Posted on Sun, Feb. 15, 2009

Fascinating life of a philosopher martyr

Giordano Bruno
By Ingrid Rowland

Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

335 pp. $27

Reviewed by Costica Bradatan

When the officers of the law took Giordano Bruno (1548-1600) to the stake to burn him, they had to immobilize his tongue with an iron spike because of the terrible things he was saying (per le bruttisime parole che diceva, as an eyewitness reported).


Just imagine: one of the most sophisticated masters of the Italian language, as much at home in philosophical speculation as in the almost unbearably colorful tongue of the Neapolitans (he could easily win any competition in Neapolitan cursing) - just imagine such a man placed in a situation where he could make absolutely no use of language at all.

Yet, as it turned out, Bruno managed to express with his silence more than he ever could have done with all his rhetorical mastery. By silently dying a martyr's death at the hands of the Inquisition, through the very act of performing such a death, he joined a great tradition that includes Socrates, Hypatia, Thomas More and others, philosophers who could no longer use words, but had only their own bodies, their dying flesh, with which to deliver a philosophical message.

One of the insightful (and delicately ironic) points author Ingrid Rowland makes in her biography of Bruno is precisely to frame his death in the terms of Christian martyrology: "In the prison of the Holy Office, Giordano Bruno found his own Gethsemane. Like the Jesus who, 'sorrowful onto death,' prayed for any possible deliverance from his situation, the philosopher from Nola tried to bargain his fate" with Roberto Bellarmine, the famous Jesuit theologian and the inquisitor in charge of Bruno's case.

Christ can serve indeed as a truly universal model: He becomes an inspiration not only for the church, but also for its victims. One of the cruelest ironies of history is that institutions originally built on the blood and suffering of martyrs wound up producing martyrs themselves.

In Rowland's reading, one of Bruno's major accomplishments is to have borne "extreme witness to an ultimate truth." His martyr's death thus becomes part of his philosophical project. An ardent proponent of the notion of an infinite universe, Bruno now received the chance of a lifetime to put his ideas to the test: "If he truly believed his own philosophy, his own death formed an infinitesimal part of the eternal life of the universe." In an infinite world, with the center everywhere and the margins nowhere, there is nothing to be afraid of - least of all of the annihilation of one's body. In such a world, where life is produced and reproduced eternally, where a divine spirit permeates everything, nothing bad can really happen to us: Death itself is nothing, just a transition from one state into another.

Yet, before his crucial encounter with death, Bruno had to endure eight years of imprisonment and a difficult confrontation with the Inquisition. His encounter with Bellarmine plays an important part in Rowland's account.

Concerned as it was with observing due process, the Roman Inquisition needed an investigator with a theological mind sharp enough to match Bruno's bold and philosophically complex heresies. They found such an inquisitor in the person of Bellarmine, reportedly the most brilliant theological mind of his time. His task was to persuade Bruno of his "confusion" and to make him recognize and renounce his "errors."

The confrontation between the two was not merely of a philosophical nature, however. Although it was philosophical to a high degree, in the end it also had an "Italian twist." Probably realizing that an honorable deal with the Inquisition could no longer be reached and that a glorious death at the stake looked much better than, say, an inglorious life in prison, an increasingly defiant Bruno pushed the confrontation to the point of no return and engaged Bellarmine in what Rowland calls "the Italian secular ritual of giving the lie."

This is a way of making sure that an argument ends in a duel and nothing less than a duel: "When two men began the escalating exchange of insults that led to a duel, the final insult, the phrase that automatically provoked the challenge was 'menti per la gola' - 'you lie through your throat.' "By giving Bellarmine the lie, Bruno bought his ticket to the stake. Now there was nothing preventing him from becoming a "martyr of thought," the Bruno we know.

Thus ended one of the most fascinating of all philosophical lives (when, customarily, philosophers lead remarkably uninteresting lives). Rowland does a wonderful job of presenting this life in the light it deserves and of placing it, with rigor but also inventiveness, in its complex historical context. In both readability and scholarship, Rowland's book is a fascinating work, of which this short review could give only a foretaste.

Costica Bradatan ( is assistant professor of honors at Texas Tech University.