Bonfire Night: Reflections on the price of righteous violence

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vvendettaprotesterslondonBy Gaither Stewart, Senior Editor.

[S]aturday. Shortly before midnight. Late for most people, early for regulars. Matteo and I watch the early birds light a small bonfire at the far end of the piazza as happens on many cold Saturday nights. We’re sitting under the brooding hooded Giordano Bruno statue and as usual we’re talking about the controversial philosopher’s heresy and his burning at the stake here on Campo de’ Fiori. I had taken no count of the passage of time. At home Giuliana will be anxious about me. Again I call her to assure her that all is well.


Most shops and non-eateries around the market square have closed. But the bars, restaurant take-out counters, the pizza-makers and street hawkers are doing a sudden brisk business. The general atmosphere is euphoric. Day and night. Night and day. The piazza-open air market lives as it has for centuries, for millennia. Despite the humid cold, infra-red heated restaurant sidewalk tables are thronged to capacity with tourists and curious uptown people observing the raw life on this cobblestone and cement island in the Old Town at the very throbbing heart of Rome. As every Saturday night the frenzy of the crowd on the piazza swells with every passing hour. No rules, ordinances and laws can control the beast. Saturday night itself unveils the other face of the Eternal City. Maybe that face has existed forever. This piazza’s dichotomy is in fact innate to Rome where the piazza is the beginning and the end of the street mob.

Days, as we sit here in this same spot at the base of the hardly visible monument, through the din of barking dogs and the cacophony of the hawkers’ cries from myriad sales stalls, the smell of fish wafts across the piazza and smoke rises from the ovens with chickens turning on the spit. Mobs compete for the scarce sidewalk space, shoppers elbowing one another to be first in line, hell for some, raw Rome life for me. Right on the Campo you can get a lungful of the city’s conflicting smells—fruits and fish, flowers and human sweat and, in the afternoon, after the market closes down, the hint of hovering sea air.

Women push babies in carriages among the stands while their small children race around among the vendors’ stalls, their cries muted by revving motorcycles and honking delivery trucks. Market stands are loaded with the product of the Mediterranean world: vegetables, fruits, meat and fowl from all of Latium, from Sicily, from the islands, from Umbria, Abruzzo, Tuscany, Le Marche, from across the seas and the mountains, all exploding into color here in Rome’s heart. One day I catalogued the products—chicken, turkey, pheasant, quail, veal and pork, hams and salami hanging from doorways and windows, lamb and mutton from the visible mountains, Tuscan beef, horse meat and the innards from the Testaccio slaughterhouses, tripe, rabbit and boar from the Tuscia to the north, apples, pears, oranges, tangerines, figs, plums, grapefruit, melons, apricots, bananas, cantaloupes, pomegranates, avocados, grapes, spinach, greens, lettuce, cabbage, green beans, peas, radishes, beets, squash, broccoli, artichokes, tomatoes, potatoes, onions, hot peppers, caccomela, rhubarb, celery, turnips, cucumbers, carrots, egg plant, zucchini, parsley, mushrooms and champignons; and sole, sea bass, cernia, orate, ombrine, triglie, mussels, crabs, shrimp, lobsters, cod, swordfish, calamari octopus, perch and trout.

Nights, only Matteo and I dawdle under Bruno’s smoldering gaze, his fury or frustration or vengeance or accusation or perhaps the ecstasy of his imminent burning for truth in his eyes that seem fixed on us. Matteo is my most important friend whom I meet only in this very spot on Rome’s former execution site.

Matteo sprinkles our conversations with statements like, “Lorenzo, it’s the eminence of all life that we must keep in mind.” He is one of those rare persons overcome and overcrowded by the passionate joy of living and discovery. To myself I sometimes call him Plato because he knows everything. I believe he finds it natural that I consider myself his pupil because of his didactic approach to life—not because he wants to display his knowledge but because of his necessity of sharing his fire.

He says now in English: “Bruno also said this: ‘Innumerable suns exist; innumerable earths revolve around those suns in a manner similar to the way the seven planets revolve around our sun. Living beings inhabit these worlds.’

“My God!” I gasp. “He said that over five hundred years ago … a half millennium!”

“Bruno would never use that expression,” Matteo mutters and chuckles to himself, as calm as the waters of Lake Nemi in the nearby Roman Castles region.

“What expression do you mean, my friend?”

“My God, I meant”

“He went to the stake because he said the world was round? Sounds like something from the enlightened Arab world of then.”

