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Giordano Bruno, born Filippo Bruno (1548 – February 17, 1600), was an Italian philosopher, mathematician and astronomer best known as a proponent of heliocentrism and the infinity of the universe. His cosmological theories went beyond the Copernican model in identifying the sun as just one of an infinite number of independently moving heavenly bodies: he is the first man to have conceptualized the universe as a continuum where the stars we see at night are of identical nature as the sun. He was burned at the stake by authorities in 1600 after the Roman Inquisition found him guilty of heresy. After his death he gained considerable fame; in the 19th and early 20th centuries, commentators focusing on his astronomical beliefs regarded him as a martyr for free thought and modern scientific ideas. However, later assessments have challenged the description of his beliefs as scientific, and suggest that his ideas about the universe played a substantially smaller role in his trial than his pantheist beliefs about God.
In addition to his cosmological writings, Bruno also wrote extensive works on the art of memory, a loosely organized group of mnemonic techniques and principles. More recent assessments, beginning with the pioneering work of Frances Yates, suggest that Bruno was deeply influenced by magical views of the universe inherited from Arab astrological magic, Neoplatonism and Renaissance Hermeticism. Other recent studies of Bruno have focused on his qualitative approach to mathematics and his application of the spatial paradigms of geometry to language.
Early years, 1548-1576
Filippo Bruno was born in Nola (in Campania, then part of the Kingdom of Naples) in 1548, the son of Giovanni Bruno, a soldier, and Fraulissa Savolino. As a youth, he was sent to Naples for education. He was tutored privately at the Augustinian monastery there, and attended public lectures at the Studium Generale. At the age of 17, he entered the Dominican Order at the monastery of San Domenico Maggiore in Naples, taking the name Giordano, after Giordano Crispo, his metaphysics tutor. He continued his studies there, completing his novitiate, and became an ordained priest in 1572 at age 24. During his time in Naples he became known for his skill with the art of memory and on one occasion traveled to Rome to demonstrate his mnemonic system before Pope Pius V and Cardinal Rebiba. Bruno in later years claimed that the Pope accepted his dedication to him of the lost work On The Ark of Noah at this time.
Such an honor suggests that Bruno was distinguished for outstanding ability. But Bruno’s taste for free thinking and forbidden books soon caused him difficulties, and given the controversy he caused in later life it is surprising that he was able to remain within the monastic system for eleven years. In his testimony to Venetian inquisitors during his trial, many years later, he indicates that proceedings were twice taken against him for having cast away images of the saints, retaining only a crucifix, and for having made controversial reading recommendations to a novice. Such behavior could perhaps be overlooked, but Bruno’s situation became much more serious when he was reported to have defended the Arian heresy, and when a copy of the banned writings of Erasmus, annotated by him, was discovered hidden in the convent privy. When he learned that an indictment was being prepared against him in Naples he fled, shedding his religious habit, at least for a time.