Saturday, January 24, 2009

Review: Giordano Bruno. Philosopher/Heretic by Ingrid D. Rowland

The Hunter Turned Prey

by Paul Richard Blum

Giordano Bruno. Philosopher/Heretic

by Ingrid D. Rowland

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, x+335 pages, $ 27.00

Giordano Bruno (1548-1600) is a litmus test for modern educated people: unfailingly, upon hearing that name, people either slander the Church for intolerance and ignorance while showing compassion for that poor chap who became a martyr, or they defend the reasonableness of Catholic thought and mock the philosophic knight errand of the late Renaissance. Both prejudices may vanish thanks to Ingrid Rowland's new biography - and also the condescending attitude implicit in both.

This book is not only the first full length biography of Giordano Bruno in English – it is even the first that is entertaining to read and yet unbiased. So from now on, we don't need to indulge in torture images of the Inquisition dungeons, because the authorities decided against it, since the case was proven anyway. We also don't have to fuss about the Counterreformation Church's alleged ignorance in science – because it wasn't Copernican astronomy that made Bruno a heretic. By the way, the same applies to Galileo Galilei; however, after understanding the Bruno case, the Galileo case becomes more intelligible, because both famous inquiries and condemnations were entangled in serious philosophy and theology, and those entanglements are the real topic of Rowland's book.

She meets the readers' expectations by opening with the carnival that surrounded the Bruno monument on Rome's Campo de' fiori, when it was erected in 1889, "where the pyre blazed", and in 2000, the 400th anniversary of the execution, but also daily on the market between Palazzo Farnese and Corso Vittorio. This statue of a hooded friar was supposed to face the sun, the author reports, but was turned around to challenge the Vatican and therefore now looks "more melancholy than defiant". This is a perfect image of the twin reputation of the philosopher.

This opening is followed by the sentencing and execution scenes as known through contemporary reports. By quoting extensively the author manages to create vivid and reliable images of what actually happened. Her storytelling throughout is based on empathy with the lively situation of the time, which is only enhanced by occasional side remarks on present day experience with places and people in Rome and elsewhere (for instance, an amusing account of the varieties of swearing in Italian regions).

So we learn the gruesome procedure of Bruno's death at the stake on February 17, 1600. Curiously enough it was reported by an eye witness, the Catholic convert Caspar Schoppe, with the intention to assuage the fears of his Lutheran friends (Bruno was much worse, and yet, everything went by the book), but it was used, ever since the printing through a Calvinist Hungarian in early 17th century, to denounce inquisitorial barbarism on the Catholic side. Therefore, Rowland raises the question: if Bruno was a martyr – "a martyr to what?" She never answers that question; probably, because it has been the wrong question that – paradoxically – could only be asked by anticlericals.

Bruno may well have been the first among the philosophers who, together with Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) and before René Descartes (1596-1650), proposed themselves as first person evidence of their philosophy. It is fitting, therefore that Rowland describes Bruno's childhood experience in Nola, Campania, following his own description of how the view of Vesuvius instilled into him the notion of the vastness of the universe, and how that drew him to travel the world, from the bustling metropolis of Naples through Geneva, Toulouse, Paris, London, Oxford, Wittenberg, Prague, Helmstedt, Frankfurt into the jails of the Inquisition in Venice and Rome.

We find his philosophy narrated along the stations of his life: In Naples, where Bruno became a Dominican friar, he was exposed not only to barren scholasticism but also, as Rowland acutely researched, to Augustinian versions of Platonism and some heretic versions of religiosity, as well as to the logic of Raymond Lull (died 1316). In Geneva, the stronghold of Calvinism, he collected his second excommunication (after having left the Order on accounts of suspected heresy); a third, that form Lutheranism, would follow within a decade in Helmstedt. In Venice he had become familiar with printing, a skill that would come handy during the hasty publication of his works, especially in London and in Frankfurt. In Toulouse he obtained a degree in Theology that qualified him for University teaching, which he unsuccessfully tried in Oxford, Paris, Marburg, Tübingen, and Padua, but practiced, never for more than two years, in Wittenberg, Helsmstedt, and Zürich. His formal qualification had been astronomy according to the medieval work of John of Sacrobosco and of course the Physics of Aristotle. But Bruno's fame was based on his formidable memory and the technique and theory of memory which he developed into a psychological and metaphysical system. His art of memory gave him access to the Henry III of France, but it also created the misunderstanding that he was practicing magic, which caused a rift with Bruno's patron in Venice who would denounce him at the Inquisition. There the hunter for wisdom fell prey to envy.

