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Bruno, Giordano

Category: Philosopher


Giordano Bruno (1548 –1600), born Filippo Bruno, was an Italian Dominican friar, philosopher, mathematician, poet, and astrologer. He is best known for his cosmological theories, ‘which went even further than the then-novel Copernican model’.  The other aspect of his life which is well known is that he was burned at the stake.  After his death he gained considerable fame as a martyr.

But these two aspects of his life have dominated far more interesting aspects about Giordano Bruno.

The mnemonist

The first interesting aspect that is far less well known, is that Bruno was a mnemonist – not, as often described, a person with a phenomenal memory but a person with perfect perception recall.  Thus he was like  Soloman Shereshevsky.  He also developed a system to help him with this recall.  At the age of 17, Bruno entered the Dominican Order at the monastery of San Domenico Maggiore in Naples, taking the name Giordano after Giordano Crispo, his metaphysics tutor.   During his time in Naples he became very well known for his skill with the art of mnemonism and on one occasion travelled to Rome to demonstrate his mnemonic system before Pope Pius V and Cardinal Rebiba.

S Trismosin, Splendor Solis, 16th century

In the summer of 1581, Bruno moved to Paris. There, again, he began to gain fame for his prodigious 'memory'. His talents attracted the benevolent attention of the king, Henry III. The king summoned him to the court. Bruno subsequently reported:

I got me such a name that King Henry III summoned me one day to discover from me if the memory which I possessed was natural or acquired by magic art. I satisfied him that it did not come from sorcery but from organised knowledge; and, following this, I got a book on memory printed, entitled The Shadows of Ideas, which I dedicated to His Majesty. Forthwith he gave me an Extraordinary Lectureship with a salary.

During this period, he published several works on mnemonics, including De umbris idearum (On The Shadows of Ideas, 1582), Ars Memoriae (The Art of Memory, 1582)/ Ars reminiscendi (The art of remembering 1583)  and Cantus Circaeus (Circe's Song, 1582). All of these were based on his mnemonic models. Bruno also published a comedy summarizing some of his philosophical positions, titled Il Candelaio (The Torchbearer, 1582).

Bruno's feats of memory were based, at least in part, on his elaborate system of mnemonics, but some of his contemporaries found it easier to attribute them to ‘magical powers’ and this would contribute to his later problems with the Inquisition.


Woodcut from Urania che sostiene l'Universo
Nuremberg, 1503

The next thing which is little discussed and is still not proven, is that he was an alchemist.  Spiritual alchemy, which it appears he was involved in, is based on sexual methods of achieving spiritual enlightenment.  Bruno was a very straight speaking and far too honest an individual.  It is unclear whether the Inquisition condemned him for giving away far too much information about these techniques, or for practising them.  The latter appears to be the favourite theory, but both are possible.

Many official versions of his trial state that he was condemned for supporting the new Copernican model of the universe, but this is simply not true, the charges had nothing to do with his cosmology

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
in 1600 there was no official Catholic position on the Copernican system, and it was certainly not a heresy. When [...] Bruno [...] was burned at the stake as a heretic, it had nothing to do with his writings in support of Copernican cosmology.

Essentially Bruno was not only not acting as a Catholic, but he promoted alchemistic and mystical views.  He was deeply influenced by Arab astrology and Neoplatonism.  He wrote De monade numero et figura  - The Monad (Frankfurt, 1591), the term Monad is Neoplatonic.  He also studied Renaissance Hermeticism, and legends surrounding the Egyptian god Thoth [Mercury] – the founder of alchemy.

Bruno was known for his taste for free thinking and forbidden books and it soon caused him difficulties.   Given the controversy he caused in later life it is surprising that he was able to remain within the monastic system for eleven years. In his testimony to Venetian inquisitors during his trial, many years later, he says that proceedings were twice taken against him for having cast away images of the saints, retaining only a crucifix [cross], and for having recommended controversial texts to a novice. … he was reported to have defended the Arian heresy, and to have had a copy of the banned writings of Erasmus, annotated by him, which was  discovered hidden in the monastery privy.

D A Freher showing Darkness and Light

In England, Bruno became acquainted with the poet Philip Sidney (to whom he dedicated two books) and mixed with members of the Hermetic circle around John Dee – Dee and Edward Kelley practised magic and alchemy.  He was accused of plagiarising Ficino's work, Ficino was an alchemist.

In 1588, he went to Prague, where he obtained 300 thaler from Rudolf II.  Rudolf II was an alchemist.

He produced several Latin works, dictated to his ‘friend and secretary’ Girolamo Besler, including De Magia (On Magic), Theses De Magia (Theses On Magic) and De Vinculis In Genere (A General Account of Bonding). All these were apparently transcribed or recorded by Besler (or Bisler) between 1589 and 1590. He also published De Imaginum, Signorum, Et Idearum Compositione (On The Composition of Images, Signs and Ideas, 1591).

