February 17th, 2009 Headsman
On this date in 1600, gadfly philosopher Giordano Bruno was burnt for heresy in Rome’s Campo dei Fiori.
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.
But the sixteenth century had no place for him.
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
- 1815: Eight deserters by order of Andrew Jackson
- 1938: Juan Soldado, patron saint of Mexico-US migrants
- 1524: Not Jean de Poitiers, father of the mistress
- 1944: Jean Cavailles, philosopher-mathematician
- 1872: Gomburza
- 2004: Cameron Willingham, for an accidental fire?