Bruno, Giordano: Italian philosopher born in 1548 in Nola, died on February 17, 1600, in Rome. He ventured too far into the field of infinity and paid for it with his life.

Giordano Bruno beholding infinity (Flammarion, 19th century)

Filippo Bruno was born the son of a mercenary in Nola near Naples, Italy, in 1548. From 1662 he studied humanistic philosophy in Naples, entering the Dominican Order in 1565. There he adopted the religious name "Giordano".

Bruno's first troubles were not long in coming: He refused to worship the virgin Mary and removed the pictures of saints from the walls in his convent cell. His master of novices was outraged but decided, at least for the time being, to shrug the incident off as a youthful aberration. In 1572, Bruno became an ordained priest and began studying the writings of Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas. But his problems with the doctrines of the Church continued. In 1576 he publicly challenged the Doctrine of the Trinity, denial of which had been considered one of the worst kinds of heresy since the 3rd century A.D. Bruno was charged as a heretic.

He escaped to Rome in an attempt to persuade the pope to act as a mediator. However, just prior to his escape, Bruno had imprudently disposed of church father Augustine's treatise De Trinitate in the convent latrine in order to emphasize his opinion on the matter. Once this deed became known to the authorities in Rome, Bruno was forced to flee from there as well.

Odyssey through Europe

The next period of Bruno's life turned into an erratic pilgrimage through Renaissance Europe. His first station was Geneva. There, he became a member of the Calvinist church, which shared his views about the worship of saints. However, Calvin also happened to despise ►Copernicus's heliocentric worldview, which Bruno endorsed. Thus, Bruno was once again charged as a heretic and excommunicated by Calvin. He then fled to Toulouse, where in 1579 he accepted a professorship. Building upon Greek natural philosophy and the Copernican worldview, he began to develop his own philosophical cosmology. In addition, his photographic memory began to attract attention; Bruno developed his own mnemonic system. But rumors spread that he allegedly possessed magical powers.

His academic life in Toulouse was not to last long. In order to escape persecution by the Huguenots, he fled to Paris in 1581. There, he briefly enjoyed the protection of Henry III, who soon, however, sought to get rid of him. In 1583 Bruno traveled to Oxford to apply for a lectureship. However, his inaugural lecture -- in which he challenged Aristotle's views -- ended in uproar, resulting in yet another hasty and involuntary departure. Until mid-1585 he stayed in London at the house of his friend the French ambassador. There, in addition to churning out acid-tongued satires of the Oxford scholarly elite, he completed and published his major work, De l'infinito universo et Mondi ("On the Infinite Universe and Worlds").

Infinite Worlds Filled with Life

At the center of Bruno's thought is the hypothesis that the ►universe is infinite not only with regard to space and time, but also regarding the number and variety of living beings. With this he stood in radical opposition to the dominant Scholastic view, whose adherents he charged with accepting only abstractions and being blind to the multiplicity of worlds. Bruno saw the universe as an organic whole in which all things interact. God and nature are one. This is why God cannot be known by philosophical or theological argument but only by the examination of nature.

These were all dangerous views, for at the time ►knowledge of God was a matter exclusively reserved for the Catholic church. But Bruno did not stop there. The Earth, he claimed, was not the center of the universe, but only one among infinitely many worlds. The stars were like the sun, orbited by planets inhabited by an infinite number of ►intelligent beings . Finding itself thus reduced to an organization that happens to run an insignificant planet within an infinite universe of other planets, stars, and civilizations, the Church would never forgive Bruno for this relativization.

Nothing but Trouble

In 1585, Bruno returned to Paris and immediately became unpopular there for his collection of theses against Aristotle's views, as well as for his vituperative attack on the Catholic professor Fabrizio Mordente. Upon being driven out of Paris, he traveled to Germany and was granted a lectureship in Wittenberg. There, he taught philosophy for a period of two years. When Wittenberg became too dangerous, he moved on to Prague, then to Helmstedt, where he once again gave a brief guest performance as lecturer at the local university. But here, too, he was excommunicated -- this time by the Lutherans, for publicly challenging the divinity of Christ.

All that Bruno was striving for was to find a permanent university position and settle down. But his ability to create personal enemies was just as prodigious as his talent for finding, time and again, people who would act as his protectors and patrons. In 1590 he settled down in Frankfurt upon the Main, got into in a dispute with the city elders, and was expelled. After a brief interlude in Zurich, Bruno -- perhaps driven by homesickness -- eventually returned to Italy. He temporarily lectured in Padua but, to his disappointment, the professorship was then offered to ►Galileo Galilei.

Sold Down the River

Bruno subsequently accepted an invitation to Venice. His host, the Venetian aristocrat Giovanni Moncenigo, at first pretended to want Bruno to teach him the art of mnemonics. It turned out, however, that what he really desired was an introduction to magic. Bruno refused, no doubt in his usual abrasive and polemical manner. The offended Moncenigo reacted by denouncing his guest as a heretic and magician before the Holy Inquisition in Venice. On May 22, 1592, shortly before his scheduled departure, Giordano Bruno was arrested.

He was transferred to Rome in early 1593 and incarcerated at St. Angle's Castle. The prisoner was just what the Inquisition had been waiting for. All over Europe, scholars had begun falling away from official church doctrines -- not only contemplating heretical thoughts, but actually expressing them in public. It was important to set an example to demonstrate the church's power. Preparation for the trial against Bruno lasted seven years, and for seven years the inquisitors used torture to draw a confession and revocation from Bruno. Bruno fought for his life skillfully. In order to obtain an audience with Pope Clemens VIII, he expressed his willingness to abdicate part of his theories. But this did not satisfy the Inquisition. Faced with the demand that he completely revoke all of his heretical views, and unready to abandon his thesis of the infinitude of worlds, Bruno refused.

The judgment against Bruno was passed on February 9, 1600. The philologist Kaspar Schoppe reported:

"Today I witnessed with mine own eyes how Giordano Bruno, convicted of heresy, was burned to death in public on the Campo dei Fiori in front of Pompeius's theatre. […] On February 9, Bruno was led into the courtroom at the Great Inquisitor's palace in the presence of the highest-ranking cardinal inquisitors, their theological consultants, and the municipal leader of the City of Rome. There, he was made to kneel down to hear the judgment. First, his life and philosophy were summarized, and it was emphasized with what brotherly care the Inquisition had tried in vain to convince Bruno of his aberrations and to give him advice on how to save himself. It was then reported how stubborn and impious Bruno had been. Next, his priesthood was revoked and he was excommunicated. Finally, he was handed over to secular authorities with the request to administer a penalty as merciful as possible. During the entire period Bruno did not utter a word, except one time when he said: 'Perhaps you, who passeth this judgment, have more reason to be afraid than I, who will have to accept it.'

Thus, the municipal leader's men returned him to prison, where he spent another eight days just in case he might yet abandon his erroneous beliefs, but to no avail. And hence they sent him to be burned at the stake. When, shortly before his death, they held the image of the crucified before his face, he rejected it with bitter contempt. Miserably perishing in the blistering flames, he may have been just short of giving up the many worlds of his imagination a moment before his death. And thus are the impious and godless usually handled in Rome.

Bruno's works were placed on the Index of Prohibited Books and remained there until 1965. Conveniently timed on 'Forgiveness Day' March 12, 2000, Pope John Paul II was the first to publicly express "profound sorrow" at the death sentence and execution of Giordano Bruno.


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