Co-edited by Eugenio Canone and Ingrid D. Rowland, The Alchemy of Extremes. The Laboratory of the Eroici Furori of Giordano Bruno, is a wonderful and welcome addition to recent Bruno studies, which continue to flourish. Both Rowland and Canone have been quite active in this Bruno revival, with Rowland's 2008 publication of Giordano Bruno: Philosopher/Heretic (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), a biography that is sure to join Frances Yates' renowned Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition as important reading on Bruno; and Canone's numerous studies, as well as directorship of the Istituti Editoriali e Poligrafici Internazionali--the publisher of this present volume and of the journal Bruniana 8 Campanelliana since 1995. Soon, the University of California Press will begin releasing as a series of six volumes, under the direction of Brian Copenhaver and David Marsh, the first critical English edition of Bruno's Dialoghi italiani.
The Alchemy of Extremes is the proceedings of a conference dedicated to Bruno's 1585 dialogue, De gli eroici furori [The Heroic Frenzies] held May 9-10, 2003 at the American Academy in Rome and co-hosted by the Istituto del Lessico Intellettuale Europeo. The thirteen contributors are among the leading Bruno scholars residing in Italy, England, the US, and Germany, and, as is often the case in gatherings of Bruno scholars, they approach Bruno's work from various disciplinary orientations: philosophy, literary studies, history, religion, and art history.
The word "laboratory" chosen by the editors is an apt term to describe Bruno's Furori. Reading the text is, in fact, like entering a busy workshop and seeing before you numerous individuals (the interlocutors: ten, to be exact) crafting an amalgam of dialogue, prose, poetry, mottos, and verbally-depicted emblems. Placed by Bruno as the final dialogue of six that he wrote while in England, and his last published text in Italian, the Furori is, arguably, an important text to investigate in light of his early and mid-production thought. While, as a sort of road map or recipe book for the true, "heroic" seeker of wisdom/the Divine the Furori is unique in Bruno's oeuvre, it contains, as these essays show, more than a few echoes and anticipations of topics associated more directly with his earlier and later works.
In their preface, Canone and Rowland offer a concise overview of Bruno as an historical figure (special attention is given to his "loner" and "knight errant" status) and subject of study. They point to how the many interpretations elicited by Bruno's work (and in this particular case, his Furori) seem to echo his theories of a universe of infinitely many centers and possible entities, as well as his theory of vicissitudes in the human and natural worlds. The "extremes" of Bruno's "alchemy" is, in fact, precisely about this: navigating the dynamic interactions of multiples, binaries, differences, and opposites in the world around us and within us. It is this very principle underlying Bruno's universe and language that makes the meanings of his works so eminently debatable and, at times, so elusive to one's grasp.
The editors acknowledge straight off that many of Bruno's works were not easily understood by his contemporaries; in some cases, this was precisely the author's intention. Subsequently, his writings are even more challenging for modern readers, complicated as they are by the frequent difficulty with which scholars are faced in identifying Bruno's sources as well as the "basic unity of [his] thought" (10). Given the academic forum in which the essays in this volume were first presented, these studies are primarily geared toward scholars of Bruno and Renaissance Studies, not a general readership. That said, anyone interested in Bruno's thought could certainly benefit from perusing this volume, which engages a great many issues central to Bruno's works and Bruno criticism.
The essays (eight in English and four in Italian) are not organized into thematic sections, but rather arranged in alphabetical order by the author's last name. Luciano Albanese opens the collection with a study on the "tripartite" (Anima, Intelletto, e Intelletto superiore, 17-18) apophatic theology in the Furori, strongly influenced, he submits, by the so-called Chaldaic Oracles in its manner of speaking about the journey to the Divine, that is, through speaking about all that it is not.
Also looking at Bruno's Furori with a theological lens, Angelika Bönker-Vallon discusses the Christian Neoplatonism in the Furori in terms of the gnoseological and aesthetic principles informing Bruno's concept of being and the self-consciousness of the subject. She traces elements of Bruno's theology and use of metaphoric language back to Pseudo-Dionysius, Scotus Eriugena, and Cusanus, and investigates the paradox of the visualization of God in a paradigm in which God is meant to remain hidden and invisible.
Two essays contemplate "endings." One is Hilary Gatti's "The Sense of an Ending in Bruno's Eroici furori." She begins the essay speaking broadly about endings in Bruno, pointing to Bruno's vision of time and space as endless, and phenomena such as death as a transition. The bulk of her essay engages Bruno's stance on the Christian notion of Apocalypse, looking especially at Joachim of Fiore and the Protestant Jacopo Brocardo, whose writings on the subject may have influenced images in the Furori's final canto.
