by Frank Gaglioti
16 February 2000
Four centuries ago today, on February
the Roman Catholic Church executed
Giordano Bruno, Italian
philosopher and scientist, for the crime of heresy.
He was taken
from his cell in the early hours of the morning to the Campo dei
Fiori in Rome and burnt alive at the stake. To the last, the Church
authorities were fearful of the ideas of a man who was known
throughout Europe as a bold and brilliant thinker. In a peculiar
twist to the gruesome affair, the executioners were ordered to tie
his tongue so that he would be unable to address those gathered.
Throughout his life Bruno championed the Copernican system
of astronomy which placed the sun, not the Earth, at the centre
of the solar system.
He opposed the stultifying authority of the
Church and refused to recant his philosophical beliefs throughout
his eight years of imprisonment by the Venetian and Roman
Inquisitions. His life stands as a testimony to the drive for
knowledge and truth that marked the astonishing period of history
known as the Renaissance - from which so much in modern art, thought
and science derives.
In 1992, after 12 years of deliberations, the Roman Catholic
Church grudgingly admitted that
Galileo Galilei had been right
in supporting the theories of Copernicus.
Holy Inquisition had forced an aged
Galileo to recant his ideas under threat of torture in 1633. But no
such admission has been made in the case of Bruno. His writings are
still on the Vatican's list of forbidden texts.
The Church is currently considering a new batch of apologies. A
theological commission headed by Cardinal
Joseph Ratzinger, the head of
the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the modern
successor of the Inquisition, has completed an inquiry entitled
"The Church and the Faults of the Past: Memory in the Service of
Reconciliation", which proposes making an apology for "past
The results have been handed to Pope
John Paul II, who is due to make a statement on March 12. The
execution of Bruno is one of the church's crimes being
considered but it is unlikely that major concessions will be made in
his case. A number of hard-line Catholic figures have opposed the
investigation from the outset, saying that excessive penitence and
self-questioning could undermine faith in the Church and its
The current attitude of
the Roman Catholic Church to Bruno
is defined by a two-page entry in the latest edition of the
Catholic Encyclopaedia. It describes Bruno's "intolerance" and
berates him, declaring,
"his attitude of mind towards religious truth
was that of a rationalist”. 
The article describes in detail Bruno's
theological errors and his lengthy detention at the hands of the
Inquisition, but fails to mention the best-known fact - that
the church authorities burnt him alive at the stake.
Bruno has long been revered as a martyr to scientific truth.
In 1889 a monument to him was erected at the location of his
execution. Such was the feeling for Bruno that scientists and poets
paid tribute to him and a book was written detailing his life's
In a dedication for a meeting held at the Contemporary Club in
Philadelphia in 1890, American poet Walt Whitman wrote:
"As America's mental courage (the
thought comes to me today) is so indebted, above all current
lands and peoples, to the noble army of old-world martyrs past,
how incumbent on us that we clear those martyrs' lives and
names, and hold them up for reverent admiration as well as
beacons. And typical of this, and standing for it and all
perhaps, Giordano Bruno may well be put, today and to come, in
our New World's thankfulest heart and memory."
Karl Marx's co-thinker Fredrick
Engels summed up the period that produced figures, such as
Bruno, who challenged the church and laid the basis for modern
In an introduction written in the 1870s to his unfinished
work the Dialectics of Nature, Engels wrote:
“It was the greatest progressive
revolution that mankind had so far experienced, a time which
called for giants and produced giants - giants in power of
thought, passion and character, in universality and learning.
The men who founded the modern rule of the bourgeoisie had
anything but bourgeois limitations. On the contrary, the
adventurous character of the time inspired them to a greater or
lesser degree. There was hardly any man of importance then
living who had not travelled extensively, who did not speak four
or five languages, who did not shine in a number of fields....
“At that time natural science also
developed in the midst of the general revolution and was itself
thoroughly revolutionary; it had indeed to win in struggle its
right of existence. Side by side with the great Italians from
whom modern philosophy dates, it provided its martyrs for the
stake and the dungeons of the Inquisition.
And it is
characteristic that Protestants outdid Catholics in persecuting
the free investigation of nature. Calvin had Servetus burnt at
the stake when the latter was on the point of discovering the
circulation of the blood, and indeed he kept him roasting alive
during two hours; for the Inquisition at least it sufficed to
have Giordano Bruno simply burnt alive."
