Giordano Bruno is one of the great figures of early modern Europe, and one of the least understood. Ingrid D. Rowland’s pathbreaking life of Bruno establishes him once and for all as a peer of Erasmus, Shakespeare, and Galileo, a thinker whose vision of the world prefigures ours.By the time Bruno was burned at the stake as a heretic in 1600 on Rome’s Campo dei Fiori, he had taught in Naples, Rome, Venice, Geneva, France, England, Germany, and the “magic Prague” of Emperor Rudolph II. His powers of memory and his provocative ideas about the infinity of the universe had attracted the attention of the pope, Queen Elizabeth—and the Inquisition, which condemned him to death in Rome as part of a yearlong jubilee.Rowland traces Bruno’s wanderings through a sixteenth-century Europe where every certainty of religion and philosophy had been called into question and shows him valiantly defending his ideas (and his right to maintain them) to the very end. An incisive, independent thinker just when natural philosophy was transformed into modern science, he was also a writer of sublime talent. His eloquence and his courage inspired thinkers across Europe, finding expression in the work of Shakespeare and Galileo.
"Giordano Bruno has always ignited tempers. In the nineteenth century, he ranked with Francis Bacon as a prophet of the modern—a materialistic and iconoclast who somehow foresaw the industrial, scientific world that would come into being centuries after his execution . . . One thing English and American reader have lacked is a reliable biography—a book that would help to clarify Bruno's ideas by grounding then in his career. Ingrid Rowland has now provided a fine one. Trained in the classics, a longtime habitué of archives in Rome and elsewhere, she has previously written an innovative cultural history of Renaissance Rome and an elegant study of a seventeenth-century forger who tried his hand at Etruscology. Rowland come to Bruno, accordingly, as one who intimately knows the world—both the early modern towns and cities in which he led his adventurous life and the intellectual cosmos in which he prowled for dangerous ideas. She is also, as readers of The New York Review know, a powerful writer, imaginative, resourceful, and eloquent. Where some earlier translations of Bruno have turned his supple, powerful prose and verse into sludge (and a few into gobbledygook), hers reveal him as a writer in the league of Montaigne and Shakespeare). In Rowland's hands, Bruno comes back to troubling life. She helps us see just why this slight, grumpy Neapolitan has posed such problems to everyone who has tried to understand what he believed, what he hoped to fight for, and why he returned, at the peril of his life, to the Italy of the Counter-Reformation, where his religious views has already dropped him into hot water as a young man . . . Rowland tells this great story in moving, vivid prose, concentrating as much on Bruno's thought as on his life . . . Rowland traces the complex arcs of Bruno's life and thought with passion . . . 'The true test of a first-rate mind,' according to F. Scott Fitzgerald, 'is the ability to hold two contradictory ideas at the same time and still function' . . . The deep tensions and contradictions in his thought help to explain why, where Bruno is concerned, the shouting never stops. Anyone interested in learning more about these questions—and in exploring the real worlds Bruno knew, from Nola to Wittenburg and royal courts to Inquisition prisons—should do so, from now on, in Ingrid Rowland's erudite and elegant company."—Anthony Grafton, The New York Review of Books
"It has become an overused word, but Giordano Bruno may justly be described as a maverick. Burned at the stake in Rome on Ash Wednesday in 1600, he seems to have been an unclassifiable mixture of foul-mouthed Neapolitan mountebank, loquacious poet, religious reformer, scholastic philosopher and slightly wacky astronomer. His version of Christianity is impossible to label. Educated by the Dominicans—the guardians of Catholic orthodoxy in those days—he revered certain scriptures and the writings of St. Augustine, always doubted the divinity of Jesus and flirted with dangerous new ideas of Protestantism, and yet hoped that the pope himself would clear him of heresy. Bruno was a martyr to something, but four centuries after his immolation it is still not clear what. It doesn’t help that the full records of his 16 interrogations in the prisons of the Roman Inquisition have been lost or destroyed. The enigma of Bruno runs deeper than that, as Ingrid Rowland, a scholar of the Renaissance who teaches in Rome, makes clear in her rich new biography, Giordano Bruno."—Anthony Gottlieb, The New York Times
