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bruno’s universe

Born at Nola, Italy, the son of a military officer in the Spanish vice-regency of Naples, Giordano Bruno entered a Dominican monastery at the age of fifteen. After renouncing Aristotelian Scholasticism and leaving the order in 1576, he settled first in Geneva, then in Toulouse (1579), and finally in Paris (1581), where he lectured on systems of memory derived from the fourteenth-century mnemonics of Ramón Lull. His reputation caught the attention of the king of France, Henry III, to whom he dedicated his Ars memoriae (Art of Memory) and De umbris idearum (On the Shadows of Ideas) along with his (unperformed) Italian comedy Il Candelaio (The Candle Bearer) (1582).

To pursue the king’s patronage Bruno cultivated the friendship of Michel de Castelnau, the French ambassador to England, whom he accompanied to Elizabeth’s* court in 1583. There he sought the patronage of Elizabeth’s favorite, the earl of Leicester, his nephew Philip Sidney,* and the latter’s friend Fulke Greville* (for intriguing complications see Bossy). At London he published his major philosophical dialogues, all in Italian, at the press of John Charlewood, though bearing the fictitious imprints of Venice or Paris to enhance their prestige on the Continent. They consist of three “Venetian” works on cosmology and metaphysics: La cena de li ceneri (The Ash Wednesday Supper), De la causa, principio et uno (Concerning the Cause, Principle, and One), and De l’infinito universo et mondi (Concerning the Infinite Universe and Worlds), all in 1584; and three “Parisian” works on ethics and morals: Spaccio della Bestia Trionfante (The Expulsion of the Triumphant Beast) (1584), Cabala del cavallo Pegaseo (The Cabal of the Horse Pegasus) (1585), and De gli eroici furori (The Heroic Frenzies) (1585).

When de Castelnau was recalled to Paris in 1585, Bruno went with him, unsuccessful in his bid for English patronage. Henry III likewise denied him support, prompting Bruno to emigrate to Wittenberg, Prague, Helmstadt, and finally Frankfurt, where in 1591 he published in Latin three long didactic poems summarizing his cosmology and epistemology. In 1592 a potential benefactor invited him to Venice but then denounced him to the Inquisition. Imprisoned in the Castel Sant’Angelo at Rome in February 1593, he underwent repeated examinations on murky charges and was finally burned at the stake on 17 February 1600.


Bruno’s early interest in the organizational and combinatory schemes of memory forecasts his lifelong obsession with defining a unity amid moral, metaphysical, scientific, and epistemological diversity. From Copernicus’* premise that the earth occupies no privileged position in the material world, Bruno deduces that our solar system belongs to a multitude of possible systems in limitless space. To this vision he applies metaphysical insights of Plato and Plotinus as mediated by Nicholas of Cusa and medieval mysticism. If the universe is limitless, then divinity must be immanent within it instead of transcendent apart from it. Humankind strives toward a state of divinity without fully achieving divine autonomy, so that the process of becoming extends indefinitely to all matter and spirit.

Among Bruno’s “cosmological” dialogues, The Ash Wednesday Supper presents a wide-ranging discussion about the Copernican system at a dinner party in the home of Fulke Greville. Alternately festive and serious, it spares no opportunity to parody, satirize, spoof, and deflate opposing Aristotelian theories that Bruno found uncouth. Concerning the Cause, Principle, and One and On the Infinite Universe and Worlds argue that the infinity of the universe derives from God’s infinite omnipotence, in which humankind possesses a share. As the chief interlocutor of the latter dialogue, the eminent poet/scientist Girolamo Fracastoro, declares, everything seeks perfection in this best of all possible worlds.

Bruno’s three “moral” dialogues question whether everything moves toward perfection in a continuous, undeviating fashion. The Lucianic discussion of The Expulsion of the Triumphant Beast occurs among Greco-Roman gods who have grown weary and dissatisfied with their own incompetence. Momus urges Jove to expel the Beast of Ignorance and Superstition and to replace it with a constellation of forty-eight virtues. Jove instead decides to reinstate Egyptian nature worship because “Nature (as you must know) is none other than God in things” (trans. Imerti, 235). Far from proposing a serious return to ancient cult practices as some scholars (notably, Yates) have argued, Bruno is here imagining Egyptian beliefs as precursors of Greek and Hebrew ideas that have merged with Christian ones. Bruno is challenging complacent readers to reexamine familiar Christian topoi in the light of new scientific understandings about the expanded universe. He encourages a similar reevaluation in the Lucianic fantasy of The Cabal of the Horse Pegasus , whose speakers investigate the place of asininity in a reformed heaven. The sardonic humor evident in these texts also dominates the carnivalesque satire of The Candle Bearer . The prologue of this play about misers, pedants, alchemists, and foolish lovers warns that “here you will see nothing certain, but much action, much weakness, little that is fine and nothing that is good” (trans. Hale, 209–10).

