When James Joyce met Giordano Bruno in Rome

Joyce had mixed feeling about Rome but paid tribute there to an executed hero

Roma, February 17th, 1907. James Joyce leaves his flat at 51 Via Monte Brianzo, on the banks of the river Tiber. He’s going to Campo de’ Fiori (Field of Flowers), the Roman square where Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake by the Church on February 17th, 1600.

Commemorations had been organised all over Italy that day, and the one in Rome was particularly vociferous and anti-clerical. When Bruno had embarked on his final journey to his death, he had followed the very same route Joyce would take centuries after, for his last prison was the Tower of Nona, a few yards from the flat where Joyce lived with Nora and little Giorgio. Did Joyce know, when he took that flat, that he was so close to the last home of his beloved mentor?

On October 30th, 1903, he had published a review of a book on Bruno in the Daily Express. In that readable investigation of Bruno’s life and thought, towards the end of the biographical section we read how at some point he “went to the prison of the Tower of Nona”.

Joyce had a great memory, as did Bruno, who was one of the inventors of modern mnemotechnic – the art of memory. In Ithaca, the 17th episode of Ulysses, Bloom stops “chanting” a Jewish “anthem… in consequence of defective mnemotechnic”; and in Circe, the 15th episode, his father Virag (“flower” in Hungarian) thus advises his son: “exercise your mnemotechnic”.

In fact, Bruno’s ideas about the art of memory were recorded, among other books, also in his Cantus Circaeus (Circe’s chant). And it is in Circe that Bloom will await his own stake. At some point, a Brother Buzz “hands him over to the civil power, saying: Forgive him his trespasses”. Since members of the church could not have blood on their hands, Bruno too had been handed over to the civil power, on February 8th, 1600, to be burnt alive in the Field of Flowers.

Bloom, another flower, is in fact condemned in the same manner as Bruno. In Circe Alexander J Dowie says “violently… The stake faggots… are for him”; and the MOB cries loud: “Lynch him! Roast him! He’s as bad as Parnell was”. Then, he “stands upright amid phoenix flames” and “exhibits to Dublin reporters traces of burning”.

What was he guilty of? He had announced: “New worlds for old. Union of all, jew, moslem and gentile… Free money, free love and a free lay church in a free lay state”. At the end of the 16th century, in his London dialogues, Bruno declared the existence of “infinite worlds” in an infinite universe; and in his The Expulsion of the Triumphant Beast, a book Joyce mentions as early as in Stephen Hero, he had advocated the overcoming of religious divisions.

It is well known that Joyce held most dear one of the tenets of Bruno’s “new philosophy”, the coincidence of the opposites, according to which everything in nature springs out of a friction between contraries. In Circe this very concept is even given Bruno’s Christian name, which was Filippo. In fact, in this very visionary episode of Ulysses we encounter “two Siamese twins”, Philip Drunk and Philip Sober.

In Finnegans Wake we famously have other couples of “soamheis” brothers, but one is very interesting in Bruno’s terms: Tristopher and Hilary. They are taken from the very beginning of Bruno’s Italian play, The Candlemaker, where we have the motto: “In tristitia hilaris, in hilaritate tristis” (“In sadness happy, in happiness sad”).

After his visit to the Field of Flowers, where he went to commemorate this champion of free thought, Joyce wrote: “The day of Bruno’s memorial procession I was standing among the crowd waiting for the cortege to appear. It was a murky day and, being Sunday, I had not washed. I was wearing a white felt hat, faded by reason of heavy rains... My boots, being Sunday, were coated with a week’s dirt and I was in need of a shave. In fact, I was a horrible example of free thought”.

Beside him he noticed “two good-looking young women, females, of the people”, and “one of them had a trinket on a long chain and this she constantly raised slowly to her lips and rested it there”. At the beginning Joyce must have felt quite shocked, thinking that she might be holding a rosary or a crucifix during an anticlerical rally, but then he “perceived that the trinket was a miniature revolver!”

Joyce was a hater of violence, and while in Rome he began having “horrible and terrifying dreams: death, corpses, assassinations in which I take an unpleasantly prominent part”. For some occult reasons, those nightmares might have been darkly connected to the death of Bruno on February 17th, 1600. This is what Joyce writes in Ulysses about Stephen’s sojourn in Paris (another city of Bruno): “On the night of the seventeenth of February 1904 the prisoner was seen by two witnesses. Other fellow did it: other me”.

Joyce is thinking of other things too, here, as the annotations to his work duly record; and yet, the phantasm of Bruno will keep hanging over his books until Finnegans Wake, the book where all are reborn in the flames of the phoenix.

It was in Rome Joyce first had the idea of writing a short story called Ulysses, and Rome, though he hated it, remained in his thoughts afterwards, to the extent that, as he confessed to Valery Larbaud in 1921, he planned to move back to the eternal city after the completion of Ulysses. Unfortunately, other dark powers had in the meantime had the same idea, and he eventually decided to stay away from the capital of Christianity, and of Fascism.

But that house where he stayed in Rome for a few months, which was so close to Bruno's final prison, will remain with him for a long time, at least judging by what Bertha says in the play Exiles: "Heavens, what I suffered then – when we lived in Rome! … I used to sit there, waiting, with the poor child with his toys, waiting till he got sleepy. I could see all the roofs of the city and the river, the Tevere". This might even partly explain, perhaps, why, upon his arrival in Rome, on July 31st, 1906, he told his brother: "The Tiber frightens me".
Enrico Terrinoni is the Italian translator of Joyce. He teaches at the Università per Stranieri di Perugia. With Declan Kiberd he is organising a conference entitled Global Ulysses, which will take place in Rome, Paris and Dublin. Speakers will include Pulitzer Prize winner Jhumpa Lahiri. All three events have been postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic. It is hoped to reschedule them at a later date. Website: globalulysses.com