Rome to Hamburg and London: Insular Aspects of the Afterlife of Giordano Bruno

The present digital collection includes the main nineteenth-century editions of the complete works of Giordano Bruno as well as a set of documents and studies published up to 1929. The term Afterlife suitably describes the Protean image of Giordano Bruno. Pantheist, wandering knight of philosophy, womanising monk or spiritual leader, images of Bruno continued their transformation as Perseus with Aby Warburg and as a Renaissance Magus with Frances Yates. The following pages offer a brief survey of the history of this collection and highlight the diverse approaches to Bruno adopted by Aby Warburg and Frances Yates.

The brief manuscript note illustrated below and scribbled on the front page of Virgilio Salvestrini's Bibliografia Bruniana (Pisa 1926)confirms that the bulk of the pre-1929 Brunian holdings of the Warburg Library - many of which are now accessible for download - initially came from a collection assembled by Salvestrini himself. Virgilio Salvestrini (1873-1954) was a studious bookseller whose shop, on Via XXIX Maggio, in front of the University of Pisa, was frequented by students and professors among whom Giovanni GentileLuigi Firpo and Delio Cantimori.[1]

Warburg acquired this collection of about 350 titles during his last stay in Italy through the intermediary of the book dealer and scholar Leonardo Olschki. He did not have much time to exploit this material for he died in October 1929, less than a year after its acquisition. Nevertheless the last year of his life was characterized by intense Brunian studies. In a letter dated 12 October 1929 to Karl Vossler, Warburg explained at length the reason for his most recent trip to Italy - Bologna, Rimini, Perugia, Rome, Naples, Nola - and his absence from Hamburg for nearly ten months: he wanted to bring together many strands of research, to find links, a chain of deductions, aiming for a new method of teaching the history of images. Together with his assistant, Gertrud Bing, he was able to collect further material for an Atlas of images to document the function of expressions and to develop a new theory of the function of human image-based memory; he needed to research Giordano Bruno, a thinker who, he writes, had fascinated him for forty years.[2]

While at the time Warburg was preparing an essay on Bruno it was only in the last year of his life that the philosopher had become a focal point, if not an intellectual hero.[3] The card catalogue and accession register of the Warburg Library confirm that the majority of books on and by Giordano Bruno reached the shelves in 1929 with very few titles acquired before that date. These include Spampanato's biography acquired in 1922; the Opere Italiane(Bari 1907-) acquired in 1908; the Gesammelte Werke acquired in 1910; as well as editions of the Spaccio della bestia acquired respectively in 1918 and 1925. After Warburg's death in October 1929 and the migration of the Institute to England in 1933 the Library continued acquiring Bruno material, especially from the late 1940s onwards when Frances Yates, who had already encountered the philosopher in her John Florio (1934), began the research that would produce her two books on Bruno: Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition (1964) and The Art of Memory (1966).

The Salvestrini books include the main nineteenth-century editions of the complete works as well as the principal studies. The collection follows the rediscovery of Bruno's thought in late eighteenth century Germany prompted by figures such as Goethe, JacobiFichte, Schelling and Hegel. which led to the first modern reeditions. [4]

Friedrich Schelling's early dialogue, entitled Bruno (1802), is presented here in the Italian translation of Marianna Florenzi with Terenzio Mamiani's 165 page introduction. The text marks one of the first moments of the return of the philosopher to Risorgimento Italy. In the space of a few decades his figure underwent a process of heroization peaking in the controversial monument of the Campo de’ Fiori planned since 1876 and erected on 9 June 1889. It consecrated the posthumous image of the philosopher as a rallying banner for liberals, free-thinkers, anti-clericals and freemasons. Not many philosophers are honoured by monuments. Salvestrini documented this powerful afterlife by collecting some of the pamphlets and occasional papers written and delivered in the wake of this event which was perceived at the time as an act of provocation of the left towards the Roman Catholic Church.[5]

