This is a sad story, the typical story of the horrors committed by the “established power” when it feels threatened; and, you know, the worst danger for the established power does not come from violent acts, but from ideas and opinions, in a word: from the truth. This story dates back of more than 400 years, but it would be wrong to think that today these things cannot happen anymore. If I search for the definition of an “heretic” in the dictionary, as a third explanation I find the following words: “anyone who does not conform to an established attitude, doctrine, or principle”. Beware: those people are in danger, always, centuries ago as well as today. Sure, maybe the established power will react in a formally different way, because the “dissidents” are no longer burned alive, but against them power will persevere and will do everything possible to silence the voices of those who intend to reveal the truth, and this even in so-called democratic countries. In these countries, in fact, the views and thoughts that differ from the “mainstream”, accepted ideas are tolerated as long as they have a limited audience, but as soon as they begin to have a strong impact on public opinion any mean will be used to silence them. Take the recent case of Australian white-haired hacker: What is his fault but that of telling the truth? Yet, you bet, he will end his days in a maximum security prison. In short, freedom of expression and democracy are never acquired once and for all: each of us must fight to ensure that freedom of expression is guaranteed, otherwise the power, as history shows, will always tend to limit it as much as possible, if not suppress it completely when it will find it threatening for its preservation. But it is true, as Giordano Bruno said after hearing the judgment of the tribunal of the Inquisition, which condemned him to death, that: “Perhaps you pronounce this sentence against me with more fear than I have in hearing it”.
A few months after the horrendous death of Beatrice Cenci and her accomplices (click here to learn more), there was another execution in Rome that was even more ferocious, cruelly motivated, and destined to raise echoes that reverberate today; the philosopher Giordano Bruno was burned alive in the Campo dè Fiori. This horrible affair began in Venice, where the philosopher from Nola had gone after long peregrinations in London, Paris, Geneva, Frankfurt, Prague and Zurich. He was a perennial wander, and was never really accepted by Catholics, as he was a dissident and heretical Dominican Friar, nor by Calvinists or other reformers. He defined himself in his comedy Il Candelaio as an “academic of no academy”. A minor Venetian nobleman, Giovanni Mocenigo, had invited him to come to Venice to give him lessons in mnemonics. The serene city’s reputation as a liberal independent republic reassured the philosopher, especially because from Rome Pope Gregory XIV seemed to guarantee a certain degree of open-mindedness even for rebels like him. Unfortunately he was mistaken; his relationship with Mocenigo deteriorated, perhaps for trifling reasons.
In May of 1592 the Venetian nobleman, defined as delator –informer- in the trial documents, denounced Bruno to the Inquisition. He was arrested on the night of May 24 and imprisoned in San Domenico. The Holy Office, also known as the tribunal of the Inquisitions, was a magistracy concerned with all crimes against the faith. It judged those who voiced opinions different from those of the Church doctrine, but also scientists and philosophers, as their disciplines were linked to the faith. The boundaries between them were ill-defined, which gave the inquisitors broad discretion. At first Bruno wasn’t worried about the accusations , and dismissed them as gossip, since they were merely the dull words of Mocenigo supported by few witnesses and scarce depth. In July, at the end of seven hearings, the philosopher cut it short; he knelt and begged the pardon of the judges, confident that a light sentence would put an end to the affair.
But this wasn’t to be. The Venetian tribunal was just a peripheral organ of the Holy Office, and its acts had to be sent to Rome. The Roman judges read those documents in another spirit, with a purpose that had only in part to do with the accused. Examining the acts, the Inquisition that Bruno be transferred to Rome to be tried again. The philosopher arrived at the end of February 1593 and was immediately jailed in the prisons of the Holy Office near Saint Peter’s. He knew that the situation was now more serious, but initially continued not to worry too much, as he was counting on the mysticism of Pope Clement VIII. It was said that the Pope was sympathetic to philosophers because of his youthful friendships with Neo-Platonic philosophers in Padua. In reality Ippolito Aldobrandini, once he came to the throne of Saint Peter’s, surrounded himself with advisers and confessors who persisted in repeating to him how dangerous any line of thought other than scholasticism was to the Church.
At first the Tribunal seemed I no hurry to finish the inquest. The papal court was divided, Europe was rent by the Reformation, and in his handling of foreign affairs the pope had to work miracles of balance in order to avoid being swept off the stage. New evidences was gathered against Bruno, including the testimony of Fra Celeste, a Capuchin Friar, and a layman from Verona named Lattanzio Arrigoni. The latter, who likely had a mental illness, had also been convicted of heresy, and had shared a cell with Bruno in Venice. The monk revealed that the accused formulated heresies in prison, bursting into obscene blasphemies. The deposition of Francesco Graziano was considered especially useful; he was a copyist from Udine who knew Latin and was thus considered an educated person capable of conversing with Bruno in a language unknown to most. According to Graziano, Bruno raised doubts about certain dogmas relevant to Christian doctrine. He added that the philosopher also practiced the occult sciences and exorcisms, denying the value of religious mass.
