Giordano Bruno - Gaspar Schoppe's Account of his Condemnation

'The Burning of Giordano Bruno' by Leonora Carrington, 1964

In my previous post, "The Great Myths 3: Giordano Bruno was a Martyr for Science", I noted the excellent work of Alberto A. Martinez in his recent article "Giordano Bruno and the heresy of many worlds (Annals of Science, Volume 73, 2016, Issue 4, pp. 345-374).  Martinez makes a solid case against the general scholarly consensus that Bruno's multiple worlds cosmology was not one of the reasons he was condemned for heresy, and goes so far as to argue it was actually the primary reason for his execution.  As I note in my post, this does nothing to support the idea that he was a "scientist" or that he was executed for any "scientific ideas", since he was a mystic who rejected the scientific approaches of his day and the multiple worlds idea he adopted into his mystical cosmology was a metaphysical speculation that had no scientific basis at all in 1600.

But I was intrigued by the emphasis that Martinez placed on the testimony of the young former Lutheran Gaspar Schoppe, who wrote an account of the condemnation of Bruno in a letter dated February 17 1600 - the very day of Bruno's execution.  More importantly, at the time Schoppe was living at the palace of Cardinal Ludovico Madruzzo, who was one of the senior presiding inquisitorial judges in Bruno's trial.  It was in Cardinal Madruzzo's palace that the condemnation of Bruno was read and his sentence handed down, so Schoppe's account gives us a unique insight into the vexed and confused historical issue of the precise charges against him.

The problem here is that the sentence that survives assumes all involved already knew the charges and so does not bother to list them, saying only:

"Because you, Fra Giordano, son of the late Giovanni Bruno of Nola in the Kingdom of Naples, professed priest of the order of Saint Dominic, at the age of circa fifty-two years, were denounced to the Holy Office in Venice eight years ago: 
That you said that it was a great blasphemy to say that bread transubstantiates into flesh, etc. et infra. 
These propositions were presented to you on the eighteenth of January 1599 in the congregation of the lord prelates held in the Holy Office ..."

The propositions mentioned here but not listed are now lost and a great deal of ink has been spilled trying to work out exactly what they were.  The Wikipedia entry on Bruno gives eight charges listed by Luigi Firpo, stating they were "made against Bruno by the Roman Inquisition", including a charge regarding "claiming the existence of a plurality of worlds and their eternity", but fails to mention this list is simply educated speculation by Firpo in his book Il processo di Giordano Bruno (Salerno, 1993). Firpo based his guesses on what we know Bruno had been questioned about by the Inquisition in Venice before he was extradited to Rome, but this cannot be regarded as a list of the Roman Inquisition's charges in 1599.

As a result of this uncertainty, Martinez turns to other evidence, particularly to the account by Schoppe.  He notes that Schoppe lists 12 accusations made against Bruno, which he describes as "horrendous and utter absurdities".  But Martinez notes that:

"The very first one on the list is 'That Worlds are Innumerable'.  Schoppe echoed the precise wording in which it was known as a heresy in Latin: 'Mundos esse innumerabiles'". (Martinez, p. 366)

Personally, I am convinced by the evidence Martinez presents and so have changed from my previous acceptance of the arguments by other scholars, such as Frances Yates, Steven J. Dick and Michael J. Crowe, that the multiplicity of worlds was not part of the charges against Bruno.  But I was intrigued by the idea that Schoppe lists charges against Bruno given that the eight claims he was asked to reject in 1599 is now lost.  So I went looking for a translation of Schoppe's account.  I found that no such translation of the full document exists, but tracking down a scan of an early printed edition of it, (Macchiavellizatio, Qua Unitorum Animos Dissociare Nitentibus Respondetur, 1621) I had a translation made.

So below is the full text of Schoppe's account in English translation for what is, I believe, the first time.

Portrait of Gaspar Schoppe by Rubens, 1606

"A Letter of Gaspar Scioppius, Concerning the Death of Giordano Bruno.

I have no doubt that the letter I wrote in reply to your recent expostulatory epistle was successfully delivered to you. I’m confident that through it I have adequately justified to you my published response . However this very day I am incited to write this, for Giordano Bruno was publicly burned alive in Campo de’ Fiori before the Theatre of Pompey on the charge of heresy. And I consider that this pertains to the last part of my printed Epistle, in which I treat of the punishment of heretics. 

If you were in Rome now, you would hear most of the Italians say that a Lutheran was burned, which would reinforce to a great extent the opinion you entertain of our severity.

But you have to know for once, my R.,1 that our Italians are unable to see the white line2 among the heretics, and never learned to differentiate them: whatever is heretic, they think it must also be Lutheran. I pray to God to keep them in that simplicity, so they may never know in what ways one given heresy can vary from another! For I truly fear that this knowledge of discerning may cost them dearly. Furthermore, so you can hear from me the very Truth, I shall faithfully acquaint you with this matter.