What is most characteristic of Bruno
is his vigorous appeal to reason and logic, rather than religious
dogma, as the basis for determining truth. In a manner that
anticipates the Enlightenment thinkers of the eighteenth century, he
wrote in one of his final works, De triplici minimo (1591):
“He who desires to philosophize must
first of all doubt all things. He must not assume a position in
a debate before he has listened to the various opinions, and
considered and compared the reasons for and against.
never judge or take up a position on the evidence of what he has
heard, on the opinion of the majority, the age, merits, or
prestige of the speaker concerned, but he must proceed according
to the persuasion of an organic doctrine which adheres to real
things, and to a truth that can be understood by the light of
An examination of Bruno's philosophical legacy reveals a complex
figure who was influenced by the various intellectual trends of the
time, in a period when modern science was just beginning to emerge.
His enthusiastic polemics earned the admiration of the most advanced
thinkers of the period and the loathing of the Church, whose
authority was being shaken to the core by learned assaults such as
Bruno was born in the town of Nola, near Naples, in 1548, at
the dawn of the revolution in astronomy which was heralded by the
publication of Copernicus's De revolutionibus orbium coelestium
libri VI in 1543.
Copernicus asserted that the sun, not the
Earth, was the centre of a finite universe, with the planets on
circular orbits around it and the stars on a fixed sphere a
considerable distance beyond.
The Copernican system not only challenged the Church's cosmological
views, but also the rigid social hierarchy of feudalism. The
previous neatly ordered view of the universe, with the Earth at the
centre, reinforced the rigid feudal order with serfs at the bottom
and the Pope at the pinnacle. The dangerous implication of the
Copernican theory was that if the Church's credo of infallibility
could be challenged in the cosmological arena then its social
position was also cast into doubt.
The Church was already under siege from all sides. In 1517 Martin
Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the church door in Germany,
denouncing the practices of the Roman Catholic Church, the first
blow in the Protestant Reformation that swept across Europe. The
Vatican responded with a counterattack - the Counter Reformation - on
anyone who appeared to challenge Catholic doctrine. In 1542 it
established the Roman Inquisition to enforce its edicts with torture
Thus Bruno entered a world in ferment.
In 1563 Bruno entered the
monastery of St. Dominic, where he came to the notice of Church
authorities for his unorthodox religious views. He used his time as
a novitiate to acquaint himself not only with the philosophical
works of the ancient Greeks, but also his more contemporary European
thinkers. It was at this time that he first encountered the work of
Copernicus, which was to have such a profound impact on his life.
Bruno took holy orders in 1572 but then left the order in 1576 after
traveling to Rome. He had been caught reading philosophical texts
annotated by the Dutch humanist philosopher Erasmus and escaped
before being denounced to ecclesiastical authorities. He spent the
rest of his life until his capture wandering Europe discussing and
promoting his philosophical ideas.
After three years in Italy he went to Geneva, which was then
dominated by the Protestant sect led by Calvin. He soon came into
conflict with academic authorities when he published a pamphlet
stating that a local professor of philosophy had made 20 errors in
one lecture. He was imprisoned by the Calvinist authorities and only
released after withdrawing the offending publication. Twenty-six
years earlier the Calvinists had burnt Servetus, a Spanish
doctor, geographer and man of letters, at the stake for his
Bruno then traveled to Toulouse in France, where he lectured on
Aristotle's De anima and wrote a book on mnemonics - systems of
memory training. He arrived in Paris by 1581, where he came to the
attention of King Henry III who was attracted by his reputation of
having a prodigious memory. The King found a position for him at the
College de France after he had been forbidden entry to the Sorbonne
by the ecclesiastical authority.
During his stay in Paris he wrote three books, two on mnemonics and
a play entitled The Torch-Bearer by Bruno the Nolan, Graduate of
No Academy, Called the Nuisance. In this play Bruno described
his time in the Dominican convent in Naples and presented a
withering indictment of the Church.
commentary on the play describes Bruno's characterization of the
Church as follows:
"You will see, in mixed confusion,
snatches of cutpurses, wiles of cheats, enterprises of rogues;
also delicious repulsiveness, bitter sweets, foolish decisions,
mistaken faith and crippled hopes, niggard charities, judges
noble and serious for other men's affairs with little truth in
their own; virile women, effeminate men and voices of craft and
not of mercy so that he who believes most is most fooled - and
everywhere the love of gold."
Bruno was forced to leave France
in 1583 and traveled to England where his three-year stay proved to
be one of the most fruitful periods of his life.
