It has become an overused word, but Giordano Bruno may justly be described as a maverick. Burned at the stake in Rome on Ash Wednesday in 1600, he seems to have been an unclassifiable mixture of foul-mouthed Neapolitan mountebank, loquacious poet, religious reformer, scholastic philosopher and slightly wacky astronomer. His version of Christianity is impossible to label. Educated by the Dominicans — the guardians of Catholic orthodoxy in those days — he revered certain scriptures and the writings of St. Augustine, always doubted the divinity of Jesus and flirted with dangerous new ideas of Protestantism, and yet hoped that the pope himself would clear him of heresy. Bruno was a martyr to something, but four centuries after his immolation it is still not clear what. It doesn’t help that the full records of his 16 interrogations in the prisons of the Roman Inquisition have been lost or destroyed. The enigma of Bruno runs deeper than that, as Ingrid Rowland, a scholar of the Renaissance who teaches in Rome, makes clear in her rich new biography, “Giordano Bruno.”
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