The Tragedy of Giordano Bruno

The Tragedy of Giordano Bruno

Giordano Bruno was one of the most important philosophers of the Renaissance period. Born in the small Italian town of Nola in 1548, he entered the Dominican monastery of Saint Domenico at the age of seventeen. In 1572, he finished his novitiate and became an ordained priest.

Giordano was an advocate for free thinking, having a penchant for topics that were quite controversial in the eyes of the church.

Bruno’s taste for free thinking and forbidden books soon caused him
difficulties, and given the controversy he caused in later life it is
surprising that he was able to remain within the monastic system for
eleven years. In his testimony to Venetian inquisitors during his trial,
many years later, he indicates that proceedings were twice taken
against him for having cast away images of the saints, retaining only a
crucifix, and for having made controversial reading recommendations to a
novice. Such behavior could perhaps be overlooked, but Bruno’s
situation became much more serious when he was reported to have defended
the Arian heresy, and when a copy of the banned writings of Erasmus,
annotated by him, was discovered hidden in the convent privy. When he
learned that an indictment was being prepared against him in Naples he
fled, shedding his religious habit, at least for a time (Wikipedia).

In 1579, he arrived in Calvin’s Geneva. Some think he became a Protestant, but that is doubtful because of his disdain for the religious teachings of someone like Calvin. While studying at Geneva University, he made some noise when he attacked, in print, the work of one Antoine de la Faye, a popular professor. This professor has given a series of lectures on Aristotle. Bruno displayed his antipathy, on twenty different points, in the form of a pamphlet. True to his rebellious nature (quite to be admired), he and his printer were both arrested.

After this imbroglio, Bruno decided to relocate to Lyon, and then to Toulouse, where he earned his doctorate in theology. He taught philosophy for awhile here before moving on to Paris in 1581. He had been summoned by Henri III, after the king heard tales of Bruno’s prodigious mnemonic skills. Under the king’s protection, Bruno stayed in Paris for five years, teaching at the Royal College of Lecturers. This comfortable position was a result of his explication of mnemotechnics in a book published in 1582 called De Umbris Idearum, which had strong Hermetic overtones. The king was delighted with him and allowed him to publish two more important works on memory that same year, Ars Memoriae (The Art of Memory) and Cantus Circaeus (Circe’s Song).

Bruno traveled to England in 1583, accompanying the French ambassador, Michel de Castelnau, at the behest of Henry III. In fine style, Bruno mingled with Oxford dons and some of John Dee’s acquaintances. Some of the so-called gentlemen were not quite taken with Bruno because of his support for Copernicus’ heliocentrism. George Abbot, a fellow of Balliol College, and who later became Archbishop of Canterbury, organized a public debate concerning Bruno’s heliocentric views. During this time, Bruno, not being dismayed by the criticism of his ideas, published, in London, some of his most important works, including La Cena de le Ceneri (The Ash Wednesday Supper, 1584), De la Causa, Principio et Uno (On Cause, Principle and Unity, 1584), De l’Infinito Universo et Mondi (On the Infinite Universe and Worlds, 1584) as well as Lo Spaccio de la Bestia Trionfante (The Expulsion of the Triumphant Beast, 1584) and De gl’ Heroici Furori (On Heroic Frenzies, 1585). Some of these caused great controversy and Bruno was, again, in a tangle with the authorities.

After the French embassy in London was attacked by unruly citizens in 1585, Castelnau, with Bruno in tow, returned to Paris to avoid the sticky wicket in which Bruno had become embroiled. But Paris proved to be troublesome for the free thinker, as well. After losing the support of the king and his patrons over his 120 theses against Aristotle, and pamphlets against mathematician Fabrizio Mordente, he fled France and headed to Germany.

He arrived at Wittenberg, where he lectured on Aristotle for two years. During this time, he offended Danish astronomer, Tycho Brahe, with his ideas on infinite worlds. He then departed from Germany and headed for Prague.

