Borri, Giuseppe Francesco
Giuseppe Francesco Borri (4 May 1627 in Milan – 20 August 1695 in Rome) was a somewhat controversial alchemist, prophet and magician. The early and principle influence on Borri was the Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kircher. But his intolerance of ecclesiastical authority and dogma resulted in a deterioration in his relationship with his teachers – even to the point where Borri led a collective rebellion of seminarists, provoking the replacement of the Rector – and in 1650 Borri was expelled from the seminary. Thus started his career as a magician/alchemist.
From Giuseppe Francesco Borri, between Crucibles and Salamanders - by Massimo Marra. Translated by Carlo Borriello.
The controversial alchemist and messianic prophet, Giuseppe Francesco Borri, was born in Milan in the 16th century to Savinia Morosini, who died giving birth to him, and Branda Borri, a famous and able Milanese physician.
His family, according to what he himself states, descended from Afronius Burrus, praefectus of the pretorians during Claudius’ reign, and was poisoned by Nero. The name Burrus derives from Urus, that is, in vulgar Latin, the wild ox, the animal portrayed on his family’s coat of arms.
In 1644, with his brother, he went into a Roman seminary, directed by Jesuits, and very soon distinguished himself by his intellectual quickness, vastness of cultural interests and spirit of independence. It is there, probably, that the young Borri came to know those alchemical and cabalistical doctrines which had become widely known in ecclesiastical circles in contemporary Rome….. Like the Dominican and Franciscan alchemists during the Middle Age, the hermetic and cabalistical arts had become diffused among the 17th century Jesuits.
In 1650 Borri was expelled from the seminary, beginning his activity as a physician and alchemist among the pilgrims flocking to Rome for the Holy Year. In this period began his first contact with the Marquis Massimiliano Palombara, himself an alchemist, and in 1653 he took service with the Count Federico Miroli, as physician and alchemist. At this time he also began his propaganda, both messianic and political, with the purpose of returning to an ‘evangelically pure’ religion, that in Borri’s thinking was the foundation of every science and scientific investigation. His religious and messianic fervour, influenced by pietistic spirituality, gathered the first followers around him, and made him quarrel with the Pontificial guards. In Borri’s theory, full of visionary ecstasies and miraculous events, he imagined himself the Prochristus, that is prophet and herald of the new era .
In the same period there began to spread his personal legend as an alchemist gifted with mysterious knowledge and a dark clairvoyance.
Usually, to the same period is ascribed the legend whose protagonists are Marquis Palombara and a mysterious pilgrim. By tradition, on a morning in 1657, a stranger is caught in Palombara’s garden gathering herbs; after having been brought to the Marquis by the servants, he declared himself to be an alchemist, to have knowledge of the Marquis’ alchemical researches and to be able to show him the feasibility of transmutational work, without any request or reward, and to be interested in knowing what were Palombara’s methods and researches….. The unknown stranger, after having performed various operations under Palombara’s eyes, asked of the Marquis hospitality for the night in a room near the laboratory, to be able to watch his own work, and then he asked to the Marquis to give him the keys to the laboratory, promising that, after having completed his work, he would explain all to the Marquis, but that, for the moment, he would need solitude and peace.
Of course it was a thrilled and impatient Palombara that knocked, early in the morning, at the closed laboratory’s door, and then at the pilgrim’s room. But, during the night, the latter had sneaked away through a window, leaving in the adjoining laboratory only an upside down crucible and, on the floor, a streak of gold, and a sheaf of papers covered with notes and hermetic symbols on the Great Work, which Palombara ordered to be carved in several places in his mansion, and, mostly, on the very famous hermetic door, the only surviving feature of the architectural beauties of Villa Palombara, a famous and controversial Italian hermetic monument.
Of course, by tradition, the mysterious alchemist was Borri, and the complex symbologies of the hermetic door are inspired by his papers.
Actually, discounting the legends, it is unthinkable that in the city of Rome devoted to hermetical studies, Borri and Palombara, both already rather famous, did not establish a relationship that would continue for all of Borri’s adventurous life.
In 1655, Borri met and probably frequented Queen Christine of Sweden and her court. The newly-converted catholic Queen had abdicated, coming to Rome to live there. In a cabinet transformed into a laboratory, the very learned Christine, a devoted alchemist, gave hospitality to alchemists and cabalists of different value and provenance.
Meanwhile, in the same year Pope Innocenzo X died and, against the hopes of our visionary alchemist, his successor was a man very close to the Counter-Reformation and absolutely not inclined to changes or messianic renewals: this was Cardinal Fabio Chigi from Siena, who took the name of Alessandro VII.
In 1657, the plague broke out in Rome (spreading very fast in every region of middle and southern Italy and in Genoa). Christine fled quickly from the city, and Borri imitated her, going back to Milan, his hometown, where Branda Borri was very glad to receive him.
Here, absolutely not disillusioned, Borri contacted very quickly the Quietist milieu, which was very diffused and rooted in the whole of Lombardy, that gathered itself around S. Pelagio’s church and the prophetic charisma of Giacomo Filippo Casola, a layman of the people quickly accused of heresy by the Inquisition and that soon after died in jail. Very soon Borri became the figurehead of the Milanese movement (as before it had happened in the Roman one) and the fervour generated by his predication culminated in a public gathering in the square of Milan cathedral in 1658.
The consequences of this kind of notoriety struck at Borri very fast, and he was prosecuted for heresy and poisoning (the latter accusation refers to his famous alchemical knowledge). Meanwhile, the Inquisition arrested his most fervent followers, mostly recruited from among low clergymen, many of them as young and fervent as Borri.
