Rome, free thinkers pay homage to 16th-century heretic

18th February 2009, Comments 0 comments

Giordano Bruno was among those who insisted that the Earth revolves around the Sun and that the universe is infinite, both assertions considered heretical because they went against the doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church.

Rome -- A brooding statue in Rome's Campo de' Fiori virtually came alive on Tuesday as secularists, scientists and free thinkers paid homage to a 16th-century heretic burned at the stake.

Giordano Bruno, "who was always the staunch defender of the freedom of conscience, today remains a strong symbol of freedom of thought," said Francesco Barbato, a lawmaker from Bruno's native Nola, near southern Naples.

"The great modernity of Giordano Bruno is his message that you should be allowed to choose your own life," Barbato said, adding: "I want to remain an idealist like him."

Two busloads bore several dozen Nola residents to the event to lay a floral wreath among others -- many anonymous -- adorning the bronze statue in the centre of the piazza with the inscription: "To Bruno, from the generation he foresaw, here, where the pyre burned."

The philosopher was among those who insisted that the Earth revolves around the Sun and that the universe is infinite, both assertions considered heretical because they went against the doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church.

He was stripped naked and burned at the stake in Campo de' Fiori on February 17, 1600, after a lengthy trial by the Roman Inquisition.

This year's observances held special poignancy for secularists after a high-profile right-to-die case in Italy in which the conservative government of Silvio Berlusconi mounted an 11th-hour campaign to keep a comatose woman alive in defiance of a court order.

"Italy still suffers from the influence of the Vatican," Barbato told AFP. "A phone call from the Vatican was enough to get the government to intervene in the Eluana affair," he said.

Barbato was referring to Eluana Englaro, an accident victim who died on February 9 moments after Italian senators began debating legislation aimed at keeping her alive, despite a November high court ruling in favour of her father that ended a 10-year legal battle.

The Roman Catholic Church reacted swiftly to Englaro's death, saying: "May the Lord welcome her and forgive those who led her there (to her death)."

Recent events such as the Englaro affair have posed new "questions of bioethics, questions concerning the relationship between faith and reason," said Roberto Alagna, a councillor for Rome's Lazio region.

"In Italy right now, there are more and more cultural and political clashes," he told AFP, adding that the Bruno anniversary "comes at a good time."

Retired professor Stefano Cavataio, who taught geometry and political science in Palermo, passing by Bruno's statue, entered the discussion, insisting: "There's a collusion, Berlusconi is a servant of the Vatican. He's an opportunist."

The National Association of Free Thought meanwhile issued a statement saying that February 17 is "a date not to be missed, especially at this moment in history when there are those who are trying to repress basic rights and freedoms."

For Barbato, Bruno's symbolism stretches beyond secularism to honesty in political life.

Barbato's Italy of Values party is headed by Antonio Di Pietro, the judge who made his name in the 1990s by fighting corruption in the "Clean Hands" campaign that brought down the long-ruling Christian Democrats.

Barbato said: "We should be in politics to give, not to steal. The problem is especially acute in the south where politics, corruption and the mafia work hand in hand."

Octogenarian Paolino Napolitano, who comes to Rome with his wife every year from Nola to mark the Bruno anniversary, said: "The struggle for reason over faith continues, but quietly."

Gina Doggett/AFP/Expatica

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