“Well, not only that. He didn’t believe in the divinity of Christ either.”

“Now that’s a different serious matter. But do you?”

“Do I what? Believe in the divinity of Christ? Most certainly not. But they don’t burn us at the stake for that paucity of faith today.”

At this hour the crowds milling around on the far end of square grow by the minute. The canvas is broad: skinheads, soccer hardliner fans—some hairy and bare-chested—and tough-looking youth from the suburbs mingling with more stylishly dressed bourgeois types maybe government employees during the week, amalgamate in a visibly tense and fragile brotherly promiscuity. Like every Saturday night they are all consciously looking for trouble. Most carry bottles of beer like weapons, just in case, with looks on their faces of males who want to break something or someone’s head. Links of chains hang out of some jacket pockets. The rare, especially brave or especially naïve young policemen tiptoeing uneasily around the edges of the pulsating piazza, and trying to look peaceful and inconspicuous, have hidden from sight their pistols and their billies, Italian police’s infamous manganelli.

“Observe the transformation over there closely,” Matteo says softly. “With each beer, with each innocuous passage of a police uniform, with each spark from the bonfire, their interior fury mounts.”

At this moment the flames of the bonfire still have that rather pacific-looking, almost inviting orange color which encourages some to hold out their hands and rub them together, it seems to me, rather nervously.

“They seem more scared than angry,” I comment.

“They’re both,” Matteo says.

“Both what?”

“Both scared of themselves and angry at the world they don’t love,” my philosopher friend begins. “Did you know this is a bonfire night? A night to build bonfires and dance around them.”

“What’s that, bonfire nights?”


V-VENDETTA-BREAKGLASSGuy Fawkes, vilified in the English world, was a man unimpressed by royal rank. He plotted a regicide. He could have been the forerunner of Cromwell, and later the American and French Revolutions.

“Bonfire nights? Something old and traditional. Violent? you ask. Yes. But impossible to predict just how violent. Did you know that some people claim the world today is less violent than in earlier centuries?”

“Hah! Those guys over there don’t seem to know it.”

“No! Nobody told them.”

“Maybe it’s the bonfires that make men violent,” I say.

“There’s that too. Nights have always been mystical and mysterious to men. But the bonfire lights up something in their psyche and brings to fore that unpredictable violence, so to speak. The flames are signals to hate and savagery. Bonfires are symbolic pagan rites … sometimes also violently anti-religious. They are plot and intrigue … and also madness. Around a bonfire people do unusual things. Things they know they shouldn’t do. Look at them over there, nearly burning their hands just to warm them. Or to prove their manliness. They have to. They know fire burns but what do they care? They stick them in the flames anyway. Ah, yes, bonfires! What’s the date anyway?

“The day or the date?”

“The date. The date. It’s all important.”

I flip open my cell. “The fifth. Why?”

“The fifth of November. What else! I should have known! Bonfires do that too … they make you lose track of time. Guy Fawkes Day. No wonder the commotion. Those over there don’t even understand it but something inexplicable—maybe it’s atavistic and infectious too, leaping across the channel and heading south—is making their blood boil on this English celebration day. London seems nearer. Just wait till the effigies arrive.”

“Effigies! What effigies?”

“Just wait my impatient young friend and you’ll see for yourself”

“Who is this Guy Fawkes?”

“Fawkes was an English conspirator against royalty. A Catholic military man who plotted to blow up the English Parliament and the king with it. This was long before the great English Revolution of 1649. You might say that Fawkes was the forerunner of that great revolution that led to the French and the Russian revolutions.


“His moment is not one to be underestimated in the history of man any more than is the burning of Bruno. If I were religious, I would say that burning Bruno today is sacrilegious. Fawkes Day however has come to mean wearing masks, lighting huge bonfires, setting off fireworks, burning effigies of him or of anyone else for that matter—even effigies of the Pope—and today to celebrate the fact that the Parliament and James I were not blown up by Guy Fawkes. You remember that I spent my apprentice years in England where I learned this ditty for children:

Remember, remember the Fifth of November,
Gunpowder Treason and Plot,
I see of no reason
Why Gunpowder Treason
Should ever be forgot.
Guy Fawkes, Guy Fawkes, t’was his intent
To blow up King and Parliament.
Three-score barrels of powder below
To prove old England’s overthrow;
By God’s providence he was catch’d
With a dark lantern and burning match.
Holloa boys, holloa boys, let the bells ring.
Holloa boys, holloa boys, God save the King!”

