The Pope and the Heretic: The True Story of Giordano Bruno, the Man Who Dared to Defy the Roman Inquisition


Giordano Bruno challenged everything in his pursuit of an all-embracing system of thought. This not only brought him patronage from powerful figures of the day but also put him in direct conflict with the Catholic Church. Arrested by the Inquisition and tried as a heretic, Bruno was imprisoned, tortured, and, after eight years, burned at the stake in 1600. The Vatican "regrets" the burning yet refuses to clear him of heresy.

But Bruno's philosophy spread: Galileo, Isaac Newton, ...

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Giordano Bruno challenged everything in his pursuit of an all-embracing system of thought. This not only brought him patronage from powerful figures of the day but also put him in direct conflict with the Catholic Church. Arrested by the Inquisition and tried as a heretic, Bruno was imprisoned, tortured, and, after eight years, burned at the stake in 1600. The Vatican "regrets" the burning yet refuses to clear him of heresy.

But Bruno's philosophy spread: Galileo, Isaac Newton, Christiaan Huygens, and Gottfried Leibniz all built upon his ideas; his thought experiments predate the work of such twentieth-century luminaries as Karl Popper; his religious thinking inspired such radicals as Baruch Spinoza; and his work on the art of memory had a profound effect on William Shakespeare.

Chronicling a genius whose musings helped bring about the modern world, Michael White pieces together the final years — the capture, trial, and the threat the Catholic Church felt — that made Bruno a martyr of free thought.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
What is remarkable about Giordano Bruno (1548-1600) is less his execution for heresy by the Catholic Church than the philosophy that led to his death. White, who has written biographies of Galileo, Newton and Leonardo, offers a fast-paced account of the development of Bruno's thought and the reasons why the Church considered these ideas heretical. As White points out in an account that is part history of philosophy, part biography and part church history, Bruno drew on the atomistic philosophy of Democritus, the ancient occult rituals of Egypt and other magi, and the teachings of Jesus to develop a philosophical system that challenged traditional Christian doctrines. Drawing threads from each of these disparate traditions, Bruno became the first modern pantheist, contending that every individual is a part of God and that God is in every individual. He argued that individuals could use mnemonic occult rituals to discover this unity. Bruno also believed that the universe was infinite and filled with inhabitable worlds. The philosopher was so convinced that his ideas would allow individuals to seek God that, as White demonstrates, he was mystified at being charged with heresy. Bruno influenced numerous thinkers from Galileo, Leibniz and Spinoza to Coleridge and Hegel. Although White's tightly focused study offers a nice overview of the conflict between religion and philosophy in the Renaissance, Frances Yates's splendid Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition remains the standard account of Bruno's life and work. Agents, Russ Galen and Peter Robinson. (Nov.) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Australian journalist White, who has written popular biographies of Stephen Hawking, Isaac Newton, and Leonardo da Vinci, here presents the story of ex-priest and natural philosopher Giordano Bruno in the context of the Roman Inquisition. White provides a lucid description of 16th-century life-the wrong time for Bruno, an intellectual who was a blend of mystic, philosopher, and scientist who studied, explored, and lectured throughout Europe. The Catholic Church's suppression of what it deemed heretical thought led to Bruno's arrest, eight years of imprisonment and torture, and, finally, his burning at the stake. His real crime, in Rome's eyes, was his belief in "free inquiry" and spiritual exploration. White's book is exemplary for its discussions of the period's intellectual beliefs and social structure and for its vivid detail and illuminating look at Bruno's trial and subsequent death. White also captures the influence Bruno had on later followers such as Galileo, Shakespeare, and Goethe. Many more academic books examine Bruno's influence in various spheres of Renaissance thought, but this is the only biography available that is aimed at the general reader. Recommended for all libraries.-L. Kriz, West Des Moines P.L., IA Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
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’simprisonment 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.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060933883
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 10/21/2003
  • Series: Harper Perennial
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 256
  • Sales rank: 1,152,699
  • Product dimensions: 5.31 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.57 (d)

Meet the Author

Michael White is a former science editor of British GQ, as well as previous Director of Scientific Studies at d'Overbroeck's college, Oxford. He is the author of hundreds of articles covering the cutting edge of science, as well as popular and classical music. A consultant for the Discovery Channel series "The Science of the Impossible," White is the author of a dozen books, including bestselling biographies of Stephen Hawking, Charles Darwin, Isaac Newton, and Isaac Asimov. He lives with his wife and daughter in London, England.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments xi
Introduction xiii
I. Prelude to a Burning 1
II. Religion 11
III. Venice 31
IV. Mysticism 47
V. The Venetian Trial 85
VI. Wrangles with Rome 139
VII. Blood on the Floor, Fire in the Soul 147
VIII. In the Prisons of the Inquisition 155
IX. The Curtain Falls 179
X. Encorei 185
Appendix I Bruno's Place in History 211
Appendix II A Brief Chronology of Bruno's Life 213
Appendix III Bruno's Important Works 215
Bibliography 219
Useful Websites 223
Index 225
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First Chapter

The Pope and the Heretic
The True Story of Giordano Bruno, the Man Who Dared to Defy the Roman Inquisition

Chapter One

Prelude to a Burning

For large wood: 55 sols 6 deniers
For vine-branches: 21 sols 3 deniers
For straw: 2 sols 6 deniers
For four stakes: 10 sols 9 deniers
For ropes to tie the convicts: 45 sols 7 deniers
For the executioners, each 20 sols: 80 sols.
-- Inquisition accounts for an execution

The grand inquisitor, the Lord Cardinal Santoro di Santa Severina, was not happy. It was freezing cold in the Congregation Chamber of the Vatican, and he remembered fondly the attentions of his lover earlier that morning. His hair disheveled, his limbs aching, he had been called from those attentions and reminded (with suitable reverence) that he must wash and dress and follow his servants to the Hall of the Congregation and the trial of the reviled heretic Giordano Bruno.

