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Giordano Bruno: Philosopher / Heretic Paperback – September 1, 2009

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

You sometimes hear the name Giordano Bruno (1548–1600) invoked as a prequel to the life of Galileo Galilei (1564–1642). These two natural philosophers, countrymen of the Italian peninsula, stood ready to shove the Earth from its ancient resting place and set it in orbit around the Sun. Though a rotating, revolving Earth challenged common sense and flew in the face of received wisdom, still they both embraced the idea—at their peril. The difference is that Bruno died for his beliefs (tied to a stake and set on fire in a public square in Rome), while Galileo recanted before the Inquisition and lived to advanced old age under house arrest. Legend connects their destinies, reducing Bruno's awful immolation to a cautionary tale that warns Galileo against too vigorous a defense of the dangerous new astronomy. But, as Ingrid Rowland makes clear in her probing, thoughtful biography, Bruno's support for the Sun-centered cosmos paled next to the rest of his crimes. He was a true heretic by the Catholic Church's definition, for he doubted the divinity of Jesus, the virginity of Mary and the transubstantiation of the Communion wafer into the body of Christ. Protestants—among whom Bruno lived for a time in Switzerland, France, Germany and England—also branded him a heretic, since he was, after all, a professed priest of the Dominican order. Bruno managed, in the span of his 52 years, to be excommunicated twice—from the Calvinist Church as well as the Catholic. Rowland identifies Bruno in her subtitle as philosopher and heretic. Her full text rounds out the list of his many other deserved epithets, including poet, playwright, private tutor, professor of sacred theology, linguist, master of the art of memory, even copy editor. As a philosopher, Bruno went far beyond the Sun-centered cosmology of Nicolaus Copernicus (1473–1543). Apparently the first man to envision infinity, Bruno posited an endlessly renewed and recreated universe. Its limitless expanses of space knew no particular center, but contained innumerable suns, circled by a plurality of earths—and every one of them inhabited. Rowland's own translations of Bruno's many works, including On the Immense and the Numberless, add immeasurably to her portrait of him. In 1581 he described himself as having the look of a lost soul... for the most part you'll see him irritated, recalcitrant, and strange, content with nothing, stubborn as an old man of eighty, skittish as a dog that has been whipped a thousand times, a weepy onion eater. He came into the world to light a fire, Rowland acknowledges of her subject. That he did, and in the end it consumed him. 8 pages of b&W illus. (Aug.)Dava Sobel, the author of Longitude, Galileo's Daughter and The Planets, is at work on a play about Copernicus.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


“A loving and thoughtful account of [Bruno’s] life and thought, satires and sonnets, dialogues and lesson plans, vagabond days and star-spangled nights. . . . Ingrid D. Rowland has her reasons for preferring Bruno to Copernicus, Tycho Brahe, Johannes Kepler, even Galileo and Leonardo, and they’re good ones.”
(John Leonard Harper’s)

“Whatever else Bruno was, he was wild-minded and extreme, and Rowland communicates this, together with a sense of the excitement that his ideas gave him. . . . It’s that feeling for the explosiveness of the period, and [Rowland’s] admiration of Bruno for participating in it—indeed, dying for it—that is the central and most cherishable quality of the biography.”

(Joan Acocella New Yorker)

“Rowland tells this great story in moving, vivid prose, concentrating as much on Bruno’s thought as on his life. . . . His restless mind, as she makes clear, not only explored but transformed the heavens.”
(Anthony Grafton New York Review of Books)

"In her provocative biography, a marvelous feat of scholarship, Ingrid D. Rowland brings before us today the pieces of an extraordinary sixteenth-century life. . . . This is intellectual biography at its best."
(Peter N. Miller New Republic)

"[Rowland's] lively and learned biography removes Bruno from myth and polemic . . . and restores him to the time and place that inspired his dual passion for knowledge as well as faith. She also offers a far richer and multidimensional account of Bruno's peculiar and complex intellectual itinerary than earlier scholars. . . . She takes us inside his head to see the interplay of theology, philosophy and poetry that shaped his worldview."
(Paula Findlen Nation)

"Informative, engaging, and accessible. . . . Rowland's Giordano Bruno deserves to be recognized for making Bruno's life—from his quiet birth in Nola to his wretched death in Rome—accessible to an Anglophone audience as never before."
(David J. Collins H-Net Review)

