Tuesday, 5 May 2009
Renaissance man - Giordano Bruno
This review first appeared in Fortean Times 427, April 2009
You couldn’t find a better example of paradigm-shifting iconoclasm in the fortean tradition than in the Neapolitan philosopher examined in Ingrid D. Rowland's new biography, Giordano Bruno - Philsopher, Heretic. Bruno and his ideas were “damned” – his books were banned by the Vatican - but his extraordinary ideas about an infinite and constantly expanding universe are now mainstream. While his more diplomatic contemporaries like Gallileo recanted in the knowledge that the cosmological cat was out of the bag, Bruno was burnt at the stake for heresy in 1600, as part of a great Papal ‘jubilee’ year of mass executions.
Gallileo and Bruno shared the same inquisitor, and the experience of dealing with Bruno may have softened the Vatican’s stance by the time Gallileo’s case came up. Kepler admitted that when he read Bruno’s newly published ideas, they sent him into a “cosmological panic.”
Bruno was ordained as a Dominican friar twice, and was excommunicated three times by various denominations. He appeared to recant to the Inquisition, and then changed his mind and told them they had no authority to try him. Despite three orders of friars working round the clock in confessional shifts, they failed to get Bruno to retract. Bruno’s greatest flaw was that he was so extremely awkward squad. Constantly belligerent, he got up everyone’s noses throughout the intellectual centres of Europe – from Prague to Geneva to Oxford, where the dons mocked his extravagant Neapolitan gestures and his peculiar Latin pronunciation.
We know of at least four books by Bruno on his amazing and mysterious memorization techniques, in which orators are taught to remember speeches by visualising pageants of Classical gods and heroes parading on sea monsters inside giant wheels arranged within other wheels, The Dominicans sent the young Bruno to show off his memory by reciting Psalm SSS in front of the Pope in Hebrew from memory, and then doing it backwards. He was briefly a mnemonics tutor to King Henri II of France.
Bruno’s cosmology was based on philosophical extrapolation rather than mathematical calculation or observation. He believed that the universe was infinite, teeming with inhabited worlds, to which God constantly added new ones. He admitted that there weren’t yet the mathematical tools available to comprehend the vastness of universe, or the smallness of the sub-atomic world he also began to visualize. The gods of Classical antiquity and ancient Egyptian were just guardian angels of his Christian god. He insisted there was no such thing as sin, and that one day God would inevitably forgive “even the devils of hell.”
When the secular Kingdom of Italy booted the Vatican out of power in Rome and erected a statue of Bruno pointedly turning its back on the Holy See. The Vatican’s most recent pronouncement on Bruno in 2005 stopped short of exonerating him. Even today, he continues to put peoples’ backs up.
The maddening, extraordinary Bruno left a strange and baffling body of literature. His more mature works have an outlandish beauty – On the Vastness of the Universe and Beuno’s other epic verse cosmologies resemble Paradise Lost or Dante’s Inferno. Then there is his bawdy play The Candlemaker, a Canterbury Tales-style romp among the chancers of Naples. In a class of its own is Expulsion of the Triumphant Beast and On the Infinite and the Miniscule, Bruno’s study of the miniscule, including the the fate of all members of a batch of dung beetles hatched on one particular day in his home village. The film Amelie or or even Charles Fort’s more dizzying flourishes come close in their style.
So utterly “damned” has Bruno’s data become that this is the first complete biography in English, and Ingrid Rowland makes a thorough and captivating job of it. If you enjoyed the fantasy of a flawed geniuses fighting the Church while revealing portals to infinite universes from Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, you may also enjoy this all too true story in which it all goes horribly wrong.
Rowland skates over Bruno’s difficult concepts of “magic”, and I would have liked some more detail on these. A new English translation of Bruno’s collected works is due out soon, which should address this. Sadly absent from Philospher, Heretic are Bruno’s cryptic woodcuts with which he illustrated his cosmological works. But any flaws with Rowland’s biography are inherited from its subject. I was tempted to skip the long extracts of Bruno’s more belligerent works from his long phase predominantly involving slagging off the Church’s “pedant asses”, where he comes across as rather conceited. Bruno’s works are possibly not helped by losing a lot in translation from Neopolitan, which makes many of these extracts hard going. But all in all, this biography shines as brilliantly as Bruno did.