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The True Story of the Man Who Dared to Defy the Roman Inquisition

by Michael White

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 2002
ISBN: 0-06-018626-7
Publisher: Morrow/HarperCollins

A noteworthy victim of the Inquisition—not altogether innocent, but a victim all the same—earns homage in this slender, somewhat unsatisfying biography.

Giordano Bruno came of age at a time when the papacy was desperately seeking to retain power and much of Europe was desperately seeking to step free of it. “Super-intelligent and vastly erudite,” as science journalist White (Acid Tongues and Tranquil Dreamers, 2001, etc.) cheerfully puts it, Bruno got himself into trouble with Church authorities while a novice seminarian; ratted on by a fellow student, he was caught reading Erasmus in the privy and summarily excommunicated. For the next 20-odd years, then, he wandered from one European capital to another, living off his wits and the largesse of reform-minded nobility. Bruno was never quite a Protestant—he examined Luther’s doctrines and found them wanting, and he could find no safe haven in Calvinist lands, where a fellow Catholic dissident had been slowly roasted on suspicion of heresy—but, especially after he began poking in Gnostic texts, he was never quite redeemable as a lapsed Catholic, either. All of which makes it a deeply curious turn of history that Bruno decided to return to Italy in the hope of mending fences with the “relatively liberal” Pope Clement VIII, who, though interested in Bruno as an intellectual specimen, nonetheless allowed the Inquisitors to have their way with him. And so they did, as White writes, torturing Bruno for six years and then burning him at the stake in Rome’s Campo dei Fiori. White’s account of these events is marred by a considerable amount of hedging and guesswork—understandable, given that the Church’s records of Bruno’s imprisonment have disappeared—and by a tendency to dumb down Bruno’s doctrines (as well as to overlook key texts such as the Cabala of Pegasus). Still, he does a good job of placing Bruno’s revolt in the freethinking context of the time, of showing the injustice of Bruno’s fate, and even of showing the relevance of Bruno’s ideas to the subsequent development of higher mathematics.

Solid if never thrilling—a shame, given the inherently fascinating nature of the subject.