And now Father Bruno, a small man with black hair and dark brown eyes, stood before him, wafer-thin, scarred and drained, his face and body bearing the marks of the Inquisition. The date was February 8, 1600, and Giordano Bruno had less than eleven days to live.

The hall was vast and ornate. The eight cardinals and the seven coadjutors and notaries sat on comfortable high-backed chairs forming an arc around the accused, their official robes of satin falling gently over their velvet seats. The Lord Cardinal Severina was seated in a giant throne at the apex of the arc, his hands placed on the ornate wooden arms, his long bony fingers twitching with impatience, his cardinal ring bobbing and catching the light streaming in from long windows that dominated an entire wall of the chamber behind him.

Of the cardinals at this meeting, only two were truly important. First there was Cardinal Severina himself. Pope Clement VIII's right-hand man had never recovered from his failure to secure the papacy for himself immediately before Bruno's first imprisonment in Venice eight years earlier. Arrogant and egotistical, Severina had been so confident of his destiny he had already selected his official name; ironically he had planned to use Clement. And now he loathed the real Clement more than he could have imagined. He knew the pope was inclined to be lenient with Bruno; it seemed the fool had some inexplicable soft spot for him, and so Severina would do everything he could to oppose Clement and to hurt Bruno.

The other cardinal to be feared was Robert Bellarmine, a man who would have liked to see not just heretics but all Protestants and dissenters burned, all traces of anti-Catholic feeling expunged. Bellarmine had been a professor of theology at the Collegium Romanum and had been given the honor of becoming personal theologian to the pope, the Holy See's adviser on all matters of doctrine, keeper of the Word. For all his academic brilliance, Robert Bellarmine's worldview was strictly antiscience. Fifteen years after Bruno was in his grave, the reverend cardinal would instigate the arrest and trial of Galileo. As reward, the Church would canonize Bellarmine in 1930.

Bruno stood in silence before the fifteen men. Severina read the charges, a total of eight counts of heresy. These included his belief that the transubstantiation of bread into flesh and wine into blood was a falsehood, that the virgin birth was impossible, and, perhaps most terrible of all, that we live in an infinite universe and that innumerable worlds exist upon which creatures like ourselves might thrive and worship their own gods.

Against these charges, Bruno refused to comment. He would, he said, address himself only to His Holiness personally. The Congregation had a written statement from Bruno to Clement which Bellarmine had opened but had no intention of showing the pope, disclosing as it did details of Bruno's heretical ideas.

With an outward display of patience and piety, Cardinal Severina again asked Bruno if he was prepared to recant his heresies, but Bruno simply stared at the wall behind the row of cardinals and remained silent. And so, with a heavy, theatrical sigh, Severina sat back, placed his palms on the arms of his throne, and glanced quickly to his left, toward Bellarmine.

For a moment the room was absolutely silent, then slowly Severina leaned forward again and read a prepared statement from His Holiness Pope Clement VIII:

"I decree and commend that the cause should be carried to extreme measures, servatus servandis [with all due formalities], sentence should be pronounced and the said Brother Giordanus be committed to the secular court."

And with that pronouncement, Bruno was led from the room to face further torture.


Later that same day, Giordano Bruno stood once more facing a semicircle of judges. This time he had been called before a secular committee headed by the governor of Rome in the Hall of the Inquisition at the Monastery of Minerva.

This hearing was called because the Holy See never sentenced heretics to the stake directly; with characteristic hypocrisy it always passed that duty on to a civil authority. The official statement from the Holy Office to the governor of Rome was invariable:

"Take him [the heretic] under your jurisdiction, subject to your decision, so as to be punished with the due chastisement; beseeching you, however, as we do earnestly beseech you, so to mitigate the severity of your sentence with respect to his body that there may be no danger of death or of the shedding of blood. So we Cardinals, Inquisitor and General, whose names are written beneath decree."

This statement was effectively an order to the secular court. They were to take Bruno and burn him alive. Through the centuries, successive governors and judges never once demurred from this disguised papal demand, never once commuted the sentence, because if they had ever decided to ignore the instruction of the Holy Office, they would have been instantly excommunicated and perhaps have found themselves facing death without "the shedding of blood."

And so, with Bruno on his knees before his judges, the governor of Rome passed sentence ...

The Pope and the Heretic
The True Story of Giordano Bruno, the Man Who Dared to Defy the Roman Inquisition
. Copyright &#copy; by Michael White. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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