“Giordano Bruno: Philosopher/Heretic gives some support to the view of Bruno as a visionary of and martyr to science, but Rowland, who teaches in Notre Dame's school of architecture in Rome and writes about Italian cultural history, knows too much about him and his times to accept that simple picture. Rather, she tells the story of a bright, thin-skinned, rebellious and inquisitive young man from outside Naples who became a precocious Dominican priest, had some original thoughts, wrote some interesting treatises and long poems, and pretty quickly got in trouble with the authorities.”—Marc Kaufman, The Washington Post
"Rowland does a wonderful job of presenting this life in the light it deserves and of placing it, with rigor but also inventiveness, in its complex historical context. In both readability and scholarship, Rowland's book is a fascinating work, of which this short review could give only a foretaste."—Costica Bradatan, The Philadelphia Inquirer "Rowland's Bruno is different. She follows the recent tendency to take Bruno seriously as a philosopher, but gives special emphasis to the role of Plato and Neoplatonism. She also has a real ear for his poetry, and for the way early modern learned that poetry could be no less serious or didactic than a treatise. Trained as a classicist, Rowland, like her subject, has moved through a variety of academic communities, in the United States and in Italy, as well as across different disciplines. She is one of the rare academics known to a wide general audience through her essays, in these pages as well as in The New York Review of Books, which have helped to shape our current view of early modern Italian culture. Rowland's long years closeted with Athanasius Kircher (1601- 1680), a towering and fearfully recondite intellectual of the next generation in Rome, have helped her to refine her uncommon ability to tease out meaning from even the most rebarbative texts . . . Faced with the difficulty of Bruno's published works and the absence of much else from his pen, Rowland often has to chase her prey through the books and letters of contemporaries and the archives of his protectors and persecutors. So, for instance, seeking some foundation for his later theological views, she has dug deeply in the theological works produced in the Neapolitan intellectual world inherited by the young Bruno. Wondering what the older Bruno might have meant, she tracked down each and every surviving copy of a poem, and found that the hundred surviving copies all differ from one another, and that each has corrections in Bruno's own hand. Bearing this heavy burden of learning with ease, Rowland is a sure-footed guide on a ground with few tracks. This is intellectual biography at its best. And Rowland's intellectual biography of Bruno brings alive a sixteenth-century culture that electrified Europe. In the light of the ecclesiastical condemnation of Copernicanism and the later trial of Galileo, it is tempting to see time telescoped and Bruno the defrocked Dominican as the astronomer's John the Baptist, heralding the coming of a new age, and killed for it. This was the inspiration for those Roman students of the last century . . . So why, then, was he killed? In this case, that is another way of asking, What was his big idea? Rowland's answer is clear and correct: his big idea was infinity. Bruno believed in an infinite universe, full of many Copernican systems, many worlds."—Peter N. Miller, The New Republic"We often lump Galileo and Giordano Bruno together, since the Inquisition persecuted both for heresy. But Bruno was no orthodox scientist. He preached about an infinite universe and flirted with inventing calculus, but also talked of magic, flying around with cherubs, and atoms as universal sperm. In lush writing that delves as deep into the sewers and prisons of Renaissance cities as into Bruno's philosophy, Ingrid Rowland details the bizarre intellect of her vitriolic, uncompromising hero. Little wonder that, while cagey Galileo lived, Bruno burned at the stake."—Sam Kean, New Scientist"The bronze figure of Giordano Bruno that stands at the center of Rome's Campo de' Fiori may be the most successful commemorative monument in the world. The average statue in a park or square usually rates no more than a glance: Either you already know who the guy is, or you don't care. But the hooded and manacled effigy of Bruno, with its haunted stare, immediately catches the eye, and the gruesome story attached to it—Bruno was burned at the stake in that very spot, for the crime of heresy—cements him in memory. Practically every tourist who comes to Rome tromps through the Campo and hears that story, even if they've never heard of Bruno before. The students who commissioned the statue in the 1880s, as an emblem for freedom of thought and the division of church from state, really got their money's worth. But who was Giordano Bruno, and why was he executed in the Campo de' Fiori in 1600? A common misperception mixes him up with Galileo, who ran into trouble with