Conference papers




Giordano Bruno the Poet

Self-fashioning 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 sequence:

    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 heart,

    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 characters says:

    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 very essence.

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 Neagu




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, 99.

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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 sources

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 Chalewood]).

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, 1588).

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)

Lost works
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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