Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Today, February 17, marks the 410th anniversary of when the early rationalist Giordano Bruno was burnt at the stake in Rome in 1600. Bruno was born in Campania (1548) entered the Dominican Order at the age of 17 in Naples and became a priest at the age of 24. His free thinking ways and great ability, however, soon got him into trouble, and in 1576 he began a life of wandering across western Europe. As a refugee from the Roman Catholic Church he briefly stayed in Geneva, but soon fell afoul of the Calvinists there. He then went to France where he was protected by powerful patrons and impressed many with his mnemonic abilities.
In 1583 Bruno went to England where he stayed for two years, once more, predictably (Bruno had a habit of sarcastic offense) falling foul of the authorities, this time mainly for advocating the Copernican system that stated that the Earth revolved around the Sun, rather than the other way around. The next few years were spent in wandering in Germany and what is now the Czech Republic. Once more he continued to attract hostility pretty well everywhere he went, managing to be excommunicated by the Lutherans. By this time he had managed to be a bête noir to all three of the feuding religious sects in Europe, Catholic, Lutheran and Calvinist-no mean accomplishment.
He then returned to Italy in 1592 and, after a brief stay in Padua made the mistake that cost him his life by relocating to Venice. Now, for hundreds of years Venice was the most blasphemous state that existed in Europe, but its corruption and hypocrisy was such that bribes could easily be given and people could go on trial for the sort of thing that was very much the day-to-day of the nobles of the City. Going to Venice may be proof of the adage that every genius contains at least one aspect of great stupidity within him. Bruno fell foul of his Venetian host-who was even more corrupt than the usual round of office holders in Europe at that time-, and he was denounced to the Inquisition. the Venetians transferred him to Rome, on the request of the Roman Curia.
His trial in Rome lasted a full 8 years, and his many disagreements with Catholic orthodoxy were the repeated subject of his skillful legal defense. In the end, however, he was condemned and burned at the stake on this day in 1600. Some of the things he upheld included "the plurality of worlds" ie that the stars were suns that could have other solar systems just like our own. He also disagreed with such Catholic (and Protestant) dogma as the absurd theories of the Trinity and the Virgin Birth. Whether he actually believed in reincarnation is in dispute.
Bruno later became a hero to many different political currents. To Italian nationalists who fought against the temporal power of the Church he was a forerunner of their struggle. To socialists, rationalists and anarchists he became a shining example of free thought against clerical obscurantism. In a bizarre twist of fate he is now also a hero to the omnivorous "new age" cultists across the world because of his supposed belief in astrology and, to put it at its crudest, the apparently esoteric nature of his mnemonic graphics. Nobody can accuse new agers of excessive attention to the facts, to history or to detail. Can we say "spinning in the grave " ?
Molly's personal connection to Bruno.
It's actually very little. I once had an Italian anarchist song tape that contained one song whose lyrics began ( In English translation);
"When I die I don't want any priests or monks
Nor 'pater nostri' (funeral services)"
The song goes on to condemn the Catholic Church and end by 'vivas' to Garibaldi and Bruno, after saying that the author wants the socialist flag on his coffin and the socialist leader's girlfriend. I always liked that song.
The other connection was way back when I was in Vet School, and we were condemned to writing an historical essay about medicine. I managed to dig up proof that Bruno, in addition to his other merits, had "discovered" the circulation of the blood during his stay in Geneva, long before its presumed first description by William Harvey. To say the least the peckerhead of a professor wasn't pleased, and I didn't get a great grade in that class. Ah, Giordano, I know how you feel, even if I could never equal your lifelong creativity nor offensiveness.
If you want to read more about Giordano Bruno see the wikipedia article linked above. See also what little writings of his that have been translated into English at , and a good biography at .


Werner said...

Every genius contains some aspect of stupidity. For some, outside this blog, it just takes over everything like an HIV of the soul.

Larry Gambone said...

What a moron that prof was. He should have given you great praise for such a discovery. But then you showed up the little fellow didn't you? Nothing the vast majority of them hate more than a student who knows more than they do.