October 10, 2009

The Voice of One Crying Out in the Wilderness: The Life and Death of Giordano Bruno

"The Nolan" Giordano Bruno
(1548-February 17, 1600)
By Niccolò Graffio

After the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 AD, which effectively ended Classical Antiquity, the light of higher learning was for the most part snuffed out over most of Europe (the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire notwithstanding).  Though progress was made on a number of fronts in succeeding centuries, real devotion to the arts and sciences on the continent was not seen again until the time known as the Renaissance, which began in Italy during the 14th century.

This is not to say that in the interim Europe was a backwater.  Far from it!  During the period known as the Middle Ages, Northern and Western Europe were urbanized for the first time in their respective histories.  Kingdoms were also established that would eventually evolve into many of today’s nation-states in Europe.

However, the rise during the Middle Ages of the socio-economic system many today call Feudalism put into place an orderly but static social structure that left little opportunity for advancement to those on the bottom rungs of the ladder.  Likewise, the Roman Catholic Church, whose archives ensured the survival of many ancient manuscripts that would otherwise have been lost to us today, ironically in many cases was the impediment to advancement as it struggled to maintain its control over the hearts and minds of peasant and nobleman alike.
The Renaissance saw a renewed interest in Classical learning, thanks in no small part to the influx of Greek scholars who fled the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453 and who subsequently flocked to the courts of Italy.  The era also saw social and political upheaval, in part due to the infamous “Black Death,” which forever changed the demographic landscape of Europe.

While this period saw educational reform and advances on a number of fronts, it was still a dangerous time to live in for heterodox individuals.  One such individual was Giordano Bruno. 

Filippo Bruno was born in 1548 in the town of Nola, a small town outside Naples.  The son of a soldier, he took the name of Giordano when he entered the Dominican Order in Naples at the age of 17.  He became an ordained priest at the age of 24.  It was during this time he first came to the notice of his superiors for his intellect…and his outspokenness.  

Bruno developed a mnemonic system, which, together with his high intelligence, allowed him to set to memory large amounts of information.  With his keen intellect and thirst for knowledge, Bruno might have enjoyed a successful career in the Church, but for the fact he preferred the writings of men like Copernicus, Plato and Hermes Trismegitus to official Catholic doctrine.  In truth, Bruno was not a Christian at all, but what we today would call a pantheist.

By the year 1576 Bruno was forced to flee Naples to escape prosecution at the hands of the infamous Inquisition.  Shortly afterwards, he fled Italy altogether and the Dominican Order as well.  Over the next 12 years, he wandered over Switzerland, France, England and Germany.  It was during this time, thanks to the largesse of wealthy patrons, that he wrote his most famous texts, outlining his beliefs on such topics as heliocentrism, philosophy, theosophy, mnemonics, among others. Bruno also wrote satire and poetry. 

It is a matter of record that Bruno was one of the earliest and most outspoken proponents of the heliocentric theory of Nicolaus Copernicus.  Copernicus’s view of the solar system fit in quite nicely with Bruno’s cosmology, which saw our own sun as merely one in an infinite number of suns, each with its own world orbiting it, inhabited with intelligent beings.  In this he anticipated the Many Worlds Theory of quantum physics by almost four centuries!

Bruno monument at Campo dei Fiori
Photo courtesy of New York Scugnizzo
That Giordano Bruno was a brilliant man and a true polymath there can be no doubt.  However, as is the case with all men, Bruno had his faults, his abrasive personality being chief amongst them.  Wherever he settled, Bruno’s outspokenness, controversialism and abrasiveness eventually cost him friends and benefactors.

For whatever reason, Bruno eventually returned to Italy (Venice) in 1591.  He was betrayed to the Venetian Inquisition the following year by a former benefactor.  Initially he appeared to defend himself quite well against the many charges lodged against him.  However, the Roman Inquisition, upon learning of his capture, demanded his transfer to that city and the Venetians eventually (and reluctantly) agreed.

During his incarceration and trial (which lasted seven years) Bruno initially seemed to at least partially recant some of his beliefs.  The particulars of the trial (was he tortured?) are unknown, as Vatican officials claim Bruno’s file is “lost” (interestingly, Galilei’s file is still around).  In the end, he refused to recant the gist of his personal philosophy, and was condemned to death by burning, the punishment at the time for heresy.

Faced with his imminent doom, Bruno, rather than submit to his executioners, allowed his famous abrasiveness to the fore.   Upon hearing the sentence of death, he is said to have uttered: “Perhaps you, my judges, pronounce this sentence against me with greater fear than I receive it.”  Quickly remanded to the secular authorities, on February 17, 1600 Giordano Bruno (his mouth sealed with a wooden vice) was cruelly burned at the stake.  Recalcitrant to the very end, he is said to have pushed a crucifix away in scorn when one was offered to him in his final moments.

Scholars to this day debate the legacy of Bruno.  To some, he was a martyr of science.  To others, he was simply someone who had the misfortune of espousing heretical ideas at an inopportune time in history.  I prefer to think of him as a martyr of free ideas; a true son of the taxon physical anthropologists (in less politically correct times) were allowed to call the Mediterranean subrace of mankind.

Whatever the truth, his legacy, like his life and death, remains controversial.  From everything I’ve ever read about the man, I think he would have preferred it that way.