Go to Campo dei Fiori in Rome on 17 February and you will find yourself surrounded by a motley crowd of atheists, pantheists, anarchists, Masons, mystics, Christian reformers and members of the Italian Association of Free Thinkers, all rubbing shoulders with an official delegation from City Hall.
Every year, this unlikely congregation gathers to lay wreaths at the foot of the 19th-century statue that glowers over the piazza from beneath its friar’s cowl; flowers, candles, poems and tributes pile up against the plinth whose inscription reads: ‘To Bruno, from the generation he foresaw, here, where the pyre burned.’
In the four centuries since he was executed for heresy by the Roman Inquisition, this diminutive iconoclast has been appropriated as a symbol by all manner of causes, reflecting the complexities and contradictions inherent in his ideas, his writings and his character.
Giordano Bruno was born in Nola, at the foot of Mount Vesuvius, in 1548, a soldier’s son who joined the prestigious Dominican convent of San Domenico Maggiore in nearby Naples at the age of 17. He excelled in philosophy and theology, but his precocious intellect proved as much a liability as an asset; he was constantly in trouble with his superiors for questioning orthodoxies and seeking out forbidden reading material.
In 1576, he was forced to flee the convent under the cover of darkness to avoid an interrogation by the local Inquisitor after being discovered reading Erasmus in the privy (he had thrown the book down the hole to hide the evidence, but someone was determined enough to fish it out).
So began an itinerant life that saw Bruno progress north through Italy to France, transforming himself along the way from defrocked friar (he was excommunicated in absentia for his unauthorised flight), to university teacher, to personal tutor to King Henry III of France, all in little more than five years.
This remarkable rise illustrates Bruno’s audacity and charisma but, although he began to move in influential circles, gaining a reputation for his prodigious memory and the artificial memory system he devised, his position always remained precarious; he made enemies with as much alacrity as he attracted admirers, and was thrown into prison in more than one city for giving offence in his public lectures. He published books that further consolidated his notoriety as a dangerous thinker.
Bruno moved from Paris to London, back to Paris, then on to Wittenburg, Prague, Zurich, Frankfurt, Padua and Venice, charming his way into the service of ambassadors, archdukes, kings and emperors, always seeking the sympathetic patron who would allow him to develop his philosophy without fear of reprisals from the authorities, but eventually his luck ran out.
In Venice, he was betrayed and arrested by the Inquisition. After eight years in prison and two lengthy trials, he was led out to Campo dei Fiori on the morning of 17 February 1600, where he was burned alive, reportedly turning his face from the proffered crucifix in his final moments.
The German Catholic convert Gaspar Schoppe, who witnessed Bruno’s final trial and his execution, wrote an account afterwards to a friend in which he reported that, after the death sentence was pronounced: ‘He made no other reply than, in a menacing tone, [to say], “You may be more afraid to bring that sentence against me than I am to accept it.”’
The length of Bruno’s imprisonment and trials suggests an unease on the part of the Holy Office, a recognition that the case against him was far from clear-cut. Bruno’s defiance and integrity in refusing to recant have lent an air of martyrdom to his death – something he might even have sensed at the time, to judge by his response. But the nature of that martyrdom – if such it was – is less easy to pin down.
Related: Giordano Bruno’s Love