintentionally existed outside the strictures of normative Christianity. But today his strange world-view and his esoteric epistemology would mark him as separate from the prevailing intelligentsia’s positivist orthodoxy. Despite modern declarations that canonize Giordano Bruno as a martyr for science, he was not. There was not yet a “science,” not even a word for it. The Renaissance is a foreign and confusing nation. Its laws are different from ours; its rules are different from ours; its thoughts and dreams are different from ours. They speak not just a different language, but the very definitions of words are different. Bruno lived in a twilight world, not quite antiquity and not quite modernity. He was not against it, but he was not a martyr for science. He was a martyr for something else. In his own words, his belief was that there was a “harmony with all nature, and… a general philanthropy by which we love even our enemies, lest we become like brutes and barbarians, and are transformed into his image who makes his sun rise over good and bad, and pours out a rain of grace upon the just and the unjust.” Perhaps he was a martyr for a faith that is not yet ready to be born? But in the end, he was a martyr for something. And maybe that, in its own way, is enough.

Lehigh University, November 2015


Note: A shorter version of this essay is concurrently being published under the title Featured Heretic: Giordano Bruno by ExCommunicated, the newsletter of the International Society for Heresy Studies (www.heresystudies.org).

Ed Simon is a PhD Candidate in the English department of Lehigh University. His research focuses on religion and literature in the seventeenth and eighteenth-century Atlantic world. He has been previously published in The Revealer, the Journal of the Northern Renaissance, and the Public Domain Review among others. Currently he is the assistant editor of the Journal of Heresy Studies, and one of the founding members of the International Society for Heresy Studies. He can be followed on Twitter @WithEdSimon.

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