Day 2 of the Melton Italy Trip
Campo de' Fiori--the field of flowers--is no longer that. As Rome grew, it was paved over and since the 1800s has been one of the city's outdoor marketplaces. Today, the eager shopper can find everything from racks of shirts to bananas and pineapples sold by Nepalese immigrants.
Four hundred years ago, this former meadow was not yet a marketplace but was already a well-travelled public square. And in this incarnation it served as the location where the Office of the Inquisition of the Catholic Church dealt with heretics--by burning them at the stake. Such was the fate of Giordano Bruno, a Dominican priest found guilty of unorthodox teachings. Bruno met his end in 1600.
More than three hundred years later, with the Church no longer controlling Rome, a monument to Bruno as a champion of free thought was placed in the center of the square. The Vatican has published few official statements about Bruno's trial and execution. In 1942, Cardinal Giovanni Mercati, who discovered a number of lost documents relating to Bruno's trial, stated that the Church was perfectly justified in condemning him. On the 400th anniversary of Bruno's death, in 2000, Cardinal Angelo Sodano declared Bruno's death to be a "sad episode" but, despite his regret, he defended Bruno's prosecutors, maintaining that the Inquisitors "had the desire to serve freedom and promote the common good and did everything possible to save his life." In the same year, Pope John Paul II made a general apology for "the use of violence that some have committed in the service of truth."
Another monument in Campo de' Fiori is much less visible: a small brass plaque, dated 2011, and set in the pavement. It commemorates, with an inscription in Hebrew and Italian, a different kind of burning in the same square. In 1553, the Church confiscated and publicly set ablaze every copy of the Talmud in Italy; the search took about nine days. On Rosh HaShanah (9 September 1553), the Talmud and many other Jewish books were burnt in the Campo de' Fiori. Throughout the remainder of the sixteenth century, a complete edition of the Talmud could not be found anywhere in Italy. Chief Rabbi Riccardo di Segni described this event as "the beginning of the persecution of the Jewish printed book, after that of manuscripts."
The idea for this plaque placement came after the Boyarin family of Berkeley, California, toured Italy in 2005. As Prof. Daniel Boyarin described, the idea was conceived "...when we walked in this beautiful place, [and Chava Boyarin] observed the statue in memory of Giordano Bruno's martyrdom here, and remarked that there was no memorial for the wagon-loads of Talmud manuscripts and books burnt here in 1553."
As I visited sites that witnessed such extreme intolerance, my thoughts turned to conversations in our own community. We haven't erected a stake or burned books but I worry that all of us prefer to speak with people who agree with us, find reasons to dismiss ideas that are different from our own, and demonize those with whom we disagree. No good ever comes from this way of acting.
Rabbi Amy Walk Katz, PhD