Roman Other Worlds
(Bruno, Trier poems below)
In 1974 I hitch-hiked with a friend from England through the then Yugoslavia and down the Greek islands via Mycenae and by ferry to Italy. We were over 24 hours by the side of the road in Naples but eventually an American woman with her three beautiful daughters picked us up in VW van, they were devout Christians following in St Paul’s footsteps. Penniless, we slept out in a wet and dangerous park, lived in squares of pizza but visited the Sistine Chapel and Mussolini’s EUR and I got to see some de Chiricos.
In 1958 a young Australian architecture student arrived in Rome and visited the vegetable market called Campo de’ Fiori, the “Field of Flowers” – the opulence of his writing takes off:
“Bunches of thyme, branches of rosemary, parsley, bundled-up masses of basil filling the air with their perfume. Here, a mountain of sweet peppers: scarlet, orange, yellow, even black. There, a crate filled with the swollen purple truncheons of eggplants. Next to that, a parade of tomatoes, fairly bursting with ripeness—the red egg-shaped San Marzanos for sauce, the broad-girthed slicing tomatoes, the ribbed ones for salads, the green baby ones. Even the potato, a dull-looking growth as a rule, took on a sort of tuberous grandeur in this Mediterranean light.
Then there became apparent something of a kind I had never seen at home in Australia. All this vegetable glory, this tide of many-colored life, this swelling and bursting and fullness, welled up around a lugubrious totem of Death…a vertical totem of bronze darkness and melancholic gravity in the middle of all that riot of colour, and it may take a moment or two to find his name on a plaque half hidden behind the sprays of flowers. It is Giordano Bruno, and even a tyro from Australia had heard of him.” (Robert Hughes, Rome: A Cultural, Visual, and Personal History, 2011).
At that time natural science also developed in the midst of the general revolution and was itself thoroughly revolutionary; it had indeed to win in struggle its right of existence. . . . Calvin had Servetus burnt at the stake when the latter was on the point of discovering the circulation of the blood, and indeed he kept him roasting alive during two hours; for the Inquisition at least it sufficed to have Giordano Bruno simply burnt alive.
Frederick Engels [i]
They were men of vehement nature, of wild and restless character, of enthusiastic temperament, who could not attain to the calm of knowledge. . . . These remarkable individuals really resemble the upheavals, tremblings and eruptions of a volcano which has become worked up in its depths and has brought forward new developments, which as yet are wild and uncontrolled.
Bruno’s earliest works were on mnemonics; he thought memory the key to understanding. He was one of the first to write scientific texts in the vernacular, a challenge to the Church, which decreed Latin to be the language of intellectual discourse (limiting the dissemination of ideas; Copernicus had only been published in Latin). He attacked superstition, an “ass” found everywhere, not only in the church but in courts of law and even in the universities. He wrote and published prodigiously, attacked Catholic and Protestant pedants, and anticipates Descartes by a generation: “Who so itcheth to Philosophy must set to work by putting all things to the doubt.” He argued for the existence of an infinite universe containing an infinite number of worlds similar to the Earth, rejecting the Copernican system, which posited a finite universe bounded by a clamped sphere of stars placed just beyond the solar system. He argued that the sun was not the centre of the universe, but just one star among many, and even speculated that the other worlds would be inhabited.
Bruno returned to Italy was arrested in the spring of 1592, cross-examined on his philosophical works and on January the following year handed over to the Inquisition in Rome under orders of Pope Clement VIII. Imprisoned for six years, he was continually interrogated by the Holy Office and convicted. He recanted, then renewed his “follies” and debated the theologians. Finally, the Inquisition charged Bruno with eight specific acts of heresy, which the church has not revealed to this day.
The discovery of fire was a gift
to fight the wild, its predatory animals
and frigid ice age, was a turning point.
The tree cut down to fuel flame
was a domicile and pasture/supermarket
for birds and insects, mammals and rodents.
Led from his cell in the early hours
of February 16, 1600,
to the Piazza dei Fiori n the Square of the Flowers
and hitched to the stake heaped
with kindling, Bruno pushed away
a crucifix a priest proffered.
So melodramatic, combustible,
everything – appearance, disappearance,
wonder, doubt, the obstinate dead,
wreaths, the muzzled dogs and uniforms,
the flux of an ordinary Wednesday,
the sky a big baby-eyed orifice.
