He was the precursor of enlightenment and freedom of philosophical thought. The idea of an infinite universe, created by infinite God, infinitely loved, was too advanced for the church of his time. Giordano Bruno’s adventure ended at a stake in Campo de’ Fiori, Rome.
Giordano Bruno was born in Nola in January 1548. He was son of a soldier, Giovanni, ensign of the viceroy army of Don Pedro de Toledo, and Fraulissa Savolina. He was baptized with the name Filippo, who transformed into Giordano when he became part of the Dominicans’ order. He lived in the village of San Giovanni del Cesco from where his look could embrace Vesuvius. As a child he believed that the world ended where the volcano was. Then one day he explored that mountain that he had always considered the maximum limit of his geographic knowledge, realizing that the world universe was far beyond of volcano.
There is no evidence of Filippo’s childhood except the story he told during interrogations made to the Roman Inquisition in the last years of his life. He told of a happy infancy, among the olive trees, in the shadow of Mount Cicala, alongside the ruins of a twelfth century castle. As a child, he studied with great benefit. His teacher was the priest Giandomenico de Iannello and then he attended the school of Bartolo of Aloja. In 1561 he moved to Naples and entered the Dominican convent.
He continued his studies at the university run by the same friars. Lessons were given in the courtyard of the convent and in the adjacent rooms of the church of San Domenico Maggiore. He had as a professors of dialectics, logic and letters Giovan Vincenzo de Colle, known as Sarnese for his origins in the city of Sarno, and Teofilo da Vairano. Teofilo, an Averroist and aristotelian, had a great influence on Giordano Bruno’s formation and thought with.
In 1565 he became a novice, changing his name to Giordano, and the following year he became a friar in the Dominican convent of San Domenico Maggiore, in the homonymous square of the historic center of Naples. Entering into a powerful and rich order was the best way of the intellectuals to secure an economic and social condition that would allow them to carry out their studies without any other concerns. Giordano Bruno quickly became known to his confreres as he took away all the images of the saints who were placed on the walls of his cell, leaving the only crucifix. He was opposed to the “counter-reform” affirmed by the Council of Trent, which, contrary to Lutheran reform, reported the church to the traditional cult of saints and relics. He was a sympathizer of the Arianism. He considered the Trinity not formed by three distinct entities: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but considered the Son as the intellect of Almighty God and the Holy Spirit his “infinite love”.
He became priest in 1573 and graduated in theology in 1575. During the years of study he also went to Rome where he met Pope Pius V. He had the opportunity, in the Eternal City, to teach some prelates the mnemonic art, of which he was one of the main scholars. Mnemonics had a great significance at that time as the books were an expensive rarity. The stay in the convent of San Domenico Maggiore gave him the opportunity to know the books of Erasmus from Rotterdam, which, although forbidden, he managed to obtain. His thought, as a result of the studies made on other texts prohibited by the church, conformed to the heliocentric theory and to that of the infinite universe and the plurality of worlds.
The Dominican Friar Agostino da Montalcino had the opportunity to listen to the philosophical thought of Giordano Bruno. Considering a heresy what Bruno had said, he denounced him to the Provincial Father of the Dominicans. The young philosopher, aware of the matter, thinking of being in danger, moved to the convent of Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome. At that time, Rome was shocked by numerous murders that took place by noble people and prelates. Any controversy seemed to be resolved with the death of the adversary. All this was possible because of the weakness of Pope Gregory XIII. Even Giordano Bruno was unjustly accused of killing a person from some friars in the convent. It seems that the crime had been committed by a confrere.
In order to escape the accusation of murder and heresy from the convent of Naples, he abandoned the habit of the Dominicans and hurried away in Genoa. At Noli, near the city, he was assigned as a teacher of grammar and cosmology. After a few months he continued to work in various locations in northern Italy: Savona, Turin, Venice where he printed his first book: “De’ segni del tempo”. Because the plague was spread in Venice, he continued his journey through the peninsula, reaching Padua and then Brescia.
In 1578 he traveled to Chambery, Upper Savoy, and then moved to Geneva, Switzerland, where he contacted the Calvinist Church. He joined Calvinism and attended the local university by enrolling as Filippo Bruno, a professor of theology. After some contrasts with the professors of university, whom he accused of being incapacitated, he was arrested for defamation. He retracted the accusations but he did not avoid the excommunication of the Calvinist church of the city. Giordano Bruno could not agree with Catholics and even with the Protestants, being a free spirit who frankly supported his personal philosophical views and his personal interpretation of religion.
Leaving Geneva went to Toulouse where he look for an employment in the local university. He was appointed a lecturer and he taught Aristotle in that university. Here he also found a way to fight violently with another scholar, the Portuguese philosopher Francisco Sanchez. Bruno called him “a donkey with a title” although Sanchez had quoted him in his work as “the most acute philosopher”. Two years later Giordano Bruno moved to Paris where he was brought to court. He was presented to King Henry III who wanted to know from him the rudiments of mnemonic science. He got the real lecturer charge. On the shores of the Senna he printed his several works: “Compendiosa architectura et complemento artis Lullii”, “De umbris idearum e Ars memoriae”, “Cantus Circaeus” and the comedy “Candelaio” set in Naples, which tells three stories at the same time using a Tuscan-Neapolitan language.
In 1583 Giordano Bruno, restless and wandering, went to London as a guest of the French Ambassador. In the English capital, he was introduced to court and met Queen Elizabeth. After a dispute with a professor at Oxford University, he had the task as a teaching assistant at the university, where he taught the Copernican theories. Lessons on Copernicus were not welcome to the rector who interrupted the collaboration with the Italian philosopher for an alleged accusation of plagiarism. The return to London allowed him to take care of the publication of some of his works, the so-called “London Dialogues”: “La cena delle ceneri”, “De la causa, Principio et uno”, “De l’infinito, universo e mondi” “Spaccio de la bestia trionfante”, “Cabbala del cavallo pegaseo” with the addition of “Asino cillenico”, “De gli eroici furori”.
