The burning of Giordano Bruno

During my years in Rome I came to loath the famous statue of Giordano Bruno in the Campo de’ Fiori, once the place of execution where he was burned.   Bruno was a serious weird guy.  He would have been a great czar for something or other for the Obama Administration.

In any event, from the History Blog comes this rather grisly story and app.

In honor of the 412th anniversary of the burning at the stake of Giordano Bruno, Dominican friar, philosopher, astronomer and master of mnemonic devices so complex he was thought to have magical powers, the Vatican Secret Archives announced Friday that they are releasing a contemporary summary of his trial and a companion smartphone app.

The detailed Holy Office transcripts of Giordano Bruno’s trial were destroyed between 1810, when Napoleon demanded files from the Vatican Archives be sent to Paris, and 1815-1817 when the files were returned to Rome. We don’t know what got destroyed when, exactly, but records do note that one Marino Marini, the man tasked by Pius VII with bringing the Vatican Archives back to Rome from Paris, considered the trial transcripts of the Holy Office useless at best, at worst harmful since they might taint the reputation of the defendants’ descendants. He and Cardinal Consalvi decided to shred entire volumes of them, then soaked the pieces in water and sold the mash to a Parisian cardboard factory for 4,300 francs. Over 2,600 trial transcripts were lost during this period.

All we have left of the Bruno trial is a summary written in 1598, two years before his execution, and preserved in a volume labeled “Miscelleanea Armadi.” It was rediscovered on November 15, 1940 by Cardinal Angelo Mercati, Prefect of the Vatican Archives, who published it in 1942. It’s that volume that will be on public display at the Lux in Arcana exhibit starting February 29th. The app will be made available the same day.

Thanks to the technological partnership with Accenture, the global management, consulting, technology and outsourcing company, as of February 29th, when the exhibition opens, a sophisticated app that was developed specifically for the Vatican Secret Archives on this occasion will make it possible, for example, to focus your tablet or smartphone on the statue of Giordano Bruno at Campo de’ Fiori and see his pyre burst into flame on your device’s display, to open the documents related to the trial of the Dominican friar and philosopher, and to call up videos with further information on his life and his ideas. The app that Accenture developed also makes it possible to explore all the documents in the exhibition with multimedia in-depth contents, thereby heightening the cultural and emotional experience of the event.

It looks like this:

Take a picture of the Giordano Bruno statue in Campo de' Fiori... ... then watch him burn at the pyre for his many heresies.

It’s rather hardcore, especially considering the Church’s statement of sorrow at the “sad episode” and Bruno’s “atrocious death” released on February 17, 2000, the 400th anniversary of the execution. From Cardinal Angelo Sodano’s excruciatingly carefully worded statement:

“It is not our place to express judgments about the conscience of those who were involved in this matter. Objectively, nonetheless, certain aspects of these procedures and in particular their violent result at the hand of civil authority, in this and analogous cases, cannot but constitute a cause for profound regret on the part of the Church.”

I won’t lie, though, it sounds like a pretty kickass app, not so much for the heretic-on-fire screen cap but rather for the easy access to the documents and videos.

The press release says that the Bruno documents are available on the Lux in Arcana website, but all I could find was a short overview of the trial and execution, not the full text. There was a more detailed overview with quotes from the summary available on the Vatican Secret Archives website as recently as last May, but it’s offline now. You can still see it using the Wayback Machine, thankfully.


You can read the rest over there.

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  1. MyBrokenFiat says:

    Ew – bad taste much?

    I mean, cool that the documents are easily accessed, but seriously? Setting the statue digitally ablaze?

  2. Supertradmum says:

    As a person sensitive to and with a degree in history, (among others somewhat useless but personally fulfilling), I am sad at the loss of documents made into cardboard, but partly sympathize with the idea of protecting the families of such men. The statue, which I have seen, is creepy. I have just been re-reading the biography of Mary Tudor, whose birthday is disputed and whose history of dealing with Protestant heretics a thing of importance in England, so burning is in my mind. Terrible times. I do not like the burning thing above. Seems unnecessarily grotesque.

  3. PostCatholic says:

    Interesting. Yesterday NPR’s “Interfaith Voices” show ( had author Cullen Murphy discussing his book about the Inquisition (Medieval, Spanish, and Roman ) and institutional parallels such as in fascist and communist regimes and even modern times. I doubt you’ll approve of the cover art, but I actually found his comments on air reasonably balanced toward the Church and the spirit of those times, and he was careful not to make it sound as though torture for thought crime was exclusively a Catholic historical phenomenon.