the church 16 years later for embracing the Copernican model of the solar system instead of endorsing the Aristotelian belief that the sun revolves around the Earth. (In fact, the two men shared an Inquisitor, the implacable Cardinal Robert Bellarmine, canonized by the Catholic Church in 1930.) Bruno, too, thought that the Earth circled the sun, and subscribed to many other than heterodox ideas as well: that the universe is infinite and that everything in it is made up of tiny particles (i.e., atoms), and that it is immeasurably old. But as Ingrid Rowland demonstrates in her new biography of the renegade thinker, Giordano Bruno: Philosopher/Heretic, Bruno was no martyr for science. What got him killed was a murky mixture of spiritual transgression and personal foibles, combined with a large dose of bad luck."—Laura Miller, Salon“Rowland tells Bruno’s life story clearly . . . Giordano Bruno: Philosopher/Heretic is a good place to start learning about a fascinating man and a still-controversial thinker.”—Michael Dirda, Science magazine"The 16th-century philosopher (and former Catholic priest) Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake for a stubborn adherence to his then unorthodox beliefs—including the ideas that the universe is infinite and that other solar systems exist. Art historian Ingrid Rowland vividly recounts Bruno's journey through a quickly changing Reformation-era Europe, where he managed to stir up controversy at every turn."—Michael Mason, Discover"You couldn’t find a better example of paradigm-shifting iconoclasm in the fortean tradition than in the Neapolitan philosopher examined in Ingrid D. Rowland's new biography, Giordano Bruno: Philosopher/Heretic. Bruno and his ideas were 'damned'—his books were banned by the Vatican—but his extraordinary ideas about an infinite and constantly expanding universe are now mainstream . . . So utterly 'damned' has Bruno’s data become that this is the first complete biography in English, and Ingrid Rowland makes a thorough and captivating job of it. If you enjoyed the fantasy of a flawed geniuses fighting the Church while revealing portals to infinite universes from Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, you may also enjoy this all too true story in which it all goes horribly wrong . . . All in all, this biography shines as brilliantly as Bruno did."—Matt Salusbury, Fortean Times"I have been making entries for In All Things for almost a year now, and by my count, this is the 25th such contribution . . . So today I would like to your attention to Ingrid D. Rowland’s excellent study, Giordano Bruno: Philosopher/Heretic. Like many of you, for many years I have known vaguely of Bruno (1548-1600), the 16th century Dominican priest and philosopher—his brilliance, sharp wit and prodigious memory, his relentlessly inquisitive intellect, his astonishing, odd, visionary theories in the realms of religion and science, his ups and downs in his relationship with the Church and various Protestant communities in (what is now) Italy and around Europe—and his final, years-long run in with the Inquisition that culminated in his being burned alive in the Campo de’ Fiori in Rome in 1600. But rather than sensationalize an already sensational story, Rowland’s book seems—to this non-historian—to do us a great service by uncovering an enormous body of information about Bruno, his upbringing and education and, through extensive review and quotation, by bringing to life his philosophical and literary creations (such as have survived). She makes Bruno himself come alive as an intellectual on the margins of Church life and society, an unforgettable figure who also seems, at least in retrospect, both brilliant and doomed. The effect of Rowland's book is not to romanticize Bruno (who seems at times genuinely weird, and definitely not the best of Catholics) nor to vilify the Inquisition (even if it seemed for a long time unable to understand Bruno or to figure out what to do with him). Rather, she gives us a vivid sense of the complexities of religious thought in a time of change in Church and world, the extrinsic political and social factors that heighten or defuse crises in the Church, and the fragile line any intellectual who calls herself or himself Catholic has to walk . . . A fine book."