Part I: Giordano Bruno and Judaism – Background

We have covered three men from the first half of the sixteenth century: in the Italian Renaissance, the unique mind and role of Machiavelli whose greatest hero was Moses; from the northern Renaissance in the Netherlands, the brilliant Erasmus, a pioneer in the Counter-Reformation, who had a critical but rather milquetoast attitude towards Jews and Judaism; and then Martin Luther from Wittenberg on the River Elbe between Leipzig and Berlin in Saxony-Anhalt, one of the founding fathers of the Reformation, who also happened to be a virulent antisemite.

We now return to southern Italy and enter the second half of the sixteenth century with Giordano Bruno (1548-1600) who had perhaps the most brilliant mind of all. Further, he was undoubtedly the most courageous, for his commitment to his ideas and beliefs led to his imprisonment and torture for seven years (1593-1600) in the infamous prison of the Inquisition in Rome near St. Peter’s Square. Finally, on 20 February 1600, after a month of interrogation in the final stage of a years-long trial, he was led outside, manacled and with a gag in his mouth atop a wood pyre, was set on fire and burned alive on the Field of Flowers (Campo de’ Fiori). Of the 29 heretical beliefs for which he had originally been charged, he was found guilty of eight cosmological propositions which Bruno, in the end, refused to renounce.

Bruno was truly a renaissance figure in the contemporary meaning of the word “renaissance”. He was a religious theologian, a philosopher, a scientist, a playwright and a poet. He has been described as “an inspired Magus” and was, historically, a runaway monk, an excommunicated Calvinist, an expelled Lutheran, a convicted Catholic heretic and the most avant-garde thinker of his time. 

For further study, I suggest:

Jack Lindsay (tr. and intro.) (1962) Cause, Principle and Unity

Frances A. Yates (1964) Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition

Karen Sylvia de León Jones (1997) Giordano Bruno – the Kabbalah: Prophets, Magicians and Rabbis

Richard J. Blackwell and Robert de Lucca (eds.) (1998) Giordano Bruno: Cause, Principle and Unity: And Essays on Magic 

Ingrid D. Rowland (2008) Giordano Bruno: Philosopher/Heretic

Hilary Gatti (2010) Essays on Giordano Bruno.

Of the above galaxy of outstanding minds in the sixteenth century, Giordano Bruno was probably the most brilliant. And also the most courageous, for he died giving witness to his beliefs, religious as well scientific, which clashed with the official view of cosmology of the Church and the fundamentals of the Roman Catholic faith. Bruno had also become a lover of the Kabbalah of Judaism. My focus will be the latter but, after finishing a sketch of his background, I will sum up his cosmology for there is a direct connection with his religious beliefs, or, at the very least, his disbeliefs, and his view of the cosmos.

Bruno was born in 1548 in Nola near Naples, a satrap of Spain, but then the fifth largest city in the world. Two hundred and fifty years earlier, during the reigns of Charles I and II, but not because of their reign so much as the lapse in their power, Naples was known for its mass conversion of Jews and creation of conversos primarily because of the zealotry of the Dominican Inquisitors in Southern Italy. This may be the source of the rumour that Bruno had a Jewish past, especially since he was trained by the Dominicans.

Bruno at a very early age was propelled by scepticism that went much deeper than that of Erasmus when, as a young boy, he learned that seeing is not believing, for sight could and did deceive. But so also could thought that was not subject to rigorous criticism. Contradiction rather than conviction provided the fuel; in that, he was somewhat at odds with both Machiavelli and Erasmus. “What are the grounds of certitude?” That would become the question that became the foundation of philosophic inquiry from Descartes until the nineteenth century. For Bruno’s more radical scepticism, there was no evidence or rationale for certitude whatsoever.

This radical scepticism, propelled by the stirrings of political rebellion against Spain and religious rebellion against Rome in Naples, was also fostered by Bruno’s reading Peter of Ravenna’s Fænix (1491) as a young teenager. He quickly mastered mnemonics, the mediaeval art of memory. In Naples, he first attended a monastic school at the age of eleven and then entered the Dominican Order in the convent of San Domenico Maggiore at the age of 15 in 1563. The order specialized in developing the art of memory. There he was introduced to the theories and lessons of Johannes Romberch (1533) and later would add to his learning, the techniques of Cosmas Rossellius (1579). His greatest influence was probably Giulio Camillo, though, as I will try to show in the end, he used Camillo’s L’Idea del Theatro theatre for very opposite purposes. In 1569, he was called to Rome by Pope Pius V to display his brilliance and memory; he recited psalms in Hebrew upon request.

