Flowers and Fire

James Underdown

‘To Bruno’

My wife and I are at the end of a seventeen-day science pilgrimage that began in Venice and is ending here in Rome. We have been visiting sites in northern Italy—Padua, Florence, Pisa, Sienna, Vinci, among others—significant to Galileo Galilei and Leonardo da Vinci, two key figures in the Renaissance. We’ve seen Galileo’s finger (the middle one, appropriately) in Florence, an (alleged) lock of Leonardo’s hair in Vinci, and the house in the hills above Florence where the first human being to observe the moons orbiting Jupiter (Galileo) once lived.

But today, we are at the Campo de’ Fiori, a centuries-old, football field–sized piazza in central Rome. Work begins at dawn in the Campo de’ Fiori, as dozens of vendors ready their wares for another deluge of tourists who come to buy fresh fruit, nuts, and, of course, T-shirts. The early morning sun eventually strikes the back of a bronze, hooded statue that looms over the square, casting the face in shadow. The figure is Giordano Bruno.

Sketch (left) of the Bruno statue (right) in Rome’s Campo de’ Fiori by James Underdown.


He was born Filippo Bruno in 1548 in the Kingdom of Naples, where he grew up and was educated. After taking the name Giordano and becoming an ordained Catholic priest in the Dominican order in 1572, Bruno soon developed a reputation for extraordinary memory skills and for reading controversial books. He apparently made little effort to hide his views that chafed the hides of his fellow churchmen and was soon in trouble with the Neapolitan locals. After a quick departure before an indictment against him could be served, Bruno found himself on a multi-year, multi-country journey that would expand his freethinking worldview and shape his destiny. He would become a secular martyr.

Campo de’ Fiori bustles all day with visitors willing to pay premium prices for a taste of dried fruit between seeing the Pantheon and the Piazza Navona. We marvel at the vendors’ patience as they deal with customers from six continents, some of whom find shade in Bruno’s shadow.

The statue of Bruno was placed in the piazza in 1889 by Freemasons, who were sending a “don’t tread-on-me” message to the Vatican.

The quote on the pedestal reads:


(“To Bruno—From the Age He Predicted—Here Where the Fire Burned”)

Predictably, Pope Leo XIII was furious at having an apostate’s large likeness facing the Vatican (less than a mile away). In an 1890 encyclical, Leo huffed:

Its purpose was to insult the Papacy; its meaning that, instead of the Catholic Faith, must now be substituted the most absolute freedom of examination, of criticism, of thought, and of conscience: and what is meant by such language in the mouth of the sects is well known.

Bruno’s long journey through Europe included periods in Venice, Geneva, Toulouse, Lyon, Turin, Paris, and London. His open criticism of the Catholic Church no doubt gained him some favor among Protestants in those places, including King Henry III of England. He wrote extensively during these years (1576–1592), expanding on his ideas about the nature of stars, the possibility of other planets, and the size of the universe, as well as about Catholic doctrine that seemed to him questionable. Some places he lived were more tolerant of new ideas (such as heliocentrism) than others. The city-state of Venice, for example, was known to bristle at papal authority and was less inclined to support the Inquisition’s strictest decrees. There, or in nearby Padua, Bruno likely crossed paths with Galileo, who would assume the Chair of Mathematics at the University of Padua after Bruno’s own application for the same position was denied. Bruno also taught in Padua briefly, then did some tutoring in Venice. Somewhat ironically, it was in Venice where Bruno was arrested in May 1592 by the Venetian Inquisition.

Plaque at the home of Galileo Galielei outside of Florence. Photo by James Underdown.


As dusk falls on the Campo de’ Fiori, the market vendors hustle to pack up their booths. We give in to a beckoning maître d and take a seat at a ristorante called Baccanale at the north end of the square—because I like the name and because there is an open table out front with a commanding view of Bruno. I want to draw him as I sip on a spritz. We watch pigeons hop smartly to stay just ahead of the spinning wire-brushes on a small vacuum truck that sweeps up the remains of the day. The birds remind me of Bruno staying just out of reach of the Inquisition for so many years.

The Campo has a different feel at night. It takes on a vibe of rebelliousness that is muted during the day’s commerce. People are here to eat, drink, and listen to music. While we sit, a solo guitar player belts out Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall.” I hear the lyrics, “We don’t need no education. We don’t need no thought control” through Bruno’s ears, and I start to understand the DNA of this place. Among many posters of protest taped to the base of Bruno’s statue, there is a handwritten flier—a poem. In fitting with Bruno’s spirit of dissent, it reads:

minestro dell interno

come collocazzione

STA meglio all inferno

questa la conclusione

(Ministry of the Interior

as a location

IS better in hell

this is the conclusion)

Bruno initially defended himself deftly before the Venetians, but the Roman Inquisitors demanded his extradition in early 1593. In Rome he was imprisoned, and his trial lasted seven years. The charges against him included heresy, blasphemy, and holding numerous opinions in conflict with the Catholic faith. His trial was overseen by Cardinal Robert Bellarmine, who years later would also conduct Galileo’s (first) inquiry.

During and after the long trial, Bruno refused to recant his views. In early 1600, he was pronounced a heretic by Pope Clement VIII and sentenced to be burned at the stake. The courage of his beliefs was further underscored by his gesturing at his accusers and purportedly saying, “Maiori forsan cum timore sententiam in me fertis quam ego accipiam” (“Perhaps you pronounce this sentence against me with greater fear than I receive it”).

On February 17, 1600 (Ash Wednesday), a wooden post stood amid a pile of kindling at the center of Campo de’ Fiori. A crowd formed to see the former Dominican priest who refused to retract his own words about how—with the benefit of a new process called science—he had come to see the world in a different light.

Bruno was paraded naked into the square and hung upside-down on the post. When the fire was lit, his hair would have burned before his skin blistered. Maybe he writhed before the horrified crowd. Maybe he lost consciousness quickly. We can only hope.

The spectators would have walked away with the smell of burnt flesh in their noses and the brutality of the Church on their minds. Word of this terror would have reverberated across the region and through time to deter others considering ideas in opposition to church dogma. Indeed, Galileo’s trial would be held decades later, a mere 500 meters away, in a building near the Pantheon.

We sit in the Campo into the night, our bellies full and our minds mellowed by the wine and music. I can’t help thinking that Galileo must have known that Bruno had perished so near his own hearing. Maybe the dreadfulness of Bruno’s death made the Church think twice about executing the popular Galileo. Maybe the horror of Bruno’s death made Galileo more mindful of what the Church could do to those who dispute its dogma.

  What is sure is that this place deserves our acknowledgment, respect, and reverence. It stands as a solemn reminder of the risks great thinkers sometimes take.



  1. “Field of Flowers” in Italian.
  2. Once demonstrated to then-Pope Pius V.
  3. Nice touch, Pope Clement VIII.
  4. It is now the Biblioteca del Senato della Repubblica, or the Italian Senate’s library, on the Piazza della Minerva.

James Underdown

James Underdown is the executive director of the Center for Inquiry/ West in Los Angeles and host on Point of Inquiry

‘To Bruno’ My wife and I are at the end of a seventeen-day science pilgrimage that began in Venice and is ending here in Rome. We have been visiting sites in northern Italy—Padua, Florence, Pisa, Sienna, Vinci, among others—significant to Galileo Galilei and Leonardo da Vinci, two key figures in the Renaissance. We’ve seen Galileo’s …

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