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main index    © Jeff Matthews   entry Aug. 2003; item 2, Jan 2011; item 3, Aug 2016

Giordano Bruno (1548-1600)    There are 3 items on this page

This statue of Giordano Bruno stands in the square of that name in the town of his birth, Nola, near Naples.


statue of Bruno in NolaAstronomy became a modern science in the 16th and 17th centuries, largely through the efforts of Copernicus and Galileo. It is less remembered than it should be that the life's work of Nicolas Copernicus, De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium Libri, containing his observations that the Earth and all the planets revolved around the sun—though formulated thirty years earlier—was not published until the year of his death, 1543. Nick had a good head on his shoulders and that is precisely where he wanted to keep it. Thus, he knew better than to go rip-snorting through the streets of Unenlightenment Europe advising princes of The Church that the Earth wasn't the center of the universe. Even a century later, a very old, tired and beat up Galileo, understandably afraid of the torture that awaited him unless he knuckled under, recanted his blasphemous confirmation of Copernican heliocentricity.

Between Copernicus and Galileo in time, we find the fascinating figure of Giordano Bruno from Nola, near Naples. Unlike Copernicus, Bruno didn't believe in soft-pedaling what he believed to be the truth. He was flamboyant, vain and loud. He was also, most improbably, a monk for eleven years of his young adulthood at the Franciscan monastery in Naples before renouncing his vows in order to set off around Europe as a wandering teacher of philosophy. And unlike Galileo, he not only didn't fear torture and death, but his last words on the subject—literally his last words on the subject, (spoken to his tormentors just after they had sentenced him)—were defiant: "Perhaps you who pronounce my sentence are in greater fear than I who receive it." 

Giordano Bruno still fascinates us today. (Indeed, even James Joyce used to puzzle his friends by references to "the Nolan," and on occasion paid homage to this fellow heretic and believer in the magical power of words by using the pen-name "Gordon Brown"!) Bruno was caught, so to speak, between two ages in our civilization. He was a mystic, a devout man who brought with him from the past a belief in numerology, astrology and alchemy and even an interest in the revival of ancient Egyptian magic. He was, however, also a universal and tolerant man—one who wanted the universe to make sense, and, in that, he was a forerunner of the Age of Reason. He was, thus, ill at ease with the confining theology of his day, which proclaimed the Earth the center of all things. He believed in an infinite universe, a literal interpretation of the biblical "worlds upon worlds," a universe in which nothing is fixed, not even the stars, and where everything is relative, including time and motion, a universe in which we are but a tiny part of the great unknown and in which God becomes more of a universal mind, a substance inherent in all things, not a personal, external Prime Mover. Unorthodox views like this were to put him on a collision course with the Inquisition.

In the early 1580s Bruno traveled to England where he lectured at Oxford and met the great men of English letters, perhaps, they say, even Shakespeare. Then, he left England and returned to France, Germany and back to Italy, where he thought he would be able to convince the Inquisition that he was no heretic and that his views were reasonable. He had, after all, time and again as a monk apologized for his doubts and, now, before the Inquisition, offered to defend his views. The Inquisition, of course, was not interested in debate; they wanted penitence, and Bruno would not give it to  them. He spent eight years in prison, being "examined and questioned". On February 19, 1600, he was burned at the stake in the Piazza de' Fiori in Rome. 

Bruno was no Copernicus or Galileo in the scientific sense. His vision of the cosmos was not based on puzzling over the apparent retrograde orbit of planets or on observations through telescopes. His was more of a philosophical, aesthetic stance. In order to make sense, the universe had to be greater, infinitely greater, than his contemporaries imagined. Or, in his own words (from De la Causa, principio et uno): 

This entire globe, this star, not being subject to death, and dissolution and annihilation being impossible anywhere in Nature, from time to time renews itself by changing and altering all its parts. There is no absolute up or down, as Aristotle taught; no absolute position in space; but the position of a body is relative to that of other bodies. Everywhere there is incessant relative change in position throughout the universe, and the observer is always at the center of things.

add: Jan 2011
Bruno's Revenge

In 1885, at a time when Rome had been the capital of the new united Italy for 15 years, a committee formed in the city to promote erecting a statue to Bruno at the spot where he had been burned at the stake, Campo de' Fiori. The committee had the international support of the likes of Spencer, Ibsen and Hugo. The Holy See, of course, considered this a slap in the face and was against the idea; indeed, the nation, itself, split on the issue. (The Pope, Leo XIII, at one point, threatened to move to Austria and take his Vatican with him!). For a while, it seemed that the pro-Vatican city council of Rome would torpedo the idea just by procrastination, yet with the full support and power of prime minister Crispi, the statue was, indeed, built and put in place on June 9, 1889. The sculptor was Ettore Ferrari (1848–1929).

The issue cropped up again later. In 1929, the Fascist state of Italy finally settled the "Roman Question" through the so-called Lateran Accords (from the name of the Basilica of San Giovanni in Laterano, where the accords were signed). In effect, in exchange for the Church's recognition of the modern state of Italy—with Rome as the capital—Italy recognized the sovereignty of the Holy See in the State of Vatican City and agreed to pay a sum of money to the Holy See for the loss of its property and territory brought about by Italian unification in the previous century. As a little extra, the Vatican tried to get Mussolini to take down the offensive statue and replace it with a chapel to The Sacred Heart of Jesus. The Duce, always a pope-baiter, refused—the statue stayed, but Mussolini did have a fruit market put in the square!