Blessed with a prodigious memory refined by these techniques developed in the previous four centuries, he fell out of love with Christianity and in love with two aspects of Judaism, the cosmology of the Torah and the mysticism of the Kabbalah. But he lacked the breadth of education of Erasmus and Luther. For in the Dominican monastery school that he attended, he was instructed only in the scholastic manner, in letters, logic and dialectical argument, but principally in intellectual submission to which he became allergic. Instead, Felipe Bruno, renamed Giordano when he was ordained a priest in 1572 at the age of 24, became one of the most intelligent men of his age.

When he entered the convent of San Domenico Maggiore in Naples, a convent that both taught submission to the church but was, at the same time, a centre of resistance to Spanish rule, he connected the latter with the former and began purifying his cell of extraneous artifacts other than the cross. At the same time, at this very early age, he began his scepticism about the claim that Jesus was the son of God. He had already cast away any belief in the Virgin Mary.

He then entered the College of San Domenico in Naples where he experienced an epiphany. He was not reborn in the spirit of Christ but, rather had a very different revelation when he witnessed a new star, a supernova, appear. If stars could be born, they could not be eternal nor fixed to a sphere that circles earth as in the Ptolemaic model of the universe.

In 1575, he received his license in theology. The following year, informed that he was about to be arrested by the Inquisition, for the other monks had discovered his secret stash of works by St. Chrysostom and St. Jerome annotated by the notes of Erasmus who had been proscribed, Bruno threw off his monk’s robes and went AWOL. He fled Naples and began his peripatetic life not too dissimilar from Erasmus except that he was a fugitive.

In 1577, in Venice, Bruno published The Sign of the Times. In 2017, the 23-year-old English singer, Harry Styles, performed a song by the same name, the chorus of which was: “Just stop your crying, it’s a sign of the times / Welcome to the final show, hope you’re wearing your best clothes / We could meet again somewhere, somewhere far away from here.” Styles could have been providing a weak echo of Giordano Bruno 442 years earlier

In Geneva in 1577, Bruno converted to Protestantism and enrolled in the University of Geneva in 1579, but was forced to flee to Lyon when he was excommunicated by the Calvinists for denouncing the doctrines of another professor. He went to Toulouse where he lectured on Aristotle’s On the Soul; at the University of Toulouse, he dubbed Aristotle as the “the stupidest philosopher.”

In 1581, Bruno moved to the University of Paris, the second oldest university in Europe following the University of Boulogna. Paris had attracted previous reformers like Desiderius Erasmus, John Calvin and John Knox. The latter two became Protestants and Erasmus was a dissident. After a year in Paris, Bruno published his first book on memory, De umbris idearum, On the Shadow of Ideas [Shadows]. This was followed by four others, Circe, Seals, Statues and Images: Cantus Circaeus ad eam memoiriae praxim ordinatus quam ipse iudicianum appelat in the same year (1582) [Circe]; Ars reminiscendi et in phantastico campo e xarandi (1583) [Seals], Lampas triginta statuaram (1586) [Statues]; De imaginum, signorum et idearum compositione, ad omnia inventionum, dispositionum et memoriae genera (1591) [Images]. When he published Shadows, he promised to reveal a Hermetic secret, namely, that his memory was not a product of magic but of science. Of course, in Italy at the time, the rule of interpretation was that if a writer wrote that he was doing A and not B, in all likelihood he was doing B. One only had to see what he actually did. (See Chapter 9, “Giordano Bruno: The Secret of Shadows,” in Frances A. Yates, The Art of Memory.)

In 1583, Bruno moved to England where at Oxford he articulated his ideas on the cosmos linking science and magic as he claimed that cosmology and religious ideas were fatefully intertwined. In the book he published in London, The Ash Wednesday Supper (1584), he made the claim that we live in a world very much larger than that envisaged even by Copernicus forty years earlier in his 1543 treatise, De Revolutionibus, a world consisting of many suns and many more planets circling them. Welcome to the universe of billions of solar system. Now, we have gone even further and astrophysicists write of multi-universes.

