Particle Man
Particle Man
By ANTHONY GOTTLIEB - New York Times, 12/21/2008

GIORDANO BRUNO, Philosopher, Heretic
By Ingrid D. Rowland
335 pp. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $27
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.” Was he some sort of scientific pioneer, to be compared with Galileo, whose milder encounter with the Roman Inquisition — indeed, with the same inquisitor, Cardinal Bellarmine — followed not long afterward? Like Galileo, Bruno rejected the earth-centered cosmology and Aristotelian physics endorsed by the church. In the 19th century, historians of science saw him as an early proponent of atomic theory and the infinite universe. Or was Bruno an occultist dreamer, more magician than mathematician, as the renowned historian Frances Yates influentially argued in the 1960s? Either way, Bruno suffered for speaking his mind, though he also had a lot of bad luck, some of which he brought upon himself.

His story begins in Nola, a small city to the east of Naples. Bruno referred to himself as “il Nolano,” and Rowland echoes this, calling him “the Nolan” and frequently speaking of the “Nolan philosophy.” (This moniker may be harmless in America today, but it has awkward connotations for those who remember the Nolans of the 1970s and 1980s European pop scene, and their biggest hit, “I’m in the Mood for Dancing.”) The son of a well-connected professional soldier, Bruno entered the Neapolitan convent of San Domenico Maggiore at the age of 14 and was quickly noticed for two things. First, there was his prodigious memory: as a 20-year-old he was sent to perform his feats of recall before the pope. The ancient art of enhanced memorization was what he was best known for in his own time, and teaching it to others was his most marketable skill. Mnemonic feats were not only a practically useful party trick, but were often held to enable a practitioner to arrive at a systematic understanding of the world. Second, there was his religious unorthodoxy. As a boy, he removed all pictures from his convent cell, keeping only a crucifix, and he scoffed at a fellow novice for reading a devotional poem about the Virgin.

Although he was ordained a priest in 1572 and licensed to teach theology three years later, he was soon under investigation by the local head of the Dominicans for his irregular and outspoken views. By 1576 he had fled to Genoa and abandoned his clerical garb, teaching astronomy and Latin in a nearby town. The next 15 years were spent wandering through Europe on a hunt for patrons and professorships. First came Venice, then Padua, then Lyons, then a copy-editing job in Calvinist Geneva, where he was jailed and excommunicated for publishing an attack on a local philosopher. After two years of lecturing in Toulouse on Aristotle and astronomy, he had some success in Paris teaching the art of memory, with Henry III as royal patron. It was in Paris that he published a long philosophical drama, “The Candlemaker,” which Rowland implausibly suggests can be staged successfully, despite its five-hour running time. Its title page names the author as “Bruno the Nolan, the Academic of no Academy; nicknamed the exasperated.”

In 1583 Bruno joined the household of the French ambassador in London, where he published his major philosophical works, all dialogues, in which he espoused an infinite universe teeming with life. The timing was bad for such unorthodox cosmology. A century earlier, a German cardinal and mathematician, Nicholas of Cusa, made similar suggestions; but back then the church was not yet threatened by Protestant heresy and took a more relaxed attitude to strange views. A century later, a book by a writer of the early French Enlightenment, Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle,popularized the same idea. (Though technically banned by the church, Fontenelle’s “Conversations on the Plurality of Worlds” was a literary sensation.) Bruno was both too late and too early to paint a universe in which man and his planet were not the center of a cozy domain.

In 1591 Bruno returned to Italy, where the real trouble began. A Venetian grandee, Giovanni Mocenigo, invited Bruno to teach him the art of memory, and Bruno moved into the family’s palazzo on the Grand Canal. After seven or eight months, relations between the two men began to cool (there are also suggestions that relations between Bruno and Mocenigo’s wife heated up), and the Venetian denounced him. Among the many unacceptable things Mocenigo claimed to have heard Bruno say, listed in a letter to the Inquisition in May 1592, were that Christ was a wretch and a magician, that the world is eternal but divine punishment is not, that bread does not turn into flesh in the Eucharist, that the Virgin cannot have given birth and that all friars are asses.

Bruno made a few unwise admissions to his Inquisitors, but denied most of the accusations. One informant was not enough for a conviction — a second witness was needed — and Bruno was willing to repent in order to gain release. The matter could have ended there, but the Roman Inquisition asked for Bruno’s extradition, and Venice, after months of negotiations, complied. The Romans interviewed many of Bruno’s old cellmates from Venice, and found one — an unstable Capuchin friar, himself later burned at the stake — who falsely believed that Bruno had denounced him and decided to return the favor.

Even with this second witness, it took the Roman Inquisition nearly seven years to bring the case to its sorry conclusion, and it managed to do so only when the Jesuit cardinal Robert Bellarmine took charge. Rowland quotes Bellarmine as once saying that “I hardly ever read a book without wanting to give it a good censoring.”Bruno’s fate was sealed when he unsuccessfully attempted to appeal over the heads of the Inquisition to the pope himself.

Though it can be hard to follow the story line in Rowland’s early chapters, where the background to Bruno’s later work is jumbled in with biographical fact, her telling of his end is gripping. As an intellectual biography, however, the book has too little examination of his ideas. Although Rowland would like us to see Bruno as a martyr to science, his work comes across more as theologically inspired science fiction. He was a poetic speculator, not an empirical or systematic investigator. Thus it is still not clear what the great master of memory should be remembered for.

Anthony Gottlieb is the author of “The Dream of Reason: A History of Philosophy From the Greeks to the Renaissance.”