Bruno thus had knowledge of alchemy, magic and symbolism.  He may also have had knowledge of sex magick, peaking and sexual stimulation.

He wrote Animadversiones circa lampadem lullianam - Amendments regarding Lull’s lantern(1586) and Delampade combinatoria Lulliana (1587).  Lantern in this context means illumination.  Raymond Lull was an alchemist and Troubador.  Bruno also wrote De triplici minimo et mensura - On the lesser Trinity and its measurement (1591).  The lesser trinity is alchemically symbolic.

The numerous charges brought against Bruno at his trial by the Inquisition, included blasphemy, immoral conduct, and heresy in matters of dogmatic theology.  He was also accused of practising and dealing in magic and divination.

Ultimately, Bruno’s crime, as far as the Inquisition was concerned, was that he was still an ordained priest openly promoting and probably practising alchemy.  Whether he was helped by women or by men, or did it alone, he was breaking every rule in the Catholic book.  And he was a dangerous alchemist. 

In the 16th century, dedications were, as a rule, approved beforehand, and hence were a way of placing a work under the protection of an individual. Given that Bruno dedicated various works to the likes of King Henry III, Sir Philip Sidney, and Michel de Castelnau (French Ambassador to England), it is apparent that he moved in powerful circles.  As such the dangers – as far as the Catholic Church were concerned – were far greater because his influence was greater.  Sex magick does have a certain appeal ............ one which has a good deal more to offer than repression.



Bruno was born Filippo Bruno in Nola (in Campania, then part of the Kingdom of Naples) in 1548.  He was the son of Giovanni Bruno, a soldier. In his youth he was sent to Naples to be educated and was tutored privately at an Augustinian monastery, whilst attending public lectures at the Studium Generale. He became an ordained priest in 1572, at age 24.

As you will see from the following description, Bruno may have been ordained, but his life was one of a wandering and highly controversial philosopher.  The start of his wanderings began after he learned that an indictment was being prepared against him in Naples for his unorthodox views.  He fled, shedding his religious habit.

Bruno first went to the Genoese port of Noli, then to Savona, Turin and finally to Venice, where he published his lost work On The Signs of the Times. From Venice he went to Padua. From Padua he went to Bergamo and then across the Alps to Chambéry and Lyon.

In 1579 he arrived in Geneva. Things apparently went well for Bruno for a time, as he entered his name in the Rector's Book of the University of Geneva in May 1579. But in keeping with his personality he could not long remain silent. In August he published an attack on the work of Antoine de la Faye, a distinguished professor. He and the printer were promptly arrested. Rather than apologizing, Bruno insisted on continuing to defend his publication. He left Geneva.

He went to France, arriving first in Lyon, and thereafter settling for a time (1580–1581) in Toulouse, where he lectured in philosophy.

In April 1583, Bruno went to England with letters of recommendation from Henry III as a guest of the French ambassador, Michel de Castelnau.  He lectured at Oxford, and unsuccessfully sought a teaching position there. His views were regarded as deeply controversial, notably with John Underhill, Rector of Lincoln College and subsequently bishop of Oxford, and George Abbot, who later became Archbishop of Canterbury.

Christ in the Zodiac, Northern Italy 11th century

Nevertheless, his stay in England was fruitful. During that time Bruno completed and published the six "Italian Dialogues," including the cosmological tracts La Cena de le Ceneri (The Ash Wednesday Supper, 1584), De la Causa, Principio et Uno (On Cause, Principle and Unity, 1584), De l'Infinito, Universo e Mondi (On the Infinite, Universe and Worlds, 1584) as well as Lo Spaccio de la Bestia Trionfante (The Expulsion of the Triumphant Beast, 1584) and De gl' Heroici Furori (On the Heroic Frenzies, 1585). Some of these were printed by John Charlewood. Some of the works that Bruno published in London, notably The Ash Wednesday Supper, appear to have given offense. Once again, Bruno's controversial views and alchemical beliefs lost him support.

Without being too simplistic, Bruno’s cosmology is somewhat unique but largely based on alchemical and symbolic thinking.  It is certainly not physical and Copernican.

In October 1585, Bruno returned to Paris with Castelnau. His 120 theses against Aristotelian natural science and his pamphlets against the mathematician Fabrizio Mordente soon put him in ill favor [Dialogi duo de Fabricii Mordentis Salernitani 1586]. In 1586, he left France for Germany.

In Germany he failed to obtain a teaching position at Marburg, but was granted permission to teach at Wittenberg, where he lectured on Aristotle for two years. However, with a change of intellectual climate there, he was no longer welcome. He went on to serve briefly as a professor in Helmstedt, but had to flee again when he was excommunicated by the Lutherans.

In 1591 he was in Frankfurt. He received an invitation to Venice from the patrician Giovanni Mocenigo, who ‘wished to be instructed in the art of memory’. At the time the Inquisition seemed to be losing some of its strictness, and because Venice was the most liberal state in Italy, Bruno was lulled into making the fatal mistake of returning to Italy.

