Intelligent biography of the renegade Italian friar burned at the stake in 1600 for his prodigious writings prefiguring modern science.
Rowland (The Scarith of Scornello: A Tale of Renaissance Forgery, 2004, etc.) leavens her vast scholarly knowledge of Renaissance church history with a sprightly stylistic touch. Born in 1548 in a small city east of Naples, Bruno journeyed from the convent of San Domenico Maggiore through the exalted universities of Europe and England to test and deepen his theories of natural philosophy, with the Inquisition nipping at his heels all the while. From his first years as a Dominican friar, he entertained doubts about the “personhood” of Jesus, and his lack of reverence for the Catholic icons raised suspicions of Protestant leanings at a time when the Church was riven by the Reformation. Steeped in Aquinas, Aristotle and Plato, Bruno was also strongly influenced by the emotional rhetoric of Teofilo da Vairano and the Platonic philosophy of Marsilio Ficino, among others, and he delved into the Hebrew Kabbalah. Pursued by Venetian inquisitors for irreverence and harboring banned books, the exiled and excommunicated friar moved from Genoa to Geneva, Lyon to Paris, London to the Protestant German cities, teaching artificial memory, astrology, theology and mathematics, honing his philosophy. Finally, he discovered the work of German cardinal Nicolaus Cusanus, who proposed the idea that the universe might be infinitely large. In Bruno’s poetic, atomic system, set out in On the Immense, he touched on the concept of infinite space and time, a “universal divine fertility” in which God was present everywhere. Returning to Venice in 1591, he was eventually denounced by his employer and spent eight years in prison while the Inquisition debated what to do with him. When he was condemned to death, he replied menacingly, “You may be more afraid to bring that sentence against me than I am to accept it.”
Dense and elegantly erudite—a skillful, accessible analysis of complex systems of religion, philosophy and literature.