Giordano Bruno the Poet
and codified rhetoric in exile
Excerpts from a paper presented at the
13th International Congress for Neo-Latin Studies
(IANLS, Budapest, 6-12 August 2006)
Exile and homelessness
appear to have been rather wide-spread phenomena throughout
Renaissance Europe. Giordano Bruno (1548-1600) was by no means a
unique example of a wandering scholar. Many humanists, such as Juan
Luis Vives, Tommaso Campanella and Erasmus, shared in what was
essentially an uprooted life. In spite of the inevitable hardships and
the ongoing insecurity that such life brought, exile also conferred a
great degree of autonomy. It also gave creators both the power and the
motivation to moderate their identity.
With it came the need to escape
the unassuming posture of medieval authorship. The model of imitatio
Christi became increasingly irrelevant. Renaissance scholars were set
to find a new paradigm. Some did this by instilling new life to the
ancient ideal of the vir civilis1.Thus
a novel type of rectitude emerged which focused on man’s intellectual
virtues and civic (as distinct from religious) duties. In essence this
model proposes that one should be capable, on the one hand, to achieve
knowledge, and on the other, to recognize and disseminate truth.
Judged by his interest in mnemotechnics and
the often unsettling theological convictions he defended, Bruno appears to
have been rather out of sink with his own time. Indeed, at first sight, he
looks more in tune with the tenets of the Middle Ages than the aspirations
of the Renaissance. Still, if one approaches his literary work not just as
random individual pieces, but also as something approximating a coherent
whole, our understanding of the author is likely to change radically.
Highly original to the point of having no time for cultural trends and
political correctness, mobile to the point of eluding any notion of
belonging, breaking frontiers of thought and belief, and extremely
well-read, Bruno’s achievement in ‘self-fashioning’ was impressive. His
impact over his contemporaries was without any doubt significant. The
extent and precise nature of this impact however remains a challenging
topic. The poverty of sources2
relating to Bruno, coupled with the nightmare of his death at the stake on
the Campo di Fiori on 17 February 1600 has turned the philosopher into a
martyr and his name has ever since remained linked to that of the
grotesque exploits of the Inquisition. Bruno’s work, as a consequence, and
with it everything he struggled so hard to voice during his life, lies now
subdued in the background of an iconic story: that of an excommunicated
Dominican friar in exile, a confident and somewhat uncompromising
wandering teacher and natural philosopher.
Style and the impact of the opera omnia
A prolific writer, Bruno composed close to fifty texts between 1582 and
1592 (the year of his imprisonment by the Inquisition). Of these, well
over thirty volumes published during his lifetime have reached us. Looking
at them now, what strikes one is their stylistic versatility coupled
with an extremely varied subject matter. All in all, a captivating kind of
writing, flowing with ease over many generic boundaries. Volumes range
from theatre to mathematical and scientific treatises, metaphysical
dialogues and esoteric tracts3.
There is a definite restlessness here, the author moving from one topic to
another in high-voltage swings of mood and a passionate desire to
convince. Caught between a poetic, toned-down and beautifully crafted
Latin, and an impetuous, often shocking vernacular, Bruno is both a writer
easily tempted to engage with a wide variety of subjects and, most
decisively, an explorer of language.
While the subject of most of his treatises is terribly complicated and
often un-intuitively intertwined, the author’s capacity to catch his
audience’s attention is second to none. One starts reluctantly, expecting
to get entangled into a forest of obscure references, mind-twisting
mandala-like figures and inscrutable verse. And one is not disappointed.
Bruno delivers all this without fail. But at the same time, he also
seduces his readers in a quite unique mode of communication. So that we
end up engaging (almost in spite of ourselves) with texts the particulars
of which are bound to puzzle and disconcert, but which on the whole are
terribly gripping. The result is two-fold: a work that on the one hand is
form and style-centred, and on the other, audience-directed; a composition
therefore goverened by the rules of eloquence and the author’s need to
persuade, an opus essentially rhetorical in nature4.
On pain and the meaning of exile
Bruno’s argument is passionate, very much in line with his idea that human
beings cannot but love more than they can understand. In the third
dialogue of the second part of De gli eroici furori (a key work for
unwrapping the author’s vision on love) Bruno voices his conviction that
cognition is aroused, formed and revived by will and affection5.
