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Giordano Bruno: Philosopher/Heretic by…
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Giordano Bruno: Philosopher/Heretic (2008)

by Ingrid D. Rowland

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Rowland's biography of Bruno, who was burnt at the stake as a heretic for, amongst other things, espousing a philosophy which saw the universe as infinite with no center, is caught in a slightly awkward spot of not really committing to being either a biography or a study of his philosophy. Rowland provides short excerpts of his work, usually written in poetic or dialogue form, and spends much of the time tracing his exile through Europe, with little meaningful interaction with his contemporaries. It's only really at the end, when he lands in front of the Inquisition, that she settles into detail. When in the epilogue Kepler writes to Galileo 'Do not, therefore, Galileo, begrudge our predecessors their proper credit ... you refine a doctrine borrowed from Bruno,' you're more surprised than you should be for someone who's just read a book on him. ( )
1 vote mattresslessness | Feb 6, 2014 |
It's hard when you only read one of many accounts of a controversial figure; now I only know one perspective well. Giordano Bruno was many things; by emphasizing certain aspects of his work, one can paint him as whatever one wishes. Among others, Bruno was:

- Some sort of pantheist who believed that God was infinite, the little things don't matter, and anyone who got bogged down in detailed questions of dogma was an ass.

- An obnoxious prick who considered nearly everyone an ass, and frequently told them so.

- A master of memory who made much of his living by teaching his system to others. We know that he had a great memory; it's totally unclear whether he really had a system for it, because all his publications on it were geared to attracting students and therefore frustratingly vague. Many of his students were certainly dissatisfied.

- A "Falstaffian" skirt-chaser, by which I mean both lecherous and mostly unsuccessful.

- A genius at picking out the right theories from the maze available at the time. He was correct that the universe is infinite and made of atoms, and that the stars in the sky are like our own sun and should therefore have their own planets. None of those ideas are his, but half the battle is picking the right things to believe, and he was aces at that.

- A magician whose mnemonic system may have been in part magical and who published books on magic that discussed...oh, some kind of bonding between planetary figures and the spirit.

- A heretic who believed that Jesus was (again) an ass who disproved his divinity by asking God for a mulligan just before his death, and that transubstantiation is a stupid idea.

I guess some Catholics still believe in transubstantiation, but they think it happens without changing the physical makeup of the wafer (which is why it doesn't taste like chicken*). Lame. Did you know they used to argue about whether a blessed communion wafer would turn into Jesus meat if a mouse ate it? Like, they were really worried about that issue. I bet the mouse doesn't care.

Bruno wasn't the courageous martyr he's made out to be. When first faced with the Inquisition, he apologized profusely on his knees, happily renouncing all kinds of beliefs. It was only when he realized the tide had turned against him and he was going to die anyway that he backtracked and got fresh with the Inquisitors.

Unfortunately, the transcripts of his defense haven't survived, so we have only a summary written later to go on; that's better info than we have on many trials, but it's still second hand. We don't know, then, the full extent (or not) of his defiance. And it looks like we don't know for sure whether he believed in extraterrestrial life. Generally, his belief in "the plurality of planets" implied that he also believed there might be life on them, but I can find no first-hand mention of him saying so.

He's a strange hero: a tiny little man given to running his mouth, insulting people, occasionally slapping them, running all over Europe to escape trouble, feeling sorry for himself, trying to get back in the graces of various people and churches, and failing due to his own obnoxiousness. He was possibly a charlatan, certainly a heretic, and a total asshole. But he was also way ahead of his time in many ways, and right about pretty much everything, and he went to the stake with one of the great last lines: "Perhaps you pronounce this sentence against me with greater fear than I receive it." So: a strange hero he is.

* All meat you haven't eaten tastes like chicken. If it's meat from an animal widely seen as gross, then it tastes like chicken but "a little gamy."

Rowland's book downplays the magic and fails utterly to penetrate the mnemonics; it positions him as a guy who got it right with the science and whose accepting views of different religions made him a forerunner to today's more liberal religions (such as they are). Is that correct? Probably. But I suspect one could write a book emphasizing the sorcery and come out sounding pretty believable, too. I suspect Rowland of failing the Nero Test:** given two historical possibilities, she's inclined to take the more interesting one even if the other is slightly more supported. And she often repeats herself; I caught her saying the same thing three times in two pages at one point. But it's clear and engaging enough; I wouldn't warn you off it if you wanted to read up on your Bruno.

** Nero may have put Christians in baskets atop poles and set them on fire to use as streetlamps, but he probably didn't. But it makes a great story. ( )
  AlCracka | Apr 2, 2013 |
A superficial account of Bruno's life and work. As the subtitle suggests, the book focuses on Bruno's philosophy and his conflicts with the Catholic Church; there are very few insights into his extremely enigmatic life. ( )
  jorgearanda | Mar 3, 2009 |
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To Professoressa Hilary Gatti and Avvocato Dario Guidi Federzoni
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February 17 marks a peculiarly Roman holiday whose ritual centers on the bronze statue of a hooded friar.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0809095246, Hardcover)

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.

Writing with great verve and sympathy for her protagonist, 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 allows us to encounter a legendary European figure as if for the first time.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:59:53 -0400)

(see all 3 descriptions)

"The Italian genius Giordano Bruno (1548-1600) is one of the great figures of early modern Europe, and one of the least understood. Ingrid D. Rowland's life of Bruno - the first in English - establishes him once and for all as a major European thinker, and one whose vision of the world anticipates ours." "By the time Bruno was burned at the stake as a heretic during the so-called Holy Year of 1600 on Rome's Campo de Fiori - where a beloved statue of him now stands - he had taught in Naples, Rome, Venice, Geneva, France, England, Germany, and the "Magic Prague" of Emperor Rudolf II. His phenomenal powers of memory and his provocative ideas about the infinity of the universe had attracted the attention of the pope, the king of France, Queen Elizabeth of England - and the Inquisition, which imprisoned him for seven years before putting him to death in Rome as part of a year-long jubilee." "Rowland traces Bruno's wanderings through a sixteenth-century Europe where every certainty of religion and philosophy had been called into question, from the number of sacraments to the motion of the sun. She shows him struggling to find a way to live serenely in a world ruled by change, valiantly defending his ideas (and his right to maintain them) to the very end."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

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