One day I would write all this in a book that would be my lifes work, a
book that would send such ripples through Christendom, as Copernicuss De
revolutionibus orbium coelestium had done, but greater still, a book that would
undo all the certainties not only of the Roman church but of the whole
Christian religion. But there was still so much more that I needed to understand,
too many books I had yet to read, books of astrology and ancient
magic, all of which were forbidden by the Dominican order and which I
could never obtain from the library at San Domenico Maggiore. I knew that
if I were to stand before the Holy Roman Inquisition now, all of this would
be pricked out of me with white- hot irons, with the rack or the wheel, until
I vomited my hypothesis out half cooked, whereupon they would burn me
for heresy. I was twenty- eight years old; I did not want to die just yet. I had
no choice but to run.
It was just after compline; the monks of San Domenico were preparing
to retire for the night. Bursting into the cell I shared with Fra Paolo of Rimini,
trailing the cold of the night on my hair and habit, I rushed frantically
about the tiny room, gathering what few belongings I had into an oilskin
bag. Paolo had been lying in contemplation on his straw pallet when I flung
the door open; now he propped himself up on one elbow, watching my
frenzy with concern. He and I had joined the monastery together as novices
at the age of fifteen; now, thirteen years later, he was the only one I thought
of as a brother in the true sense.
They have sent for the Father Inquisitor, I explained, catching my
breath. There is no time to lose.
You missed compline again. I told you, Bruno, Paolo said, shaking his
head. If you spend so many hours in the privy every night, people will grow
suspicious. Fra Tomasso has been telling everyone you have some grievous
disease of the bowelI said it would not take long for Montalcino to deduce
your true business and alert the abbot.
It was only Erasmus, for Christs sake, I said, irritated. I must leave
tonight, Paolo, before I am questioned. Have you seen my winter cloak?
Paolos face was suddenly grave.
Bruno, you know a Dominican may not abandon his order, on pain of
excommunication. If you run away, they will take it as a confession, they
will put out a warrant for you. You will be condemned as a heretic.
And if I stay I will be condemned as a heretic, I said. It will hurt less
But where will you go? How will you live? My friend looked pained;
I stopped my searching and laid my hand on his shoulder.
I will travel at night, I will sing and dance or beg for bread if I have to,
and when I have put enough distance between myself and Naples, I will
teach for a living. I took my doctor of theology last yearthere are plenty
of universities in Italy. I tried to sound cheerful, but in truth my heart was
pounding and my bowels were turning to water; it was somewhat ironic
that I could not now go near the privy.
You will never be safe in Italy if the Inquisition name you as a heretic,
Paolo said sadly. They will not rest until they see you burned.
Then I must get out before they have the chance. Perhaps I will go to
I turned away to look for my cloak. There flashed into my memory, as
clear as the day it was first imprinted, the image of a man consumed by fire,
his head twisted back in agony as he tried in vain to turn his face from the
heat of the flames that tore hungrily at his clothes. It was that human, fruitless
gesture that stayed with me in the years afterwardthat movement to
protect his face from the fire, though his head was bound to a stakeand
since then I had deliberately avoided the spectacle of another burning. I had
been twelve years old, and my father, a professional soldier and a man of orthodox
and sincere belief, had taken me to Rome to watch a public execution
for my edification and instruction. We had secured a good vantage point
for ourselves in the Campo dei Fiori toward the back of the jostling crowd,
and I had been amazed at how many had gathered to make profit from the
event as if it were a bearbaiting or a fair: sellers of pamphlets, mendicant friars,
men and women peddling bread and cakes or fried fish from trays
around their necks. Neither had I expected the cruelty of the crowd, who
mocked the prisoner with insults, spitting and throwing stones at him as he
was led silently to the stake, his head bowed. I wondered if his silence were
defeat or dignity, but my father explained that he had an iron spike driven
through his tongue so that he could not try to convert the spectators by repeating
his foul heresies from the pyre.
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