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: University Of Chicago Press; First Edition edition (September 1, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0226730247
  • ISBN-13: 978-0226730240
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.9 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (22 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #62,827 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
Here Ingrid Rowland continues to demonstrate her profound mastery of the society and space of sixteenth-century Rome. Unlike most other accounts, Rowland emphasizes Bruno's role as a writer and shows that his fiery death at the stake in the Campo de' Fiori provoked change in the policy of the Roman Inquisition's treatment of intellectuals. I admire most of all Rowland's ability to bring forth vivid details from Bruno's beginnings in Naples, from his travels through France, England and even to the Frankfurt book fair, and from his obstinate conclusions both religious and scientific. She does much to humanize both Bruno and his chief prosecutor, Cardinal Bellarmine, and in the end suggests how science and religion soon found that they belong together rather than in conflict. This bright and polished biography does much to put the imagination of Bruno and his moving historical context in this reader's mind.
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Giordano Bruno was a name I had come across in various histories of Christianity and/or the Renaissance that I've read through the years but I knew very little about him other than that he was considered a heretic and burned at the stake. When I saw this book, I thought it would be a good opportunity to find out a bit more about someone who was little more than a name to me. Reading this turned out to be quite an eye-opening experience.

On a purely informational level, there is a lot here. Rowland shared a number of anecdotes about Bruno's life which have stuck in my mind: his getting caught with a forbidden book in the latrine, the mockery of his high-flown rhetorical style by the English, his own fondness for mockery and cursing even in the prisons of the Inquisition.

But more telling than the individual anecdotes are the larger ideas that span Bruno's life story. I was particularly fascinated by his expertise in memorization techniques. In a time when books and writing ability were rare, the ability to memorize vast amounts of information was an important skill. Bruno, apparently, was highly prized as a teacher of his own memorization technique which allowed him to make a living during his years as a wanderer across Europe.

And, of course, there was the development of his philosophical ideas. He is probably best known for developing the idea of an infinite universe where the stars could be individual solar systems with their own planets. This alone had implication with his ultimate conflict with the Church. But he also asserted theological ideas that were clearly heretical in the eyes of Christianity, such as that Christ committed a mortal sin in the Garden of Gethsemane.
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As my screen name surely reveals, I have a long term sense of affinity with Giordano Bruno, the philosopher murdered by Christians in 1600. Curiously, Ingrid Rowland's biography of Bruno begins at precisely the same place where my personal affiliation began, at the foot of the statue of him in the Campo dei Fiori in Rome, where I lived in the mid-1960s. Ingrid Rowland respects -- reveres! -- Bruno as deeply as I do; any reader of her book who expects her to demean or debunk Giordano on any level will be sorely confused and disappointed. For Rowland, Bruno was not merely a martyr to free thought and/or science but in fact a profound thinker, a philosopher who ideas stretched back to antiquity and probed forward in time to prevision those of Newton and Spinoza. Likewise, the Bruno of Rowland's account was not the Kabbalistic magus/mystic that other writers have purported to make him; well aware of Kabbalah, of the writings and notions of mystics like Giles of Viterbo and Ramon Llull, Giordano was nevertheless a thinker more attuned to perception of material reality. Bruno's professed "magic" was in fact his stock-in-trade system of memory cultivation. That he was rash, reckless, and restless, Rowland leaves no doubt. But that he was a genius of the most uncompromising intellectual integrity is also beyond doubt in her portrayal.

Rowland spends a good deal of her book examining Bruno's writings rather than his behavior. If one wants a biography of juicy gossip, one had better look elsewhere. The burden of Rowland's account is to explicate and contextualize Bruno's many publications. Rowland's claim, with which I thoroughly concur, is that Bruno was one of the greatest "literary" figures of his epoch, a writer whose books still have the power to amuse and engross readers.
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Format: Paperback
There seem to be relatively few books written about Giordano Bruno in English, therefore this recent book is welcome, but somewhat disappointing. It seems to be mostly a travelogue, and not a great work of scholarship. It is more general in biography coverage than the more narrowly focused and scholarly writing of Frances Yates, and presumably other more recent books about Bruno that I have not yet read. Although the author Rowland quotes from Bruno's writings, the quotations are far too few and far too short for truly and deeply understanding Bruno's thoughts; and the quotations chosen are often examples of profanity; evidently chosen as evidence of Bruno's hatred of the theology of the Roman Catholic Church. Bruno seems to have had a split personality: imaginative and intellectual, but half crude and profane and arrogantly hateful of other people. Rowland was evidently saving her translations of Bruno's writings for her later books. Unfortunately, the best of Bruno scholarship seems to be only available in Italian. There are many writings of Bruno that are only available in Italian or Latin, and poorly or not at all discussed by general or popular writing in the English language. I would have preferred that Rowland had spent more time translating her Italian and Latin language reference source books into English, instead of writing this biography. Annoying "invisible" unnumbered endnotes. Good bibliography.
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