Jump directly to the Content
Jump directly to the content
Giordano Bruno: Philosopher / Heretic
Giordano Bruno: Philosopher / Heretic
Ingrid D. Rowland
University of Chicago Press, 2009
352 pp., 18.00

Buy Now

Brad S. Gregory

Giordano Bruno Superstar

Ahead of his time.

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 he had held for decades, "it must have been clear to these Christian inquisitors that Bruno was no longer defending a Christian position." That is, he was a heretic.

Rowland frames her book with accounts of Bruno's death, but most of her study follows his adventurous life in a vigorously written, three-dimensional intellectual biography beginning with his birth in 1548 outside the city walls of Nola in southern Italy. Educated in cosmopolitan, congested, Spanish-controlled Naples from 1562, "the Nolan," as Bruno often referred to himself, became a Dominican novice in the city's influential friary of San Domenico Maggiore, where he studied scholastic philosophy and theology and was ordained a priest. Well read and intellectually precocious, Bruno soon became known for developing a form of the "art of memory": so impressed were his Dominican superiors that they had him perform for Pope Pius V in 1569, for whom he not only recited Psalm 86 in Hebrew from memory, but repeated it backwards. After his ordination, Bruno spent some time among the Dominicans in Rome, whence he fled north and cast off his habit in 1576 after word reached him that inquiries were being made in Naples about his possibly heretical ideas.

From this point until Bruno's return to Italy in 1591, Rowland follows him from Rome to Genoa, Venice, Geneva, Lyon, Toulouse, Paris, Oxford, London, Paris again, Wittenberg, Prague, Helmstedt, Frankfurt, and Zurich, his peregrinations through multi-confessional Western Europe interlaced with the development of his increasingly unusual ideas at the intersection of philosophy, science, and theology. He published in diverse genres in Latin and Italian, held a variety of short-term academic posts, and curried support from powerful patrons, including Henri III of France, Elizabeth I of England, and Emperor Rudolf II. The last part of Rowland's narrative is devoted to Bruno's experience with the Venetian and Roman Inquisitions between 1592 and his execution in 1600. She artfully evokes the people and places in Bruno's life with a strong sense of the sights and smells of 16th-century Europe. Mostly plausible conjectures compensate for the fact that Bruno's earliest surviving publications date from 1582, even though this means that Rowland recurrently speculates about what Bruno "must have felt" in situation X or "probably thought" in circumstance Y.

Rowland's sympathy for Bruno is evident in her wonderfully wrought translations from his dialogues and poems, with their smorgasbord amalgam of neo-Platonic ideas, neo-Epicurean atomism, cryptic borrowings from Kabbalistic and natural-magical texts, and Bruno's capacious sense of his own brilliance. Rowland's estimate of "the Nolan" is high as well: as part of her effort to set him among the pantheon of leading early modern thinkers, she at various points likens the caliber of his thought or the character of his ideas to that of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Dante, Petrarch, Ficino, and Nicolas of Cusa. Some of Bruno's cosmological speculations turned out to be (sort of) right, or at least much nearer the truth than the cosmology that his and similar ideas eventually displaced. (Even if the universe is not literally infinite it is extraordinarily vast, and even if atoms are not the smallest constituents of matter-energy, all elements in the periodic table are composed of them.) Similarly pointing to the future, Bruno was groping for a mathematics of scale and motion that a century later bore fruit, via Newton and Leibniz, in the invention of calculus. Rowland stands in a scholarly tradition of those who regard the replacement of the Ptolemaic with the infinite cosmos as a fundamental cae-sura in Western self-understanding, Bruno having been centrally concerned "to show how the realization that we inhabit an infinite universe will transform every aspect of our lives." This seems to be the linchpin of Rowland's conviction that Bruno, no less than Galileo and other Copernican figures, belongs among the principal makers of the modern worldview.

Rowland's evident erudition makes all the more disappointing the numerous factual errors and misleading claims in her book. The Mass, for example, is not "performed" by a priest, but celebrated; the Virgin Mary is the object of veneration, not "worship," in Catholicism. We are told of "the Dominican Peter Lombard," his Sentences marked by "Dominican precision"—but Peter died in the 1160s, before Dominic de Gúzman was even born, and the Dominican order did not receive papal approval until 1216. Elsewhere Rowland refers to "the rise of the Franciscan Order in the eleventh century and the Dominicans in the twelfth," although Francis of Assisi was not born until the early 1180s, and the Franciscans' origins were contemporaneous with the Dominicans in the early 13th century. Chronologically within her own period of expertise, Rowland contrasts the position of the Catholic Church to Protestants' "opening service and Scripture alike to the public at large," claiming that Protestant reformers "encouraged all members of the congregation to read the Bible for themselves"—as if Lutheran authorities in central Europe, Zwinglians in Zurich, or Reformed Protestant authorities in Elizabethan England approved of dissenters rather than executing them, whenever they saw fit, as did the Roman Inquisition. Rowland's view of Elizabeth I's religious settlement as "a deliberately moderate middle ground between Calvin, Luther, and the papacy" recalls a long discredited view of 16th-century "Anglicanism" as "a balance among these branches of Christianity." Well over 100 Catholic priests were judicially executed during Elizabeth's reign; they might have disputed Rowland's claim about the queen's alleged "willingness to listen to both sides of the Reformation." And there was no "University of Geneva" when Bruno arrived there in 1579, but only the Genevan Academy, whose Schola publica became the city's first institution of higher learning when it was established in 1559.