In order to illustrate how this might happen, in typical fashion, he
imagines a dialogue in the shape of a sonnet exchange between heart and
eyes. This sequence contains four questions and fours answers, with the
heart initiating the discourse:
How is it, eyes of mine, that I am tormented so powerfully by
that ardent flame which derives from you? […]
You made me captive of a
hand that holds me, yet wants me not.
Because of you I am at once
buried in the body and exposed to the sun. […]
The eyes' reply is somewhat unexpected:
Nature provided twin lights to govern this tiny world.
But you perverter of that
eternal order, turned them into everlasting rivers.
And the heavens allow
nature to be violated and violence to endure.
The exchange is further complicated by the voices of two interlocutors,
Liberio and Laodonio, providing their own prose commentary to the verse
Naturally, fire and affliction in the heart cause the eyes to
fill with tears; and of course if the eyes enkindle the flame in the
it is the heart that causes
the eyes to fill with tears6.
As so many times throughout this work, Bruno builds on recognizable views
of other writers, in this particular case Catherine of Siena7.
This technique is typical of Bruno. For an author set to please, teach and
convince, but also to shock and puzzle his audience, elaborating on
well-known motifs provides him with both a good grounding in tradition and
an ideal springboard for original thought.
The connection between eyes and heart (as metaphors of one’s intellect and
soul respectively) is nothing new. Neither is the interchangeable
relationship of cause and effect established with the introduction of the
tears theme. The fire of one’s heart does make one’s eyes cry. In this
sense, one’s intellect is seen as bound to pay for the soul’s stepping into
over-drive. Indeed, as Bruno says, echoing Solomon’s wisdom: “He who
increases knowledge increases sorrow8.”
The writer does not stop here however. Irrespective of the hardship and
the imbalance thus created, “the heavens, he notes, allows nature to be
violated and violence to endure”. The question is why? Why do we need pain
to push us into finding who we are?
The answer surfaces in many shapes and forms throughout this particular
dialogue. De gli eroici furori is quite special in this respect.
Commenting on a couple of lines inspired from Virgil’s Aenead, one of the
He who endures, observes and understands; he who, considering
the evil and the good, holding the one and the other
as something variable and
subject to movement, mutation and change (so that the end of one contrary
is the beginning
of the other, and the
extreme stage of one is the commencement of the other) […] moderates his
inclinations and tempers his desires.
The wise thing to do. But also, in Bruno’s view, the less creative and
potentially destructive, as thus one would but “endure a living death and
a dead life.”
In contrast, he who “throws off sparks from his heart for the love of
another […] as one who no longer belongs to himself […] shows the
suffering imposed upon him by the war he wages with the contraries
external to him.”
However, it is while tearing away from
oneself, that one gains riches far beyond expectation. Kindled by the
profoundest form of love, the need to give, to impart to the world all
that one is, this carries those who perform the act above the limit of
their own nature. As a consequence, one does indeed struggle “buried in
the body”. But, by means of an act of supreme generosity, one steps into
the light, fully “exposed to the sun”.
The result is nothing short of spectacular. A being purged by the fire of
one’s own soul, resurrected and acutely aware of a larger existence, in
which heart and eyes are never at peace, but by being so, they are always
creatively active, radiant from the energy stirred by their state of
imbalance... In exile from oneself therefore, one is bound to find one’s
The lesson of Bruno’s writing. If we take a work like De gli eroici
furori, beyond the logical flow of the discourse as it unfolds chapter by
chapter, the piece opens itself to the reader not just sequentially. No
matter where one starts, or how one shuffles though, it is fully coherent
and revelatory. There are so many points of entry and so many ways for
readers to meet the text. And this text is no exception. The invitation is
there for us to take. And the challenge. What lies ahead is no easy ride.
As readers, we too are urged to live the text rather than our expectation
of it, to give ourselves to it, embrace it fully. Forget our preconceived
ideas, tradition even. Follow its carefully designed paradoxes. Trust its
difficult and unpredictable author. Not easy, as his rhetoric is certainly
not one of luring and compromise.