(Like I said, Matteo truly knows everything.)

On that note Matteo goes over to the bakery, the flames of its ovens visible to us some thirty meters away, and returns with hot rolls. He hands me one wrapped in a napkin. I open it and start to take a bite when I see it is an image: the image of Giordano Bruno, hood and all, under whose statue we are sitting. The roll is warm, its veritable bouquet irresistible. It swirls up into my nose. My mouth waters and I start to bite off Bruno’s head telling myself this is only a roll. But superstitiously obsessive, I turn it around and start with his legs.

Matteo smiles at me ironically, bites off the head of his roll and says, “Mine was Lucifer.”

“Old Bruno,” I venture, trying to prompt one of Matteo’s discourses, “pales before hot rolls, Guy Fawkes and life in general here on the Campo. You know, I believe the philosopher would’ve liked this place today—if not for the memory of his fiery end.”

“Listen, Lorenzo,” Matteo says at length—though he knows my name is Günther, he calls me Lorenzo, when he calls me by any name at all, in memory of Lorenzo de Medici, the powerful and rich Florentine intellectual, writer and politician of the 15th century …simply because I work and earn money as an English-German translator. “I’ve thought about Bruno most of my life … especially when I was a … a, uh, a fighter for the revolution. And keep in mind that history itself has not yet registered a stable appraisal of him.”

He stirs around, clears his throat, lights a cigarette and looks at me, the glint of mischief still in his hypnotic eyes, and I know, his mind wandering in several directions at once.

“Someday I’m going to write a scholarly article about his heroism. He has always been a hero for me. Most probably he would be a revolutionary today. Although, I suppose, his eventual end would be about the same as then.”

“Rome doesn’t seem to love its real heroes,” I said, quoting some modern sociologist-historian. “Has never loved its heroes. Look what it did to Cola di Rienzo just for offering the city rebirth. Loved him, then killed him. And later built a monument to him.”

“They love them, at first, their heroes. But not for long. This is a city of clowns and crowds, of priests and kings, whose heroes quickly become outcasts. From the beginning condemned to the stake. That’s why Rome is so little literary; they burn their heroes. Or they throw them out of windows onto our Sanpietrini stones. Defenestration is an old Rome story. Largely untold. Little meaningful literature about Rome, as about Paris.

“In general, unhappiness is less celebrated in Rome’s culture than are rites of life and self-worship. Too intent on their individual well-being for self-contemplation, Romans don’t even reflect on unhappiness. As a rule they’re too egocentric, cynical, grasping, cunning for poetry. Poets always come from somewhere else.

“Rome is a city of silent and empty churches with frescoes and Madonnas and images of popes and cardinals on its facades … but with few heroes. Real Romans are plebs … who fall for charismatic leaders … but like children only briefly. In fact, the era of charisma is ending. They are neither loyal, nor literary. Overnight they create and worship their heroes but just as quickly they rip them down and trample them like disgruntled children … and yes, you’re right, they sometimes build monuments to them … later.”

Then, getting to his feet and squinting upwards at the hooded figure above us. “The difference between Bruno and Lenin can determine your life,” he says enigmatically, a certain finality in his tone, sits back down and falls silent for some moments.

Then: “At least it did mine.”


Again, silence. I notice that the darkness is darker high above us, penetrated only by regular sweeps of searchlights from the Presidential Palace on the Quirinal Hill. The bonfire has grown taller, now glowing brighter. Gradually it has turned red. I call home again and tell Giuliana to sleep peacefully and that I’m working. That little lie won’t hurt anyone, I tell myself … Matteo style.


Matteo’s now vacant eyes sweep over the noisy piazza as if unseeing the present surrounding us. Absent-mindedly he turns on his little portable tape recorder and the only music I’ve ever heard him play sounds softly. “The first movement of Shostakovich’s Seventh,” he mutters, as each time. “The Leningrad!” he adds. Then, rather eerily through the brouhaha of the packed piazza his voice lands in my ear turned toward him:

“You see, I was once involved in revolution too. But that is an old story. All over now. Our movement—and my role in it—ended years ago when they abducted and killed the Prime Minister. Like Fawkes on November 4, I was one step from the grave myself. That was before the secret services took over our revolutionary movement … our one chance to change the flow of history. We lost our chance just as Fawkes did his. But his idea matured another six decades before the English revolution exploded on the world while ours is still maturing. Just perhaps. Actually, it seems to be vanishing as if it never happened.”

