Almost every day I touch base with Campo de’ Fiori, the famous piazza that sits between our home and Jim’s office. The daily green market is expensive but convenient, and butchers, bakers and other necessary cottage industries dot the perimeter of the square. There is a fountain in the middle; a statue, too. I have chewed on a porketta panino or licked a gelato beneath that statue many times, yet I have never studied it. (Some of you have sat there with me.) There are so many histories to know in this city and it is easy to ignore that of Campo de Fiori because it is more shopping center and meeting place than ancient ruin (though it is that, too, if you know where to look.)
It took at dinner party and poem to awaken me from the slumber of my routine and to look up at the statue of the hooded Giordano Bruno.
Rewind a week and sit with me at the dinner table of my friends Robbie and James. We are American, Israeli, Australian and Italian guests eating well and chatting. There’s a poet at the table, a scientist, literary agent, a diplomat. I can’t remember if it was the poet or another guest who mentions a poem about Campo de’ Fiori by Heather McHugh, titled, What He Thought.
And then something extraordinary happens – someone at the table opens a poetry app on his phone and we listen to the voice of McHugh reading her own poem. There’s a silent, appreciative pause afterward – you will understand why when read you the poem below.
Giordano Bruno was burned alive in Campo de’ Fiori on Ash Wednesday, 1600. A victim of the Inquisition, he was executed by the Papal State of Rome for heresy, for believing in a natural order far greater than the Catholic Church. Even among his peers, Bruno was controversial for his ‘speculative’ intellectual pursuits, which included mnemonics and hermeticism. But he was a mathematician and philosopher, too. He supported the Copernicus model of the universe and expanded on the ancient Greek philosophy of the unity of opposites, applied as the Coincidence of Contraries in his own theories. I think his interests were the product of a mind trained by the Church – he was a Dominican friar – and influenced by the expansion of intellectual dialogue during the Renaissance.
Bruno’s statue in Campo de’ Fiori rises above fruit stalls and flower sellers and cozy cafes with white umbrellas. At night, the market closes and pleasure seekers gather to drink and smoke and feast on their youth. There is something incompatible when you think of all that partying and playing in Campo de’ Fiori, all that revelry on the site of Bruno’s ashes.
Yet maybe there is meaning, too, something better explained in a poem than in this post, or maybe found in Bruno’s own words:
“Anyone who wants to know nature’s greatest secrets should look at the minima and maxima of contraries and opposites and think about them. There is deep magic in knowing how to draw out the contrary after locating the point of union.”
What He Thought
We were supposed to do a job in Italy and, full of our feeling for ourselves (our sense of being Poets from America) we went from Rome to Fano, met the Mayor, mulled a couple matters over. The Italian literati seemed bewildered by the language of America: they asked us what does "flat drink" mean? and the mysterious "cheap date" (no explanation lessened this one's mystery). Among Italian writers we could recognize our counterparts: the academic, the apologist, the arrogant, the amorous, the brazen and the glib. And there was one administrator (The Conservative), in suit of regulation gray, who like a good tour guide with measured pace and uninflected tone narrated sights and histories the hired van hauled us past. Of all he was most politic-- and least poetic-- so it seemed. Our last few days in Rome I found a book of poems this unprepossessing one had written: it was there in the pensione room (a room he'd recommended) where it must have been abandoned by the German visitor (was there a bus of them?) to whom he had inscribed and dated it a month before. I couldn't read Italian either, so I put the book back in the wardrobe's dark. We last Americans were due to leave tomorrow. For our parting evening then our host chose something in a family restaurant, and there we sat and chatted, sat and chewed, till, sensible it was our last big chance to be Poetic, make our mark, one of us asked "What's poetry? Is it the fruits and vegetables and marketplace at Campo dei Fiori or the statue there?" Because I was the glib one, I identified the answer instantly, I didn't have to think-- "The truth is both, it's both!" I blurted out. But that was easy. That was easiest to say. What followed taught me something about difficulty, for our underestimated host spoke out all of a sudden, with a rising passion, and he said: The statue represents Giordano Bruno, brought to be burned in the public square because of his offence against authority, which was to say the Church. His crime was his belief the universe does not revolve around the human being: God is no fixed point or central government but rather is poured in waves, through all things: all things move. "If God is not the soul itself, he is the soul OF THE SOUL of the world." Such was his heresy. The day they brought him forth to die they feared he might incite the crowd (the man was famous for his eloquence). And so his captors placed upon his face an iron mask in which he could not speak. That is how they burned him. That is how he died, without a word, in front of everyone. And poetry-- (we'd all put down our forks by now, to listen to the man in gray; he went on softly)-- poetry is what he thought, but did not say. --------------------------------------------