Geographically closer to her specialty, Rowland repeatedly misinforms concerning the Council of Trent, writing, for example, that "the council moved toward a fierce defense of the Church's established hierarchies and traditions, especially during the pontificate of Pope Paul IV (reigned 1555-59)." In fact, the Council did not meet at all between April 1552 and January 1562, and not during Paul IV's pontificate precisely because he did not reconvene it. Trent did not declare that the Latin Vulgate was "the only acceptable biblical text," else the Douai-Rheims translation into English would not have been possible, nor did Catholic biblical scholarship based on Hebrew and Greek cease in the later 16th century, unless one ignores, for example, the enormous output of Jesuit exegetes such as Alfonso Salmer"n, Juan de Maldonato, Francisco de Toledo, Benito Pereira, and Manuel de Sá (the last three of whom taught under papal noses at the Collegio Romano). According to Rowland, when readers turned to Scripture with "the culture of critical scholarship that defined the Renaissance," "[i]t did not take long to discover that only two of the seven sacraments of the Catholic Church, baptism and Communion, had any basis in the Gospels; the other five—marriage, confession, holy orders, last rites, burial—were matters of tradition." In trying to make such a point it would help to get straight that confirmation, not "burial," is one of the seven Catholic sacraments. But besides rejecting the severance of Scripture from the tradition whose leaders had established the biblical canon in the first place, the Tridentine delegates and all Catholic theologians in the period disagreed with the reading that Rowland implies was obvious. Instead, like medieval theologians before them, they referred to the biblical bases for the other sacraments (see, e.g., John 20:23 for confession, Mark 6:13 for extreme unction).

What could account for such lapses in such a sophisticated scholar? What end is served by implying that traditional Christianity's view of creation is Manichaean by contrasting it with Bruno's ("He did not describe any part of this creation as radically evil")? To give only one more example, why would Rowland quote (but without citing a source) Aquinas in support of her astonishing claim that, on transubstantiation, "Aquinas himself had been inclined to agree with Thomas Cranmer and Giordano Bruno rather than Robert Bellarmine" and the Fourth Lateran Council? (As ST III, q. 75, a. 1 makes clear, Aquinas flatly rejects the position Rowland attributes to him, provided one doesn't confuse the objections with Aquinas' replies.) These are telling misrepresentations.

Throughout the book, Rowland evinces great care to understand Bruno's ideas and experiences. Yet she extends nothing like the same care to Christianity, especially not the sort she dislikes, neglecting not only nuances but basic facts and central claims. She casts her book as a morality play rather than a tragedy, but the scholarly tragedy of Giordano Bruno is that a learned historian missed an opportunity to apply her own knowledge and historical imagination to all of the protagonists and traditions in her study. Instead, writing for a general audience and parallel to a Hollywood movie, she adopts a Good Guys vs. Bad Guys template suffused by values reminiscent of the secularist ideology of 19th-century Italian laici. Rowland is too familiar with the abundant revisionist scholarship to repeat the worst myths about (and knows that there was no such thing as) "the Inquisition." But in the end, the fact that Bruno was executed for convictions he expressed in his published works, actions, and speech drives the entire book and is the vehicle for Row-land's liberationist narrative of modernity. She even enlists St. Paul to support her dichotomous vision: "What communion hath light with darkness?" (2 Cor. 6:14).

