June 24, 2013

Giordano Bruno in Campo de’ Fiori

Campo dei Fiori is a section of Rome that lies west of Largo Argentina and just across the street from Piazza Navona.  During the day the central piazza is the location of an open-air market.  By night it’s a cluster of pubs, restaurants, and medium-rate discos, mostly geared towards the study-abroad set. Campo has a longstanding tradition of buying, selling, and partying, but during the Renaissance, the area served an additional purpose.  It was the site of more than a few public executions, with a menacing-looking gallows erected in the center.  And that was for the lucky ones.

In the center of the piazza stands a tall statue of a dour-looking man wrapped in a cloak.  The monument, given to Campo in 1887 by Ettore Ferrari, is dedicated to Giordano Bruno, a philosopher who was burned at the stake on that very spot in the year 1600.  Bruno had a lot of crazy ideas that didn’t sit well with the Inquisition.  He thought the Earth revolved around the Sun.  In fact he one-upped that Copernicus guy and proposed that not only is the Sun the center of our solar system, but that there are a whole bunch of suns out there with orbiting planets of their own, some of which might even contain intelligent life.  He spent seventeen years of his life bumming around Europe, studying, writing, and teaching whenever he could.  In 1592 a dissatisfied student ratted him out to the Venetian Inquisition, and he was shipped off to Rome.

They charged Bruno with heresy, and for good measure, they leveled a series of additional charges of anti-Christian sentiment and magical oogity-boogity.  However, unlike Galileo, Bruno never sold out.  Throughout the seven years of his trial he continued to defend his beliefs, insisting that he wasn’t arguing with God, but stating that God and science were on the same team.  Even to the day of his execution he could have saved his own skin (literally) and instead died by the noose by giving a full recantation.  When the judges read off his sentence, he coolly replied, “Perhaps you pronounce this sentence against me with greater fear than I receive it.”

Bruno’s execution was one part ideological and three parts political.  By 1600 Martin Luther’s Protestant Reformation was in full swing, and large chunks of Europe were slipping through the Vatican’s fingers.  It had become crucial for the Church to flex some muscle or else lose its grip.  Given Campo’s close proximity to the French Embassy, it was the ideal place to make a public statement about what happens to those who rebel against the papacy.  Bruno just had the unfortunate luck of saying the right thing at the wrong time.

Bruno has come to be regarded as an icon of scientific thought and freedom of speech.  It’s not an accident that Ferrari’s statue in Campo stands directly facing the Vatican.  However, some modern historians have called into question whether or not he qualifies as a martyr for science.  Their reasoning is that in the early seventeenth century, Copernican astronomy wasn’t radically controversial.  Because of this, the jury’s still out over whether the deal-breaker in his case was his ideas about planets, or certain unconventional views on Christ and the Virgin Mary espoused in his published writings.  Whatever the case, it can hardly be disputed that Ferrari’s statue in Campo stands as a monument to one of Rome’s boldest freethinkers.