1495: William Stanley, Lord Chamberlain 1957: Dedan Kimathi, Mau Mau commander

1600: Giordano Bruno, freethought martyr

February 17th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1600, gadfly philosopher Giordano Bruno was burnt for heresy in Rome’s Campo dei Fiori.

A figure of ridicule in the 17th century, Bruno got this statue at the site of his execution in the 19th — when the world finally began to catch up with him.

A Dominican inductee in his teens, Bruno was cast out of the order for his heterodoxy.

There followed a lifetime seemingly always on the run, with each successive safe harbor turned against his pantheistic principles and abrasive personal manner.

Bruno has been understood with hindsight to have grasped, fleetingly, the world-upending implications of the Copernican system. In “a time when more than 99% of the intellectuals believed that the Earth was the center of the Universe, and a few others, like Copernicus and Galileo, believed that it was the Sun, instead, at the center of the Universe,” Bruno intuited modern cosmology — wherein both earth and sun were merely heavenly bodies among many others, situated in an infinite universe that did not revolve around them.

More than that, he intuited the expanse of philosophical, scientific and spiritual inquiry that would follow from that idea’s comprehensive destruction of the medieval order, centuries ahead of his time.

That little of Bruno’s own scientific work has withstood the test of time, and other scientific contemporaries did not sympathize with him, enables a hostile source like the Catholic Encyclopedia to sniff that

the exaggerations, the limitations, and the positive errors of his scientific system; his intolerance of even those who were working for the reforms to which he was devoted; the false analogies, fantastic allegories, and sophistical reasonings into which his emotional fervour often betrayed him have justified, in the eyes of many, Bayle’s characterization of him as “the knight-errant of philosophy.” His attitude of mind towards religious truth was that of a rationalist. Personally, he failed to feel any of the vital significance of Christianity as a religious system.

These latter traits are precisely the reason for his reclamation by Age of Reason deists.

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But the sixteenth century had no place for him.

This historical thriller — the first of a series — features Bruno in England, where some think he might have spied for Francis Walsingham.

Bruno fled Italy for Geneva, where he was soon excommunicated by Calvinist authorities, and thence to France, impressing King Henri III before wearing out his welcome. He spent time in England and Lutheran Germany, running afoul of each new host with his radical ideas, his contempt for the dead hand of Aristotelianism, and his decided want of tact.

He returned at last to Italy and these pages, perhaps counting on the Venetians’ historic rivalry with the papacy in accepting a sponsorship in the maritime republic. There the Inquisition clapped him in irons and shipped him to Rome where for unclear reasons he spent six-plus years imprisoned before facing trial as a heretic.

“Perhaps you, my judges, pronounce this sentence against me with greater fear than I receive it.”

Refusing all opportunity to recant, Bruno was led to the stake this morning gagged against any last outrages against St. Peter’s throne, and the friar who recorded Bruno’s unyielding end — famously mythologized in turning away from the proffered crucifix — could hardly have thought he was writing Bruno’s heroic epitaph as a martyr to the spirit of critical inquiry and passionate dissent.

But he insisted till the end always in his damned refractoriness and twisted brain and his mind with a thousand errors; yes, he didn’t give up his stubborness, not even when the court ushers took him away to the Campo de’ Fiori. There his clothes were taken off, he was bound to a stake and burned alive. In all this time he was accompanied by our fraternity, who sang constant litanies, while the comforters tried till the last moment to break his stubborn resistance, till he gave up a miserable and pitiable life.

That end serves as the climax to the forgettable 1973 Italian flick Giordano Bruno.

Sole bird of the sun, thou wandering phoenix!
That measurest thy days as does the world
With lofty summits of Arabia Felix.
Thou art the same thou wast, but I what I was not:
I through the fire of love, unhappy die;
But thee the sun with his warm rays revives;
Thou burn’st in one, and I, in every place;
Eros my fire, while thine Apollo gives.
Predestined is the term of thy long life;
Short span is mine,
And menaced by a thousand ills.
Nor do I know how I have lived, nor how shall live,
Me does blind fate conduct;
But thou wilt come again, again behold thy light.

-From Bruno’s esoteric The Heroic Enthusiasts, available on gutenberg.org

A few recent books about Giordano Bruno

Also on this date

Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Freethinkers,God,Heresy,History,Intellectuals,Italy,Martyrs,Papal States,Public Executions

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12 Responses to “1600: Giordano Bruno, freethought martyr”

  1. 1
    Lara Says:

    It’s funny, every time I see that statue, I’m reminded of the smell of fish. When I was in Rome several years ago, we were walking from lunch and passed through the square where the statue is. It was a Friday, during Lent, so there was a large fish market there!

    My “day” job and degree are in astronomy, and of course my main hobby is history, so it’s probably no surprise that i find Bruno such an interesting character.

  2. 2
    Major Major Says:

    And he was a spy for Sir Thomas Walsingham. Look up “Henri Fagot”.

  3. 3
    Carnival of the Godless #111 - The Atheist Blogger Says:

    [...] up.” – Atheism and the “Shut Up, That’s Why” ArgumentsJason writes about 1600: Giordano Bruno, freethought martyr who was executed five days and 409 years ago. Andrew Bernardin goes over 2 Christian assumptions, [...]

  4. 4
    ExecutedToday.com » 1603: Not Tommaso Campanella Says:

    [...] Easter 1600 madness was initiated only a few weeks after fellow intellectual omnivore Giordano Bruno was burned for heresy up the road in Rome. Strictly [...]

  5. 5
    ExecutedToday.com » 1619: Lucilio Vanini, aka Giulio Cesare Says:

    [...] can think of Vanini as a sort of Giordano Bruno mini-me — a bit less intellectually distinguished, a bit less famous, but doing the same [...]

  6. 6
    ExecutedToday.com » 1810: Tommaso Tintori, the first guillotining in Rome Says:

    [...] 28th, 2010 Headsman It’s easy enough to accuse the Catholic Church of being behind the [...]

  7. 7
    dtoores Says:

    can anyone translate the wording on his monument? thanks

  8. 8
    Headsman Says:

    It’s actually read off in the CBC audio used in this piece (from a bit after 6:00)

    They give the translation as “To Bruno, from the generations he foresaw, here where the pyre burnt”

  9. 9
    ExecutedToday.com » 1927: Sacco and Vanzetti (and Celestino Madeiros) Says:

    [...] are the Caesars and Torquemadas of yesterday? Who remembers the names of the judges who condemned Giordano Bruno and John Brown? The Parsons and the Ferrers, the Saccos and Vanzettis live eternal and their [...]

  10. 10
    ExecutedToday.com » 1586: Anthony Babington and fellow plotters, Walsingham’d Says:

    [...] and completely off topic: the subversive, forward-thinking philosopher Giordano Bruno — an Italian who was eventually executed by the Inquisition — has been alleged to be [...]

  11. 11
    ExecutedToday.com » 1606: Caravaggio murders Ranuccio Tomassoni Says:

    [...] the papacy in its dogmatic counter-reformation aspect may have viewed Caravaggio’s eye-catching chiaroscuro with [...]

  12. 12
    My Thinking on Freethinking « Dead of Winter Says:

    [...] hand, I understand the original, intended meaning of the term. The modern Freethought movement began in 1600 with the execution of Giordano Bruno, a Dominican monk and heterodox philosopher. This was a time when the Church ruled society and people blamed all their problems on witches, [...]

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