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In the heart of Campo de’ Fiori, one of Rome’s oldest marketplaces, stands a statue of a solemnly hooded figure. Wrists bound, a book clasped in his right hand, his face virtually obscured by his cowl, he interjects a melancholy and reflective note into the otherwise irrepressible atmosphere of this famous piazza. Looking more closely, we see the philosopher Giordano Bruno, who died in this piazza on February 17, 1600, as his admirers wanted us to see him when they erected this statue, with the support of Rome’s city council, on June 9, 1889–as Italy’s most famous heretic after Galileo, a figure transformed into a political and intellectual icon by a young and radicalized Italian nation, which proclaimed its political secularism and liberalism, and recent acquisition of Rome, in plain view of the Vatican.
The historian John Bossy once described Bruno as Italy’s Joan of Arc. This is an apt metaphor, up to a point. Bruno did indeed become a martyr to his beliefs, though his battles were fought with words rather than arms. His death, however, was of his own choosing, and it was a choice he came to in the course of his lengthy trial at the hands of the Roman Inquisition, not far from where Bernini’s elephant now sits beneath the obelisk in Piazza Santa Maria sopra Minerva. The vast majority of heretics chose to abjure and repent rather than die, and this of course is what the church preferred, even in the sixteenth century, since restoring faith was a more powerful and persuasive message than executing the unorthodox. Bruno never recanted his beliefs. The Holy Office, under the leadership of the deeply learned and pious Cardinal Robert Bellarmine, declared him a relapsed heretic. Tongue bound or possibly pierced to prevent him from speaking, stripped naked and formally defrocked as a Dominican–he had been excommunicated from this order for almost twenty-five years at the time of his death–Bruno was burned on a pyre in Campo de’ Fiori.
Just as today the rainbow-colored flags of peace hang from many Roman windows to protest the war in Iraq, on that second Sunday of June in 1889, while good Catholics celebrated Pentecost, Campo de’ Fiori was festooned with flags bearing Masonic symbols. Fiery speeches were made by politicians, scholars and atheists about the importance of commemorating Bruno as one of the most original and oppressed freethinkers of his age. The spirit of the tribute reflected the fact that the idea of honoring Bruno by erecting a statue in the very piazza of his immolation was not simply a Roman or even an Italian project. Nineteenth-century philosophers like Hegel rediscovered Bruno’s writings on the unity of truth and began to regard him as a forgotten forefather. Bruno’s early advocacy of the Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus’s idea of a heliocentric universe–the subject that precipitated Galileo’s trial and condemnation in 1633–also inspired a misguided interpretation of Bruno as a martyr for science. The international committee that supported the installation of Bruno’s statue included luminaries of science like Ernst Haeckel and Herbert Spencer, and leading literary figures like Victor Hugo and Henrik Ibsen. All of them saw the commemoration of Bruno as a symbolic victory for reason and progress.