On 17 February 1600, a 52 year-old man from Italy died a horrific death – burned at the stake in the Campo de’ Fiori in Rome. His crime was simple – disagreeing with the church.
Bruno believed in an infinite universe without a sun at its centre, the stars being suns just like our own, and the possibility of alien life, as well as denying the truth of the Holy Trinity and eternal damnation.
He was therefore one of the forefathers of modern thought, and is celebrated by scientists to this day as someone who died for their right to know.
His early life
Bruno was born as Filippo in 1548, the son of a soldier in the service of the Kingdom of Naples. At seventeen, having already shown signs of a keen mind and an interest in learning, he was sent to join the Dominican Order – at a time where much of the advanced learning in Catholic Europe still took place in the monasteries.
There he showed flashes of genius, and changed his name to Giordano in honour of his metaphysics tutor. Ironically, he was shown to the Pope to display his skills of memory and mathematics after becoming an ordained priest in 1572.
Like many brilliant minds before and since, however, Bruno was sometimes lead to question what he was told, and began to develop his own theories which began to shake his absolute faith in the doctrines of the Catholic Church.
Unfortunately for him, this came at a time of immense religious upheaval in Europe which had lead to the violent Roman Inquisition, a determined purge of any “heretics” who disagreed with the Pope’s teachings.
After eleven years with the Dominicans, Bruno was investigated by Inquisitors from Venice on charges of casting away images of the Saints and showing forbidden books to other novices. When he was tipped off that indictment was about to be passed against him, he threw off his monastic habit and fled from Naples.
Travelling through Europe
From there he headed north, wisely deciding to leave Italy and eventually lecturing in France, where his brilliance attracted the benevolent patronage of the King, Henry III.
Having escaped censure and imprisonment in Switzerland along the way, this must have been an incredible relief for the controversial philosopher, who became a powerful and influential figure at the French court.
One of the men who he befriended was the ambassador to Elizabeth I’s England – Michel de Castelnau – who took the Italian with him when he returned to London in April 1583.
His three-year stay in England was highly fruitful, leading to a spell of lecturing at Oxford University and the publication of many of his most famous works. The more liberal Protestant culture there also encouraged some of his most radical ideas, particularly in the field of cosmology.
For almost two thousand years, the accepted view of the cosmos had been that of the Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, whose teachings had hugely influenced the development of Catholic doctrine in the Middle Ages.
According to Aristotle, who had enjoyed no access to telescopes or any other instruments that had become popular by the 16th century, the earth formed the centre of a fixed universe, and the stars – including our own sun – moved around it.
This suited Catholicism, which taught that humans are at the centre of God’s creation, thus positioning our planet at the heart of the universe. The first man to challenge this was Nicholas Copernicus in the early 16th century, who suggested that it is in fact the earth that moves in a set and perfect annual circle around the sun.
By the time Bruno was in England in the 1580s, however, this idea was still unpopular and thought to be dangerous, and few accepted it. Those few, however, would prove influential and included Galileo Galilei and the Englishman Thomas Digges, who was the first man ever to posit that the universe might be infinite.
Bruno, who must have studied Digges in England, took this even further and suggested that if the universe is infinite then there is a high possibility of alien life similar to our own, further weakening the doctrine of human uniqueness and centrality in the eyes of God.
Unfortunately for Bruno, ugly scenes at the French embassy in 1585 persuaded him to leave England and return to France. There, however, his views got him in trouble again, and so he headed to Protestant Germany, where he lectured for a few years.
A return to Italy
In 1591 he was approached by an admiring Italian aristocrat – Giovanni Mocenigo – who invited Bruno to tutor him personally in his home in Venice. Bruno judged that the Inquisition had lost some of its ferocity by now – a fatal mistake – and went to live with Mocenigo the following year.
After only two months, however, their relationship broke down, and Mocenigo denounced Bruno to the religious authorities when he made his plans to leave Venice clear.
The philosopher was arrested in May 1592, and defended the many charges brought against him, but in some cases he was forced to assert that it was the Church that was wrong, not him, when his beliefs were too different from church teachings to reconcile.
At this stage, however, his life was not in danger from the Venetian authorities, who were the most liberal in Italy. It is only when the Inquisition demanded that Bruno be sent to Rome that his situation became serious.
Trial in Rome
The trial in Rome lasted seven years, in which time all Bruno’s beliefs were examined and questioned, particularly those denying the trinity and everlasting damnation, and his faith in the existence of numerous worlds or solar systems. The last of his recorded charges is also the use of black magic, which his skills of memory and concentration were attributed to.
Finally, on the 22 January 1600, the Pope declared Bruno to be a heretic and sentenced him to death. According to one eyewitness, he responded with a threatening gesture to the judges and shouted “perhaps you pronounce this sentence against me with greater fear than I receive it.”
The execution on the 17 February was gruesome. Bruno was hung upside down naked in the square before being burned horribly alive and having his ashes thrown in the River Tiber. All his books were then banned by the Church.
Today however, he is remembered and celebrated as not only a visionary and genius but also a martyr for both science and free speech – a sacrifice which is just as relevant today as it was in 1600.