The Pope and the Heretic: The True Story of Giordano Bruno, the Man Who Dared to Defy the Roman Inquisitionby Michael White
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
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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The Pope and the Heretic
The True Story of Giordano Bruno, the Man Who Dared to Defy the Roman Inquisition
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.
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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There has long been a need for an accessible biography of Giordano Bruno but this lame effort isn't it. Bruno's many writings and peripatetic lifestyle splashed his name all over the history of the late 1500's. He returned to Italy in the early 1590's hoping a more liberal pope would discuss his ideas but fell under the control of the inquisition. He was placed on trial in 1592, condemned as a heretic and burned at the stake in 1600. It was not one of the better moments for the Catholic Church. Other works on Bruno note that Bruno brought many of his troubles on himself; that is downplayed here. Rather, the author is anti-religion, anti-christian and particularily anti-catholic. He descends to calling members of that faith "papists" (p. 26) This attitude is so pervasive in the first half of the book that one expects to read of clergy roasting babies and eating them. The author, whose dust jacket blurb states that he was a science editor for a men's fashion magazine, approaches parts as historical fiction. He gets his dates right and even has a few footnotes but regularily imputes his own interpretations such as describing facial expressions and detailing feelings and emotions without documentation. On page 23 he states that the inquisition "...exterminated in excess of one million men, women, and children (one out of every two hundred people on earth at the time)" while two pages later he states that between 1500 and 1650 an estimated 30,000 were killed. Even superficial research into modern reputable sources would uncover that modern historians estimate the total deaths between 2000 and 5000.; a tragic amount and an embarassment to the church but light years away from one million. Even though it is a small book of only 210 pages, it is padded with passages "setting the zeitgeist" and making wild stretches purporting Bruno's influence with the most meagre threads of evidence. I had long wanted to read a decent review of his life. A real disappointment. While reading this I was constantly reminded of the 19th century anti-catholic screeds. Not recommended. I wasted my money, don't waste yours.