Giordano Bruno and the Stuart Court Masques

By Gatti, Hilary | Renaissance Quarterly, Winter 1995 | Go to article overview

Giordano Bruno and the Stuart Court Masques

Gatti, Hilary, Renaissance Quarterly

It has long been known that Bruno's fourth Italian dialogue, Lo spaccio della bestia trionfante, written and published in London in 1584, was used as a source by Thomas Carew for his masque Coelum Britannicum.(1) This was Carew's only masque; but it was by no means a minor event within the Stuart calendar of court entertainments. However, in spite of general agreement on the quality of Coelum Britannicum as one of the major entertainments of the Stuart court, the use by Carew of Bruno's dialogue has never been extensively or satisfactorily commented on. Both Bruno and Carew scholars have clearly been ill at ease with the relationship and have tended to dismiss it with a few brief and evasive remarks.

There are few contributions of any significance to what is a very fragmentary discussion. In 1949 Rhodes Dunlap in his edition of The Poems of Thomas Carew supplied in his commentary on the masque a useful, if partial, list of the passages in the Spaccio that Carew took over and integrated into his text.(2) In 1964 Frances Yates referred to Dunlap's work in her book on Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition, raising the question of the Bruno-Carew relationship briefly in a chapter on Bruno and Tommaso Campanella. Yates thought that the two Italian philosophers shared a common mystical cult of the French and British monarchies that Carew incorporated into his masque.(3) In 1973 Orgel and Strong raised the question of Carew's source in their essay on "Platonic Politics" in the edition of Inigo Jones: The Theatre of the Stuart Court.(4) Orgel and Strong accepted without question Yates's Hermetic interpretation of a Bruno with pronounced mystical leanings. Carew's masque, on the other hand, was read by them as a powerfully poetical but also keenly intellectual Machiavellian as well as Neoplatonic celebration of absolute monarchy far removed from Bruno's esoteric and occult mysticism. Orgel and Strong concluded that Carew was only superficially interested in Bruno's text: he took from it only the fable while the meanings of the masque remained original to Carew and Inigo Jones.

The widespread influence of this much-quoted essay by the major authorities on the Stuart masque has had the effect of quelling further discussion of Carew's use of Bruno. Subsequent scholars have rarely bothered any longer even to name Bruno as a source in their discussions of Carew and his masque. Among the few notable exceptions are Annabel Patterson's interesting pages on "Thomas Carew: 'a privileged Scoffer?'" in Censorship and Interpretation: The Conditions of Writing and Reading in Early Modern England, where the ambiguities of Carew's masque are underlined. A few years later John Kerrigan's British Academy lecture on Carew recognized the political sympathies expressed in Bruno's Spaccio as a classical republicanism filtered through Machiavelli. Kerrigan notes that Bruno's sense of universal vicissitude renders Jove and the Olympian Gods subject to fate and decay. Added to the openly heretical and anti-Christian polemic that is such a notable aspect of Bruno's dialogue, Carew's choice of source, in Kerrigan's opinion, hardly promises "a celebration of that royal asterism, the King as Defender of the Faith."(5) To these examples may be added the brief remarks by Joanne Altieri in her essay "Carew's Momus: A Caroline Response to Platonic Politics," where the "prevailingly unpanegyric eye" of Bruno's Momus is seen as the inspiration for what the author considers as Carew's brilliant but at the same time ambiguous undercutting of Mercury's Platonic idealizations.(6)

This paper will attempt a more searching and widespread inquiry into the presence of Bruno's philosophical dialogues in the fragile, refined, and essentially illusory world of the Stuart court masque. What political considerations, literary choices, or possible misreadings led to the unlikely intrusion of the Nolan philosophy into the elegant vistas of Inigo Jones's royal banqueting hall in Whitehall? …

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