In my last post I mentioned the philosophy and political skills of Nicholas of Cusa, or Casunus, who in the mid-15th Century carefully introduced the idea of beings living on other worlds in the extraterrestrial life debate and later became a Roman Catholic cardinal.
Not all who followed Cusanus and linked cosmology with life beyond Earth had the same political savvy or were so highly regarded by the Latin Church.
This plaza, the Campo de' Fiori (Field of Flowers) in Rome, was the site where a Dominican priest and philosopher named Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake for heresy, blashphemy, and other crimes on February 17, 1600. From his ordainment at age 24 in Naples to his execution at age 52, his life provides insights into the Holy See's limits of tolerance during a critical time in human history.
Bruno (1548-1600), whose cast bronze figure these days looks down on carts of fruits and vegetables, happened to live his most creative years while Western cosmology began its gradual and transforming shift from a geocentric (Earth-centered) view of the heavens to a heliocentric (Sun-centered) one. This change in perspective, and particularly the astronomy and mathematics behind it, took about 1,800 yearsto develop. Until then, most people who thought the Earth was the center of everything seen and unseen in the Universe were quite comfortable about what they believed they understood. Including the governing heirarchy of the Roman Catholic Church.
As a young theology student in Naples, Giordanno upset the Dominican brothers by (among other things) reading forbidden philosophical works. At age 28 he left the city to avoid charges of heresy, and then wandered around Europe for more than a decade. His reputation grew as an outspoken philosopher, mathematician, and an expert on memorization techniques and the hidden wisdom of the occult. Henry III of France was so impressed by him that he helped arrange a lecturship for Bruno. By the time he was 44 he'd published about 20 philosophical works and plays and met Elizabeth I. Eventually he returned to Italy, and that's when the trouble started.
Interestingly, it wasn't Bruno's legacy in print and his generally unrepentent attitudes about his own personal philosophy that first caught the attention of church authorities. It was a complaint from his then patron and host in Venice, an aristocrat named Zuane Mocenigo, whom Bruno was turoring. Apparently Mocenigo thought Bruno was going to share some juicy details of the occult. When he didn't the two had a falling out and Mocenigo got even by referring Bruno to the Venitian Inquisition. Eight months later he was transferred to Rome.
The Congregation of the Holy Office of the Inquisition was established a few years before Bruno was born. Its purpose in all of its local variants, Rome included, was to combat heresy, or the promoting of ideas that conflicted with official Church dogma. With time in its favor the Roman Inquisition poured through Bruno's published works and discovered many passages that directly and indirectly challenged accepted beliefs. Sample excerpts from his writings in English translation appear below:
There is no absolute up or down, as Aristotle taught; no absolute position in space; but the position of a body is relative to that of other bodies. Everywhere there is incessent relative change in position throughout the universe, and the observer is always at the center of things.
There is a single general space, a single vast immensity which we may freely call void: in it are unnumerable globes like this on which we live and grow, this space we declare to be infinite, since neither reason, convenience, sense perception nor nature assign to it a limit.
God is infinite, so His universe must be too. Thus is the excellence of God magnified and the greatness of His kingdom made manifest; He is glorified not in one, but in countless suns; not in a single earth, a single world, but in a thousand thousand, I say in an infinity of worlds.
Three excerpts out of context do not a heretic make, but his cosmological writings and statements on the plurality of inhabited worlds almost certainly worked against him. Bruno's imprisonment and trial lasted seven years, during which he was frequently interrogated and tortured in order to obtain a full recantation of his ideas. He steadfastly refused to do this but in the end offered to recant some of what he had written. Anticipating a death sentence he appealed directly to Pope Clement VIII, but the Holy Father pronounced him guilty of heresy and other charges. All of his writings were added to the Index of Forbidden Books. One account of his execution reports his mouth was filled with an iron gag made with spikes to pierce his tongue and palate. The flames came next.
Today Bruno is usually remembered as a martyr of modern science and less often as the person he truly was: a fiercely independent and creative early champion of Copernican cosmology who, wisely or not, cared little about political correctness.
Fortunately for us all, his ideas about astronomy and the nature of the cosmos were known to varying degrees by Kepler, Galileo, and others who could appreciate their innovative qualities.
Next stop: tbd
The portrait above is often assumed to be of Giordano Bruno, but its authenticity is unclear. It was engraved by C. Meyer in Paris and dates to the first quarter of the 19th Century. Source: Wikimedia Commons
Banner bus photo credit: Dorothy Delina Porter