Hair unravelled beneath his stubborn helmet
of bone, nails splintered, skin singed and shed,
lungs burnt, smoke gagged screams
everything – consciousness slammed shut
as eyeballs melted in their sockets
and his head burst into flames.
Fire is a curse, sworn flammable
the flames threw Bruno up
into the hospitable air
the bones are hard to follow
but the embers still warm
in an abundant darkness roving space.
The square is busy day and night,
the horse market has been replaced with vegetables
and the gallows by a statue of Bruno
There is a small ceremony each year on this anniversary
with wreaths laid and speeches made.
Was Bruno was executed because of his belief the earth
revolved around the sun, he appreciated Copernicus,
but never made any observations himself, and had a poor
understanding. Or the infinity of inhabited worlds? Or Pantheism? [iii]
From one world to the other, from the objects of one world to those of the other, no distance but an infinite of moments of separation.
[i] Frederick Engels, Dialectics of Nature, In German Socialist Philosophy by Ludwig Feuerbach, Karl Marx, Friedrich
Engels, Translated by Wolfgang Schirmacher, Continuum International Publishing Group, 1997, p210.
[ii] G.W.F.Hegel, Lectures on the History of Philosophy, Vol 3, pages 115-116
[iii] This was the theme of Bruno’s books, On the Infinite Universe and Worlds and On Shadows of Ideas. Books by Copernicus were rare, being proscribed on the Index expurgatorius on August 7, 1603, with no reasons given. The Church did not mention Copernicanism again until 1616 when the concept was deemed “false and contrary to Holy Scripture” by the Congregation of the Index on March 5, 1616 (but not an “error or heresy”) and Copernicus’ De Revolutionibus again listed in the Index. At the time theologian Robert Bellarmine, the “Hammer of the Heretics” warned Galileo in a private audience not to defend Copernicanism, but Galileo felt free to proceed with his work until his trial in 1633. Not until 1664 was heliocentricism specifically condemned, when Pope Alexander VII prefixed a papal bull to the Index specifically banning “all books which affirm the motion of the earth”. The exact grounds on which Bruno was declared a heretic, are unknown, those records lost or hidden. Perhaps his sin was pantheism; a sense of Gaia
[iv] Jacques Roubard, ‘The Plurality of Worlds of Lewis’ in The Plurality of Worlds of Lewis, (1991) trans Rosmarie Waldrop, Dalkey Archive Press, 1995, p28
Außerordentlich: Trier diary
Smooth acceleration bridges the gorge, comfortably breaching Wednesday
fortifications French and Austrian engineers took turns to strengthen. 25.9.2007
Their theory tunnelled into practice, pushing us into a forest
where revelatory sunlight glimmers on countless small painted surfaces.
A wood pigeon races us to open pasture where grasses spill dew
and mist curdles in shallows that eddy round an occasional spire
that has attracted modest palaces with beds and a taste for sleep.
The heron perched on top of a tree over a fast flowing river is Brueghel’s,
but it’s tough to imagine armies fighting over this plain – Goths,
Romans, Napoleon’s, the thirty years war, allies and axis.
The sun folds behind cloud triggering a surprise flood of fog,
the whiteness turns dark and for a moment everything can be imagined.
Caverns gouge pale cliffs at Wasserbrillig, pleasure craft swim the confluence
where tufts of light levitate between the swans of Wasserbillig;
we read what we want to see. Across the border, every window in the station
is smashed, graffiti coats the walls. We all want a new world.
Ink caps push aside the hotel daises; the steep view maps the city.
An empty hedgehog turns into crushed pine cone, through my shoes
moss lines the stone steps. Pellets of light and noise stop as we
reach the fountain, a buzzard bruises the silence then wheels away.
This may be a where of fairy stories. We fill our waterbottles from a spring
and take the path roses begin, skirting the road and Roman amphitheatre.
Black parasols on slender stems, tangible delicacies, cluster beneath pines,
the swaying tips almost touching. A youthful fox, redcurrant red, steps out
and strolls down the track ahead of us, then picking up our scent
bounds into the trees. The city toils unseen, spreading its wings,
pissing streams of lead, murmuring what might have been
without agriculture or Agricola. Not even sky is incorruptible now.
The Dom is dark, his disappointment; Charles orders lunch in the square
beside one of Constantine’s giant feet; ‘Lovely’ Charles says
grinning at the pretty waitress, ‘Außerordentlich’, then pulls out his other,
“I am a priester”. As the bells ring, I gesture not me.