In 1585 he returned to Paris. In the city he met Fabrizio Mordente of Salerno, inventor of a new type of compass. Giordano Bruno was willing to write the explanatory notes of that device in Latin, a language unknown to the Mordente. His considerations on the impossibility of the infinite division of space led him to contrast with the inventor, who was called an idiot in his fierce satire.
After the press release of his work “Centum et viginti articuli de natura et mundo adversus peripateticos” with which he opposed Aristotelian ideas, at a meeting in the College of Cambrai he had a violent dispute with Lawyer Raoul Callier. The Neapolitan philosopher realized in advance that it was best to leave Paris, since the Aristotelian theories were in vogue in France.
After wandering for some German cities in 1586 he found an accommodation in Wittenberg, where the local university awarded him the title of Doctor Italicus and entrusted him with a chair. In this city he found concentration to complete and publish some of his works: “De Lampade combinatoria lulliana”, “De progressu et lampade venatoria logicorum”, “Camoeracensis acrotismus”. Other works written in Wittenberg were published posthumously.
The Duke Christian I made a turning point in the teaching of the local university, claiming a return to the Aristotelian theories. Giordano Bruno, despite he had enjoyed at Wittenberg the very welcome, reluctantly left the city.
He moved to Prague where he hoped to get a chair at that prestigious university. Here he published some of his works: “De lulliano specierum scrutinio”, “De lampade combinatoria Raymundi Lulli” and “Articuli centum et sexaginta adversus huius tempestatis mathematicos atque philosophos” dedicated to Emperor Rudolf. He was rewarded fairly for these works but he was unable to go to court.
He was a bit disappointed and moved to Helmstedt where he was enrolled at the local university in 1589. Here he was able to point out his multifaceted culture with the “Consolation Oratory” he read on the occasion of the rector’s departure.
He was also excommunicated by the Lutheran church. The reasons for the excommunication are unknown, probably because of personal dispute with Rector Hoffmann, who urged its at the local Lutheran church. The philosopher had collected his third excommunication after the Catholic and Calvinist ones.
In 1590 he left the city of Helmstedt to reach Frankfurt. He stayed at the convent of the Carmelites. In the monastic peace he found time to complete some of his works. In that city he was able to publish: “De triplici minimo et mensura ad trium speculativarum scientiarum et multarum activarum artium principia libri”, “De monade, numero et figura liber consequens quinque,” “De innumerabilibus, immenso et infugurabili, seu de universo et mundis libri octo”,” De imaginum, signorun et idearum compositione “.
At the Frankfurt Book Fair in 1590, Giordano Bruno met two Venetian publishers, one of whom, friend of patrician Giovanni Francesco Mocenigo, handed him a letter from the same man who, having read some of his books, invited him to Venice as he wanted to deepen his studies on mnemonics. Strangely Giordano Bruno, in spite of the accusation of heresy by the Roman Holy Office and the resulting dangers in returning to Italic soil, accepted the invitation.
In 1591 the philosopher was back to Venice where he was a guest in the palace of his new patron Mocenigo. After a few months he had some lessons in the Padua University. At the end of the year he returned to Venice where he was busy giving lectures to the nobleman who hosted him. After a few months Giordano Bruno was taken from his usual impatience in staying long in one place and confided to Mocenigo his desire to return to Frankfurt. The Mocenigo, offended for his intention to abandon him, denounced the philosopher to the Inquisition with false allegations of blasphemy and heresy.
On May 23, 1592, Giordano Bruno entered the jail of the Serenissima. During the interrogations, the philosopher used all his oratory skills to defend himself and in part he succeeded. He counted on the fact that his texts, in which his theories were expressed, had all been published in France, England and Germany. Therefore, his judges ignored its existence. He seemed to be released, but the Holy Office of Rome, aware of his stay in the Venetian prisons, asked for extradition.
On February 27, 1593, he was transferred to Rome and locked up in prisons. The interrogations lasted for a long time. Giordano Bruno tried to contest the accusations that were made to him but he could not hide his copernican ideas. In January 1599 he was invited to abjure his theories judged heretics by inquisitors. The philosopher agreed to acknowledge his mistakes, demanded that his theories be declared heretic “ex nunc”, that is, from that moment on. The request was not accepted. At the end of the year, the inquisitor of the Holy Office received an anonymous denunciation referring to the heretical speechs that Giordano Bruno had done during the period in which he resided in England. The denunciation brought to the attention of the investigators the work written by the philosopher “Spaccio della bestia trionfante” which, according to the complainant, was referring to Pope Clement VIII.
The sentence of condemnation to death by rogue was issued on February 8, 1600. After listening to the sentence, Giordano Bruno pronounced the famous phrase: “Perhaps you pronounce this sentence against me with greater fear than I receive it.” On February 17th he was taken to Campo de ‘Fiori, where he burned alive in the presence of a crowd of Romans. His ashes were dispersed in the Tiber.
In 1889, three centuries later, the head of the government, Francesco Crispi, adhering to the requests coming from anti-clerical circles, erected a statue in honor of Giordano Bruno. The statue was placed in the center of the square where the death sentence was executed.
Giordano Bruno, Un’autobiografia, a cura di M. Ciliberto, Napoli 1994
G. Aquilecchia, Giordano Bruno, Roma 1971
Michele Ciliberto, Introduzione a Bruno, Roma-Bari 2006