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Giordano Bruno was born Filippo Bruno in Nola, Campania (then part of the Kingdom of Naples) in 1548.  He was the son of Giovanni Bruno, a soldier, and his wife, Fraulissa Savolino.  His parents deciding he should have a future in the church, his parents had him privately educated in an Augustinian monastery in Naples and he joined the Dominican Order at the Monastery of San Domenico Maggiore, Naples, where he took the name Giordano, after Giordano Crispo, his metaphysics tutor.  He was ordained as a priest in 1572, at age 24.  If his parents thought his future in the church secure, Giordano was soon to show he had very different ideas.

Even while he was studying Giordano’s freethinking and enquiring mind often landed him in trouble.  As a priest his actions and statements were to raise more eyebrows.  He had statues and icons of saints removed, retaining only a crucifix and would make reading recommendations to novice priests which the church frowned upon.   Whilst controversial, these acts where not considered blasphemous.  However a copy of the writings of Erasmus, then banned by the church, annotated by Bruno were found in his privy and he was accused of the Arian Heresy; that God the son (Jesus) was separate from and subordinate to God Almighty.  This denied the Trinity, which is precisely why the church had banned the writings of Arias and Erasmus upon the subject.  Hearing that an indictment was being prepared against him, Giordano Bruno fled Naples, at one point shedding his habit whilst on the run.

Bruno was becoming notorious by this time due to his controversial ideas and kept travelling.  1579 found him in Geneva and it was feared by some he may convert to Protestantism, which he had no intention of doing.  He dressed in ordinary civilian clothes, so that he may not be recognised as a priest and for a while enjoyed a quiet life.  In this liberated atmosphere, Bruno was able to voice his more controversial views on theology, including doubting the virginity of Mary, mother of Jesus, and describing many Roman Catholic beliefs, such as transubstantiation – that during mass the wine and wafer literally become the blood and body of Christ – as “childhood nonsense”.  He coined the phrase “Libertes Philosophica” – the freedom to speak, to dream, to philosophise.  Then he published a strong attack on the work of Antoine de la Faye, a distinguished professor of the city.  He and his publisher were arrested and at his trial defended his publication.  He was offered the right to take the sacrement, which at first was refused but later accepted.  Nevertheless he left Geneva and headed for France.

He first went to Lyons then continued to Toulouse, where he took his Doctorate in Theology and was elected by the students to lecture in Philosophy.  He attempted to re-enter the fold of the Roman Catholic Church at this time but the Jesuit priest he approached refused him absolution.  Religious strife broke out in 1581 and Bruno relocated to Paris.  Bruno had a fantastic memory and it was in Paris he demonstrated how it was all done on a system of mnemonics, and not through witchcraft as some within the church were claiming.  He published De umbris idearum (On The Shadows of Ideas, 1582), Ars Memoriae (The Art of Memory, 1582), and Cantus Circaeus (Circe’s Song, 1582).  On The Shadows of Ideas was dedicated to Henry III, King of France.  In those days a dedication was approved beforehand and was a way of protecting oneself from fear of litigation or accusations of heresy.  Little wonder then that Henry III called Bruno to court.

In 1583 Henry III sent Bruno to England with letters of recommendation as a guest of the French ambassador, Michel de Castelnau.  Here he became acquainted with the works of fellow freethinkers, including the poet Philip Sidney and those who surrounded themselves around the Astrologer to Queen Elizabeth I, John Dee, although there is no proof he ever met the latter.  Bruno applied for a post at Oxford University but was turned down because his views clashed with those of John Underhill, Rector of Lincoln College, and George Abbot, who would later become Archbishop of Canterbury.

It was during his time in London that Bruno would voice his views most controversial to any Christian church, be they Roman Catholic or Protestant; that he upheld the Copernican model of the Earth rotating around the sun.  The Christian churches in the 16th century strongly held the view that the Bible was the completely accurate and infallible word of God, and if held a geocentric view of the universe, then that must be true.  George Abbot would often deride Bruno, stating “that the earth did go round, and the heavens did stand still; whereas in truth it was his own head which rather did run round, and his brains did not stand still”.  Not content with this Abbot falsely accused Giordano Bruno of plagiarising the works of the philosopher and astronomer Marsilio Ficino.

It was during his time in London however that Bruno published his most important works, and the ones which were then considered the most controversial.  These were the 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).

