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Ten White Horses

A Brief Biographical Sketch of Campanella: For Those Unfamiliar

Tommaso Campanella had nearly given up when he wrote:

I fear that to die is not to improve
The human state, for this I do not die:
So great and wide is this miserable nest,
That, so long in change, there’s no escape.

“The Caucasus Sonnet” lines 1-4

It was July, 1604. He had five years before helped foment an uprising against secular Spanish authority in his native Calabria. After a series of trials and interrogations he had endured torture at the hands of the mind-stealing la veglia, and proven his insanity by law. He had through his courage survived and in fact resolved himself. An attempted and failed escape from the Castel Nuovo, now had him thrown into the near-lightless dungeon of the fortress San Elmo, where he scribbled out poems as a last hope, carrying on a Job-like doubting dialogue with God. In this aptly-titled poem, he contemplates suicide, yet sees that even this will not save him or others. Deprived of the rays of the Sun that symbolized his God, turning within, he finds a rebirth. The revolutionary Dominican friar would become a prophet, a man whose ideas would bridge the Renaissance to the Age of Reason, and a man whose power of conviction still casts an illuminating light.

Born on the September 5th, 1568, in Stilo, Calabria, son to an illiterate cobbler, in his youth he would exhibit the first signs of the insatiable intellect and prodigious memory that would later sustain him throughout twenty-seven years of a life in prison. A local myth would rise up of how, too impoverished to pay for schooling, he would listen at the school’s window and aid his friends when they stumbled in their recitations through whispers. It was a Calabria to which he would return a decade later, having taken the vows of the Dominican Order, and nourished himself on the forward-thinking Neapolitan ideas of the Della Porta brothers and their Academy. A combination of empiricism, Hermetic thought and Telesian cosmology had fused in him to form a single and magical vision within which the world and the soul were of one substance. His anti-Aristotlean writings had already earned him trials, interrogations, imprisonments and censure by the Church, so by the time that he returned at his hometown he was walking the fine line of a philosophical dissident at a historic time of little tolerance.

Armed with the concept of the mutazione, a non-ideological “comprehensive shift” involving “astronomy and the heavens,”  apocalyptic associations of the impending millennium year of 1600, and a witness to the crushing weight of poverty upon the peasants of his native town, it was not long before he was preaching in the church of Stilo about “the imminence of grave, worldly upheavals”. Forcibly removed from the Stilo church he continued in the square and over time a circle of men grew around him. His followers included those who did attempt to involve the Turkish fleet in an organized and timed revolt, but the swelling movement was betrayed to the Spanish public prosecutor by two defectors. His dream of presenting a Calabrian state to a unifying papal authority, his moment of political revolution, was over, as Campanella and the others were lead two-by-two in a chain of 156 co-conspirators to be shipped to Naples where they would be judged and sentenced by the secular government.

On April 2nd, 1599 Campanella set fire to the things in his cell in an attempt to feign insanity. He had already been subject to the tortures of the coccodillo, a seven-day, entombed solitary confinement, and of the polledro, designed to tear vein and tissue. His defense that as a Dominican friar he meant catholic Spain no harm did not hold. Various charges and fabrications of the behalf collaborators had made him a target of the investigation. A year after Giordano Bruno had been burned at the stake for heresy, Campanella would be forced to prove his insanity at the hands of the la veglia, ‘the wakener”. Ironically, only “insanity” would spare him from execution because of his status of relapsus before the Church. For forty-eight hours, thirty-six of them without a break, he was suspended from his arms tied behind his back over a chair of razor-sharp spikes meant to tear into his flesh. He shouted, “I am slaughtered!,” “The soul is immortal,” “Ten white horses!” as is recorded by the still-surviving transcript of the ordeal. Later he would claim that it was St. Chyrstom’s homily, “No one is harmed, except by themselves”, that saved him. When he emerged from the torture chamber and defiantly muttered, “Do they really think that I would be enough of a blockhead to speak?,” he did not know that it was not until some years later, in the pit of the San Elmo dungeon, cut off from every contact with the outside world and with no hint of the possibility of freedom, that his soul would finally face and overcome the extinguishing of its hope.

Blessed with a near-photographic memory, Campanella set his reborn soul to the written expression of his ideal of a theocratic state that embraced empirical discovery. From the various prisons to which he would be transferred, under conditions that unpredictably shifted with the tides of political happenstance – shot through with painful glimpses at promised, yet ever-delayed, release – he wrote endlessly, treatise after treatise, describing a single and inspired vision wherein man, political order, science and God were one. His City of the Sun  and A Defense of Galileo  stand alone in history as remarkable amalgams of forward thinking and religious faith. Little did he see that the coming science he championed would severe itself from the Church, that Descartes’ impending “I think therefore I am” would supplant his own philosophical bedrock “to know is to be,” a subtle shift that would define the new Age.

In perhaps the oddest twist of a remarkable life, after many decades of prison and dungeon he ended up in Paris as a kind of flavor of the day intellectual curiosity, the great “Neapolitean Magus-Philosopher,” where his star rose incandescently and then fell quickly dimmed. Through Richelieu’s intervention Campanella was given to cast the natal horoscope of the just born King Louis XIV, and on two occasions Campanella examined the infant King placed on a table. (I cannot resist the idea that the physically huge Italian held him in his hands.) The prediction was unspectacularly neutral in content, but in January 1639 appeared in print his Latin Eclogue in celebration of the birth: he imagined that, through the brilliance of the minister Richelieu the building of his City of the Sun state had been inaugurated by the newborn King. But as it would be told, not Solar City but Solar King, such are the folds of history. And, it is said that history does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.