The month passed and the interrogations carried on, some accompanied by torture. The accused defended himself, answering the accusations: Moses was certainly a magician, but in his magic was strong cognitive potential which was wrong to ignore; there is certainly a multiplicity of worlds, but such hypothesis doesn’t conflict with divine omnipotence, and instead exalted it; the world in its real form was certainly created, but this didn’t preclude that the material it was made from was also, like God, eternal and immutable; and finally, if this was indeed the nature of the matter, wouldn’t it mean that other worlds could be inhabited by intelligent creatures similar to humans? Had Adam and Eve not committed the original sin would they not also have been immortal beings?
Bruno’s theory goes beyond the Copernican hypothesis of a stationary sun at the center of the universe. That theory was first formulated in the 4th Century BC by Aristarchus of Samos, who was also accused of impiety. Heliocentrism didn’t reappear again until 1543, in Copernicus’ book De revolutionibus orbium caelestium (On the revolution of the Heavenly Spheres), which marked the beginning of modern astronomy. It was Bruno, however, who brought Copernicus to prominence in his masterpiece of 1584 La Cena delle Ceneri (The Ash Wednesday Supper) wherein he defended Copernicus and also delineated a new universe, no longer limited to our sun at the center of a system of fixed stars, but one which intuited an infinite space, with infinite worlds evolving for an infinite length of time. In his De l’infinito universo et mondi (Of the Infinite Universe and Worlds) he wrote “There exist innumerable suns and innumerable earths rotate around them”. His theory anticipates by several centuries the discoveries of modern astronomers, and his theories suggested, in essence, that the universe was eternal, that the idea of God as Creator was impossible – if anything they approached the ideas of Buddhism. Bruno had left the official sphere of Christianity, and he would pay dearly.
A few years after Bruno’s martyrdom, in 1609, Galileo Galilei, an obscure professor of mathematics from Padua, came to hear about telescope invented in Holland. He built one, pointed it at the sky and, astonished, made many discoveries: the moon mountains and valleys, Venus’ phases were similar to the moon’s, Jupiter had four satellites that orbited around it, Saturn had strange anomalies (its famous rings), the sun rotated on its own axis, and the constellations of the Milky Way were made up of an almost infinite number of stars. This news excited people, but also worried the Church. On February 25, 1616, the Inquisition, in order to “prevent disorder and damage” declared that “the idea that the sun is the immobile center of the world is an absurd proposition, philosophically false, and formally heretical for being expressly counter to Holy Scriptures”. Galileo was imprisoned and tried by the Inquisition, which on June 22, 1633, ordered him, on a vote of seven to three, to abjure. Dressed in the long habit of a penitent, the scientist capitulated, asked for forgiveness on his knees, bartering his honor for his life. He remained under house arrest until his death.
Giordano Bruno, on the other hand, never bent. Months passed and the inquisitors realized that they were spinning their wheels, and the accused wasn’t reacting as they had expected. Isolated before the court of an absolutist regime, Bruno had, in theory, only two ways to save himself: to abjure his ideas or to prove that he had been misunderstood, which was another way of abjuring while saving face. In reality he refuted the crudest accusations and defended his philosophy on the others, seeking to demonstrate that the orthodoxy he described was compatible with the official one. He equivocated, dodged, refuted, and sparred with the court, heedless of the fact that his judges had already readied the instrument that would shut him once and for all.
At the beginning of 1599 Cardinal Roberto Bellarmino took decisive control of the trial. He was a Tuscan born in Montepulciano in 1542, and at the age 18 entered the Jesuit order, where the sharpness of his intelligence and dialectic subtlety were soon noticed. Bellarmine was more a political thinker than an expert in Holy Scripture, even though only a few months earlier he’d been named a theologian of the Papal Penitentiary and consultant to the Inquisition. His vision of the trial was synthetic and strictly political. Information and slanderous gossip didn’t interest him. He intuited that the accused, with his vision of “an infinite openness and a plurality of worlds”, had initiated a new era in the notion of freedom of thought, and that if he engaged in a debate about the canonical interpretation of Scripture, any number of things might begin to collapse.
The Church of Rome was a fortress under siege. The hammer blows with which another rebellious priest, Martin Luther, nailed his ninety-five theses to the church door in Wittenberg in 1517 still rebounded throughout Europe. Rome Was losing control of whole religions – the Scandinavian countries, which were latecomers to Catholicism, were also amongst the first to abandon it for Protestantism; England was lost, cut free with a clean blow by Henry VIII; in the German speaking lands the protests had degenerated into open warfare: Holland and Switzerland nursed heretical sects and even France and Poland harbored Protestant evangelists. The Counter-Reformation was necessary for the Church to regain some control over its faithful, especially in Italy. Now Bellarmine wanted to put a halt to the heresies and give the Church back its prestige even in those areas that today would be considered intellectual fields. The chance that Giordano Bruno represented seemed tailor made to meet these goals.
