Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Giordano Bruno: kaleidoscopic views

The portion of the internet commandeered by those who care about the history of science flared up last week re the depiction of  Giordano Bruno in Neil deGrasse Tyson's series Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey on Fox.  Burnt at the stake by the Inquisition in 1600, Bruno was more a mystic than a scientist. (He also used a form of mnemonics to accomplish mind-boggling feats of memory.)
But he was not the first to posit (via intuition apparently) that the earth revolved around the sun and that space was infinite; that would be Nicolas of Cusa.
And it was not his cosmological ideas that got him torturously executed, it was his insistence on butting up against church doctrine (such as disputing the Virgin Mother's virginity and the divinity of Jesus; oops).
This woodcut from a 19th-century science text was adapted in the first episode of Cosmos to depict Bruno.
Science mavens taking issue with the portrayal include Becky Ferreira of Motherboard:
The cartoon depiction of him was manga-level emotive, with soulful eyes and an earnest body language. That could not be farther from the truth…. For years, he'd set up shop in some city, find new patrons, and promptly make enemies of them with his combative sarcasm and relentless arguments. Even fellow Copernican pioneers Galileo and Kepler had no love for Bruno. In fact, in light of his difficult personality, it's kind of a mystery that he survived as long as he did. Far from the demure explorer portrayed in Cosmos, Bruno was an iconoclast in temperament as well as in philosophy. But to the episode's credit, they nailed his courageous defiance in the face of execution. When he received his death sentence, he genuinely did have the guts to tell the Inquisition: “Perhaps your fear in passing judgment on me is greater than mine in receiving it.”… His jaw was locked down with an iron gag, and his tongue and palate were pierced with iron spikes. Today a domineering statue of him stands in the Campo dei Fiori, where he was burned to death (the Vatican has sort of apologized for the execution, but tellingly maintains that Bruno was a heretic).
Corey Powell of Discover magazine chimed in about the depiction of our hero: “Despite his heresies, Bruno was neither impoverished nor alone. In reality, he had a series of powerful patrons. In 1579, he was appointed a professor of philosophy in Tolouse, France. In 1581, King Henry III of France offered him a lucrative lectureship at the Sorbonne. In 1583 he visited England, lived with the ambassador to France, and met regularly with the Court…and so on. The gaunt, lonely fellow you see on screen in Cosmos is not the real Bruno.” Powell is also one of the commentators on the series to provide a gloss that brings forth England's Thomas Digges as the first to posit an infinite, heliocentric universe (below is his 1576 conceptualization).
In a quartet of mysteries, S.J. Parris (a.k.a. Stephanie Merritt) has been exploring the life and times of Giordano Bruno in fictional form. We currently have two of these historical thrillers with this fascinating iconoclast as the protagonist: Prophecy and Sacrilege. This article in the Observer describes why she loves the genre of literary mysteries and why she seized on Bruno as her focus.
I'd been fascinated by the character of the Renaissance philosopher Giordano Bruno for years, since I had first come across a reference to him at university. A Dominican friar forced to flee his order for reading forbidden books, Bruno became first a fugitive, then a renowned scholar, then a friend and tutor to kings and nobles. He travelled Europe as an exile for years, falling foul of both Catholic and Protestant authorities but always managing to talk his way out of trouble before finally being lured back to Italy and arrested by the Inquisition. Many consider him a martyr for free thought.
Then, almost two years ago, I came across an academic book by Professor John Bossy, Giordano Bruno and the Embassy Affair, which attempted to prove that during his time in England Bruno had worked as a spy for Sir Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth I's master of intelligence. Bingo! For me, this idea was like the Rosetta stone; suddenly all my half-formed thoughts fell into place around it. Here was my flawed hero, charged with infiltrating the many and varied plots to kill the queen, himself hunted by the shadowy figures of the Inquisition. I began sketching out a story set during Bruno's real-life visit to Oxford University in 1583. We know from Bruno's own writings that he harboured a lifelong hatred for Oxford as a result of this trip, and I tried to create a plot that might explain why he so violently disliked the place.

1 comment:

  1. The first one to postulate a heliocentric system was Pythagoras way back round 500BC.
    He also believed in metempsychosis, or reincarnation between human and animal forms.
    He also had something to do with triangles, as I recall. ;-)