Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 943
Giordano Bruno 1548–1600
Known for his unorthodox views regarding the nature of the universe, Bruno was a philosopher who challenged traditional cosmological beliefs held by the Roman Catholic Church and sixteenth-century society. From the sixteenth through the twentieth century, scholars have repeatedly examined Giordano Bruno's status as a heretic, scientist, pantheist, and poet. Some contend that his ideas influenced philosopher Benedictus de Spinoza and scientist Galileo Galilei and argue that Bruno was the greatest philosopher of the Renaissance. Much of the controversial nature of Bruno's works, among them La cena de le ceneri (1584; The Ash Wednesday Supper) and Lo spaccio de la bestia trionfante (1584; The Expulsion of the Triumphant Beast) stem from the social, political, and religious reform that they suggest. Many of Bruno's ideas were considered heretical by the Church, as his cosmological model was based on a Copernican rather than an Aristotelian foundation. Bruno's teachings on mnemonics, believed by many to be a form of black magic, were also a source of concern for the religious community. Despite the suspicion surrounding his views, neither in his lectures nor in his writings did Bruno compare his philosophy with Roman Catholic doctrine. Furthermore, Bruno claimed never to have taught directly against the Church's beliefs. Nevertheless, he was executed on the grounds of heresy.
Born in Nola, Italy, in 1548, Bruno was given the name Filippo, which he later changed to Giordano upon entering a Dominican monastery as a teenager. Bruno fled the monastery in 1576 due to accusations of heresy. After a period of travelling and lecturing, Bruno arrived in England in 1583 and resided with the French ambassador until 1585. During this time, Bruno published several of his more well-known philosophical works, including La cena de le ceneri, Lo spaccio de la bestia trionfante, and De gli eroici furori (1585; The Heroic Frenzies). For several years, Bruno journeyed through France and Germany, arriving in Frankfurt in 1590. There, in 1591, he published his last works, among them De imaginum signorum et idearum compositione (1591; On the Composition of Images, Signs and Ideas), a controversial book on the art of memory. While in Frankfort, Bruno received an invitation from a Venetian gentleman, Giovanni Mocenigo, to serve as an instructor in this art. Bruno accepted and returned to Italy in 1592. Mocenigo soon turned Bruno over to the Holy Tribunal for examination on the grounds of heresy. Following the Venetian Inquisition, Bruno was sent to the Supreme Tribunal of the Holy Office of Rome for trial in
1593. He was imprisoned until 1599. Some scholars believe that during this period Bruno's inquisitors tortured him in an effort to make him admit his heresy and recant. Bruno did neither. He was sentenced to death and burned at the stake on February 17, 1600.
Many of Bruno's works are structured in the form of a dialogue and combine discussion of societal, political, or religious issues with philosophical arguments. The setting of La cena de le ceneri is the home of an English nobleman, to which Bruno is invited for a discussion of the movements of the earth and sun and their relationship to the universe. Additionally, some social and political issues are mentioned or alluded to as Bruno describes the problems he encounters on the way to the nobleman's home. In Lo spaccio de la bestia trionfante, human vice is embodied in the "triumphant beast" which lives, argues Bruno, in everyone. Bruno explains that in order to overcome his vice, man must employ reason, gained through an understanding of the laws of nature. De la causa, principio et uno (1584; Concerning the Cause, Principle, and One) outlines Bruno's metaphysical beliefs. He provides detailed arguments concerning the nature of God, the universe, and man's relationship to both. Bruno further develops his ideas pertaining to the physical universe in De l'infinito universo et mondi (1584). This work focuses on the infinity of the universe as an image of an infinite God. De gli eroici furori reveals Bruno's ethical doctrine regarding heroic love as compared to human, or vulgar love. Bruno argues that heroic love leads one's soul toward a union with God, and that this union cannot be achieved in one's present life.
During his lifetime, Roman Catholic Inquisitors examined Bruno's writings in search of heretical statements. Others, such as Johannes Kepler, turned to Bruno for different reasons. Kepler indicated that Bruno's ideas on the plurality of inhabited worlds influenced his own thought. Scholars such as Dorothea Waley Singer contend that Spinoza and Galileo may have also been influenced, directly or indirectly, by Bruno, as his cosmological ideas are often mirrored in their work. In an analysis of Bruno's beliefs, Paul Oskar Kristeller states that the body of the philosopher's work contains ambiguities regarding form and matter, the physical and the metaphysical, and the distinction between the universe and God. Other scholars have noted similar inconsistencies. Bruno's use of poetry as a means of strengthening his philosophical arguments has been a source of discussion for critics as well. Frances Yates contends that in De gli eroici furori Bruno uses the sonnet form as well as Petrarchan conceits to discuss the striving of man toward union with the divine. Giancarlo Maiorino insists that the subject of Bruno's "literary stature" has been evaded by most scholars. Maiorino goes on to compare Bruno's views on poetic and philosophical thought and argues that Bruno's poetics are grounded in a commitment to free thought and expression. In its complexity, Bruno's work offers endless opportunities for religious, social, and scientific analysis. He has been admired for his cosmological insights, developed through logic and analogies, for speaking out against social, political, and religious corruption, and for his unshakable faith in his own ideas.