Bruno’s Shadow

Through the light which shines in natural things, one mounts up to the life which presides over them.

-Giordano Bruno

Creaking, the heavy door swung open, and I stepped into the darkened cell. The old gatekeeper waited at my back. Two hundred years ago he would have been a jailer, and this might have been my cell. I straightened up slowly, uncertain of the ceiling height, and waited for my eyes to adjust to the dimness. I had an electric lantern with me, but I wanted my first impressions of the cell to match those of its last tenant. What had he felt as the door closed behind him and the key turned in the lock? In the end, had his eyes turned huge and sight­less from staring into shadows? Had he seen the pyre to which they led him after so many years in the dark? Or had that fi­nal dawn burned out his eyes, even before the flames of the auto-da-fe came leaping from below?

Poor Bruno. Burned alive, a conflagra­tion, no more shadows.

“It’s on the wall behind you,” my guide called after me. “I’ll close the door so you can see it whole.”

I spun around in time to see the doorway closing up: “No!”

But he hadn’t heard me. The old man was possibly quite deaf. Of course, I had wanted him to shut the door eventually— but not so soon. Not until I’d had time to grow used to my surroundings.

I could not bear the darkness. Quickly I switched on the lantern. And found myself staring at Bruno’s masterpiece.

It was a composition in black and white and tones of gray, applied with a hand steadier and more revealing than that of any painter. At first it seemed to me no more than a subtle arrangement of dark and light planes, perfectly abstract, broken by slanting lines and gray arcs, with a row of dappled, feathery shapes suspended from above. It covered the entire wall, including the door through which I had entered the cell. As my eye grew more familiar with the piece, I realized that it was not abstract but had been taken directly from life. The im­age was merely inverted.

Turning on my heel, I regarded the op­posite wall. Yes, there was the window he had used, long since boarded up. In Bru­no’s day it had looked out on a square en­closed by imposing white walls, with arches along one side and slender trees lining the far end. It was this scene which he had captured, in inverse, on the wall of his cell.

All that architecture had long since been destroyed. Where the courtyard had been, there now rose a squat, gray monument to Roman finance. From the street one could see this modern monstrosity and the old prison of the Inquisition hulking shoulder to shoulder, like conspirators.

In that small window, now sightless and dark, Bruno had inserted a wooden shut­ter which completely sealed the cell from light. In the midst of the shutter was a cir­cular aperture, over which he tacked a sheet of gold leaf. And in the very center of that sheet was the tiniest possible hole, no more than a pinprick, admitting only the faintest imaginable light.

Faint, but suitable for his purposes.

I wondered what his jailers had thought when he dispatched them to search for the various strange materials his camera re­quired. He must have had some friend out­side the prison to furnish the gold leaf and chemicals. His requests should have sur­prised no one—he was already thought a sorcerer, after all—but I was amazed that they had ever been honored. What mightn’t he have concocted in the years he spent in prison? Gunpowder? Poison gases? Why not the philosophers’ stone?

But his materials were actually quite harmless and must have seemed so even to the warden: silver salts, bitumen of Ju­daea, pewter sheets, and lavender oil. A lesser man would have given up after months, perhaps even days of frustrated experimentation. But here, for once, Bru­no’s muscular ego served him in good stead. He had eight years in which to work without interruption, undistracted. Eventu­ally he succeeded in rediscovering prin­ciples he had previously taken for granted. Leonardo’s own processes had been kept a careful secret by his estate, which dis­pensed fine cameras, paper, and pre­mixed chemicals to those who dared to purchase them in violation of Church de­crees. It was not until more than a century after Bruno’s death that Da Vinci’s self-im­posed patents expired, and the chemical principles of chiaroscurography became widely understood. But long before that time, following the brilliant suspicions that had made him such a terror to the Church, Bruno had managed to duplicate Da Vin­ci’s findings and develop his own inge­nious techniques.

Imprisonment had slowed his pace but not his mind. It took the flames of the In­quisition to make that engine fail.