He was introduced
into a society that craved all forms of Italian learning and already
had a considerable Italian and foreign exile community. Many had
fled to avoid persecution for unorthodox philosophical and religious
ideas. Bruno held discussions with Queen Elizabeth I, who was
attracted by the prospect of discussing philosophical matters
directly in Italian. He quickly attracted a number of intellectuals
who eagerly discussed the philosophical ideas of the time.
In England, Bruno published six books, all in Italian, fully
elaborating his philosophical ideas for the first time. He was
one of the first philosophers to discuss scientific issues in the
vernacular. The very act of publishing in Italian was an open
challenge to the Church, which sought to maintain Latin as the
language of intellectual discourse and so limit the wider
dissemination of ideas.
Copernicus's groundbreaking work had been
published only in Latin. So afraid were Bruno's printers that not
one of them identified himself in the printed texts.
of the universe
Bruno's cosmology is outlined in
The Ash Wednesday Supper,
Cause, Principle and Unity and
On the Infinite Universe and Worlds,
which represent a brilliant anticipation of subsequent scientific
and philosophical developments.
In some respects the conclusions
Bruno arrived at by bold intuition surpassed the work of his
successors such as Galileo and Kepler. The works are
in the form of dialogues, where Bruno's characters argue various
philosophical positions from different points of view, one
representing Bruno himself.
In The Ash Wednesday Supper Bruno was one of the first to
argue for the existence of an infinite universe, which contained an
infinite number of worlds similar to the Earth. In doing so, he
rejected the limits of the Copernican system, which posited a finite
universe limited by a fixed sphere of stars just beyond the solar
He argued that the sun was not the centre of the universe,
saying that if the sun were observed from any of the other stars it
would appear no different from them. Bruno even speculated that
the other worlds would be inhabited.
German philosopher Ernst Cassirer explained the significance
of Bruno's conception of an infinite universe as follows:
"This doctrine ... was the first and
decisive step toward man's self-liberation. Man no longer lives
in the world of a prisoner enclosed within the narrow walls of a
finite physical universe. He can traverse the air and break
through all the imaginary boundaries of the celestial spheres
which have been erected by a false metaphysics and cosmology.
The infinite universe sets no limits to human reason; on the
contrary, it is the great incentive of human reason. The human
intellect becomes aware of its own infinity through measuring
its powers by the infinite universe."
Bruno's other three works published in
The Expulsion of the Triumphant Beast,
Cabal of the Cheval Pegasus and
On Heroic Frenzies - contain a
biting critique of the Counter Reformation.
Hilary Gatti in her book Giordano Bruno and Renaissance
"The sense of these final Italian
works, in my opinion, is ... to be found in a transition from an
intellectual sphere dominated by a vision of the world in
essentially theological terms to an intellectual sphere
dominated by a vision of the world in essentially philosophical
terms. In this passage from theology to philosophy all forms of
revealed religion receive harsh treatment, but above all the
Christian religion that dominated the life and culture of the
Europe of the sixteenth century, often through violence and
It was in England that Bruno had his
most profound impact.
His views were discussed in intellectual
circles and the arguments presented in his various books give a
flavor of the contemporary discussion. Two leading scientists,
William Gilbert and Thomas Harriot, became leading
proponents of Bruno's cosmological views. Gilbert, whose De
Magnete (1600) stood as a basic text on magnetism until the
nineteenth century, was prominent in a grouping that discussed
He was particularly interested in developing his
magnetic theories in relation to Bruno's cosmological views.
Harriot was a noted mathematician and astronomer, who was thought to
have discovered sunspots before Galileo. Harriot exchanged
letters with Kepler in 1608 discussing Bruno's conception of
an infinite universe, which Kepler was to reject. Harriot was one of
the scientists cultivated by the Ninth Earl of Northumberland
- a devoted follower of Bruno. Northumberland had an extensive
library of Bruno's works, which he made available to the scientists
in his circle.
Bruno was forced to return to France because of the decline
in the fortunes of his patron, the Marquis de Mauvissiere,
with whom he had traveled to England. He produced three works on his
return to Paris but was forced to leave after his challenge to
debate all comers on the topic One Hundred and Twenty Articles on
Nature and the World resulted in him being set upon by
supporters of the Church. He then traveled to Germany, where he
resided in Wittenberg and Marburg until 1588. He was forced to leave
Marburg after coming into conflict with the Lutheran authorities,
then wandered Europe - Prague, Helmstedt, Frankfurt and Zurich.
In 1591 Bruno returned to Italy after being invited by the Venetian
nobleman Zuane Mocenigo to educate the aristocrat in
Mocenigo subsequently denounced him to the Inquisition.