Several popes saw the monument as a particularly threatening personal offence.[6] One Catholic apologist even alludes to attempts to substitute the Era Bruniana, beginning in 1600, to the Christian Era.[7] The anonymousDialoghetti familiari … sopra la vera storia di Giordano Bruno, a fine sample of clerical ideas on Bruno, present him as a materialist, a sensualist, a Darwinist who also believed in metempsychosis. Written after the erection of the monument the dialoghetti add that a strong military presence was required to contain a mostly non-Roman crowd screaming anti-clerical slogans.[8] Bruno had indeed been a thorn in the side of the Church who had initially insisted that he was burnt in effigy rather than in person. The current collection includes the documents of the trial known to scholars up to 1929 (now superseeded by the more comprehensive later editions) as well as the study by Pognisi, Giordano Bruno e l'archivio di San Giovanni Decollato (1891), which confirmed once and for all that the philosopher was burnt in person.

Bruno’s apologists hailed him as a pantheist anticipating Spinoza, as a martyr of free thought and above all as a symbol of the forces of reason against those of obscurantism and repression.[9] The works of historical fiction written or translated in these years stand out as a particularly striking yet predictable staging of current scholarly ideas and beliefs. Some are present in the Warburg digitised holdings; these include two novels,[10] six plays,[11] and two musical dramas.[12]


[1] See Giovanni Gentile preface to the Bibliografia Bruniana, as well as Luigi Firpo’s introduction to the second edition of the Bibliografia Bruniana, Firenze 1958, pp. 13f.  

[2] Letter to Karl Vossler, 12 October 1929.

[3] Nicholas Mann , 'Denkenergetische Inversion: Aby Warburg and Giordano Bruno', Publications of the English Goethe Society, 72, 2003, pp. 25-37. The first mention of Giordano Bruno in Warburg's correspondence goes back to 23 July 1915 and is related to the Spaccio della Bestia.

[4] For an overview of Bruno’s fortuna critica in the 19th century see Eugenio Canone introduction to the volume Bruno Redivivus. Momenti della fortuna di Giordano Bruno nel XIX secolo, a c.  di E. Canone, Pisa 1998, pp. xi-xlv.

[5] Berggren, Lars, L'ombra dei grandi : monumenti e politica monumentale a Roma (1870-1895), Roma 1996, p. 123.

[6] Pietro Balan. Di Giordano Bruno e dei meriti di lui ad un monumento : saggio storico popolare. Bologna 1888.

[7] Dialoghetti familiari tra un imbianchino e riquadratore di stanze fiorentino ed un signore romano sopra la vera storia di Giordano Bruno. Roma 1889. Contrarily to the author’s assertion the controversies raging around the monument had little echo outside Italy .

[8] See e.g. Luigi. Barbieri. Giordano Bruno e il suo monumento : conferenza tenuta nella sede dell' Associazione operaia Maria Immacolata, Napoli 1889, p. 7: ‘… io vedo una sfida sacrilega al Papato, un insulto alla Religione cattolica che segna la decadenza della Italia moderna e il principio di una nuova barbarie ’

[9] See e.g. Romeo Manzoni, La mente di Giordano Bruno, Locarno [s.d.], p. 6.

[10] C. E. Constance E. Plumptre. Giordano Bruno : a tale of the sixteenth century , London 1884; Leopold Schefer,Gottliche Komodie in Rom , Milan 1904.

[11] Filonomo. Scotino. Giordano Bruno : scena drammatica, Napoli 1870; Philipp Holitscher, Giordano Bruno : Historisches Drama in 5 Abteilungen;  Stuttgart 1898; David Levi, Giordano Bruno, o, Le lotte del pensiero : dramma in cinque atti, Roma 1889; Otto Borngraber, Giordano Bruno : Das neue Jahrhundert. Eine Tragödie und Ouverture zur neuen Zeit, Leipzig 1901; Jose Fola Igurbide, Giordano Bruno : drama en cinco actos divididos en quince cuadros , Barcelona 1912; E. G. Erwin Guido Kolbenheyer, Heroische Leidenschaften : Die Tragödie des Giordano Bruno in drei Teilen. München 1929.

[12] Adelelmo Bartolucci, Giordano Bruno, Santarcangelo 1889; Charles Clair, Giordano Bruno ou le chevalier errant de la philosophie,  Paris 1925.