Venetian independence caused a slow, smouldering deterioration in the relationship with Rome and the ever more absolutist papal power. Neither the intellectuals nor the commonality of Venice were prepared to accept every decree from the papal throne uncritically. This was one of the reasons why the rootless, apostate Dominican friar Giordano Bruno chose to settle in Venice and Padua, when he made the foolhardy decision to return to Italian soil.
Giordano Bruno was a visionary and a philosopher, a charismatic thinker profoundly steeped in magic and ancient pantheism and, in the world of his own fantasy, well on the way to becoming a new Messiah. He was born in the little town of Nola near Naples and took to the life of a friar more for its educational possibilities than out of piety - it was philosophy that really interested him. In the 1570s he travelled to Rome, but had to flee the city on account of his many unorthodox views and what was no doubt a trumped-up charge of murder.
For more than fifteen years Bruno wandered about northern Europe, France, England and Germany. He gave lectures, disputed and wrote books. In Geneva he was arrested and expelled by the Calvinist authorities, in Toulouse he was allowed to teach at the university. King Henri III summoned him to Paris to learn about the extraordinary memorising techniques he had developed. Then he travelled to England, where he tried Oxford and later made contacts at court. He finally ended up in Germany - via France -where he went from university to university getting a reputation for being an all-knowing philosopher, but one without a firm religious commitment.
But then he wanted to go home. Giordano Bruno was a very talented mathematician, and he was in Padua to try to get the vacant professorship in mathematics.
Bruno wanted to substantiate his qualifications by giving private coaching in the city, but this strategy was unsuccessful. So by the time Galileo came to the city in the autumn of 1592, the friar had just left Padua, either because the chair had gone to a competitor, or for other reasons. After a couple of months in Venice, Bruno was denounced by his landlord, arrested and placed in the Inquisition's gaol.
The Roman Inquisition's stated objective was to fight all forms of heresy, and in principle, its jurisdiction covered the whole world. In practice, its power only really extended to the Italian states, where it functioned in tandem with the secular legal system. The inquisitors could themselves apprehend suspected persons, but more usually such people were turned over to them.
The system's pedantic efficiency - viewed in isolation - was legally unimpeachable. Its headquarters in Rome - Sant'Ufficio, the Holy Office - controlled its provincial courts, and ensured that practice was uniform everywhere, and there would be no hint of arbitrary justice with sentences being handed down according to the judges' whim and fancy. Painstaking minutes were kept, in which the notary was supposed to put down word for word everything that was said on both sides:
"Not only all the defendant's responses and any statements he might make, but also what he might utter during the torture, even his sighs, his cries, his laments and tears."3
To begin with it looked as if Bruno would get over the problem by admitting to a few less important aberrations in matters of faith, and maintaining that, anyway, his stock-in-trade was philosophy and not religion. Despite centralisation, the local Inquisitor in Venice was not the worst person to deal with. But then the Inquisition's headquarters demanded that Bruno be sent to Rome. The secular Venetian authorities did precious little to prevent the extradition.
So began a process that was to last more than seven years. Bruno was thrown into the Holy Office's gaol not far from St Peter's. His literary works were many and not all were readily available, so the case rumbled slowly on, with interrogations and explanations. And so the situation remained, until the learned Jesuit, Cardinal Robert Bellarmine, took over the case. He cut through the chaff, specified eight heretical viewpoints that Bruno was purported to have promulgated in his writings, and asked him to repudiate them.
Bruno, isolated and by now confused, first agreed to this - then refused. The circumstances are unclear and the document has not survived, so we do not know exactly what the philosopher was sentenced for. It was said that he believed that Moses was a wizard, who fooled the Egyptians because he was more proficient than they were in the magic arts. Bruno also maintained that there must be an infinite number of universes, because anything else would be a limitation of God's omnipotence. This idea was viewed as heretical because it did not accord the Earth a central place in the universe.
Judgement was given on 8 February 1600. Giordano Bruno was sentenced as an "unrepentant heretic", "unyielding" and "obstinate". All of his works were placed on the register of prohibited books (Index librorumpro-hibitorum) as "heretical and erroneous and containing many heresies and false teachings".4 Bruno was transferred to the "condemned cells" in the dungeon of Tor di Nona, on the east bank of the Tiber, directly opposite Castel sant'Angelo. He was taken from there on 17 February, after seven priests had seen him and tried to make him admit the error of his ways before the execution, which he refused to do. He was taken in an open cart, guarded by members of the Order of St John, who carried torches and intoned prayers.5
Giordano Bruno's last journey was made through the centre of Rome to the Flower Market, Campo de' Fiori, which was also the place of execution. Only the most important executions were carried out here, partly because the French Ambassador, who lived on the square, had complained about the sight and stench of the heretics' pyres.
But Bruno's execution was important. It was a reminder to everyone who had come to Rome for the holy jubilee, a reminder of the consequences of heresy. So the faggots stood waiting in the Flower Market, with bundles of twigs at the edge where the fire would be lit. The fifty-two-year-old Bruno was stripped naked and tied to the stake, the judgement was read to him and the outer, slender twigs were lit as prayers were said and psalms sung. A great crowd followed the awful progress of the fire as it licked up around the naked body.
Bruno's end in the Campo de' Fiori was by no means unique, his case is simply the most famous. The Inquisition did not distinguish between high and low, educated and uneducated. Just sixty or seventy miles north of Padua, for example, a case was proceeding just then against a humble miller who had had the misfortune to learn to read, and had formed a homespun concept of the world based on half understood fragments and his own perceptions. One of his many ideas was that the creation of the world was similar to the process of milk thickening into cheese. He too, ended up in the flames.
One of the many indictments that was raised during the process against Bruno, was that he believed that the Sun was static and that the Earth was a planet that moved through space just like the other planets. Giordano Bruno was, in other words, a Copernican.
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