Subscribe to Christianity Today
Giordano Bruno: Philosopher / Heretic
Ingrid D. Rowland
University of Chicago Press, 2009
352 pp., $18.00
Brad S. Gregory
Giordano Bruno Superstar
Giordano Bruno really was a heretic. That is, he deliberately persisted in erroneous views about matters of central doctrinal importance according to the Roman Catholic Church, as is clear from this new study of his life and thought by Ingrid Rowland, a distinguished cultural historian of Renaissance Italy. Consequently, despite many attempts to dissuade him of his views by members of the Roman Inquisition and after more than seven years in prison, civil authorities publicly burned him alive on the Campo de' Fiori in Rome on February 17, 1600.
Aside from his death, Bruno is best known for his speculations (they were not and could not have been at the time "discoveries") about an infinity of worlds within an infinite universe, a dramatic departure from the medieval, geocentric cosmology and its closely related Aristotelian framework for knowledge, both of which endured even as they were challenged during the intellectually and religiously tumultuous 16th century. But Bruno was not executed for these ideas. Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa had said much the same in the mid-15th century. Bruno was condemned specifically for his denial of transubstantiation and eight additional propositions, the exact content of which is unknown, but about which his writings and judicial records that do survive give some indication: besides spurning Catholic teaching about the Eucharist, among other views he doubted (and perhaps denied) that Jesus was divine and the second person of the Trinity, repudiated the uniqueness of the Incarnation, rejected the orthodox distinction between God and creation, asserted the reincarnation and transmigration of souls, regarded "sins" of the flesh as a fiction, and thought that Jesus had sinned mortally by pleading with God in Gethsemane. Save for transubstantiation, virtually all his Protestant contemporaries also regarded such views as gravely heterodox. In Rowland's words, when in 1592 Bruno discussed with his Venetian interrogators the ideas about Christ ...