December 18, 2009


Giordano Bruno
Philosopher / Heretic

by Ingrid D. Rowland |Farrar, Strauss and Giroux
Review by John-Ivan Palmer

(This review originally appeared in Rain Taxi Review of Books,Volume 14, Number 2)

In 1600, Giordano Bruno — the memory expert who could recite the 86th Psalm forward and backward in Hebrew, among other stunners — ran into an entertainer’s nightmare: He became the featured attraction at a religious carnival in Rome known as Jubilee. The audience watched as he was tied to a stake over a pile of kindling and set on fire by order of the Pope. A chorus chanted holy songs as he turned into char. Was it something he said?

Apparently so, according to Ingrid D. Rowland’s new biography Giordano Bruno: Philosopher/Heretic. From his illustrious beginnings as a guest of the Pope to his brutal end as a “guest” of the Inquisition, Bruno was known for his big mouth as much as his big memory. Like many bright, affluent young men during the Italian Renaissance, he became a priest, joining the Dominican Order of Preachers in Naples.

As public speakers, the Dominicans were especially known for their memory skills. They wrote treatises on the subject, based on tricks and devices known by orators since antiquity. These systems of mental linkage (essentially combining what you don’t know with what you do know by intentionally ridiculous association) enabled speakers, lawyers and assorted show-offs to recite immense amounts of information from memory, to the astonishment of others.

Rowland focuses not on Bruno’s memory, but on the more dramatic external events of his life, especially the ominous heretical dimension. His were not the best of times to be religiously incorrect; the Church was known to snuff dissenters, and none too humanely. But that didn’t seem to bother Fra Bruno. He was linked to a book by the dreaded Erasmus found hidden in a convent latrine. He was busted for criticizing a poem about the Virgin Mary. He removed all religious images from his room. Then he committed the ultimate Don’t: He defended the heresy of Arius, which questioned the divinity of Christ. A summons was issued for his arrest, but before the authorities could arrive, Bruno shaved off his beard, threw away his white robes, hopped on a donkey, and split for Genoa under an assumed name. Thus began his life as a prolific author and transient scholar, from London to Venice, using his trained memory as a calling card. If you were the walking library known as Giordano Bruno, you could solve your employment problem by getting people to pay you for the secret: “Remembering would become Giordano Bruno’s chief profession.”

Rowland’s avoidance of the workings of Bruno’s complex, concentric wheels of memory provides room for other stories, like the time he posed as a Protestant to get a job at the University of Genoa and ended up in jail for slandering his boss over the interpretation of Aristotle. Or when he published attacks on his fellow dons at Oxford over the Platonic theology of Marsilio Ficino. Or came out with The Ash Wednesday Supper, the world’s first introduction to the concept of multiple solar systems and outer space, but added such snide remarks about British culture that he could barely go out for “fear of being accosted.”

As would happen time after time, when things got too hot, Bruno simply climbed on his donkey and rode out of town. A pack-ass can only carry so much, though — a library and shelves of personal writings are out of the question. In Bruno’s circumstances he had to carry it all around in his head. For him, memory was a matter of survival, both intellectually and physically.

Mnemonic systems always seem more cumbersome than they really are, like the written directions to sleight of hand tricks, but you wouldn’t know that unless you use them. Bruno had plenty of exposure to street performers in his early years in Naples, and it’s likely he knew what was obvious to them: You never get credit for skill, only showmanship. The memory performer doesn’t necessarily have to recite everything he knows (or, say, the entire 86th Psalm), just enough to wow the crowd. They’ll assume the rest. Making something simple look hard will get you further than making something hard look simple. That’s why you hold back just enough so they keep paying you for a secret that’s always out of reach.

Was that why Bruno’s last client, Giovanni Mocenigo, kidnapped the memory hustler and turned him over to the Vatican authorities? Was it because after several months of private instruction the disgruntled grandee still wasn’t able to impress his friends? Or was Bruno stringing along Mocenigo, while secretly “serving nature” with his wife? Here is Rowland at her biographical best.

After decades on the run, Bruno was finally hauled off to the Roman Inquisitors. Phony memory claims? They didn’t care. Adultery? They didn’t care. Hanging around with Protestants, cozying up to Jews, reading forbidden books, and eating meat on fast days? They cared! With a little tact and a groveling apology, he might possibly have talked his way out of everything. But instead he gave “heaven the finger” and called Christ a “wretched dog fucked cuckold,” which pushed things a little far, especially for a priest. Even that might have been dismissed on some technicality. But when Giordano Bruno sneered in the face of Cardinal Robert Bellarmine — Inquisitor, Official Censor for the Index of Forbidden Books, and Consultor to the Holy Office of Pope Clement VIII — he was as good as roasted.

When Bruno mounted the donkey that February 17th, it wasn’t to take him to another town, but to a pile of firewood. Things don’t get any hotter than that. The greatest memory expert of his generation simply became more ash on that Ash Wednesday, before his final audience in the Campo de’ Fiori.