Giordano Bruno: A Monk Ahead of his Time

Giordano Bruno: A Monk Ahead of his Time
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In the Beginning

The Italian monk/philosopher/astronomer Giordano Bruno was born in Nola, Italy in 1548 as Filippo Bruno. Nola was a town in what was then the Kingdom of Naples, and when Filippo was young he went to the Augustinian Monastery in Naples and entered the Dominican order when he was about seventeen. He named himself Giordano in honor of his metaphysics tutor, Giordano Crispo. When Giordano Bruno was about twenty he was ordained a priest and was noted for his brilliant mind and skill in mnemonics, or the art of memory. But his brilliant mind also got him into trouble when it was discovered that he was reading books from the Index, books that Catholics were forbidden to read. This included the writings of the Greek philosopher Erasmus. None of this sat well with Bruno and he renounced his vows and left the monastery in 1576.

Itinerant Teacher

Bruno became an itinerant teacher in several places in Italy, including Noli, Turin, Venice and Padua. But soon he quit the country all together.

In 1582, while Bruno was living Paris, he wrote his first literary work, Il Candelaio, a comedy. While in England he met the poets Sir Philip Sidney and Sir Fulke-Greville, debated at Oxford and wrote several philosophical dialogues, including Ash Wednesday Supper (1584). He also defended the Copernican system and his own notion of the infinite universe. In 1584 two of his books were published, On Cause, Principle, and Unity and On the Infinite Universe and Its Worlds.

This latter book is probably the one that caused him the most trouble, as he suggested there were other worlds with life on them besides the Earth. His books also rejected Aristotelian metaphysics, which posited that the Universe was fixed and finite. His Banishment of the Triumphant Beast was dedicated to Sir Philip Sidney and is a treatise on ethics and Cabala of the Pegasean Steed is a satire about ignorance, written in the form of an ironic praise of stupidity. De gli heroici furori (1585) is also dedicated to Sidney and deals with heroic enthusiasms like the aspirations of the intellect and the inspirations of poetry. The work features a group of poems written by Bruno and the Petrarchean poet Luigi Tansillo.

While in Paris, Bruno cultivated powerful patrons, including Henry III, who was so impressed with Bruno’s studies in mnemonics that he gave him a lectureship and put him on salary. During this time Bruno wrote a few books on mnemonics, including Ars Memoriae.

Worlds of Trouble

Still, Bruno’s views began to become more and more controversial and the years 1585 to 1591 found him wandering all over France, Switzerland and Germany, moving on when his views made life uncomfortable for him. He taught a course on Aristotle for a couple of years in Wittenberg, then fled to Prague when he once again fell out of favor. King Rudolf II gave him money, but didn’t appoint him to a teaching job. Bruno taught for a while at the University of Helmstedt, but again moved on when his views got him into trouble. No one, it seemed, was willing to countenance his very unorthodox ideas. Bruno also, according to historians, had a quick temper that made him dangerous enemies. But he continued to write and publish, and his works included De Vinculis in Genere and De Imaginum, Signorum, Et Idearum Compositione.

Imprisonment and Death

In 1591, while in Frankfurt, Bruno was contacted by Giovanni Mocenigo, the scion of a wealthy and powerful family who wanted Bruno to instruct him in mnemonics. Mocenigo lived in Venice and Bruno returned to Italy to teach him. But before taking him on Bruno went to teach in Padua, where he lost the job of chairman of mathematics t

James Joyce

o Galileo. Bruno finally moved to Venice in 1592. His tutelage of Mocenigo was not successful and Mocenigo decided he neither liked his tutor nor his teachings. Later, in the spring of 1592, he denounced Bruno to the Venice Inquisition.

A year later, Bruno was sent to prison; the only reason he wasn’t imprisoned in Venice right away was because he was put on trial, where he defended himself with unexpected eloquence, and the Roman Inquisition wanted him sent to Rome. The Venetians hesitated, but eventually sent him. Once in Rome, Bruno was finally imprisoned for seven years. All the while he simply refused to recant his beliefs and was condemned as a heretic. He was finally burned at the stake on February 17, 1600. The Church authorities were so fearful that he might address the crowd with his views that his executioners were ordered to silence him, and then drove a spike through his tongue. After his death his ashes were tossed into the Tiber River. Later, all of his writings were put on the Index.

Though his work often seems obscure, Bruno influenced writers from Edmund Spencer to James Joyce. Now, he also has a moon crater named after him, and is treated by the modern Catholic Church with a grudging respect. In 2000 Pope John Paul II issued a blanket apology for the Church’s sins of the past, and this included the burning of Bruno.

A statue of the monk stands in Campo de Fiori square in Rome.


This post is part of the series: The Iconoclasts of Science

All about those people of science who thought WAY outside the box. And sometimes paid for it, one way or the other!

  1. The Monk who Believed in Aliens