  4. Athelstan says:

    I’m still at a loss to understand just what the Church is supposed to be expressing regret for.

  5. ContraMundum says:

    I’m sick of hearing the often-repeated falsehood (I teach astronomy and most textbooks contain this) that Bruno was executed for saying that there were planets orbiting other stars. Yes, he said that; he undoubtedly said other things, too, like, “It looks like it’s going to rain,” and, “This meat is underdone.” Post hoc ergo propter hoc — must be, right?

    His astronomical theories might have been controversial, but they would not have caused him to be burned at the stake as a heretic. Even Galileo’s more famous and more temperate punishment (there are worse fates than being confined to an Italian villa) had more to it than an academic disagreement about astronomy.

    On the other hand, Bruno’s idea that at least some of these planets rather strictly paralleled the earth had obvious implications for his ideas about the Incarnation and the Trinity. This is what got him into real trouble, not just with Catholics, but also with Lutherans, Calvinists, and Anglicans.

    Bruno’s end was probably inevitable, no matter where it might overtake him, in that age, and to be blunt, it is more rightly faulted for a lack of charity than for a lack of justice.

    Cardinal Sodano did well not to judge his peers of a previous generation. His peers of today would have kept Bruno as the head of the theology department at a university under their nominal jurisdiction, and in so doing would show neither true charity nor true justice, but, at best, sloth.

  6. Johnno says:

    This is a pretty cool app if you ask me, even though a little macabre…

    It irks me how the Church appears to be ‘apologizing’ for things it rightfully sought to do in the past to put down heresy and things that would lead to civil uprisings. The world today thinks the Church apologized for Galileo and Bruno, when it did no such thing other than to vaguely state that there were problems and misunderstandings on both sides. Of course our secular science textbooks, famed for science, and famed for being useless for history, paint the Church as an oppressive anti-intellectual institution that persecuted Galileo and Bruno for their belief in heliocentrism and their beliefs about movement of other bodies in the universe.

    And folks, this may shock you all, but heliocentrism is not provable. It was debated all the way up to the 19th century, and when experiments seemed to indicate the Earth had no velocity, and that everywhere we looked the universe around the Earth was expanding away at the same velocity, all strong indications that the Earth occupies a central position in the universe, it shocked atheists like Hubble and Einstein so much they sought to explain away the phenomena through Relativity. In short stating that these things appear so from our perspective because they’d appear so from any other perspective on any other planet (An unprovable assumption until we actually travel there and see for ourselves). In other words science decided that “everything was relative.” Just like morality today is ‘relative’ and all contradictory religions are considered equally truthful or equally untruthful! I highly recommend folks to look up Catholic Apologist and Physicist Robert Sungenis’ work on the matter which takes a critical look at the history behind the geocentrist/heliocentrist debates, and the so called proofs for heliocentrism today and whether they in fact hold up to scrutiny. Years ago I would’ve thought the very idea to state that heliocentrism was wrong to be absolutely daft. But knowing what passes for actual academic science these days I’m no longer surprised. This world is more rotten and deceived than we’d have ever imagined! The Church and the Church Fathers turned out to be always right on the matter!

  7. robtbrown says:

    I think Giordano Bruno is generally thought to have been a pantheist, which means that today he would have occupied the Karl Rahner Chair of Theology in some university.

    Burning at the stake was not necessarily torture. If the fire had been built right, it was more like an explosion than a slow roasting.

  8. catholicmidwest says:

    This is a mistake. Not only is it tasteless and goofy, it’s likely to stir up even more idiocy against the Church. What are these people thinking????

    Do they seriously think that just because it bursts into flames that it’s a video game? Or that someone will regard it cool enough to consider the Church as a personal choice? Or that the apology won’t get in the way of that if it happens? What kind of logic is this?

    BTW, I am also at a loss to understand why the Church is apologizing for something that happened hundreds of years ago, in a different time and commonsense framework. Do these people not know how this sounds?? Do they not know that commonsense frameworks change?

  9. catholicmidwest says:

    PS, just because a commonsense framework changes, it doesn’t mean truth changes. What is, is. But the way we regard truths changes over time, particularly for those who live completely in the commonsense framework and don’t know much history. Unfortunately most of the modern world only finds history useful as an amusement when it appears on TV with an ideologically skewed plotline and a cooing movie star cast.

    Put this “app” in that atmosphere and you can imagine what it becomes. The Church burns people to death. Oooh. Big bad church. Giordano Bruno the underdog hero. No mention of his heresies.

  10. PhilipNeri says:

    Was he still a Dominican when he was burned? I vaguely recall reading somewhere that he had left the Order by then. . .