Getting back to sleep is unviable, thick cloud scumbles Markusberg
and Kockelsberg; south, dark forms in a series of recessions tilt
into the valley slipping cloud into the river. A photograph tethers a short
soldier in round glasses to the barracks/prison just above – Sartre saw all this.
Jean Paul’s theory of landscape defaulted to cafés; Balzar or de Flore?
Wasps veer my way following a cursive script of scent and colour,
light oils the towering trees, bird calls stretch the canopy,
song travels meaning, being-for-itself breathy aliveliness.
A cormorant looks around then dives, a heron stares at downstream margins.
I shoot from beneath the Roman bridge, call out ‘Guten tag’ to a tramp whose
smoked his hair ginger. He replies cordially from behind a refracting wall
of empties, lying in a good position to study classic construction techniques.
Marx’s birthplace is bourgeois with ‘baroque charm’ and a courtyard;
about to open as a museum, the Nazis invaded and burnt the exhibits.
So what changes things? A poem for breath hardly heard? We walk back
from all the art and history: Constantine’s colossus, a replica carved by 3D modeling;
a stunning fresco of poets, cherubs and beautiful woman; and in the old prison,
Noah and his animals energetically carved into a Christian sarcophagus.
The rain eases on the climb. I take off my cap, steam rises a wayward halo
reminding me of horses, or rather a photograph Steiglitz once took in the snow.
This scene is accompanied by bird song. Recording, I zoom in picking off
spires of stone, rivulets of light through vineyards, ribs of the Imperial Baths
and the Virgin Mary overlooking the chasm, her light going out.
I think of Sarajevo – not when I was there – the time I wasn’t.
At ground level a beautiful red-veined aerodynamic wing has
successfully buried its sycamore seed head-first in the planet, a leaf hops
like a bird, a dishevelled breeze tickles the hairs on my legs. To be alert
is a start, but begin with ambition, conquer with careless work, wary of order.
The Roman couples are discreet in death; no holding hands, no acts of love
just eloquence in stone. I’m missing you. Can you make paint a picture of our
love? A unique evolution, ties of love with sex as duet and cadenza, your voice
from Sydney, so husky you almost growled. Can a memorial deliver that?
‘Each monument tells the story of war’, a voice says, ‘If you could show me
what the monument to the Iraq war will look like, I’ll tell you how the war will end.’
On the MilvianBridge, Constantine on horseback tramples Maxentius into the Tiber,
the flesh, the panic, the currents are all chiselled from liquid layers of rock.
Mussolini marched into Rome on the anniversary. A stand displays identity cards,
Jewish names wear Jewish faces ‘together in our common strangeness’.
A monitor shows a photograph of Klaus Barbie, Barbie fading in fading out
shuffled through a pack of other names and faces; we are animals.
I asked a guest at our hotel, an English vicar, why Trier was bombed,
waywardness he thought. A caption states 40% of this ancient city
was destroyed. An attendant explains it was full of German divisions.
War is evergreen, bound in luxury leather or in discount DVDs.
The Porta Nigra is solid, little wonder the huge structure
has survived, though Napoleon pared it back to Roman.
In the long storied halls carved stones are residue
from the church of St Simeon, a hermit among the ruins.
Climbing, you come face to face with walls formed
from giant blocks of sandstone that history stains black.
The rocks are held together by iron rods
but put in place by the strength of a slave’s muscle.
Ligaments of lift and lever trap laborious pain; who
among us could endure or brave an heroic fear of weakness?
Gravity has us in its grip; Constantine’s fist
the size of a man is broken at the wrist.
We have visited the three museums showing Constantine
and most of the churches, Charles is passionate for the stories
early Christians tell, like their brave refusal to sacrifice beasts.
As for the big C, as anarchy was resuming normal service
he became a role model, killing his wife, murdering rivals and their families,
founding New Rome (later named off him). He was, as Charles says,
a man of his times who crushed the Arian heresy (my very own)
and played it safe baptised on his death bed. Charles turns to me,
“What if Constantine has been a mistake?” His story of pastoral care,
parish politics, funerals and weddings is fidgeting. “What if
making Christianity a state religion has made it all pomp and circumstance?”
“I want a church of the people”, he says as we walk into a bar.