—Francis X. Clooney, S.J., America magazine“Intelligent biography of the renegade Italian friar burned at the stake in 1600 for his prodigious writings prefiguring modern science. Rowland leavens her vast scholarly knowledge of Renaissance church history with a sprightly stylistic touch. Born in 1548 in a small city east of Naples, Bruno journeyed from the convent of San Domenico Maggiore through the exalted universities of Europe and England to test and deepen his theories of natural philosophy, with the Inquisition nipping at his heels all the while. From his first years as a Dominican friar, he entertained doubts about the ‘personhood’ of Jesus, and his lack of reverence for the Catholic icons raised suspicions of Protestant leanings at a time when the Church was riven by the Reformation. Steeped in Aquinas, Aristotle and Plato, Bruno was also strongly influenced by the emotional rhetoric of Teofilo da Vairano and the Platonic philosophy of Marsilio Ficino, among others, and he delved into the Hebrew Kabbalah. Pursued by Venetian inquisitors for irreverence and harboring banned books, the exiled and excommunicated friar moved from Genoa to Geneva, Lyon to Paris, London to the Protestant German cities, teaching artificial memory, astrology, theology and mathematics, honing his philosophy. Finally, he discovered the work of German cardinal Nicolaus Cusanus, who proposed the idea that the universe might be infinitely large. In Bruno's poetic, atomic system, set out in On the Immense, he touched on the concept of infinite space and time, a ‘universal divine fertility’ in which God was present everywhere. Returning to Venice in 1591, he was eventually denounced by his employer and spent eight years in prison while the Inquisition debated what to do with him. When he was condemned to death, he replied menacingly, ‘You may be more afraid to bring that sentence against me than I am to accept it.’ Dense and elegantly erudite—a skillful, accessible analysis of complex systems of religion, philosophy and literature.”—Kirkus Reviews“You sometimes hear the name Giordano Bruno invoked as a prequel to the life of Galileo Galilei. These two natural philosophers, countrymen of the Italian peninsula, stood ready to shove the Earth from its ancient resting place and set it in orbit around the Sun. Though a rotating, revolving Earth challenged common sense and flew in the face of received wisdom, still they both embraced the idea—at their peril. The difference is that Bruno died for his beliefs (tied to a stake and set on fire in a public square in Rome), while Galileo recanted before the Inquisition and lived to advanced old age under house arrest. Legend connects their destinies, reducing Bruno's awful immolation to a cautionary tale that warns Galileo against too vigorous a defense of the dangerous new astronomy. But, as Ingrid Rowland makes clear in her probing, thoughtful biography, Bruno's support for the Sun-centered cosmos paled next to the rest of his crimes. He was a true heretic by the Catholic Church's definition, for he doubted the divinity of Jesus, the virginity of Mary and the transubstantiation of the Communion wafer into the body of Christ. Protestants—among whom Bruno lived for a time in Switzerland, France, Germany and England—also branded him a heretic, since he was, after all, a professed priest of the Dominican order. Bruno managed, in the span of his 52 years, to be excommunicated twice—from the Calvinist Church as well as the Catholic. Rowland identifies Bruno in her subtitle as philosopher and heretic. Her full text rounds out the list of his many other deserved epithets, including poet, playwright, private tutor, professor of sacred theology, linguist, master of the art of memory, even copy editor. As a philosopher, Bruno went far beyond the Sun-centered cosmology of Nicolaus Copernicus. Apparently the first man to envision infinity, Bruno posited an endlessly renewed and recreated universe. Its limitless expanses of space knew no particular center, but contained innumerable suns, circled by a plurality of earths—and every one of them inhabited. Rowland's own translations of Bruno's many works, including On the Immense and the Numberless, add immeasurably to her portrait of him. In 1581 he described himself as having the look of a lost soul . . . for the most part you'll see him irritated, recalcitrant, and strange, content with nothing, stubborn as an old man of eighty, skittish as a dog that has been whipped a thousand times, a weepy onion eater. He came into the world to light a fire, Rowland acknowledges of her subject. That he did, and in the end it consumed him.”—Publishers Weekly
Ingrid D. Rowland was previously a professor at the University of Chicago. She is a regular essayist for The New York Review of Books and The New Republic. She is the author of The Culture of the High Renaissance and The Scorith of Scornello. She lives in Rome.
February 17 marks a peculiarly Roman holiday whose ritual centers on the bronze statue of a hooded friar. Just over life size, clutching a book in manacled hands, he glowers over the marketplace of Campo de’ Fiori, the "Field of Flowers" that was also, for many years, one of the city’s execution grounds. The statue was meant to point in the opposite direction, facing the sun, but a last-minute decision by the City Council of Rome in 1889 turned it around to face the Vatican, which had complained that the original placement was disrespectful.