The event, though so distant now as to seem irrelevant, is not. It captured international attention, as, indeed, the figure of Giordano Bruno still fascinates us. From the New York Times of Nov. 5, 1889:
The encyclical letter of his Holiness the Pope, which was read in the Roman Catholic churches of this country, and presumably of all the world, last calculated to give rise to reflections... It is, in fact, a protest against the erection in the city of Rome of a statue to GIORDANO BRUNO. The protest is based, not upon the artistic demerits of the work, in which case it would be highly readable, since an infallible art critic would be an interesting novelty....The Pope regards the erection  of a good statue to Bruno as an outrage upon faith and morals and a personal affront to himself... In his capacity of the spiritual father of Christendom the Pope has no more to do with the municipal embellishments of Rome than of New York. If his Holiness were to take a stroll through Central Park... he would see many statues that would give pain to his orthodoxy as well as to his aesthetic sensibilities. The sculptural commemoration of a notorious free thinker like Goethe and of a loose liver like Burns could scarcely meet his infallible views, and yet he would not feel called upon to enter a protest against it and certainly it would not occur to him that it was an insult to himself.

In truth, if no statues are to be put up to persons of "abandoned morals" he would be obliged to object to the commemoration of several of his own predecessors... In truth, the offense of Giordano Bruno was that he made himself unpleasant to the Pope of the period...It is nearly three centuries since the Church imprisoned him and burned him at the stake really for the crime of thinking for himself and publishing his thoughts, for he did not attack the Church except by inference and indirection. The attempt at this day to reopen the judgment of 1600 naturally irritates the Pope and his advisers. But nothing is to be gained for the Papacy by a display of this irritation. On the contrary, the effect of such a display is to confirm in the minds of rational and patriotic Italians the belief that it would be dangerous to intrust the Pope with the least fragment of the temporal power of which he has been deprived, and to assure them that the reinstatement of the Papacy in the city of Rome would revive the conflict between intellectual freedom and ecclesiastical bigotry, to which Bruno was a martyr. In truth, the emancipation of Italy could not be more fitly symbolized than by the image of Giordano Bruno...By the erection of this monument Italy redeems itself from the reproach implied by Swinburne in...[lines]... of his poem upon Bruno:

"Shall we not praise thee though thine own forget"

"A staff for man's free thought to walk alone.
A lamp to lead him far from shrine and throne
On ways untrodden where his fathers trod,
Ere earth's heart withered at a high priest's nod."

add: Aug 2016
3.  Giordano Bruno, the Cicala Castle and the Monastery of the Cappucine Fathers
Except for my translator's note at the bottom, this is my translation of an article by Fulvio Salvi of Napoli Underground (NUg), presented here with permission. The article appears in Italian and English on the NUg website at this link. As well, there is additional photography on that site. Photos, here below, are from NUg.

The Cicala castle, seen from Nola

The story of Nola, an ancient city on the southern Campanian plain, is tightly bound up with the history of the fortified castle (castrum) on a low hill that overlooks the city from the east: the Cicala castle (pictured). This fortification is first mentioned in a document from the 10th century currently held at the Abbey of Monte Vergine; the fort was certainly built to protect the nearby settlement of Cicala, founded between the 5th and 8th century after Nola, itself, was abandoned due to poor sanitary conditions as well as for military reasons (the plain, itself was difficult to defend.

The Cicala fort was damaged a number of times by eruptions of Mt. Vesuvius (the worst ones for the citizens of Nola were those of 993, 1036, and 1139). As well, the fort changed hands a few times during that period, passing from the Longobards to the Byzantines to the Normans, and then, in the 13th century, becoming part of the feudal fief of Frederick II. The manor was later contested by a string of feudal lords; among the best-known were Guidone de Vito, Girardo de Villario, Simon de la Forest and various members of the Orsini family. In 1632 the castle was once again badly damaged by yet another eruption of Vesuvius. In 1725 the manor became the property of Ruffo di Bagnara, founder of the Castelcicala family.

The entire history of this area is enriched by the fact that near the castle was a house (of which no trace remains today) that was the birthplace of one remembered as the most important philosopher of our southern lands, Giordano Bruno (1548-1600), "Achademico di nulla achademia, detto il fastidito.”*(see note)

The monastery of the Cappucine Fathers, called the monastery of Santa Croce (Holy Cross) was founded in 1566 on the ruins of an ancient church at the foot of the Cicala hill. Since that time the structure has often been expanded and has acquired a rich library. The church has been embellished through frescoes by Mozzillo and a wooden intarsio altar probably from the Sorrentine School of the 16th century.

Trips to the area are no problem whatsoever. There is a small paved road from the outskirts of Nola (near the Santa Maria della Pietà hospital) and you can drive right up to manor by car. The interior of the castle, itself, is usually closed, but the low outside walls still permit at least some limited access to the grounds.

*[translator's note] The cited phrase is the partial subtitle of Candelaio (Candlestick maker), a 5-act comedy written by Giordano Bruno in 1582 in Paris where he was residing at the time. The frontispiece of the original book says: "Candelaio by Giordano Bruno", followed by this self-description: "Achademico di nulla achademia; detto il Fastidito. In tristitia hilaris: in hilaritate tristis," literally “Academic of no Academy, called the one who is always annoyed (or bothered): in sadness hilarity, in hilarity sadness.” The book is dense, complicated, obscure, probably obscene and viewed at least by some critics as dark and pessimistic.

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