By adopting a position of linguistic plurality and never allowing
discourse to settle within conventional stylistic constraints, Bruno
forces the limits of his texts in every piece he writes. He makes them
sparkle with otherworldly visions and resound in panegyrics of tidal
proportions. Then he tames them in detailed (though often erroneous
explanations) and instils them with a good dose of self-irony. Overall, he
moulds his writing to signal deviance, imperfection and fragmentation.
He does it all by unconventional methods, sometimes disconcerting, always
noticeable. A master of style and courageous expression, Bruno turned
rhetoric into his trademark. He applied its principles passionately
whenever he felt the need to attract attention to ideas.
In the end Bruno’s particular kind of rhetoric cost him his life.
Literally. But the truth beneath the troubled surface of his various
fights, is still living, staring us in the face now perhaps more than ever.
Although it might take a while to get to see the obvious.
Text copyright © 2006 Cristina
1. For further details regarding the concept
of the vir civilis during the Renaissance, see Quentin Skinner,
Reason and Rhetoric in the Philosophy of Hobbes (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1996), 66-110.
2. The documents relating to Bruno’s trial, stored at the Vatican until
the nineteenth century, have vanished without trace after having been
taken to Paris on the orders of Napoleon who intended to centralize the
secret archives of Europe. See Paul Henri Michel, The Cosmology of
Giordano Bruno (Paris, London & Ithaca, N.Y.: Hermann, Methuen,
Cornell UP, 1973), 19.
3. For short summaries of Bruno’s writings in chronological sequence, see
"Brief chronology of works".
4. What appears to be a systematic and consistent use of the genre should
not surprise us too much. It is not accidental for instance that the first
published book in Italy was Cicero’s De oratore. Well-versed in the
exercise of rhetoric, Bruno himself was the author of a treatise on the
topic, Artificum perorandi. The result of a series of lectures
delivered in Wittenberg in 1587, the treatise was published postumously in
1612 by Heinrich Alstedt.
5. Giordano Bruno’s The Heroic Frenzies, a translation with
introduction and notes by Paul Eugene Memmo (Chapek Hill: University of
North Carolina Press, 1964), 71, 229 ff.
6. Ibid., 228-9.
7. Catherine of Siena, Dialogues 88.
8. Ecclesiastes, I, 18. See Giordano Bruno’s The Heroic Frenzies,
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Brief chronology of works
Giordano Bruno's work is usually
classified in terms of the author’s place of exile at the time. The first
pieces that have reached us date from Bruno’s stay in Paris (1581-1583)
where he started his editorial work on Raymun Lull, wrote a play and
published three volumes on the art of memory.
In the spring of 1583 Bruno moved to England. Within two years (1583-1585)
he finalized another intriguing Latin volume on the art of memory and
published six treatises in Italian.
A brief interlude back in France (1585-1586) followed. Here Bruno
published a commentary of Aristotle, two provocative works on the
mathematics of Fabrizio Mordente and a controversial account of a public
debate on cosmology held at Cambrai. The latter was issued under the name
of one of Bruno’s students, Jean Hennequin.
An enlarged version of this
particular work was reprinted at Wittenberg under a different title.
The period spent at the German University (1586-1588) was one of the
happiest for Bruno. There he was fully accepted as professor and as a
consequence his publications list consists mainly of his lectures. The
works he wrote during this period reflect his re-engagement with Aristotle
and his research on the art of Ramón Lull.
In 1588 Bruno left Germany for a six months for Prague. Very much like
during his second stay in Paris, his work was dominated by a sharp and
uncompromising critique of mathematics, a field Bruno was not very
familiar with. Bruno’s choice of subject is not a coincidence though. As always, it seems, his
written work is a direct response to (or continuation of) a dialogue
carried through in real life. This time, while in Prague, Bruno once again
met Fabrizio Mordente who was then imperial astronomer at the court of
Rudolph II. The book ‘against mathematicians’ is one of the most
intriguing publications in terms of Bruno’s juxtaposition of text and
image. The volume is illustrated with a seris of diagrams geometric in
apparence. In the same style as that discussed in relation to De triplici
minimo (a work Bruno published three years later), the woodcuts in
Articuli adversus mathematicos are enlivened with enigmatic designs:
serpents, lutes, flowers, zigzags and dots suggesting planetary
representations. The mystery increases with the discovery that the text
which should explain the image seemingly fails to do so .