Bruno accepted Mocenigo's invitation and moved to Venice in March 1592. For about two months he served as an in-house tutor to Mocenigo. When Bruno announced his plan to leave Venice to his host, the latter denounced him to the Venetian Inquisition, which had Bruno arrested on May 22, 1592. Was Mocenigo’s invitation really about his memory skills or was there another aim?  Most alchemists of any standing will not teach anyone who they think might misuse the techniques and maybe Mocenigo expected something ‘different’ shall we say, a bit more than he received.  Perhaps he wanted quicker results.  There are many unanswered questions here, but all of them are intriguing.

Joachim of Fiore 12th century - the three cosmic
ages; Fiore's last age presaged one in which
Bruno's views would be understood - 'jubilation,
wisdom and freedom' and a symbolic understanding
of the scriptures.  The first two ages were the
establishment of law and that of growth via
faith and beliefs

Among the numerous charges of blasphemy and heresy brought against Bruno in Venice, based on Mocenigo's denunciation, were accusations of ‘personal misconduct’.

Bruno defended himself skillfully, stressing the philosophical character of some of his positions, denying others and admitting that he had had doubts on some matters of dogma. The Roman Inquisition, however, asked for his transfer to Rome. After several months of argument, the Venetian authorities reluctantly consented and Bruno was sent to Rome in February 1593.

During the seven years of his trial in Rome, Bruno was held in confinement, lastly in the Tower of Nona. Some important documents about the trial are lost, but others have been preserved, among them a summary of the proceedings that was rediscovered in 1940. Luigi Firpo lists these charges made against Bruno by the Roman Inquisition:

  • holding opinions contrary to the Catholic faith and speaking against it and its ministers;
  • holding opinions contrary to the Catholic faith about the Trinity, divinity of Christ, and Incarnation;
  • holding opinions contrary to the Catholic faith pertaining to Jesus as Christ;
  • holding opinions contrary to the Catholic faith regarding the virginity of Mary, mother of Jesus;
  • holding opinions contrary to the Catholic faith about both Transubstantiation and Mass;
  • claiming the existence of a plurality of worlds and their eternity;
  • believing in metempsychosis and in the transmigration of the human soul into brutes [reincarnation];
  • dealing in magic and divination.

Bruno defended himself as he had in Venice, trying to preserve the basis of his philosophy. His trial was overseen by the Inquisitor Cardinal Bellarmine, who demanded a full recantation, which Bruno eventually refused. On January 20, 1600, Pope Clement VIII declared Bruno a heretic and the Inquisition issued a sentence of death. According to the correspondence of Gaspar Schopp of Breslau, he is said to have made a threatening gesture towards his judges and to have replied:

Maiori forsan cum timore sententiam in me fertis quam ego accipiam
"Perhaps you pronounce this sentence against me with greater fear than I receive it"

which rather implies that the accusation of his being a magician might have been more important than is implied by the list above.

He was turned over to the secular authorities. On February 17, 1600, in the Campo de' Fiori (a central Roman market square), with his "tongue imprisoned because of his wicked words", he was burned at the stake. His ashes were thrown into the Tiber river. All of Bruno's works were placed on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum in 1603.

Giordano Bruno – Cause, principle and unity - The Second Dialogue
Philosophies and laws are lost, not through a penury of word interpreters, but through a scarcity of profound thinkers




Works in addition to those mentioned above include:

  • De compendiosa architectura  - The compendium of architecture (1582)
  • Explicatio triginta sigillorum – An explanation of the thirty seals (1583)
  • Sigillus sigillorum  - Sigillus’ seals (1583)
  • Cabala del cavallo Pegaseo–Asino Cillenico  - Kabbalistic work (1585)
  • Figuratio Aristotelici Physici auditus  - Understanding Aristotelian Physics (1585)
  • Idiota triumphans – The Triumphant Idiot (1586)
  • De somni interpretatione – Dream interpretation (1586)
  • Lampas triginta statuarum - The lamp of thirty statues (1586)
  • Centum et viginti articuli de natura et mundo adversus peripateticos  - One hundred and twenty articles on nature and the world against the Peripatetics (1586)
  • De progressu et lampade venatoria logicorum - The progress and seeker’s torch of logic/reason (1587)
  • Oratio valedictoria – Valedictory prayer (1588)
  • Camoeracensis Acrotismus (1588)
  • De specierum scrutinio – the scrutiny of species (1588)
  • Articuli centum et sexaginta adversus huius tempestatismathematicos atque Philosophos - The articles of this tempestuous mathematician against a hundred and sixty Philosophers (1588)
  • Oratio consolatoria – Prayers of comfort and consolation (1589)
  • De innumerabilibus, immenso, et infigurabili – the innumerable, immense and shapeless (1591)
  • De imaginum, signorum et idearum compositione  - On the images, the signs and composition of ideas (1591)
  • Summa terminorum metaphisicorum – a summary of metaphysical terminology (1595)
  • Artificium perorandi   (1612)


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