When Matteo speaks about his past and the past in general and that faraway look invades his eyes, he is even more spellbinding than usual. “It was easy for the priests and the politicians to label Bruno mad. From their perspective they were right. For he was convinced that religion—remember it was the established order of the day—was a mass of superstitions. Bruno’s unstinting rebellion led him to the stake here on the piazza where we’re sitting and where over there they’re eating their pizza and drinking their beer and dancing around the bonfire.

“But Bruno’s hate for the establishment, his nonconformity would have made him a hero today. He didn’t wear masks like Fawkes Day maskers. He didn’t have to act different as people do today to attract attention. He was different. He would have rebelled against any system. Bruno would have fallen in London in the seventeenth century or on the barricades of Paris in the eighteenth or with us in Rome in the 1970s. His extravagances were part of his method.

“I have long wondered what Bruno would have thought of the so-called dumbing-down of Westerners who like the priests of five hundred years ago reject knowing and true knowledge. The vengeful priests who burned him would rejoice in the people’s unknowing. Incapable of understanding their own stupidity, their false faiths and beliefs, ignorant people who in their turn would have torched the whole Renaissance.”

Matteo looks at me speculatively before he suddenly asks: “Lorenzo, do you feel close to Bruno?”

I know he is thinking more about the role of hero than the revolutionary. Then he smiles his wry smile at his candid allusion. After a brief hesitation and without waiting for my answer, he says:

“I feel very close. Closer to him than to Lenin.”

“What’s the difference? Revolutionaries are revolutionaries. No?”

“No! There’s a world of difference. It was Bruno’s morality that was revolutionary … though never abstract,” Matteo murmurs.

“That was his commitment. He called his morality a heroic furor. Bruno was not only a philosopher, he was a hero. He grasped the unity and infinity of everything. All is all. Like beauty and ugliness, like truth and lie, like good and evil. In the plurality of the world he lived in, sins seemed so petty, reflecting his theories about turning poison into food. For that reason he discouraged efforts of selection as useless. He opposed the sense of differences and nuances in things. He doubted a difference between good and evil, both of which are present in everything. Thus the notion of evil disappears and all is one. Every soul and spirit has a certain continuity with the spirit of the universe. Everything has divinity latent in it. Everything that makes up the differences and numbers is pure accident. So everything is in perfect unity. Good and evil are united. No wonder he opposed the tyranny of his day. The archaic beliefs. The primitive superstitions. And no wonder they burned him. The price tag on morality has always been high.”

I wait. I’m both mesmerized and also rather weary of Bruno lore. Is Matteo referring to his own ragged self? Actually it doesn’t matter. Maybe he isn’t lecturing me but himself. When I was a boy I’d been embarrassed when my father said such things, but words like those from Matteo are intoxicating. Spoken to me personally … and in this setting. It seems historic. I, a stranger, a foreigner, am entering into the Sanctum Sanctorum of Rome’s lore. It is a reward. Maybe repayment for the things I missed earlier. A reward for what I can still do. A token of some special esteem that Matteo utters such thoughts to me—especially the heroic part touches me.

I recite a Goethe quotation that has always impressed me: Ein guter Mensch in seinem dunklen Drange ist sich des rechten Weges wohl bewusst. A good man in the depths of his instinct is quite aware of the right way.’”.

Matteo stares at me for a long moment as if trying to emerge from the web of a distant past, and then continues unperturbed: “The importance of Bruno was that his thought was immeasurably rich. What for him was the good, for Church power was evil. What was evil for Bruno was the evil nature of ‘the good’ that existed in that Church … and therefore in most people too. In the same way that he said that the earth was not flat and that prayer was useless, he found that good and evil are relative.”

As the flames rise higher beyond us, they reflect red red red off the back of Giordano Bruno’s hooded figure and I watch the bronze man closely to see if he moves as I could swear he sometimes does. Matteo’s voice rises too, his own words, I know, exciting him. “Bruno has been called the ‘forgotten philosopher’ who predicted infinite life. His ideas about infinity earned him the stake. Right here. Five centuries ago.”

They are dancing wildly around the bonfire when a dozen or so figures run inside the circle of dervish-like whirlers carrying human-like, I assume, stuffed dolls. Some are so artistic they look human. I believe Bruno’s eyes blink. I would swear that a folded hand twitches.

