Childhood & Early Life
Giordano Bruno was born Filippo Bruno in 1548 in Nola, Kingdom of Naples, to Giovanni Bruno and Fraulissa Savolino. His father was a soldier. He received education at the Augustinian monastery in Naples and went on to attend the public lectures at the Studium Generale.
When he was 17 years old, he joined the Dominican Order at the monastery of San Domenico Maggiore in Naples, adopting the name Giordano. In 1572, he was made an ordained priest.
While he was in Naples, he drew attention for his skills with the art of memory and even visited Rome to showcase his mnemonic system before Pope Pius V and Cardinal Rebiba. Even then, he got into trouble for his free-thinking and for reading forbidden books.
He also discarded images of various saints, keeping only a crucifix. These offences would have been ignored if he had not argued in favour of the Arian heresy and had not annotated a copy of Erasmus’ writings, which were banned.
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The Years of Travel
After Bruno found out that an indictment was being readied against him in Naples, he discarded his religious habit and promptly left the city. His wandering first took him to the Genoese port of Noli, then to Savona, Turin and finally to Venice. In the last city, he put out his work ‘On the Signs of the Times’.
After Venice, he visited Padua, where fellow Dominicans persuaded him to wear his religious habit once more. He then travelled to Bergamo, from where he crossed the Alps to get to Chambéry and Lyon. After this, his wandering became obscure for a while.
Bruno found some good fortune after arriving in Geneva in 1579. He acquired a pair of breeches, a sword, a hat, cape and other necessities for dressing himself, discarding his Dominican attire again. He listed his name in the Rector's Book of the University of Geneva in May 1579.
Because of his confrontational personality, he could not stay silent for long. He released an attack in August in which he criticised the work of the well-known professor Antoine de la Faye.
When he, along with his printer, was apprehended, he refused to admit to any wrongdoing and kept on advocating for his publication. Bruno was subsequently denied the right to take sacrament. While this right was ultimately reinstated, he made his departure from Geneva.
Bruno went back to France, to Lyon. He then made his way to Toulouse, where he lived for some time between 1580 and 1581. It was there that he obtained his doctorate in theology and was chosen by students to serve as a philosophy lecturer.
In the summer of 1581, he relocated to Paris, where he found several powerful patrons and put out a number of books on mnemonics, including ‘On the Shadows of Ideas’ (1582), ‘The Art of Memory’ (1582), and ‘Circe's Song’ (1582).
In April 1583, he came to England, carrying Henry III’s letters of recommendation and lodged with the French ambassador, Michel de Castelnau. In England, he met the poet Philip Sidney and several other members of the Hermetic circle of John Dee. However, he possibly did not meet Dee himself. He gave lectures at Oxford but was rejected when he expressed interest in a teaching position at the institution.
He put out some of his most popular works during this period, including ‘The Ash Wednesday Supper’ (1584), ‘On Cause, Principle and Unity’ (1584), and ‘On the Infinite, Universe and Worlds (1584).
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His views were challenged by prolific members of the English society like George Abbot, who later was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury. He ridiculed Bruno for believing in Copernicus’ opinions and discovered that a section of Bruno’s writings was the product of plagiarism and misinterpretation of Ficino’s work. This prompted Bruno’s departure from England.
After he returned to Paris, he found that there was political turmoil in the French capital. He published 120 theses against Aristotelian natural science and pamphlets against the mathematician Fabrizio Mordente, garnering ill-favour. Following a violent dispute on the differential compass, an invention by Mordente, he made his departure from France.
In Germany, he was hired as a teacher at Wittenberg. However, after a drastic shift in the intellectual climate there, he was forced to move to Prague and later taught at Helmstedt.
Following his excommunication by the Lutherans, he ran again. He published a number of Latin works around this time, including ‘De Magia’, ‘Theses De Magia’ and ‘De Vinculis in Genere’.
He spent some time in Frankfurt before moving to Venice, lured by a vacant chair in mathematics at the University of Padua, as well as a tutoring job offered by the local patrician Giovanni Mocenigo. Furthermore, Venice was considered the most liberal society in Italian peninsula at the time, and he had heard that the Inquisition had supposedly become much more lenient.
Giordano Bruno was not hired by the University of Padua. That job eventually went to Galileo Galilei. Bruno subsequently came to Venice in March 1592 and began teaching Mocenigo. However, only two months later, he told Mocenigo that he wanted to leave Venice. Dissatisfied with his teachings, Mocenigo gave him up to the Venetian Inquisition. He was apprehended on May 22, 1592.
Facing charges of blasphemy and heresy, he mounted an exemplary defence for himself, accentuating the philosophical veracity of his positions, refusing to accept others, and acknowledging that he had issues on some matters of dogma. In February 1593, he was handed over to the Roman Inquisition.
For the next seven years, he was tried in Rome. Some of the documents related to the trial have not been found. He was charged with, among other things, blasphemy, immoral conduct, and heresy in matters of dogmatic theology.
Repeating his Venice performance, he built an excellent case for himself. While still acknowledging the church’s dogmatic teachings, he attempted to hold on to the foundation of his philosophy and cosmology.
Bruno’s trial was conducted by the Inquisitor Cardinal Robert Bellarmine, who ordered a full recantation, which Bruno declined to provide.
On January 20, 1600, he was pronounced a heretic by Pope Clement VIII, and the Inquisition ordered a death sentence. It was carried out on Ash Wednesday, 17 February 1600. After he was hung upside down naked on a stake, he was burnt to death.
In 1889, a statue of him was erected at the site of his death in Rome.