    Fr. Philip Neri, OP

  11. Tim Ferguson says:

    A Dominican friar for whom I worked once brought me a postcard of Giordano Bruno, telling me to put it in with my very extensive holy card collection. When one of the parish secretaries asked who Giordano Bruno, the good friar said, “The last man burnt at the stake in Rome for heresy.” I couldn’t help myself but offer this correction, “I believe you meant to say, ‘The most recent man burnt at the stake in Rome for heresy.'”

    I have included Giordano in my holy card collection, under the “not bloody likely” file, along with John F. Kennedy and Katie von Bora.

  12. jbpolhamus says:

    HAHAHAHAHAHAAAAAAAA!!!! ROFL!! I wonder if the app could be used as a free-light if the electricity goes out?

  13. robtbrown says:


    It’s not a matter of geo vs helio centrism. In the philosophy of St Thomas place and time are not absolutes–they are accidents.

    It is not relevant to epistemology or moral thought whether the earth is the physical center of the universe.

  14. mibethda says:

    There is a considerable boddy of evidence that Bruno was involved in espionage for a number of years before his trial. The evidence of his involvement in Elizabethan England is discussed by John Bossy in a couple of works, both published by Yale Un. Press : Giordano Bruno and the Embassy Affair and Under the Molehill. His involvement in Hermeticism has been discussed at length in several classical studies by Frances Yates. Both of these issues rather than his views on astronomy may have been the underlying cause for the concern of Bellarmine and the Holy Office.

  15. Now if they could modify the app to make that awful statue of John Paul II (the Mussolini look-alike one that was just installed at the train station in Rome) appear to burst into flames…

    Now THAT would be an accomplisment worth noting…

  16. Johnno says:


    What you say is true. We don’t need details on how the heavens work nor be theological scholars to go to heaven. However, such things, especially in light of their historical relevance, are stumbling blocks for some to accept the faith, either by being misguided or stubborn. Such things must therefore be addressed for the sake of conversions and that one may accept the faith with the full consent of rationality, and with the fear and awe and wonder of divine revelation that God created in us and provided through his authority on Earth, the Church. It is also of relevance to the witnessing authenticity of the inerrancy of Scripture and Church Tradition, particularly with regards to past denouncements, and in breaking down the false religion of errant scientism upon whose altars many place their faith instead.

    It is for this reason that Hubble was quoted to refer to the idea of Earth being the center of the universe as a ‘horror’! For him, an atheist, including Einstein who when also confronted with it found the idea of rejecting Copernicus ‘unthinkable,’ and also many others like them… it would be absolutely insane to just accept that the earth just happened to be in the center of the universe by pure chance! Not only that, but for men like them for whom science was to act as their shelter against God, that same science now explicitly pointed them towards God, and towards Christianity in particular, and, horror of horrors, particularly zeroed in on the Catholic Church.

    So I would not dismiss it lightly nor consider it unnecessary. It may not be necessary to know to be Catholic. But for a great many such things are necessary for them becoming Catholic in the first place. And we ought to leverage all that we can to save others and convert the nations.

    The same is true here with regards to Bruno. Knowing about him and the facts about him are not necessary for salvation. But the popular story about him that distorts the truth is preventing many from converting, and also pushing un-knowledgable Catholics to leave the faith as well. We cannot afford to simply ignore these things anymore than we can ignore smaller violations of morality in the public sphere. They matter, and must be addressed, or else they are left to fester and build into something worse. It is not a coincidence that the relativism that inflicts society’s understanding of religion and morality today also inflicts understandings of science and allows erroneous positions to rise to the top.

  17. Centristian says:

    I suppose I’m baffled as to why a statue was erected in his honor.

  18. Joe in Canada says:

    I have to admit that I find the part of the app with the statue bursting into flame so macabre and tasteless that I hope it is a joke. At least in so far as the app was developed with the agreement and cooperation of the Church.

  19. ContraMundum says:


    No observations support the idea that the Sun is the center of the universe in any physically meaningful way. No observations support the idea that the Earth is the center of the universe in any physically meaningful way. No observations support the idea that the universe has a center in any physically meaningful way.

    Heck, even in Ptolomeic geocentrism, the Earth was not the real center of the solar system. The center of a planet’s motion was halfway between Earth and a point called the equant.

    If you want to say Earth is the cultural, or economic, or political, or bluegrass music center of the universe, knock yourself out. No alternative candidates for those titles have yet presented themselves. It’s not science, but if it makes you happy, go for it.