Bruno’s most complex dialogue is The Heroic Frenzies . Here five sets of interlocutors discuss the workings of love, human and divine, in a universe energized with godlike power. Eighty-two Petrarchan poems, four by the Neapolitan poet Luigi Tansillo and the rest by Bruno, prompt the speakers to articulate their ideas as a commentary on the poetry. Fifteen sonnets at the end of part 1 and another fifteen at the beginning of part 2 appear with verbal “emblems” and Latin mottos that deepen their philosophical import. The final dialogue narrates the plight of nine young men. Blinded by Circe, they travel to the banks of the Thames, where their sight is restored, a parable of transformation that may plausibly evoke the author’s bid for patronage in the land of Elizabeth Tudor.


The extraordinary intertextuality of Bruno’s writing with its syncretic echoes from, among others, Pseudo Dionysius, the Cabbala, Lucian, Lucretius, Dante, Petrarch, Ficino, Erasmus,* and Fracastoro, belies Bruno’s marginality in early modern science, philosophy, and literary discourse. Bruno’s imaginative insights vaguely anticipate Spinoza’s theory of world substance and Leibnitz’s theory of monads, and they casually inform James Joyce’s fantasy about “the firm of Bruno and Nolan” in Finnegan’s Wake , but they exert no direct influence on these writers nor on the author’s contemporaries (see Kristeller, Copenhaver, and Schmitt). Bruno dedicated The Expulsion of the Triumphant Beast and The Heroic Frenzies to Philip Sidney, and he represented Fulke Greville as a character in The Ash Wednesday Supper , but there is only internal proof that he ever met them or that they read his work. Sidney, in any case, had drafted most of his own literary corpus before Bruno’s arrival in London and had left England for the Low Countries just after Bruno’s dedication. Bruno befriended John Florio,* whose English and Italian phrase books (1578, 1591) and translation of Montaigne’s* Essays (1603) touched Shakespeare’s* imagination. Still, one cannot argue for Bruno’s definitive influence on, say, the characterization of the eccentric Berowne in Love’s Labor’s Lost or on the skepticism of Hamlet or the cosmology of King Lear (see Gatti). Evidence of his local impact on Walter Ralegh’s* School of Night, Marlowe’s* Doctor Faustus , or Donne’s* Anniversaries is gossamer at best. But for various causes, the case is not closed.

For students of sixteenth-century poetry, Bruno’s dialogues may provide a foil against which to read flights of Neoplatonic fancy in various sonnet sequences. The interlocutors of The Heroic Frenzies appear to offer a practical demonstration of Renaissance literary criticism when they explicate versified portions of that dialogue. Their allegorical interpretations recall procedures governing marginal commentaries in early printed editions of Petrarch’s poetry (see Roche, Kennedy). Whereas these commentaries increasingly secularize and biographize Petrarch’s experience as a model for the obsessive lover or ambitious poet to imitate, Bruno reads into his own figures and tropes the signs and symbols of an extravagant, largely inimitable imagination. Eight sonnets in 2.3, for example, dramatize a debate between the speaker’s heart and eyes, a topic explored in the sonnet sequences of Sidney, Spenser, and Shakespeare, where it registers a conflict between the lover’s perception and emotion. For Bruno’s glossators, however, the debate reveals “according to a certain similitude, how the highest good must be infinite, and how the impulse of the affection toward it must also be infinite” (trans. Memmo, 237). This exegesis epitomizes an associative style of reading and interpreting Petrarchan poetry as Hermetic allegory that was passing out of currency in Elizabethan England, to be replaced by more literal text-bound strategies of reading and interpretation. In this regard, as in his preoccupation with discovering Neoplatonic order and unity at the expense of empirical science, Bruno looks more to the past than to the future of literary, cultural, and intellectual history.

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