“Now he is forgotten, even though he was the intellectual peer of the greatest thinkers. A multicellular creature-thinker whose universe foreshadowed ours today. That’s Giordano Bruno. His thinking was so consistent that he seemed inconsistent to his critics. No, my friend, heroes are never part of the crowd. They … soar high above. In the beyond. Alone.”

I stand up trying to follow Matteo and at the same time watching the bizarre scene just in front of the cinema. The Shostakovich Seventh swirls around us as the siege of Leningrad is about to begin—dah dah di DAH tah/ dah dah di dah tah/ dah dah di DAH tah. Repetitive like a drum beat. Leningrad. Matteo claims he was born there. On the other end of the piazza they’re carrying a gigantic effigy, dark gray and black colors, its hood sliding first backwards toward its shoulders, then forwards over its eyes. In the same moment I see the title of the film, V For Vendetta and a huge poster of the mask of, I now read, Guy Fawkes. Fifth of November.

“Hey, Matteo they’re playing a film about the man you spoke of. There’s his mask. Who do those hoodlums think they’re burning anyway? Fawkes or Bruno?

“Both. They’re together somewhere.”

“Together? Why together?”

“Like I said, brother revolutionaries … each his own way.”

“Well, uh … uh what’s the film about anyway?” I ask in my innocence.

Matteo shakes his head in—I don’t know which—disbelief or disillusionment. “It’s futuristic, my friend, an allegory for government oppression. It made the Fawkes mask the symbol of protest against tyranny.”

The mad dervishes lift another Bruno-Fawkes high in the air, make three ceremonious turns around the bonfire with him in the air over their heads before laying him on top of the bonfire with their heat inured hands. Bruno burns and turns to ashes, his red reflection dancing across the back of the statue’s hood elevated above us. Burning again.

“On Guy Fawkes Day people wear masks, like Indios in Mexico. And kids go around begging for goodies. But the burning of the effigies is the violent part. They’re called ‘the Guy’.”

“Who’s called the guy?”

“The effigies. So they execute him over and over. But people don’t really hate him. It’s just tradition.”

“Not even Church people seem to hate Bruno either.”

“You heard what Pope Francis said the other day. ‘Jesus is not divine. He’s just a man.’”

“What do you think that means?”

“I think he was misunderstood. He really said he was a demiurge. The divinity of Christ remains the core of Catholicism. I think he meant to say that Jesus or Christ was both flesh and spirit. The flesh was just the man, Jesus. His spirit however was divine, sent by God his father.”

“The usual hokus-pokus, eh?”

Sparks fly heavenwards. Smoke screens the placards for V For Vendetta. Newcomers toss in more effigies. The more the better. The more effigies the deader are Bruno and Fawkes. The beer flows. The dervishes spin and leap and cavort. The crowd shouts and applauds. Giuliana doesn’t even answer my calls.

“Like Guy Fawkes himself believed,” Matteo goes on unperturbed. “The hokus-pokus, I mean. Though he led the gunpowder plot to bring down the monarchy in defense of Catholicism in England—he wanted to send King James and the ‘Scots back to Scotland’—he was just an adventurer in Catholic countries on the Continent. Imagine this scene: around 1600 he tried to convince Spanish King Philip III to invade England to save fellow Catholics from persecution while Spanish society was still suffering over the disastrous defeat of the Spanish Armada by the English several years earlier in 1588. So Fawkes acted with a small group of conspirators, was caught, tortured and hung, drawn and quartered and his remains dragged through London streets.”

“Ugh!” I grunt. “And now it’s like Halloween, eh? The masks and all, I mean.”

“Still, very symbolic, no? The burning we’re watching.”

“Revolutionaries usually pay the highest price for acting on their beliefs, don’t they?”

The End

Co-published with The Greanville Post.


GaitherStewartNuDrevSHARPSenior Editor Gaither Stewart serves as The Greanville Post and Cyrano’s Journal Today European correspondent.  A retired journalist, his latest novel is The Fifth Sun (Punto Press). He’s also the author of several other books, including the Europe Trilogy, of which the first two volumes (The Trojan SpyLily Pad Roll) have been published by Punto Press. These are thrillers that have been compared to the best of John le Carré, focusing on the work of Western intelligence services, the stealthy strategy of tension, and the gradual encirclement of Russia, a topic of compelling relevance in our time. He makes his home in Rome, with wife Milena. Gaither can be contacted at His latest assignment is as Managing Editor with the Russia Desk.

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