For a quick introduction, see also Down with the Priests!

The Statue of Giordano Bruno in Campo de’ Fiori

Description: The Statue of Giordano Bruno is the angriest and most militant statue in Rome. It was erected not to add to the considerable charm of its surroundings in the Campo de’ Fiori but to accuse the popes of cruelty and injustice and to promise a new and better age now that papal rule has been overthrown. The statue thus marks a deep change in the attitudes of the ever-changing Eternal City.

Show Notes: A gloomy statue haunts the charming Campo de’ Fiori in central Rome, and we explore it as an introduction to Modern Rome, the Rome of the People.

It is of a certain Giordano Bruno, whom the Inquisition burned at the stake in 1600. The Catholic Church then had the authority to punish heresy by such dramatic executions because it ruled Central Italy and was held in high regard throughout large parts of Europe. But if it had Bruno executed, why would it honor him? It would not and did not! The statue was erected only in 1889, almost three centuries after his death, after the New Italy seized Rome from the popes on September 20, 1870. Only after the popes lost their power was it possible to put up in Rome an antipapal statue and honor or create an antipapal hero.

The Bruno statue is unintelligible without a short introduction to the Risorgimento, which is the movement to unify and modernize Italy, both of which goals required bringing the political or “temporal” power of the papacy to an end. Many modern tourists are unaware that the popes ever exercised great political power, so by celebrating its end, the Bruno statue is a good reminder of what has ceased to be.

The Inquisition put Galileo on trial about 30 years after Bruno, but perhaps in part because of Bruno’s fiery example, Galileo “abjured.” That is, he said he did not believe what he did believe. Like Bruno, he is remembered in Rome as a symbol of free thought, but he did not become a martyr, so only a few tourists are likely to find the half-column dedicated to him. Curiously, he is the subject of a large bronze statue in the Basilica of Saint Mary of the Angels and Martyrs (Santa Maria degli Angeli) at Piazza Repubblica. Another sign of the times is that this statue was a gift from the China Center of Advanced Science and Technology and the World Federation of Scientists. Any tension between science and faith might now seem to have been superseded.

The big question of whether any political society can achieve the liberty of thought aspired to by the proponents of the statue of Giordano Bruno is taken up by philosophic authors, including Plato on the cave, Republic Book VII, and Nietzsche on the horizon, in Advantages and Disadvantages of History for Life. They both answer in the negative, which may help us wonder whether all societies might be guided by some sort of orthodoxy, even if they profess to honor free and ever-improving thought.

The Bruno statue is an example of how monuments reflect new attitudes and seek also to influence them. Examples abound in the current period in which old monuments are being obliterated for their association with ideas or practices deemed unjust. In Modern Rome, it is mostly architectural reminders of Mussolini that have suffered this fate, but there is now a striking example of a new monument seeking to make a new statement. For the first time in four centuries, a new statue has been added to St. Peter’s Square. Pope Francis commissioned the statue of 140 refugees, called “Angels Unaware,” to call attention to the plight of immigrants. Compassion and charity have long been part of the Christian moral message, so this statue is at least partly traditional.

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