Bruno was arrested on May 23, 1592, cross-examined on his
philosophical works and on January 27, 1593 handed over to the
Inquisition in Rome on the direct request of the Papal Nuncio,
Taverna, acting on behalf of Pope Clement VIII.
During his detention in Rome he was interrogated on all aspects of
his life and his philosophical and theological views over a period
of seven years. On February 15, 1599 the Inquisition charged Bruno
with eight specific acts of heresy, which the church has not
revealed to this day. According to the limited documents available,
Bruno was indicted for his "atheistic" views and for the publication
of The Expulsion of the Triumphant Beast. He refused to
The Inquisition delivered its verdict on January 20, 1600, stating:
"We hereby, in these documents ...
pronounce sentence and declare the aforesaid Brother Giordano
Bruno to be an impenitent and pertinacious heretic, and
therefore to have incurred all the ecclesiastical censures and
pains of the Holy Canon.... We ordain and command that thou must
be delivered to the Secular Court ... that thou mayest be
punished with the punishment deserved, though we earnestly pray
that he (the Roman Governor) will mitigate the rigor of the laws
concerning the pains of thy person, that thou mayest not be in
danger of death or of mutilation of thy members.
“Furthermore, we condemn, we reprobate and we prohibit all thine
aforesaid and thy other books and writings as heretical and
erroneous, containing many heresies and errors, and we ordain
that all of them which have come or may come in future into the
hands of the Holy Office shall be publicly destroyed and burned
in the square of St. Peter before the steps and that they shall
be placed upon the Index of Forbidden Books."
Despite the false note of concern about
Bruno's physical well-being, the Inquisition's verdict was a death
sentence. Bruno was defiant to the end.
Gaspar Schopp of Brelau,
a recent convert to Catholicism and a witness to the sentencing,
reported that Bruno exclaimed on hearing the sentence:
"Perchance you who pronounce my
sentence are in greater fear than I who receive it."
The Holy Inquisition and its
tormentors are remembered only as symbols of arch-reaction.
Bruno has stood the test of time.
An examination of his life reveals
a true Renaissance man with a passionate interest in all aspects of
human learning, who participated with great energy and determination
in the intellectual turbulence of his times. His insights made an
important contribution to the ideas that laid the basis for modern
science. His stubborn refusal to bow to the authority, power and
repressive apparatus of the Roman Catholic Church, the most powerful
institution of his day, will no doubt be an inspiration for
centuries to come.
The German philosopher Georg Hegel summed up the generation
of thinkers to which Bruno belonged in his Lectures on the
History of Philosophy:
"These men felt themselves
dominated, as they really were, by the impulse to create
existence and to derive truth from their very selves. They were
men of vehement nature, of wild and restless character, of
enthusiastic temperament, who could not attain to the calm of
Though it cannot be denied that there was in them a
wonderful insight into what was true and great, there is no
doubt on the other hand that they revelled in all manner of
corruption in thought and heart as well as in their outer life.
There is thus to be found in them
great originality and subjective energy of spirit; at the same
time the content is heterogeneous and unequal, and their
confusion of mind is great. Their fate, their lives, their
writings - which often fill many volumes - manifest only this
restlessness of their being, this tearing asunder, the revolt of
their inner being against present existence and the longing to
get out of it and reach certainty.
These remarkable individuals
really resemble the upheavals, tremblings and eruptions of a
volcano which has become worked up in its depths and has brought
forward new developments, which as yet are wild and
1. The Catholic Encyclopaedia (http://www.knight.org/advent/cathen/03016a.htm)
2. Quoted in The Infinite Worlds of Giordano Bruno by Antoinette
Mann Paterson, 1970, page ix
3. Dialectics of Nature by Frederick Engels, page 21-22
4. De triplici minimo by Giordano Bruno as quoted in Giordano
Bruno and Renaissance Science by Hilary Gatti, 1998, page 4
5. Quoted in Giordano Bruno, His Life and Thought by Dorothea
Waley Singer, 1950, page 22
6. Quoted in The Infinite Worlds of Giordano Bruno by Antoinette
Mann Paterson, 1970, pages 33-34
7. Giordano Bruno and Renaissance Science by Hilary Gatti, 1998,
8. Quoted in Giordano Bruno, His Life and Thought by Dorothea
Waley Singer, 1950, page 176-177
9. Quoted in Giordano Bruno, His Life and Thought by Dorothea
Waley Singer, 1950, page 179
10. Lectures on the History of Philosophy by G.W.F.Hegel, Volume
3, pages 115-116