The final session of the trial opened on September 9, 1599, and Clement VIII himself attended. The court wanted to interrogate the accused under torture again, but the Pope opposed it. At the end of other controversies, Bellarmine sent the philosopher an ultimatum: either he abjure clearly and without conditions, or he would be sentenced to death. On December 21 the philosopher gave the court his definitive answer, saying he “could not, nor did he want to, retract, that he had nothing to retract, that he had not the material of retraction, and that he did not understand what thing he needed to retract.” It is profoundly moving that a man imprisoned for years, without protectors or influential friends, abandoned by everyone, still put up such resistance, gambling everything on the logical strengths of his arguments. The death sentence was handed down on February 8, 1600, in the apartments of Cardinal Madruzzo and in the presence of the inquisitors, a notary and a few spectators. Bruno listened to this sentence on his knees, without batting an eyelash. He was convicted of doubting the virginity of Mary, of having lived in heretical countries according to heretical customs, of having written against the Pope, of sustaining the existence of innumerable worlds and eternities, of affirming the transmigration of souls and so on.
Only when the reading was finished did Bruno utter the tremendous words that have become the motto of every martyr of liberty: “Perhaps you pronounce this sentence against me with more fear than I have in hearing it”. The judges didn’t allow themselves to be moved, nor did they consider that they were writing a shameful page in human history. They were political men concerned with the immediate interests of the Church and didn’t dare to stray from them. The convicted prisoner was turned over to the secular branch. Embodied by Ferdinando Taverna, Governor of Rome. For the week before his execution confessors and comforters alternated visits to his cell. Had he abjured, in the end, he would not have saved his life, but could have had a less atrocious death, as he would have hanged rather than burned alive. Rome was full of pilgrims for the Holy year that had just begun and a public burning had the added value of admonishing those who were returning to countries threatened by the Reformation. Furthermore, Henry IV, king of France and only recently readmitted into the embrace of the Holy Mother Church, had disappointed the Pope by allowing protestants freedom of worship in the Edict of Nantes, issued in 1598. Perhaps this is another reason that Bruno’s execution was set in Campo dè Fiori, practically in front of the French ambassador’s residence (the in Palazzo Orsini, at the corner of the Via Giubbonari) – the ambassador had often complained of the horror and the stench of these spectacles.
At dawn of February 17, seven religious men entered Bruno’s cell exhorting him to repent. He refused and instead continued to sustain his ideas. He was gagged, perhaps because he was cursing his persecutors. It was still dark when the grim procession set off. Bruno was accompanied by the brothers of the Confraternity of San Giovanni Decollato (St John Takeoff in English) who wore long hoods to hide their faces, black tunics, and carried torches. From the jail at Tor di Nona the prisoner traveled along Via dei Banchi Vecchi, Piazza Navona, and Via del Pellegrino before arriving at the place of execution, Piazza Campo dè Fiori. There he was stripped and tied to a pole that rose out of a pile of well dried wood. The fire quickly grew to a roaring blaze. Because of the gag the victim’s agonizing screams were transformed into strange howls that were quickly suffocated by the smoke and overwhelmed by the crackling of the fire.
The burning of 1600 signaled the height of the Catholic Church’s efforts to exorcise nascent modern thought. That attempt continued, albeit in slightly less cruel ways, until Pope Pius IX published his Syllabus of 1864, in which he refuted “modern civilization” and defined “freedom of worship and thought” as an error. When the monument to Giordano Bruno was ceremoniously set in Campo dè Fiori in 1889, Pope Leo XIII addressed a letter of admonishment to the faithful in which the philosopher was once again defamed. The Vatican continued afterward to press for the demolition of the monument. It is to Benito Mussolini’s credit that as a head of government he resisted those attempts. Pius IX reacted by first having Bellarmine, the Grand Inquisitor, proclaimed a saint in 1930 and then a doctor of the Universal Church.
More recently Pope John Paul II sent his Secretary of State with a message to the conference held in Naples on the 400th hundred anniversary of Giordano Bruno’s martyrdom. He affirmed that this “sad episode in the history of modern Christianity invites us reread even this event in a spirit open to the full truth of history”. The Secretary of State added that Bruno’s “intellectual choices” remained “incompatible with Christian doctrine. “There is no doubt” he concluded “ that some aspects of the procedures used in Venice and Rome to judge the friar accused of heresy and “their violent outcome at the hands of the civic authorities could not today but constitute a reason for regret for the Church”. Finally a little regret, at least, after over 400 years!
You might be interested to read also: Campo dè Fiori and Dear Friar Giordano Bruno.