11 December 2006

Execution of a heretic

On the morning of Saturday, February 19, 1600--the year the twenty-nine-year-old Kepler started to work for Brahe--Giordano Bruno, the eclectic Dominican friar and Italian Renaissance philosopher, was taken from the cell in Rome's Nona Tower he had occupied for seven years, stripped naked, gagged, tied to a stake, and paraded through the cramped streets at the head of a hooded group of chanting inquisitors known as the Company of Mercy and Pity. But they had neither. Bruno's tormentors told him that a last-minute recantation for his sins would save him from eternal damnation as a heretic. Bruno could not have expressed contrition even if he had wanted to, since his jaw was clamped shut, a spike pierced his tongue, and another spike stuck in his palate. There was no way the men in the hoods would allow the man they were about to murder to tell the crowd at the Campo de' Fion in front of the Theater of Pompeii, where the procession finally stopped, what he had told Cardinal Robert Bellarmine, the Catholic Church's greatest intellectual: "I neither ought to recant, nor will I. I have nothing to recant, nor do I know what I should recant." Later, he sealed his fate by showing contempt for his accusers. "In pronouncing my sentence," said Bruno, who had taught in Paris, Oxford, and Wittenberg, "your fear is greater than mine in hearing it." With a torch in one hand and a crucifix in the other, one of Bruno's killers demanded repentance one last time. The condemned man disgustedly turned his face away. The fire was lit and one of history's most profound and original thinkers was burned alive.

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