No record remains of the trials he con­ducted. History has not preserved his fail­ures. All that remains is Bruno’s triumph, cast in light and shadow on the wall of his living tomb. He must have labored all through the year’s shortest night, painting the wall with the mixture he finally settled upon as ideal, namely an asphalt which hardened on exposure to light.

The entire wall beneath that bituminous layer was covered with sheets of polished pewter, tacked up edge to edge to form a seamless canvas. He had pewter-plated even the door.

At dawn he took his position. The wax­ing sunlight pierced the tiny hole in the sheet of gold leaf, throwing thin rays over Bruno’s wall. It was Midsummer Day, the trees in leaf, the shadows stark and simple on the plaza as the sun crawled overhead. Those shadows were conducted into the dark cell by the pinhole and focused on the light-sensitive coating. Bruno never moved, not for an instant of the year’s long­est day. Sunlight poured through the golden hole, hardening the asphalt wherever it touched. Gradually, invisibly, the bright im­age of the outer world, that expansive courtyard, was frozen in the hardening bi­tumen of Judaea, while all the shadows re­mained soft—none softer than the region directly behind Bruno, which bore his umbral shape. When at last the pinhole went dark, had he collapsed exhausted on the floor of his camera? I do not think so. There was much to do while the asphalt was still soft; he had to act quickly to reveal the mystery hidden on the wall.

He worked through another night with a rag or brush soaked in lavender oil, gently dabbing the coated pewter to remove the soft bitumen, taking microscopic care not to destroy the hardened areas. By candle­light he watched the image emerge: The lines of walls and columns, the sweep of the arches, the sun-flecked leaves of in­verted trees—these were captured in dark pewter and white asphalt. And last of all, his own form emerged.

But where was it?

I raised my own lantern, sending the shadows shifting over the wall, casting light at last upon the door itself, which was slightly recessed in the wall.

There he knelt, Giordano Bruno him­self—the true shadow of the man!

I had not expected this. No one had de­scribed him. In the Church records, there was no mention of the shadow’s posture.

As I have said, he was kneeling. His head leaned forward. In his perfect silhouette I could see the blunt, broken shape of his nose, barely touched to his upraised fin­gertips. His hands were together in prayer. Thus had the heretic portrayed himself— worshipful, dedicated, a devout shadow darkly captured on the door of his cell, im­posed in turn on the inverted sky above (or beneath) the courtyard.

I brought my lamp close to his shadow. More than the perfectly rendered pillars, trees, and arches, it was Bruno’s own out­line that fascinated me. I had seen him be­fore, naturally, in his crumbling self-por­traits. But those had been done in the brief days of his glory, most of them in Witten­berg. Here in Rome at the end of his life he seemed a different man, broken—

Yet not without his triumph.

He had achieved a great part of his aim, had he not? The wall bore testimony to the scope and practicality of his dreams. Here was miraculous evidence that fleeting man could collaborate with the immortal sun. He had proven it in the face of the Church’s ban on cameras, when all chiaroscurographers had been considered heretics— with Bruno merely the worst of them.

In 1591 Giordano Bruno had returned to Italy, his birthplace, in order to convince Pope Clement VIII that the camera and its images were divine in nature—direct gifts from God. Bruno had made a name for himself as a chiaroscurographer and phi­losopher of the camera. In his De umbris idearum, he had eloquently stated his the­sis that no other instrument was so in­spired by pure, heavenly principles. In its renderings of light and darkness, the cam­era seemed to Bruno the perfect tool for the Church, an actual key to the Kingdom of God, the City of the Sun. He pointed out that while the Bible was itself largely incomprehensible to the common man, these images—named chiaroscurographs by their inventor, Leonardo da Vinci—could be widely appreciated, highly instructive, and capable of infinite subtlety, surpass­ing even the interpretive powers of a Mi­chelangelo, a Raphael.

But Bruno’s words had gone no farther than the porches of the papal ears. The Church had already condemned all cam­era images; the instrument itself was dubbed the Eye of the Devil. For it was blasphemy to think of collaborating with the sun. The hand of a painter at least was guided by God, who could thus reveal or disguise His plan as He saw fit. But this perfection—it was unholy! Clement him­self had toyed briefly with the device—and with impunity, given his position—but he abandoned it as too complex and never looked kindly on the attempts of lesser men to “dabble in light.” So Bruno asked, How will we ever erect the City of God unless each man understands the design and knows his part in the building thereof?