    By the way, the idea that the ancients thought that the Earth was the center of the universe is a gross distortion of what they really though. They thought that the Earth is the bottom of the universe. Thus in the Divine Comedy, Satan himself is at the center of the Earth, hence the center of the universe — or, as is obviously more appropriate, the absolute bottom of the universe.

  20. jcr says:

    Heliocentrism: it’s my understanding that the Church’s suspicion of heliocentrism was based on the association of this position with the Corpus Hermeticum. This raised the question of whether advocates of heliocentrism were motivated by scientific obervations or occult beliefs (or at times, by both).

    Giordano Bruno is a hero of the freemasons and a symbol of free and enlightened thought brutally repressed by a Church stuck in the dark ages. Thus, it’s hardly surprising that less than 20 years after the masons invaded Rome, they put up a statue of Bruno (who is facing the Vatican as a reproach). Also in Italian schools his figure is used to foment anticlericalism. Consequently, even priests and bishops who know about him only what they were told in school are convinced that the Church was completely wrong. Whether or not his image corresponds to historical reality is perhaps secondary for those who make use of him, but if Bruno represents enlightened and rational thought, then Harry Potter is a young Einstein.

  21. Peter in Canberra says:

    Thaks to ContraMundum – my observations of the debate of geocentrism vs heliocentrism in traditionalist circles takes on a hyperdogmatic character and in some cases is associated with a rejection of all modern science.

  22. Johnno says:


    I would argue that there are observations supporting the idea that the Earth is in the center of the universe. Observations that Hubble and Einstein and many atheist scientists themselves noted which is why they then resorted to Relativity to explain away the phenomena. But you are correct in that we have no full determinate method by means of current technology in science to prove any system absolutely. It is an immense task. And coordinate systems set up with geocentric or heliocentric models can equally be made to work. But given that point, it would be best as Augustine declared that in matters that we are uncertain of, it’s best to side with the plain readings of Scripture and the consensus of the Church Fathers unless we can know for certain about something. That said, I’d recommend checking out Robert Sungenis’ work on the matter, on his website and a book called ‘Galileo was wrong, the Church was Right.’ Very, very interesting stuff, and a great detailed FAQ addressing questions and criticisms is on his website. The point he makes is that the Earth could be an unmoving planet occupying the center of mass of the universe with the universe, rotating around it and carrying the sun, stars and other planets with it, while producing the exact same atmospheric phenomena associated with proofs of it’s rotation and revolution etc.

  23. robtbrown says:

    Helio and Geocentric models are based on inert frames of reference (rather than space-time). The preference of one over the other is a function of which has the simplest set of formulae to explain the motion of the planets.

    The truth of the moral law and the existence of Christ’s Church do not depend on inertial frames of reference.

  24. ContraMundum says:


    … then resorted to Relativity to explain away the phenomena.

    That’s like saying they resorted to optics to explain the astronomical observations. In reality, though, it does not require relativity to know that if light does not travel at infinite speed, when you look at very distant stars and galaxies you are looking back in time. (The measurement of the speed of light is a standard experiment in modern physics, the first class after intro physics. I took it as a sophomore, but these days it’s more often taken by juniors.) And it doesn’t take relativity to know the distance to the Andromeda Galaxy; that was first established using the light curve of Cepheid variables and their apparent luminosity. It has since then been confirmed using other techniques.

    The point he makes is that the Earth could be an unmoving planet occupying the center of mass of the universe with the universe, rotating around it and carrying the sun, stars and other planets with it, while producing the exact same atmospheric phenomena associated with proofs of it’s rotation and revolution etc.

    If you don’t like relativity, then you’re just simply wrong. Look up information about the Foucault pendulum.

    If you want to invoke relativity, that works, but I insist that you prove you can actually solve the tensor equations necessary to calculate the frame-dragging from the rest of the universe, without which there would be no Coriolis force. In my experience, there is no one on Earth who can solve these equations who also believes in the geocentric model.

  25. Johnno says:

    @ ContraMundum

    The point about the Foucault pendulum, is that the same phenomena can also be explained by a rotating universe and a fixed Earth. So it is not an argument at all. Nor is it a given that looking at the stars we are looking back in time. Not even the atheistic models of the universe can explain the distant starlight problem even which exists even for an older universe and big bang model, and even for atheists there is a point at which the universe cannot be made too old to account for the perceived distance of the stars and light travel, otherwise a lot of other things to be accounted for in the universe become too ridiculous to conceive even for them…

    I recommend checking out the Q&A Section (a word document a little down this page) for more info as Sungenis treats all objections very well.

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