In 1588, Prague was ruled by Rudolph II, who was the patron of alchemists and astrologers. Bruno, during this time, turned more toward magic and Hermetism. Bruno produced several Latin works, dictated to his secretary Girolamo Besler, including De Magia (On Magic), Theses De Magia (Theses On Magic) and De Vinculis In Genere (A General Account of Bonding). He also published De Imaginum, Signorum, Et Idearum Compositione (On The Composition of Images, Signs and Ideas, 1591).

In 1591, Giovanni Mocenigo invited Bruno to travel to Venice and teach him the magic art of mnemotechnics. Bruno complied, after at first hesitating. He hoped to be given the chair of Mathematics at the university of Padua, but this was not to be. The philosopher departed his host and headed to Frankfurt. Disappointed by Bruno’s teaching and doubtful about his orthodoxy, Mocenigo denounced him to the Inquisition. On May, 23,1592, Bruno was arrested and taken to San Domenico di Castello prison.

Bruno’s trial dragged on for more than eight years. Basically, it was the entirety of his ideas that would cost him his life. He was accused by the Inquisition for his anti-dogmatic views, which included his rejection of the Trinity, the virginity of Mary, and the teaching of transubstantiation. Also, his heliocentrism was seen as heresy, as well as his attraction to magic and Hermetism.

In 1594, all the works of Giordano Bruno were burned in St. Peter’s Square. Bruno presented his final plea before the so-called Holy Office on December 20, 1594. At the end of it all, the accusations came down to eight propositions, which Bruno refused to recant:

The statement of “two real and eternal principles
of existence: the soul of the world and 
     the original
matter from which beings are derived.”
2) The doctrine of the infinite universe and
infinite worlds in conflict with the idea of Creation: 
    “He who denies the infinite in effect denies the infinite
3) The idea that every reality
resides in the eternal and infinite soul of the
world, including 
     the body: “There is no reality that is not accompanied
by a spirit and an intelligence.”
4) The argument according to which “there
is no transformation in the substance,” since
     the substance is eternal and generates nothing, but transforms.
The idea of terrestrial movement, which according to Bruno,
did not oppose the Holy
     Scriptures, which
were popularized for the faithful and
did not apply to scientists.
6) The designation of stars as “messengers
and interpreters of the ways of God”.
7) The allocation
of a “both sensory and intellectual” soul to earth.
8) The opposition to the doctrine of St Thomas
on the soul, the spiritual reality


    captive in
the body and not considered as the form of
the human body.

For these eight points, Giordano Bruno was burned to death in Campo dei Fiori in Rome, after Pope Clement VIII declared Bruno “an unrepentant heretic, tenacious and stubborn.” The so-called Supreme Pontiff handed him over to the secular officials who set him ablaze. Prior to his death, Bruno uttered these grave words:

“Maiori forsan cum timore sententiam in me fertis quam ego accipiam (
Perhaps you pronounce this sentence against me with greater fear than I receive it).”

Bruno turned his head away from the crucifix before being consumed by the flames.

The eight propositions given above are, in a nutshell, what myself and many others, discuss on a daily basis in these electronic forums. Thank God the church no longer has control over our lives as they did in Bruno’s day.

This article is dedicated to the memory and work of Giordano Bruno, an amazing philosopher and free thinker. You can find a selection of his works online here.

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3 thoughts on “The Tragedy of Giordano Bruno

  1. Definitely one of my heroes. Giordano Bruno was a man who stood head and shoulders above the rest. It's a shame that Ars Memoriam is in Latin, as I don't speak Latin! I have read The Art of Memory by Frances Yates, which includes much from Giordano's work.

  2. Definitely one of my heroes. Giordano Bruno was a man who stood head and shoulders above the rest. It's a shame that Ars Memoriam is in Latin, as I don't speak Latin! I have read The Art of Memory by Frances Yates, which includes much from Giordano's work.

  3. I don't really care for Yates' portrayal of Bruno. Yes, there is good information in both books she wrote about him, but she paints Bruno's life as a failure because he chose the path he took, which led to the stake.

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