On this day…17 February

On 17 February 1907 Joyce witnessed a procession in honour of Giordano Bruno.

Writing to his brother Stanislaus from Rome in March 1907, Joyce mentions that he had witnessed a procession in honour of “the Nolan” – Giordano Bruno, who came from the town of Nola. The procession takes place annually at the Campo de’ Fiori in Rome where a statue marks the spot where Bruno was burned alive for heresy on 17 February 1600.

The procession took place on a murky Sunday and Joyce describes himself as being unwashed, unshaved, wearing a faded white hat and muddy boots: “In fact, I was a horrible example of free thought,” he wrote. However, the procession itself left him cold.

Joyce became interested in Bruno while in University where he read some of Bruno’s philosophical essays. In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Stephen records wrangling with Fr Ghezzi, the University’s Italian lecturer: “Other wrangle with little round head rogue’s eye Ghezzi. This time about Bruno the Nolan. …He said Bruno was a terrible heretic. I said he was terribly burned. He agreed to this with some sorrow.” According to his brother Stanislaus, Joyce even chose Gordon Brown as his stage name out of admiration for Bruno.

Joyce opened his essay ‘The Day of the Rabblement’ with a statement from “the Nolan:” “No man, said the Nolan, can be a lover of the true or the good unless he abhors the multitude…” – making the Italian philosopher sound like an Irishman. A review by Joyce of J Lewis Macintyre’s book Giordano Bruno was published in the Daily Express in Dublin on 30 October 1903, under the title ‘The Bruno Philosophy.’ And in Finnegans Wake, Giordano Bruno, the Nolan, becomes confused with the Irish booksellers Browne & Nolan.

Bruno (c. 1548-1600) was a Dominican priest who wrote on mathematics and astronomy. He travelled in Italy, Switzerland, France, England and Germany before returning to Italy where he was arrested in 1592. He was imprisoned in Rome where he was executed in 1600 after a lengthy trial.

His writings on cosmology were influenced by Copernicus and he believed that the sun was a star and that other stars were suns like ours, and that there were other inhabited worlds like ours around those suns. These and his other cosmological ideas were considered unacceptable at the time, but Bruno also held heretical theological ideas.


Sources & Further Reading:

Ellmann, Richard: James Joyce – New and Revised Edition, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982.

Joyce, James: Letters of James Joyce, vol. II, edited by Richard Ellmann, London: Faber & Faber, 1966.

– – : Occasional, Critical and Political Writing, edited with an Introduction and Notes by Kevin Barry, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Joyce, Stanislaus: My Brother’s Keeper, edited with an Introduction by Richard Ellmann & Preface by TS Eliot, London: Faber & Faber, 1958.