In memoriam of a great free thinker, Giordano Bruno, burned at the stake in Rome 414 years ago today, on 17 February 1600. The statue of Bruno, created in his honour in the 19th century, stands on the exact spot of his death in the Campo de Fiori, south of Piazza Navona in Rome.
Giordano Bruno (1548 – February 17, 1600), born Filippo Bruno, was an Italian Dominican friar, philosopher, mathematician, poet and astronomer.
Bruno was a proponent of the Copernican ‘heliocentric’ model of the solar system in which the earth and other planets orbit the sun (whereas it was wrongly believed by the Church and other authorities of the time that the sun and the planets orbit the earth).
His cosmological theories went beyond the Copernican model: while supporting its heliocentrism, he also correctly proposed that the Sun was just another star moving in space, and claimed as well that the universe contained an infinite number of inhabited worlds populated by other intelligent beings.
In his courageous advocacy of the heliocentric model, as in many other things, Bruno was correct and he was killed, quite simply, for speaking this truth aloud and refusing to be silenced by the voices of orthodoxy.
The Roman Inquisition found him guilty of heresy, and he was burned at the stake. After his death he gained considerable fame, particularly among 19th- and early 20th-century commentators who, focusing on his astronomical beliefs, regarded him as a martyr for free thought and modern scientific ideas.
Some assessments suggest that Bruno’s ideas about the universe played a smaller role in his trial than his pantheist beliefs, which differed from the interpretations and scope of God held by the Catholic Church.
In addition to his cosmological writings, Bruno also wrote extensively on the art of memory, a loosely organized group of mnemonic techniques and principles. The historian Frances Yates argues that Bruno was deeply influenced by Arab astrology, Neoplatonism and Renaissance Hermeticism.
Other studies of Bruno have focused on his qualitative approach to mathematics and his application of the spatial paradigms of geometry to language.
His life, and his death, should serve as reminders to us that those who think outside the box, though no longer burnt at the stake, face great risks, persecution and vilification even today and often pay a heavy price for speaking their truth.
Yet ultimately, in the longer picture of centuries and millennia we can see that it is precisely those outside-the-box thinkers who allow human society and human knowledge to advance for the benefit of us all.
For his out-of-the-box thinking and his courage in speaking his truth, Bruno suffered an eight-year ordeal at the hands of the Roman Inquisition.
Tortured and tormented in the Vatican dungeons, he stood accused of heresy on several counts, including his claims that stars are other suns, such as our own (they are), that they are orbited by planets (they are), that these planets are likely to be populated by intelligent beings (21st century science is just beginning to catch up with this idea), that the earth itself is a planet (it is), and that the symbol of the cross was known to the ancient Egyptians (it was, in the form of the ankh, or crux ansata, symbolising the life-force).
Ordered to retract these and his other “heresies” or face death by burning, Bruno courageously stood firm. Fired by his convictions, he defiantly told his accusers that he had neither said nor written anything that was heretical, but only what was true. When his sentence was passed, Bruno bravely stared at the cardinals lined up in front of him and calmly told them: “Perchance your fear in passing judgement on me is greater than mine in receiving it.”
On the morning of 17 February 1600, Bruno, garbed with a white shirt, was taken to the Campo de Fiori, the Camp of the Flowers, a small piazza not far from the Roman Pantheon. There, he was securely tied to a wooden pole around which were stacked planks of wood and bundles of sticks. “I die a willing martyr”, he is said to have declared as the fire was being lit all around him, “and my soul will rise with the smoke to paradise.”
A young protestant, Gaspar Schopp of Breslau, who had recently converted to Catholicism and thus enjoyed the favours of the Pope, was an eyewitness to the burning, and reported that “when the image of our Saviour was shown to him before his death he [Bruno] angrily rejected it with averted face”.
The truth is that a Dominican monk had tried to brandish a crucifix in Bruno’s face while he suffered in the flames. Poor Bruno, his legs now charred to the bone, mustered enough strength to turn his head away in disgust.
A few days earlier Bruno had written his own epitaph: “I have fought…It is much… Victory lies in the hands of Fate. Be that with me as it may, whoever shall prove conqueror, future ages will not deny that I did not fear to die, was second to none in constancy, and preferred a spirited death to a craven life.”