Bruno's sojourn in England gives ample occasion to explain his indebtedness to Marsilio Ficino and his epistemology, his peculiar version of Copernicanism, and his views on religion. His metaphysics of the infinite universe that matches the infinite power of God appears as a relentless quest of a person who could be very charming, but frequently wasn't. In his dialogue on Heroic frenzies used the mythological hunter Actaeon who was devoured by his own dogs to depict the philosopher who is consumed by his thoughts: "and the hunter turned to prey." In every case Rowland involves the main characters of the drama, Bruno's supporters and detractors; and she gently, sometimes outspokenly, corrects old and new fables – like John Bossi's fake story of Bruno as a spy at Elizabeth's court.

As it happens, most details of Bruno's life are known from his statements at his trial. Therefore his sorry end looms over all his actions in this narrative. Rowland's version decidedly refuses any sinister insinuation regarding the process, which protracted over eight years, during which every witness and every document had to be double checked in order to have a verdict beyond any reasonable doubt. She also explains the technicalities of due process at that time citing parallel cases. Of particular merit is her reconstruction of the list of eight errors that were ultimately presented for recantation.

There is a detail I would add to her presentation of Cardinal Robert Bellarmine's role in this case. It seems that Bellarmine had accused Bruno of the heresy of the Novatians, something never mentioned anywhere in Bruno's works. But Bellarmine, and that's the important point, became the first historian of Christian doctrine when he printed his three-volume Controversies in 1597 where he reduced all Reformation errors to ancient heresies. There he traced the Lutheran critique of the sacrament of confession back to that ancient sect. Hence it is safe to say that the doctrine of the individual soul (the subject of confession) was at the core of Bruno's heresy from Bellarmine's standpoint, which then fits with Rowland's findings. And there can be no doubt: The philosopher was a heretic. But it becomes also clear that around 1600 with religious factions and philosophical schools growing exponentially it was hard to avoid that.

My greatest disappointment was with the chapter that is entitled "Thirty", which I in fact read first: Bruno had a predilection for the number 30; he divided lectures into 30 parts, ordered categories by that number and even enlarged Raymond Lull's system of revolving circles to 30 sections by adding Hebrew letters to the Latin alphabet. I never found out whence that number, and Rowland doesn't even raise the question. However, of her thirty chapters "Thirty" is the 14th, in which Bruno reached 30 years, "the middle of our life's journey", the turning point of his career, and where we learn about his views on mathematics, metaphysics, and astronomy. So there may be more to it than the reader's eye can see.

Readers of both this review and the book will wonder about a footnote in which Rowland profusely thanks me for having pointed out an important manuscript source. As a matter of fact, I don't remember. It must have happened in 2003 when we met in Wolfenbüttel, Germany. Either my altruism beats my memory or a famous adage of Bruno's applies: Se non è vero, è ben trovato (If it's not true it's well thought out).

This book is enjoyable to read not only for its amiable narrative that takes the reader through Bruno's world pointing in every direction towards the familiar and the unfamiliar, it also offers many translations from Bruno's poems and prose by Ingrid Rowland – each of them accurate and beautiful; i.e. elegant in the Renaissance sense of the word. Now we may look forward to reading her translation of Bruno's Heroic Frencies, which, we learn, is forthcoming.

Paul Richard Blum is T.J. Higgins, S.J., Chair of Philosophy at Loyola College in Maryland

Now published in Bruniana & Campanelliana 15 (2009) 207-210.


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