On Ioan P. Couliano's reading of Giordano Bruno's theory of love and magic

Ioan P. Couliano’s Eros and Magic in the Renaissance (1987) presents a very inspiring and informed take on the history of interpretations of love and the imagination in early modernity, which certainly deserves to be taken more seriously by historians. However, the historian misread Giordano Bruno’s intentions with his theory of love and magic, and specifically as presented in the –admittedly baffling and certainly unique- work On bonds in general (De vinculis in genere).


Some summary notes on Couliano’s less than precise interpretation.


The passages that, according to Couliano, show that Bruno’s theories of love and magic are intended for mass manipulation and that he thought of religion in the same way, are taken out of context and misread, perhaps – understandably - due to the historian’s own politically difficult biographical context.

Firstly. The following passage is the only one among Couliano’s references that might vaguely be associated to ‘mass manipulation’: “It is, indeed, easier to manipulate (vincire, ‘to bind’ is a far more accurate translation than the misleading 'to manipulate') several persons than one only” - hardly enough evidence that in his practice of magic, Bruno envisaged mass manipulation (politically or otherwise), let alone that the work’s aim was to instruct its readers about this possibility.

Secondly, Couliano mentions Bruno's “faith” as the Bond of Bonds and infers that Bruno described religion as a form of mass manipulation. But the passages he quotes refer to faith (fides) as a general human faculty, which engenders, among other things, religion and love. Moreover, these passages refer to faith in the efficacy of a bond of magic, not to faith in God specifically, nor does Bruno explicitly associate them to religious institutions. So the passages do not substantiate Couliano’s claim that, according to Bruno, “all religion is a form of mass manipulation”.  

More generally, I think Bruno’s intentions in formulating his theory of love and magic were not at all grim. He intended to instruct the reader and exhort him - or perhaps also, her - to becoming a passionate “hero” or “divine human being” – an aim that he had also set for himself, ever since his entering the Dominican convent in Naples in his younger years. 

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