Absolutely no Lutheran or Calvinist, unless he reoffended or publicly induced to sin, was in any way judged in Rome, and by no means sentenced to death.   This is the judgement of our Holiest Lord, that every Lutheran may always pass freely and move at will in Rome, and that they may experience all the gentleness and benevolence from the Cardinals and Prelates of our Curia. And yet I wish you were here, R.! I know thus you would discredit all the dishonest rumours that are currently spreading. Last month there was a noble Saxon among us who had dwelled this very year in Beza’s house. He became known to several Catholics and even to the Cardinal Baronio3, Pontiff's Confessor, who most gently received him, and didn’t discuss with him anything about religion, except for those incidental occasions in which he would encourage his guest in the inquiry of truth. The Cardinal told him to be unworried, for his faith won’t suppose any danger for him, unless he publicly induces to sin through it.  And he was going to stay with us for a long time, but was terrified on account of a rumour about some Englishmen being taken to the Inquisitorial Palace. However, those Englishmen were not what Italians would commonly call Lutherans: they were Puritans suspected of impiously scourging the sacrament as it is accustomed by Englishmen. Perhaps in a similar way I would have believed myself this common rumour that this  Bruno was burned on account of being Lutheran if I hadn’t attended the Office of the Holy Inquisition when the sentence was pronounced; and this is exactly how I know that he was indeed professing heresy.

That Bruno’s homeland was Nola, in the Kingdom of Naples, where he was professed as a Dominican.  He already started doubting the Transubstantiation eighteen years ago (what goes beyond the Reason is, as your Chrysostom  affirms, repugnant), and had even denied it. Then he began casting doubts on the virginity of the Blessed Virgin Mary (whom Chrysostom himself calls purer than all the Cherubim and Seraphim) and moved to Geneva, where he stayed for two years. But he didn’t completely approve of Calvinism and was therefore forced to leave and go to Lyon and then to Toulouse, before finally settling in Paris. There he performed as a supplementary professor, for he saw that regular professors were compelled to attend Holy Mass.  After that, he went to London and published a small book about "the Triumphant Beast"4, that is to say the Pope, for your people accustom to call him "beast" on account of his honour. Then he repaired to Wittenberg and lectured publicly for two years there, if I’m not mistaken. 

Once again forced to leave Wittenberg, he published a small book entitled De inmenso et infinito itemque de innumerabilibus (if I correctly remember the titles, because I had those books with me in Prague), and then another one entitled De umbris et Idaeis5, and in both of them he teaches the most horrible and absurd things; for example: that there’s a countless amount of Worlds; that a soul can indeed migrate from a body to another body and also to another World; that a single soul can form two bodies, that magic is a good thing and it is allowed to practice it; that the Holy Ghost is none other than the soul of the World and this is what Moses meant when he wrote that it hovered over the waters; that the World exists from everlasting; that Moses performed the miracles through magic, in which he had greater skill than the rest of the Egyptians; that Moses fabricated the Laws himself; that the Holy Scriptures are a fable; that the Devil will be saved; that only the Hebrew descend from Adam and Eve and that the rest of the Nations descend from two people that God made the day before; that Christ was not God, but a distinguished magician that mocked people and because of that he wasn’t crucified but rightly hanged; that the Prophets and Apostles were vile magicians and most of them were hanged. Lastly, it would be an endless task to enumerate the entirety of his absurdities, the ones he asserted in his books but also by word of mouth. In summary, he defended everything that has been said by the pagan philosophers or by any ancient or recent heretic. 

He moved from Prague to Braunschweig, and then to Helmstedt, where it is said that he professed for some time. Then, he went to Frankfurt in order to publish a book, and finally ended up in Venice, where he fell into the Inquisition’s hands. Some time afterwards he was sent to Rome, where he was repeatedly examined by the Holy Office and convicted by several eminent theologians. He was allowed forty days to deliberate, after which he promised to retract. Then he maintained his trumpery and another forty days were granted to him, but at the end he had no intent but to mock the Pope and the Inquisition. 

About two years after being imprisoned he was taken to the Supreme Inquisitorial Palace on February 9 before the Most Illustrious Cardinals of the Holy Office of the Inquisition  (who exceed all the others in age, legal practice, and knowledge of law and theology), and before the Theological Counsellors, the Secular Magistrate and the City Governor. And being upon his knees, he heard the sentence against him. It occurred thus: first they related his life, his studies and his doctrine; and mentioned the fraternal care with which the Inquisition had endeavoured to reclaim him. Then they described his stubbornness and impiety. Afterwards he was degraded, excommunicated and delivered to the Secular Power; it should be noted that the Magistrates wished him to be treated with all possible clemency and without spilling blood.  