Rowland's Bruno is a brave individualist and aspiring "artist whose greatest work is his own life," ahead of his time not only in his cosmological speculations but also in his progressive social, theological, and moral ideas—in short, he anticipated what have become dominant views of Western modernity. He "remarkably" made "a stinging condemnation of European colonialism," Rowland observes, and "equality was certainly his ideal," even though he "could not bring himself [as if, being the enlightened hero, he should have] to imagine a system of government that would include [Londoners] rather than simply rule them." He believed that humanity needs to be saved "less from primal sin than from primal stupidity, to recognize the divinity within itself and in the whole world," and emancipatorily he achieved "an escape from the vows of chastity and obedience" by leaving religious life, and instead "pursued women with Falstaffian matter-of-factness." Rowland explains that Bruno's explosive tirade against the love of women at the outset of De gli heroici furori is not the misogynist rant it appears, because the work "sidestep[s] women altogether" in its Symposiumesque zeal for "the love of God." Bruno was deeply tolerant, too, we are told, except for when he wasn't: "For Bruno, indeed, the infinite stretches of time and space bred, at least ideally, an infinite tolerance for the various ways that people have sought God and wisdom (although he never quite found the patience to tolerate Calvinists or pedant asses)." Alas, seemingly anyone who disagreed with him was a pedant ass: time and again, as the book shows, Bruno would "vent his anger" in his "magnificently abusive Italian." Even though Bruno's last reported act was ostentatiously to turn away from the crucifix set before him at the stake, Rowland asserts (in a chapter entitled "Gethsemane") that "his own passion not only paralleled but also imitated, whether consciously or instinctively, the passion of Christ." No mere Good Guy, Bruno was an imitator of Christ despite himself in a martyrdom "that bore extreme witness to an ultimate truth," the truth according to Bruno, which Rowland likes.

She doesn't like the guardians of Catholic orthodoxy. They are the Bad Guys, except for those instances in which Rowland judges them (and the approved among their frequently mischaracterized Protestant contemporaries) to be moving "ecumenically" via self-relativizing skepticism to the Promised Land, in which Christian caritas is supplanted by toleration as the fundamental social virtue because all religious truth claims have been rightly recognized as relative and fungible. Not much of that in the later 16th century, when "stern enforcers" of the Church's "hard traditional line," those "Church conservatives" who intransigently insisted on "the 'correct' opinion" and "probed mercilessly into private life," were of a piece with inquisitor Robert Bellarmine and "the narrowness of his own Christian vision."

Of course Catholicism when Giles of Viterbo preached to open the Fifth Lateran Council in 1512 was more accommodating than Catholicism during and after the Council of Trent. The success of the Protestant Reformation threatened the eternal salvation of souls everywhere, making vigilant orthodoxy an urgent pastoral duty and rendering doctrinal tolerance a callous negligence. Rowland apparently thinks that in doctrinal and moral terms, leaders in the Catholic Church should even today accept Bruno's "challenge to its own authority," just as they should have in the 16th century—that is, they should regard Bruno's rejection of the Church's teachings as sufficient reason to change the Christian faith. Their refusal provokes her indignation; indeed, "[i]t would take another four hundred years for a pope to issue an encyclical that began with the words "Deus caritas est"—"God is love." As if the fact that no previous encyclical had begun with 1 John 4:16 means that for four centuries popes had remained unaware of it, or that since the 16th century the Catholic Church had forgotten the theological virtue that was in fact central to its preaching, catechesis, and education.

The medieval Christian practice of executing unrepentant heretics, which persisted into the early modern era among Protestant as well as Catholic authorities, violated Jesus' model of nonviolent love. Situating that practice within the relevant historical realities renders it intelligible, but does not change the fact that resorting to capital punishment to compensate for the shortfalls of caritas in the endeavor to create a Christian society was morally reprehensible and had enormous consequences with which we continue to live today. To argue thus is to push against an open door. But to go no further yields distorted and distorting history that restricts what the past can disclose. Nor does such history say anything about the truth of the doctrines that ecclesiastical authorities then regarded, and continue to regard, as so important. To understand why inquisitors did what they did is not to excuse their actions. It is simply to bracket for the purposes of historical understanding one's own moral views, in the service not only of understanding past people but of trying to explain how their world gave rise to ours. Rowland doesn't do this, and her book suffers accordingly.

The interesting and complex story that runs through the lives of Bruno, Galileo, and their learned contemporaries is not, as Rowland commendably knows, some science-versus-religion showdown still asserted today among historically ignorant scientistic ideologues. But neither is it her repression-versus-liberation dichotomy. It is rather the widespread inability of deeply Aristotelianized contemporaries, simultaneously aghast at the doctrinal, social, and political divisions within Christendom, to grasp the independence of traditional Christian theology from cosmology as such, and thus the compatibility of that theology with different cosmological models. This is evident from the ways in which later Christians have grasped this distinction: the universe's infinite spaces may have terrified Pascal in the mid-17th century, but they did not inhibit his ardent faith and devotion. Nor do they prevent anyone today from accepting all of the Catholic Church's teachings, along with all scientific findings, provided one holds a traditional theology of creation. God is love whether the universe is Ptolemaic or infinite. It turns out that Bruno's moral and theological assertions are entirely independent of the vast universe he posited. And that means that the loss of a geocentric cosmology of nested crystalline spheres was not in any intrinsic way a fundamental break in human self-understanding, whatever its continuing convenience for Western Civ lecturers.

Brad S. Gregory is Dorothy G. Griffin Associate Professor of Early Modern European History at the University of Notre Dame. He is the author most recently of The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society (Belknap Press/Harvard Univ. Press).

Most ReadMost Shared