February 9, 1619 (a Saturday)

Portrait of Giulio Cesare Vanini, modeled by Ettore Ferrari, for the base of the monument to Giordano Bruno, in Campo dei Fiori square in Rome, Italy. Photo by Giovanni DallOrto.

On this date in Rome under the authority of Pope Clement VIII, the Italian philosopher Lucilio Vanini, or, as he styled himself in his works, Giulio Cesare, had his tongue cut out and was strangled at the stake; his body then was burned to ashes. Like Giordano Bruno, though considered intellectually inferior to him, he was  part of the movement to break with the dogmas of scholasticism and the authority of Aristotle, and made a courageous contribution to the foundations of a new philosophy.Vanini resembles Bruno, not only in his wandering life and in his death, but also in his unorthodox religious ideas.  What is remarkable about Vanini is that he was the first person to theorize the evolution of mankind — the first since the ancient Greeks of the Miletus School around 800 B.C.E. Anaximander had posited that life began in the sea. Vanini should have gone down in history as a wonderful hero and tribute to human ingenuity, as the man who enlightened two thousand years of ignorance.

Author Lynne Schultz states:

For Vanini, natural law was the divine. He rejected the idea of an immortal soul and was one of the first thinkers to view nature as (an entity) governed by natural laws. He also suggested that humans evolved from apes.

Born in 1585, Vanini studied theology and became an ordained priest. He went on to travel Europe promoting freedom of thought, rationalism, opposition to dogma, and opposition to the Catholic Church. After traveling Europe he returned to Italy, but was forced to flee for his life to avoid the Inquisition and charges of atheism. In an attempt to clear his name and satisfy the authorities he published a book of opposition to atheism in 1615, entitled Amphitheatrum Aeternae Providentiae Divino-Magicum, that ostensibly affirmed his belief in God. This was the first book he had ever published.

Once his name was cleared by this book, however, Vanini published another book in 1616, entitled De admirandis naturae reginae deaeque mortalium arcanis (Of the marvelous secrets of the queen and goddess of the mortal ones, nature), that made it clear his first book was a parody of religious belief and was not really reflective of his true views. This second book, which held that divinity could not be rationally conceived outside of Nature, triggered his condemnation and savage execution in Toulouse at age 34, just 19 years after Bruno’s martyrdom.

Vanini displayed incredible courage to the end — he pushed back a priest assisting the torturer and exclaimed “I’ll die as a philosopher!” Described as a charismatic man with verve, irreverence, and charm, who “collected patrons like flies around honey,” many mourned his death.

References:

  • Richard Corfield, Architects of Eternity: The New Science of Fossils (London, UK: Headline Book Publishing, 2001).
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