After the ceremony, he didn’t reply anymore, but said with a menacing gaze: "Perchance you pronounce this sentence against me with greater fear than I receive it". And so he was taken to prison by the Governor’s guard and kept under vigilance in order to see if he would still retract. But it was in vain: today he was led to the stake. As he was already dying, a crucifix was presented to him and he turned his face away to reject it. Thus he miserably burned, and now probably dwells those other Worlds he invented, announcing the manner in which blasphemes and impious are treated by Rome. This is indeed the manner, my R., in which we proceed against these men, or rather against these monsters. I would really like to know whether you approve of this method, or on the contrary you want to permit every person to believe and proclaim anything. For my part I consider that it’s impossible for you not to approve it. You will probably judge that the following should be taken into account: Lutherans neither teach nor believe such things and hence shouldn’t be treated this way. We agree and consequently burn absolutely no Lutheran, but we should perhaps refer to your Luther in different terms. What will you truly say if I claimed and was able to prove that Luther asserted judgements, dogmas and prophecies not like Bruno’s, but even more absurd and horrendous? And I don’t mean them as mere table talk but as the very books he published during his life. 

If you are not sufficiently acquainted with the man who brought to light the Truth that lay buried for so many ages, I will direct you to those places where you may find the substance of his fifth Gospel, though you may discover it in “The Anatomy of Luther”, written by Pistorius6.

Now if Luther is just like Bruno, what do you judge should be done with him? He should certainly burn on sterile wood for the limping god7. But what shall be done then to those who regard him as an Evangelist, as a Prophet or even as the third Elijah? This I leave for you to ponder. Just trust me that roman people don’t judge the heretics with the severity they are believed to; and perhaps they should sternly condemn those that only knowingly and willingly  perish.

Rome, February 17, 1600"


1. The "R." to whom this letter was addressed was Schoppe’s friend Konrad Rittershausen, a German jurist and university lecturer and himself a Lutheran.
2.  The expression "unable to see the white line" is a scholastic one referring to a clear distinction between categories.
3.  "Cardinal Baronio" is Cardinal Caesar Baronius (1538-1607).
4.  This is a reference to Bruno's book Lo Spaccio de la Bestia Trionfante (The Expulsion of the Triumphant Beast, 1584).  The "beast" of the title is actually not a reference to the Pope but to the corruptions and vices that plague society.
5.  The actual titles are De umbris idearum (On the Shadows of Ideas, 1582); and De innumerabilibus, immenso, et infigurabili (Of Innumerable Things, Vastness and the Unrepresentable, 1591).
6.  "Pistorius" is the German historian Johann Pistorius (1546–1608).
7.  The "limping god" is Vulcan and the "sterile wood" reference is to the ancient practice of burning evil or profane things on wood from trees that are barren of fruit.


Martinez notes that it is the "innumerable worlds" claim that begins the list of 12 beliefs which Scoppe lists as Bruno's heresies.  This is true, but there are the earlier references to denying Transubstantiation and the doctrine of the Virgin Mary which precedes the longer list of charges and it should be noted that the Sentence document of February 1600 also begins with a reference to the former heresy and this is the only one of Bruno's claims that the sentence bothers to specify - " it was a great blasphemy to say that bread transubstantiates into flesh".  Martinez dismisses the earlier references to Transubstantiation and the Virginity of Mary as " Schoppe’s narrative account of Bruno’s early transgressions" and regards it as distinct from "the subsequent and separate list of Bruno’s 'doctrines'" (Martinez, p. 336, n. 132).  He goes on to note "that Schoppe specified that Lutherans were not executed for their teachings (such as about transubstantiation) so it is unjustified to construe Bruno’s transgressions, in Schoppe’s narrative, as the doctrines for which he was found to be an impenitent and obstinate heretic, and for which he was executed. Bruno was neither obstinate nor impenitent about transubstantiation, [or] Mary’s virginity".

My comment here would be that Schoppe is working very hard to put as much distance as possible between Lutheran doctrines and those of Bruno and to reassure his friend Rittershausen that it is only "monsters" like Bruno who are in danger from the Roman Inquisition, not Lutherans, who he depicts as being treated with tolerance.  The fact that the Sentence explicitly mentions denial of Transubstantiation, however, undercuts Martinez's assurance that "Bruno was [not] obstinate nor impenitent about transubstantiation.  It certainly does seem to be the most prominent of the charges against Bruno, no doubt along with some or all of the other claims that Schoppe lists.

What is clear, however, is that heliocentrism is not mentioned, despite the New Atheist pseudo historical insistence that this was the key issue for the Inquisition.  And while the multiplicity of worlds and the eternity of the universe are mentioned, these were metaphysical ideas arrived at by mystical insight.  To characterise them as "scientific" ideas is a gross anachronism and a total distortion of history.