Clement remained silent, averted his gaze. For Bruno, to be ignored was the greatest of hardships. He decided he must go beyond words to make his point. He must let the images themselves speak to the Church and to the common mind.

In Wittenberg, Bruno had been wel­comed and much admired by the Lu­therans. He had taught chiaroscurography at Luther’s own university until Calvinist scholars rose to power and drove him out, protesting in particular his scandalous use of the town’s young men and prostitutes in composing his more elaborate scenes. He had never lost his fondness for the mem­ory of Martin Luther, and now he followed Luther’s example from the Diet of Worms— although in a style more true to his own extravagance. To the doors and walls of the Vatican he fastened a hundred of his images, the best of his life’s work. He hoped they would persuade the Church to recon­sider its position. And indeed the Church did revise its previous attitude, much to Bruno’s misfortune.

That very morning, while Rome babbled of all it had seen or thought it had seen on the Vatican walls, Giordano Bruno was ar­rested. His camera was destroyed, his chiaroscurographs seized, and his soul confined to a dark cell where it was hoped that he would presently rot.

The Inquisition could not comprehend a creature that flourished in the dark. Appar­ently the masterpiece on his cell wall was the heresy that made all the others seem unbearable. Composed on Midsummer Day in 1599, it was not discovered until the following year. He was promptly burned at the stake, on February 17, 1600, like a mar­tyr lit to warm in the chilly new century.

I marveled that the Inquisition had let the image stand.

For two hundred years no one had touched this wall. No other prisoner had occupied the cell. It had been sealed, toured occasionally by prison curators and Vatican scholars, and whispered of in im­precise terms. But it had not been de­stroyed. The Church kept it locked away but perfectly preserved, in the most per­verse hypocrisy imaginable. They found the image intolerable and yet they treasured it, just as they treasure their pagan idols, their hundred-breasted Aphrodites, their for­bidden books, and the thick compendiums of heretical chiaroscurographs which lie under lock and key in carefully humidified vaults in the Vatican library.

No one but those librarians and a few select others have been allowed to glimpse Bruno’s camera work for these two hun­dred years. I have looked on them. I have seen the hundred images he tacked de­fiantly to the Vatican wall. De imaginum, signorum et idearum compositione. They were seized by the Church so quickly that none of the public seemed quite sure of what they had witnessed. But those im­ages will never leave my mind: softly lit nudes—male and female both. Adam and Eve stand gleaming like statues in a sunlit grove, their hands joined, staring up at the sun. No fig leaf hides Adam’s sex; no mod­est torsion of the pelvis obscures the folds of Eve’s thighs, the curls of her pubic hair.

A pale Madonna nurses a silver babe, her face half in darkness with one eye gleam­ing out of the darkly textured shadows.

A white dove’s weight curves the olive branch on which it rests, forming a precise and delicate arch that resembles the expression of some forbidden equation.

Sunlight on craggy mountains; sunlight on the towers of a walled town; pillars of sunlight falling through broken clouds, set­ting pools of fire upon a sea of grain.

White breasts, dark nipples, the faint gray stipple of pores—all against a back­ground of deepest black.

A penis, uncircumcised, nested in dark curls. Another standing erect against a shadowed backdrop. I remember the smooth arch of pubic bone beneath the flesh. A couple entwined in a forest, their clothes piled at the base of a tree whose long branches stroke his back and her legs.

Images of dangerous beauty, of course these dominate the memory.

But had the scandalized church fathers even looked at half the images they snatched down? What of the street scenes? What of the portraits? These were the peo­ple of Bruno’s day, the people of any day. Laughing, grieving, beautiful, and disfig­ured. One was a man who posed for the sculptors of gargoyles, his face hideously contorted by a syndrome which has yet to be named. Then a succession of dark-eyed Magdalens, all of them different yet some­how similar. Bruno’s lovers? I wonder. I wonder that these marvels have survived.

