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Immortal Meals #8: The Ash Wednesday Supper May 12, 2012

Author: Beach Combing | in : Medieval, Modern , trackback

Giordano Bruno (pictured badly) was a sixteenth-century philosopher with a thing about infinity. Giordano also had an infinite capacity to create irritation. Indeed, his travels around Europe have a fascinating pattern of greeting, slighting and sprinting. Typically, GB is obliged to leave his last home in a hurry because of offence caused to the church or/and secular authorities. Giordano then turns up in his new home, is greeted as a major European thinker. Then six months later the pattern reasserts itself and Giordano is running for his life once more.

Among GB’s very many unfortunate habits were those of throwing out images of saints and that of telling anyone who cared to listen that God had created endless inhabited worlds, making Giordano a kind of patron secular saint of the UFO community. This pattern, in any case, finally went up the chimney when 17 February, 1600, Bruno was burnt as a heretic in a Roman piazza. His ashes were then scattered in the Tiber and Giordano Bruno became his ideas: all that survived of him.

Now on the subject of ashes… In 1584 Bruno had one of those legendary dinners – the Ash Wednesday Supper – that, on previous occasions, Beach has referred to as Immortal Meals. Moments when the Olympians of the human race meet over bread and wine. We know about this meal because GB wrote a pseudo-Platonic dialogue based around it that he published in the same year under the title Cena de le Ceneri. It was by any standards, perhaps particularly though by the standards of a razor-sharp Italian bon vivant,  a catastrophic repast.

First GB had been invited to the house of the poet Fulke Greville, an over serious Elizabethan sonnet writer who served both Elizabeth I and James I and who was a great friend of Philip Sydney. GB had been called in to debate philosophy with some Aristotelians down from Oxford for the evening. Bruno, it goes without saying, was a Platonist.

GB probably saw this as an opportunity to educate the ‘mad barbarians’ as he called the English. But the evening turned into a sorry comedy of errors. Bruno misunderstood the time of the meal and this caused confusion with his hosts who came to pick him up but found him out. Then, when they finally met up, he and his hosts crossed the Thames on a boat and ended up lost on the wrong side of the river (don’t do this in London). We cannot be certain how much of this account is ‘allegorical’ (those damn Platonists) and even basic details may have been invented: it is argued that the meal took place, for example, in a house other than Greville’s.

However, we can probably trust the account in terms of its intellectual content. The Oxford scholars made a terrible impression on the Italian. Bruno tried to defend the Copernican system, but he did so against men who, according to his account, barely knew how to argue (sounds like an Oxonian) and who were still trapped in medieval scholasticism.

This was all compounded by the fact that GB (an unquestionably brilliant scholar) had not troubled to learn English and by the fact that the English Professors did not know Italian. The argument (for such it quickly became) raged then in Latin. This must have been a sixteenth-century equivalent of empiricist American professors of fifty years ago, say, being confronted over table by Foucault in a furious conversation in poor Spanish.

Naturally, Bruno came off best and is praised by his host: but then Bruno wrote the account and Bruno always comes out best in those circumstances. A year later, England had chewed him up and spat him out. Then sixteen years later a fire was lit under Giordano’s toes. We’ll end with a detail that has always haunted Beachcombing: before GB was burnt his mouth was taped shut so that he could not spout dangerous sentences to the gathering crowds, something that the professors at that long ago meal would doubtless have approved of.

Beach is always looking out for remarkable meals: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com