For Borri there began a period of great distress and endless wanderings in Europe, that gave him fame and honours, but a sad conclusion to his adventurous life.
In 1659, he was called before the Roman Inquisition, while the Milanese Inquisition was still busied in prosecuting his followers. Having quickly fled to Switzerland, in 1660 he received the news of his father’s death, and in 1661 he was sentenced by default and was informed of the public abjuration of his Milanese followers.
After having settled in Engandina, he moved to Innsbruck, where he resumed working as a physician, with great success.
Meanwhile, in January 1661, Borri’s effigy, after the public reading of the verdict, was taken in public procession to Campo de’ Fiori, the same place where, 60 years before, Giordano Bruno had been executed. Here it was hung, and then burned together with the fugitive exile's writings.
But Borri had already moved to Strasbourg, where the Protestant milieu welcomed him immediately and with great enthusiasm. Borri was surrounded by a circle of fervent admirers, who glorified his ability as a physician and iatrochemist. Soon he became very famous among the local noblemen, and his fame began to grow very rapidly. Later, he moved to Amsterdam in Holland, where his fame as a therapeutist and alchemist became European, and royal and official honours consecrated his universal notoriety.
From all over Europe, Princes and merchants flocked to consult the miraculous physician-alchemist, that, by tradition, loved to be as very sollicitous [sic] about the poor and the suffering people as to lead a very rich life. He extended his interests, and his fame, besides medicine and alchemy, to several other fields of human knowledge: magic, cosmetics, engineering. During this period, he met the famous scientist and Danish alchemist, Olaus Borrichius, then living in Amsterdam for his studies, who became a fervent admirer of Borri and his knowledge. Borri even dedicated to Borrichius a book (Chymie Hippocraticae Specimina Quinque, Köln 1664), and, perhaps, the character of the wise cabalist (The Great Dane) that we find in La Chiave del Gabinetto (Geneva 1681) is inspired by Borrichius. In the same years, the Amsterdam city senate conferred on him honorary citizenship, and there begin to circulate in Europe several writings praising his miraculous healings, but just at the height of his fame, indebted for his luxurious life and probably forced by the obscure manoeuvres of other physicians envious of his fame, he was forced to flee to avoid arrest.
Borri sought refuge in Copenhagen as an alchemist at Frederick III’s court, which subsidised him liberally.
In Denmark, Borrichius’ homeland, Borri had many friends and helpers and, anyway, he came preceded by a solid reputation as a scientist. Meanwhile, other subsidies came from the former Queen Christine, now residing in Hamburg, always very interested in the mysteries of the Philosophers’ Stone. At Frederick III’s court, Borri regained fame and honours, becoming one of the most trusted of the King’s councillors.
In 1670, though, when Christian V ascended to the throne, Borri’s fortune began to decline, so he resolved to abandon Denmark and to move to Turkey, but, while journeying, he was arrested in Moravia, and thanks to Pontificial pressure, was given by Leopold I, the Emperor of Austria, into the hands of the Vatican, on whose See then sat Clemente X.
First risking a death sentence, then convicted to a life sentence, Borri too, like his followers, was forced to perform a public act of abjuration and atonement. Borri was in jail until 1678, when thanks to the pressure of his noble friends (in particular to the French ambassador, the Duke D’Estrèes, who was healed by Borri under a Papal dispensation that permitted him to visit the sick French nobleman in his mansion), he was able to obtain a sort of semi-liberty, living in Castel S. Angelo, where he even was able furnish a laboratory to continue his studies, and was able go out to practise his art in the mansions of his noble friends.
In this period he began again to frequent his old friends, Palombara and Queen Christina, and his star seemed to regain, despite the shame of his captivity, its old splendour in the Roman court, where his fame as healer and thaumaturge was spreading freely.
In 1670 Christine of Sweden died, and on the Holy See ascended Innocenzo XII, who revoked the privileges granted to Borri. In 1691 he was imprisoned in Castel S. Angelo, where he was to die of disease in 1695. Having caught a fever, the great physician had prescribed himself quiquina’s bark, the most advanced cure then available. But the bark arrived too late, and on 16th of August the fever claimed the life of Borri, at the age of 68.
Adventurer, prophet, alchemist: Borri has been so defined, anticipating the mysterious figure of Cagliostro, that, a few decades after, also wandered all over Europe, gaining a fame even more shining and universal than Borri’s.
The known Borri’s works, comprising the apocryphal ones are:
- Lettere di F. B. ad un suo amico circa l’attione intitolata : La Virtù coronata. Roma 1643
- Gentis Burrhorum notitia. Argentorati 1660
- Iudicium....de lapide in stomacho cervi reperto. Hanoviae 1662
- Epistolae duae, 1 De cerebri ortu & usu medico. 2 De artificio oculorum Epistolae duae Ad Th. Bartholinum. Hafniae 1669
- La chiave del Gabinetto del Cavagliere G. F. Borri. Colonia (Geneva) 1681
- Istruzioni politiche date al re di Danimarca. Colonia (Geneva) 1681
- Hyppocrates Chymicus seu Chyniae Hyppocraticae Spcimina quinque a F. I. B. recognita et Olao Borrichio dedicata. Acc. Brevis Quaestio de circulatione sanguinis. Coloniae 1690
- De virtutibus Balsami Catholici secundum artem chymicam a propriis manibus F. I. B. elaborati. Romae 1694
- De vini degeneratione in acetum et an sit calidum vel frigidum decisio experimentalis in Galleria di Minerva, II,Venezia 1697
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