The door creaked and swung open, tak­ing Bruno’s captive shadow with it.

“Wait,” I told the keeper. “Just a moment longer. I’m not quite finished yet.”

He peered in at me, puzzled, and shrugged. “As you like. Knock when you’re ready.” He shut the door.

I set my lantern on the high window ledge and set it at full radiance. Crouching, I let my eyes rove over the entire surface of the wall. They returned again and again to the door, the praying hands, the profile. A curve of the doorway hid the cuff of Bruno’s sleeve; I moved the lantern slightly to one side so that the entire shadow lay re­vealed. When I was satisfied, I unsnapped the leather cover on my own camera and peered down into the lens. Bruno’s wall more than filled the ground glass. There was no room to move back, to encompass more of the wall.

I took in a deep breath, let it out, and at the turning of the next inhalation—the mo­ment of greatest stillness in the soul—I triggered the shutter, exposed my image.

One was all I made. Like Bruno, I felt I had one chance.

It was as I approached the door for a final time, to leave the cell, that I noticed faint scratches within the head of Bruno’s shadow: lines of poetry, engraved there by the prisoner himself:


“Escaped from the narrow murky prison

Where for so many years error held me straitly,

Here I leave the chain that bound me

And the shadow of my fiercely malicious foe.”


“My fiercely malicious foe . . . ”

Had he meant the Inquisition or himself?

I sensed the frustration in the scratched handwriting. If only he had been quieter, subtler in his methods, the Church per­haps would have let him go on with his work, even ignored him. Other chiaroscurographers had thrived, albeit on other continents. With time the world might have come to appreciate him. He might not have had to die upon the pyre. But Bruno was Bruno. He could be no one else. And who can escape his own shadow?

Moments later, I stood in the corridor with my camera packed away, my lantern dark, watching the back of the old gatekeeper as he led me out of the prison, amiably chatting the whole way. I did not hear a word he said until we stood nearly on the threshold of the building, when he opened the last great set of doors to let me out onto the street. The noise of the world pressed in, with all its sights and sounds, its com­plex shadows and harsh images. I won­dered what Bruno would have made of this.

I wondered how different this street might have looked today had the Church recon­sidered its position in Bruno’s hour and let him continue his work—with some modifi­cation—under its aegis.

I could not envision it. The lens of time lay focused on this moment to the exclu­sion of every other. Combustion carriages roared and fumed in the street, terrifying the few remaining horses. I prefer to walk, to take my time in this swiftly changing world, to look for images that seem to em­body our progress—and our decline.

The doorman fell silent, as if in sympa­thy. I turned back to him. He had a good face, skin that held the light. I thought of taking his image as he stood there half in shadow, dwarfed by the huge iron doors. The sun’s position was ideal.

“Would you mind?” I said, raising my camera slightly.

His eyes widened. “Are you allowed?”

“Allowed?” I asked, uncovering my ground glass.

“I didn’t think—well, you being the Vati­can ‘scurographer and all. . . Someone like me is of no importance.”

“On the contrary.” I uncapped the lens. “The sun shines on us all.”

He stood waiting, stiffly posed, his eyes appearing empty as a statue’s in my view­ing lens. I wondered how to unlock his face’s expressiveness.

“You know the reason why I’ve come here today, don’t you?” I asked.

“Not exactly, sir,” he answered, still looking somewhat awkward and expectant.

“I wanted to get a record of Bruno’s cell. You see, they’re planning on tearing this old prison down.”

The doorman whistled between his teeth, eyebrows raised. Now there was a look worth capturing. In that instant I exposed the image.

“And what’s to go in its place? Another bank? Will they be needing a doorman, do you think?”

“I imagine so. It’s to be a gallery, a mu­seum of art. The Giordano Bruno Institute of Chiaroscurography.”

And with that, I bid him good day.

* * *

“Bruno’s Shadow” copyright 1988 by Marc Laidlaw. First appeared in Omni Magazine, August 1988.