Born Filippo Bruno in Nola in the Kingdom of Naples in 1548. A precocious student, Bruno eventually found himself in the regional capital as a Dominican friar. The Dominicans had the best university, but were very orthodox and unimaginative. This did not sit well with Bruno, who was a very innovative thinker as well as being extremely cantankerous. He often called his fellow friars “asses”.
In his cell at San Domenico Maggiore, he stripped imaged of the Virgin of the walls saying it was idolatry. This put him on his superior’s bad list as a possible Protestant. Then he brilliantly defended the Arian heresy to a professor. Bruno’s name was coming up in the wrong places, so he fled to Rome. Still under the spotlight, a banned book he was reading was found in his privy. That drew attention from the Inquisition, so he fled abroad.
He went to Protestant universities in Switzerland and rubbed them the wrong way. Then travelled to France where he gained favor with Henri III for his memory work. This was an offshoot from Gnostic and Neoplatonism. Frances Yates in her 1964 book, “Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition”, that it was this as well as an interest in magic and alchemy that led to his execution. Other scholars disagree arguing Bruno’s idea of magic was more natural than occult.
When tensions between Catholics and Protestants heated up in France, Bruno escaped to England angling for a position at Oxford. Unfortunately, the English thought he was hilarious and scoffed at his ideas. Bruno fired back with his characteristic sarcasm, saying the English were “second to none that the Earth nurtures in her bosom for being disrespectful, uncivil, rough, rustic, savage, and badly brought up.” So onto Germany.
On his travels, Bruno began refining his ideas in the cosmos. He endorsed the Copernican model of the universe and theorized that all the stars in the sky were tiny Suns with attendant planets. He did this with little to know evidence, in fact this revelation came to him in a dream. The line between art and science was blurred at this time. Bruno’s treatise “On the Immense” is written in verse.
Germany did not suit Bruno, so he returned to Italy to teach a Venetian nobleman who wanted to be taught the memory arts. Not surprisingly, the two did not get along and his patron turned him into the Inquisition. Bruno’s beliefs added with what has been termed his “combative personally” did not endear him to the Inquisition. His fellow prisoners ratted him out as to cursing God and venting his spleen. He also was accused of saying Jesus was not the son of God, but rather “an unusually skilled magician.” Then he publicly disputed Mary’s virginity. The Inquisition was in a punitive mood and sentence him to death. His answer was brave yet foolhardy. “Perhaps your fear in passing judgment on me is greater than mine in receiving it.”
Bruno was burned to death in the Campo de’ Fiori in 1600. Students in the 1880s commissioned a bronze statue to be erected in the square as a tribute to freedom of thought.
Sources available on request