Giordano Bruno: On the Shadows of the Ideas (Translated by John Michael Greer)

Greer, John Michael (trans., ed.): Giordano Bruno: On the Shadows of the Ideas: Comprising an art of investigating, discovering, judging, ordering, and applying, set forth for the purpose of inner writing, and not for vulgar operations of memory, Arcane Wisdom, 2020, ISBN 978-1935006978.

This is a new translation of Giordano Bruno’s De umbris idearum, originally published in 1592. Giordano Bruno was an advocate of what is known as the Art of Memory, a method to memorise and instantly recall a vast number of data. Bruno’s version of this art was based on the Zodiac and the Lunar Mansions, which is useful for the practitioner.

“Here the astrologer is able to memorise forty-eight constellations of heaven in the four parts of the sky, together with their meaning, situation, position, and their smallest parts …” (p150)

The only other complete English translation I know of is the edition published by Scott Gosnell in 2013. Gosnell’s translation is perfectly serviceable, but differs quite considerably from Greer’s. Comparing the two translations, one gets the feeling that Gosnell’s aim was to provide the reader with a solid, basic translation. He includes 45 explanatory footnotes, aimed for the reader mainly interested in the linguistic as well as the technical challenges of Bruno’s work. Greer, on the other hand, provides nearly 200 footnotes, which help the reader to gain an insight into Renaissance thinking and further the understanding of the philosophical background, necessary to appreciate Bruno’s work on a deeper level. In short, Greer has created a translation that caters for the reader who has a deeper interest in the esoteric, or even magical, aspects of De umbris idearum.

The translator’s preface is divided into two short sections, the first one dealing with Bruno, the man. The second section gives a short introduction of De umbris. Here, Greer mentions twice that Bruno ‘dabbled in espionage’ (pxiii and pxviii) which he also sees as the reason for Bruno’s interest in cryptography. The problem is that the idea of Bruno having been operating as a spy in England was only introduced by John Bossy in 1991, when he published his rather sensationalist book Giordano Bruno and the Embassy Affair.

The author and Bruno scholar Ingrid D. Rowland gave a good summary of academia’s opinion regarding the idea, when she wrote about Bossy’s proposal in her book Giordano Bruno Philosopher Heretic, University of Chicago Press 2009:

“This spy was not Giordano Bruno himself. John Bossy’s attempt to propose such a theory in Giordano Bruno and the Embassy Affair is as baseless as it is transparently sectarian … The real spy’s stream of letters, clearly dated, written in a French rather than an Italian hand, begins in April 1583, that is, before Bruno arrived in England.”

But let’s get back to the translation itself. As already mentioned, Greer’s translation manages to provide the difficult text with a natural flow and at the same time to further the reader’s understanding of the meaning Bruno tried to convey via his enigmatic writing style.

The book itself is beautifully produced, printed in red and black which doesn’t only make it easy to navigate between the different chapters, but is also pleasing to the eye. The chapter on magical images (images of the astrological Faces of the signs, from Teucer the Babylonian) shows images of the Zodiac signs and also includes some images of the Faces themselves, which is very useful for the magical practitioner. There are also illustrations of some of the images of the 28 Lunar Mansions. Although the descriptions of the Lunar Mansion images are generally compatible to the ones given in Picatrix and Agrippa, Bruno has added some details which cannot be found elsewhere.

Also included in this edition is a practical guide to work Bruno’s magic, written by John Michael Greer. This is very helpful as it provides the interested practitioner with a starting point. A short but poignant glossary, which serves as a good reminder of the meaning of more obscure and sometimes long-forgotten terms, adds to the practical value of this highly recommended translation.