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On June 18, 1178, five monks from Canterbury observed a flaming torch sprouting out of the moon. It is now believed that they actually observed the formation of one of the craters on the moon. That crater is named Giordano Bruno in honour of the Italian philosopher who was burned at the stake in part for his early support of Copernicus and the idea of the existence of a plurality of worlds and their eternity.
When I read Gerald Weissmann’s Epigenetics in the Age of Twitter, he drew my attention to Giordano Bruno when he described “a statue dedicated to him in 1889 by a progressive Italian government that wrested Rome from papal rule. Bruno’s statue still presides over the Campo de’ Fiori of Rome. ”
I thought, hey! I’ve seen that statue before. I probably even took pictures. Now, while seeking science in Rome, I had a chance to revisit both the statue and why Giordano Bruno is important.
Many Rome guidebooks suggest a visit to the busy scene and lively market at Campo de’ Fiori. DK Eyewitness Travel describes this “field of flowers” as being in Medieval and Renaissance times one of the liveliest and roughest areas in Rome. DK points out that it is still a hub of secular activity, although it was once the place of execution and that the statue of Giordano Bruno marks the spot where he was executed for suggesting the earth moved around the sun.
In Rome: A Cultural, Visual and Personal History, Robert Hughes begins his book discussing how Bruno was Italy’s most brilliant and unorthodox mind of the sixteenth century. Bruno had the audacity to propose that the universe, far from being a tight and limited system of medieval cosmology, was in fact infinitely large – a vast continuum consisting of sun after sun, star upon star. Hughes continues that when the statue was put up in 1889, it was stated that the fruits and vegetables would renew themselves forever in freshness as his best memorial. Even now, by day this space is full of vegetable, fruit and flower stands, and transforms each evening into a food and entertainment centre.
Each time I have been there, I see people sitting at the base of Bruno`s statue eating gelato or munching on goodies from the market. I wonder how many of them even notice the statue above them. When I moved around the statue examining the panels portraying his life and trials, I thought about the extreme risks to scientists in the 1600s.
We probably don`t know as much about Bruno as we do of other early scientists like Copernicus, Galileo, Newton and Tycho Brahe. Is it possible that Bruno`s work was hidden or destroyed after he was burned at the stake for his ideas on February 17, 1600?
While some accounts indicate that Bruno and Galileo never met, it is known that they both taught mathematics at the university in Padua at the same time. Surely they were aware of each other’s ideas. Dava Sobel in Galileos’s Daughter suggests that the treatment of Bruno probably had an influence on Galileo’s response to the same inquisitor, Roberto Cardinal Bellarmino aka the ‘hammer of the heretics’.
Bruno is described as a heterodox, i.e., his beliefs were not in agreement with the principles of his society or religion. He is portrayed as a martyr to free thought who paid the ultimate price, a fiery public death. Bruno may not be a household name in the pantheon of scientific heroes, but he serves as a reminder that while scientists today may have opposing interpretations, they no longer need to worry about being burned at the stake for those ideas.
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