In these works not only did Giordano Bruno openly support the Copernican model, he stated that as the Earth revolves around the sun, the apparent movement of the stars was but an illusion created by our own observation due to the Earth revolving on it’s axis and it’s journey around the sun.  Giordano Bruno was grasping relativity 500 years before Albert Einstein was even born.  Following the observations of Nicholas of Cusa, Bruno also stated that if God were infinite the universe would thus reflect this fact in boundless immensity; “The universe is then one, infinite, immobile…. It is not capable of comprehension and therefore is endless and limitless, and to that extent infinite and indeterminable, and consequently immobile.”

More than this, Bruno asserted that if the universe were infinite then our sun must be a star and just one such star around which planets rotated, and that space being infinite, there must be countless other such systems within the universe. Moreover, he strongly asserted that if there were life on Earth, then it logically followed that there was a high probability of life on other planets.  All everyday common stuff to us nowadays.  However in 16th century Europe some scoffed and ridiculed such views.  Others however took them all too seriously as heresy and blasphemy.  Bruno’s pamphlets cost him many friends and saw a great many accusations of all sorts laid at his door.  Even to this day there are some who claim he was working as a spy, using the name Fagot, to report Roman Catholics to the viciously anti-Catholic Secretary of State Francis Walsingham.

When an angry mob attacked the French Embassy in London in 1585, sensing worse to follow, Bruno returned to Paris.  There he found an equally tense situation, which he himself did not help by publishing 120 theses against Aristotelian natural science and pamphlets attacking the mathematician Fabrizio Mordente.  In 1586 he was involved in a violent quarrel over Mordente’s Differential Compass and, no longer finding himself in favour, departed for Germany.

The tide was turning badly against Giordano Bruno.  In Germany he was refused a teaching post at Marburg, but eventually managed to gain such a post at Wittenberg.  However, when he repeated his criticisms of Aristotle there, he soon found himself once more unwelcome and had to move once more.  1588 found him in Prague, where nearing penury, he obtained 300 Taler from the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II but was again refused a teaching position.  He gained a brief teaching position at Helmstedt but had to flee again following excommunication from the Lutherans

During these wanderings Bruno also wrote works on magic and the occult including De Magia (On Magic), Theses De Magia (Theses On Magic), De Vinculis In Genere (A General Account of Bonding), De Imaginum, Signorum, Et Idearum Compositione (On The Composition of Images, Signs and Ideas).

Bruno then received an invitation from Giovanni Moncenigo, Patrician of Venice, who wished to be schooled in methods of memory.  He went first to Padua in 1591, where he taught for a short while but was unsuccessful in applying for Chair of Mathematics, which was subsequently given to Galileo Galilei.  He therefore accepted the post with Moncenigo in Venice in 1592.  It did not go well however and after a mere two months, made his host clear that he intended to leave Venice.  Unhappy at the teaching he received, Giovanni Moncenigo reported Giordano Bruno to the Venitian Inquisition.

Bruno was arrested on 22 March 1592 on various charges of blasphemy and heresy.  Among these, backed by Moncenigo’s statement, were his belief in the plurality of worlds; that life existed on other planets, as well as several claims of personal misconduct.  Bruno defended himself well, making the point that some claims were philosophical, denying others but admitting some doubts to certain dogma.  And he may well have been cleared, had the Roman Inquisition not wished to try him too.  After heated negotiations, Bruno was transferred to the Roman Inquisition in February 1593.

The trial of Giordano Bruno was to stretch on for seven years.  The charges of Blasphemy and Heresy were listed as;

  • holding opinions contrary to the Catholic faith and speaking against it and its ministers;
  • holding opinions contrary to the Catholic faith about the Trinity, divinity of Christ, and Incarnation;
  • holding opinions contrary to the Catholic faith pertaining to Jesus as Christ;
  • holding opinions contrary to the Catholic faith regarding the Virginity of Mary, Mother of Jesus;
  • holding opinions contrary to the Catholic faith about both Transubstantiation and Mass;
  • claiming the existence of a plurality of worlds and their eternity;
  • believing in metempsychosis and in the transmigration of the human soul into brutes, and;
  • dealing in magics and divination.

 

Bruno used the same strategy as he did in Venice.  And while the Roman Church was happy to accept his philosophical points, they stressed his need to recant the Copernican model, his assertion that there were other worlds and that life may exist on these other worlds. That was asking too much and he steadfastly refused to recant.  On 20 January 1600 Pope Clement VIII declared Giordano Bruno a Heretic and the Roman Inquisition passed the death sentence upon him.  Bruno is said to have made a threatening gesture and replied in Latin, “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).”

On 17 February 1600 Giordano Bruno was taken to the Campo de’ Fioro in Rome, where he was publicly burned at the stake.  Before this execution his tongue was cut out, it being stated “his tongue imprisoned because of his wicked words”  Perhaps the Church truly was therefore afraid of Libertes Philosophica.

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