The other essay on "endings," the longest essay in the volume, is Eugenio Canone's piece entitled "The Two Lights: The Final Concert of the Eroici Furori". By "the final concert" Canone refers to the enigmatic song of the nine illuminati with which Bruno ends the Furori. Often citing water metaphors, Canone explores the song's prophetic, liberatory nature and its representation of the eschatological and soteriological interpretations one can extract from the poem's nod to the vicissitudes of nature. He also notes symbolic and numerological connections between Bruno and Dante, and between the mysterious Signora Morgana B. of the Candelaio, Beatrice, Queen Elisabeth, and Diana.
Three authors in the collection look at Bruno's relation to an important historical figure. Ingrid Rowland discusses Bruno's debts to poet Luigi Tansillo, interlocutor for the first five cantos/dialogues, and outlines why Bruno wove Tansillo--an author of love sonnets not dissimilar to those of Petrarch, for whom Bruno's spares no harsh words--so closely into the fabric of the Furori.
Elisabetta Tarantino looks at elements in Bruno's Furori that may have be of interest to Shakespeare and even inspired him, acknowledging, however, that the jury is still out as to whether Shakespeare and Bruno ever met, or whether Shakespeare read or even knew much about Bruno's work. She looks primarily at Shakespeare's Hamlet, Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Tempest, King Lear, and Timon of Athens, turning often to Philip Sydney as the possible link between Bruno and Shakespeare.
Michael Wyatt's essay fortuitously follows that by Tarantino, investigating why Bruno chose to dedicate the Furori to friend Philip Sydney. He points out similarities in their intellectual strategies, their issues with "imitation" in writing, and a "shared sense of the potentiality of language" (p. 157).
Two essays focus on passions in the Furori. With regard to the "erotic" origin and nature of the frenzied hero in the Furori, Delfina Giovannozzi considers the doctrine of love-sickness--in particular, the confusion between êrôs and erôs drawn from Plato's Cratylus, as well as links between "hero," love, and the concept of the mediating demon in the Symposium; and Ficino's El libro dell'Amore.
And with regard to a Brunian theory of "emotion" (which, as contributor Leen Spruit points out, Bruno never explicitly developed in his writings) Spruit looks at how Bruno portrays passions (affect, affection, and bodily arousal) in the Furori, as well as in De vinculis in genere, addressing issues such as the rational/cognitive aspects of emotion, the psychomachia that can occur between emotion and reason, and the peace that can result from emotion that is guided by the intellect.
Armando Maggi's essay is the only one to speak directly to the numerous and central emblems--the "hypothetical imprese" (95)--of the Furori. Maggi analyzes them in a variety of ways: noting the centrality of the rhetorical structure and force of these verbal images; considering the ways in which Bruno's emblems are "signs" and "indices"; noting the presence of antithetical elements in the emblems (and comparing them to various Renaissance emblem books); and perceiving the frenzied hero as someone who himself becomes an emblem through searching for the Divine. His essay is followed by nineteen figures.
Simonetta Bassi's piece traces Bruno's interest in magic since the time of the Candelaio and how his thoughts on magic--as a delicate subject that requires discipline, humility, great knowledge, and care--developed over the course of his production. Central to Bruno's writing on magic is love: the connector between all things (soul-body, eyes-heart, individual-cosmos, etc.). In the Furori, which is not, as Bassi notes, a work on magic, magic is, in fact, present in the portrayal of the love that is fundamental to the hero on his journey.
Paul Richard Blum's study, "La caccia di Atteone" [The Hunt of Actaeon], illuminates what is comic and painfully human in discussions of the Divine, drawing connections between Bruno's Spaccio de la bestia trionfante and the Furori in terms of the oft humorous, oft self-inflicted dangers in encountering mysteries and searching for answers.
As a side note, and not by any means a problem, there are no essays in this collection that take as their primary subject the possible links between the Furori and his art of memory, or the Furori and his cosmology.
If there are any lacks in this marvelous volume of excellent essays, they are small and few: the preface does not include an overview of the contributions in the volume; and despite the rich bibliography in the footnotes accompanying each essay, a volume of this sort would have been well-served by a bibliography on the Furori that includes all scholarship to date. Another bit of discussion the preface might have addressed is why the editors hold that not only is the Furori unique within Bruno's opus, but within Renaissance literary and philosophical production as a whole.
And finally, a bit more elaboration on the references the editors make to Bruno's "antitheological," "antimetaphysical," "anti-Christian," and "anti-Platonic" positions would have been helpful. While Bruno engaged in a great deal of polemics with most doctrines he encountered, these are strong terms, and it is not clear how the editors are using them.
There is no question that The Alchemy of Extremes constitutes essential reading for anyone interested in the Furori and Bruno's thought in general. The essays gathered here are both innovative and in conversation with centuries of Bruno scholarship--they demonstrate Bruno scholarship at its very best.