However, his book, The Expulsion of the Triumphant Beast (Spaccio de la bestia trionfante) (1584) eventually seals his fate with the Inquisition as it denounces the Church as well as offering an encyclopedia of knowledge on science and magic, mythology and ancient religions such as that of Egypt, and on ethics and the art of memory. The following year he taught at the University of Wittenberg and then the year after that at the Lutheran University of Helmstedt in Prague. Once again, he was expelled.

It was not his writings that eventually did Bruno in, but his move back to Italy, to Venice in particular, where he lived under the patronage of Giovanni Mocenigo. When he expressed his plans to move back to Germany, Mocenigo locked him in the attic. Whether Mocenigo did so because he came to believe that Bruno was a heretic, as he claimed, or because he was about to be dumped by his gay lover, or because Bruno was such an arrogant and ungrateful person, has been a matter of speculation. The latter may have been the critical factor.

Bruno was “the only known sixteenth-century philosopher to have been excommunicated from all three major [Christian] confessions: Roman Catholic (Naples, 1576), Calvinist (Geneva, 1579) and Lutheran (Helmstedt, 1589).” Bruno was stiff-necked and stubborn, and lived up to the caricature of the Jew more than any Jew did.  In the end, the rationale did not matter. The Venetian authorities forced a confession from him. In 1593 he was transferred to Rome where seven years later he was burned alive.

One of my readers sent me a picture of a plaque unveiled in 2011 that lies on the ground right near Bruno’s statue at the Campo de’fiori. The Italian text in the middle of the plaque reads: “In memory of the burning of the Talmud that took place in this piazza.” The bull of Pope Julius III ordered the confiscation and burning of all copies of the Talmud in 1953. Over nine days, the Roman Inquisitors confiscated every copy of The Talmud they could put their hands on. There were wagon loads. On Rosh Hashana on 9 September, these copies of the Talmud, along with many other Jewish books, were torched. The advisor to the Roman Inquisition opined that once these books are removed, “the more they (the Jews) are without the wisdom of their rabbis, so much more will they be prepared and disposed to receive the Christian faith and the wisdom of the word of God.”

One quote on the plaque in Hebrew is taken from the Talmud (Avodah Zarah 18a) commemorating the martyrdom of R. Hananiah b. Teradyne, his wife and daughter, reputedly Judaism’s most learned woman in studies of the Talmud. Her father and mother were burned and she was repeatedly raped in prison, tortured and then martyred by Rome during the Hadrian persecutions for refusing to stop studying the Talmud. The passage reads: “The scrolls are burned but the letters fly up.”

“That which is altogether just shall you follow.” For this he and his wife were condemned to death, and their daughter to degradation (rape and forced prostitution). His death was terrible. Wrapped in the scroll, he was placed on a pyre of green brush; fire was set to it, and wet wool was placed on his chest to prolong the agonies of death. “Woe is me,” cried his daughter, “that I should see thee under such terrible circumstances!” Haninah serenely replied, “I should indeed despair were I alone burned; but since the scroll of the Torah is burning with me, the Power that will avenge the offense against the law will also avenge the offense against me.” His heartbroken disciples then asked: “Master, what seest thou?” He answered: “I see the parchment burning while the letters of the Law soar upward.” “Open then thy mouth, that the fire may enter and the sooner put an end to thy sufferings,” advised his pupils. But Haninah replied, “It is best that He who hath given the soul should also take it away: no man may hasten his death.”

The other passage in Hebrew is the elegy, Sha’ali Serufah ba-Esh composed by Rabbi Meir ben Baruch of Rothenburg upon seeing the wagons of Talmudic manuscripts and commentaries burnt in a Paris marketplace in 1242. In Ashkenazi synagogues around the world, the elegy is recited on Tisha b’Av.  The sentence translates: “O thou consumed in fire, ask is it well in your mourning?”

Ironically, as a result of the banning and burning of the Talmud, the study of Kabbalah spread like wildfire.  

To be continued.

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