Bruno’s highly original experiments with text and image continued when he
returned to Germany in 1589. His brief stay at the Carmelite College in
Frankfurt produced three of the author’s most important works: De
tripilici minimo et mensura, De monade, numero et figura and De
innumerabilis, immenso & infigurabili. Both style and contextual
information regarding the manner in which these poems were to be printed
suggest that they were meant to constitute a single work. Bruno apparently
intended to have them published in one volume prefaced by a dedicatory
letter to the Duke of Brunswick . Formally the discourse recalls that of
Lucretius. Thematically, these three Latin pieces illustrate the scholar’s
highly imaginative vision of the universe, with De minimo focusing mainly
on the structure of matter and its ultimate elements, De monade, being a
digression on the virtues of numbers and the way of constructing
elementary figures, and De immenso commenting on the results of these
constructions, namely, the innumerable worlds constituting the universe.
Visually the writings were once more meant to catch the reader’s
attention. Bewildering images, offering no ready answers. Their importance
of the context of Brunian poetics is perhaps nowhere as obvious as in De
imaginum. This seems to be the last work which Bruno managed to see
published just before his ill-fated return to Italy.
Bibliography of primary
Candelaio (Paris: G. Giuliano, 1582), De compendiosa architectura &
complemento artis Lullij (Paris: Aegidius Gorbinus, 1582), Cantus Circaeus
(Paris: Aegidius Gorbinus, 1582) and De umbris idearum; Ars memoriae
(Paris: Aegidius Gorbinus, 1582).
Explicatio triginta sigillorum; Ars reminiscendi; Sigillus sigillorum
[bound in one volume; no imprint].La cena de le ceneri ([London: John
Chalewood] 1584), De la causa, principio, et uno (Venice: 1584 [really
London: John Chalewood]), De l’infinito universo et mondi (Venice: 1584
[really London: John Chalewood]), Spaccio de la bestia trionfante (Paris:
1584 [really London: John Chalewood]); Cabala del cavallo pegaseo. Con
l’aggiunta dell’Asino cillenico (Paris: 1585 [really London: John
Chalewood]); De gl’heroici furori (Paris: 1585 [really London: John
Figuratio Aristotelici physici auditus (Paris: Pierre Chevillot, 1585),
Dialogi duo de Fabricii Mordentis Salernitani (Paris: Pierre Chevillot,
1586), Centum et viginti Articuli de Natura et Mundo adversus
Peripateticos (Paris: 1586), Idiota triumphans seu de Mordentius, Dialogus
qui de somnii interpretatione seu Geometricae sylva inscribitur and Centum
et viginti Articuli de Natura et Mundo adversus Peripateticos (Paris:
1586) - under pseudonim.
Among Bruno’s writings at this time are Libri physicorum Aristotelis
explanati, De progressu et lampade venatoria logicorum (Wittenberg: 1587),
De lampade combinatoria Raymundi Lullii (Wittenberg: Georgius Nigrinus,
Articuli centum et sexaginta adversus huius tempestatis mathematicos atque
philosophos (Prague: Georgius Daczicenus, 1588).
De magia, Theses de magia, De magia mathematica, De rerum principiis et
elementis et causis and Medicina lulliana (1891).
De triplici minimo et mensura ad trium speculatiuarum scientiarum &
multarum actiuarum artium principia, libri V; De monade, numero et figura;
De innumerabilibus, immenso & infigurabili, seu De universo & mundislibri
octo (Frankfurt: Wechel & Fischer, 1591). De imaginum signorum et idearum
compositione. Ad omnia inventionum dispositionum et memoriae genera libri
tres (Frankfurt: Wechel & Fischer, 1591)
Among the latter are titles such as Arca di Noe (1568), De’ segni de’
tempi (1577), Arbor philosophorum (1585), De sigillis Hermetis et
Ptolomaei et aliorum (1591). Other possible works include a commentary of
Johannes de Sacrobosco’s De sphera mundi, Clavis magna (a work inspired by
his admiration of Raymund Lull’s legacy) and a series of lectures on the
divine attributes in the vision of Thomas Aquinas. For details about the
chronology of Bruno’s works, see Giordano Bruno, Opere italiene I, ed. by
Smaranda Bratu Elian (after Giovanni Aquilecchia’s Belles Lettres
bilingual edition) (Bucharest: Humanitas, 2002), 117-132.
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