Giuseppe Francesco Borri
In 1644, together with his brother, Borri entered a Jesuit seminary in Rome. There he was taught by the Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kircher, who had an important influence on him. His intolerance of ecclesiastical authority deteriorated his relationship with his teachers (Borri even led a collective rebellion of seminarists, provoking the replacement of the Rector), and in 1650 Borri was expelled from the seminary.
He started his activity as a physician and alchemist among the pilgrims flocking to Rome for the Holy Year. In this period he met the Marquis Massimiliano Palombara, himself an alchemist, and in 1653 he took service with Count Federico Miroli, as physician and alchemist.
Borri also began his propaganda, both messianic and political, with the purpose of returning to an evangelically pure religion. Borri believed religion to be the foundation of every science and scientific investigation. For him the whole world (Christian and non-Christian) should be conquered and ruled by a Papal theocracy, that should trailblaze the Kingdom to come: a sort of heavenly world, a new Golden Age, where the values of a renewed and universal Christianity would triumph. Borri considered himself (at least according to the later Inquisition’s records) Prochristus, that is prophet and herald of the new era.
In a morning in 1657, a stranger is caught gathering herbs in the garden of Marquis Massimiliano Palombara; 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 Palombara’s methods and researches. The unknown stranger, after having performed various operations under Palombara’s eyes, asked for hospitality in a room near the laboratory, to be able to watch his own work; then he asked the Marquis to give him the keys to the laboratory, promising that he would explain everything to the Marquis after having completed his work; but for the moment he needed solitude and peace. Early next morning, Palombara knocked in vain at the laboratory’s door, and then at the pilgrim’s room. 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. Palombara ordered these symbols to be carved in several places in his mansion, and on the famous Porta Alchemica, the only surviving feature of the architectural beauties of Villa Palombara. The mysterious alchemist was claimed to be Borri. 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.
The Court of Queen Christine of Sweden
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. In 1657, the plague broke out in Rome (spreading very fast in central and southern Italy and in Genoa). Christine fled quickly from the city, as well as Borri, who went back to his hometown, Milan.
In Milan, Borri contacted the Quietist milieu, which was very diffused in Lombardy and gathered itself around Saint Pelagio’s church and the prophetic charisma of Giacomo Filippo Casola, a layman who was accused of heresy by the Inquisition and shortly after died in jail. Very soon Borri became the figurehead of the Milanese movement and the fervour generated by his predication culminated in a public gathering in the square of Milan cathedral in 1658. He was prosecuted for heresy and poisoning (the latter accusation refers to his alchemical knowledge). Meanwhile, the Inquisition arrested his followers, mostly low clergymen, many of them as young and fervent as Borri.
In 1659, he was called before the Roman Inquisition, while the Milanese Inquisition was still prosecuting his followers. He fled to Switzerland, was sentenced by default and was informed of the public abjuration of his Milanese followers. In January 1661, Borri’s effigy, after the verdict was read in public, was brought in procession to Campo de' Fiori, in Rome, the same place where, 60 years before, Giordano Bruno had been executed. Here it was hung, and burned together with the fugitive Borri's writings.
Borri moved to Strasbourg, where the Protestant milieu welcomed him with enthusiasm. Borri was surrounded by a circle of fervent admirers, who glorified his ability as a physician and iatrochemist. Soon he became famous among the local noblemen, and his fame began to grow rapidly. He seems to have visited Frankfurt, Leipzig and Dresden, but in December 1660, he arrived in Amsterdam. From all over, princes and merchants flocked to consult the physician-alchemist. He extended his interests besides medicine and alchemy to several other fields: magic, cosmetics, engineering. In April 1661, the Amsterdam burgomasters conferred on him honorary citizenship. In April 1662 Borri borrowed 100.000 guilders from a former Council of India, who had served the East India Company on Amboina, and in turn supplied him with his secret treatment. Borri promised to pay back the money after two years. But Gerard Demmer, the patient, died within a few days. Borri rented a mansion with stable and drove around in a coach. He attented six servants and kept a tiger in his house.
During this period, he met the famous scientist and Danish alchemist, Olaus Borrichius, then living in Amsterdam for his studies, who became an admirer of Borri and his knowledge. Borri even dedicated to Borrichius a book (Chymie Hippocraticae Specimina Quinque, Köln, 1664). The character of the wise cabalist (The Great Dane) that we find in La Chiave del Gabinetto, Geneva, 1681, is perhaps inspired by Borrichius.
The inheritors of Demmer started a trial when Borri did not pay back anything after two years. In January 1665 he was obliged in a verdict. Either already in 1664, but before 17 December 1665 Borri left Amsterdam, taking with a large sum of money and jewels.
According to Michael White in Isaac Newton: The Last Sorcerer, Sir Isaac Newton attempted to contact Borri in 1669, through Newton's friend Francis Ashton. At the height of the fame, in debt from his luxurious lifestyle, and probably due to the obscure manoeuvres of envious rival physicians, Borri went broke.
The Arrest and the End
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, then residing in Hamburg, interested in the mysteries of the Philosopher's Stone. At Frederick III’s court, Borri regained fame and honours, becoming a most trusted King’s councillor.
In 1670, when Christian V ascended to the throne, Borri’s fortune began to decline, so he resolved to leave Denmark and to move to Turkey. While journeying, he was arrested in Moravia, and thanks to Pontificial pressure, was given by Leopold I, Emperor of Austria, into the hands of the Vatican. Convicted to a life sentence, Borri, like his followers, was forced to perform a public act of abjuration and atonement.
Borri stayed in jail until 1678. His noble friends (in particular the French ambassador, the Duke of Estrées, who was healed by Borri under a papal dispensation that permitted him to visit the sick nobleman in his mansion) obtained for him a sort of semi-liberty. Borri lived in Castel Sant'Angelo, where he furnished 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 met again his old friends, Palombara and Queen Christina, and despite captivity, his fame as a healer and thaumaturge regained its old splendour in the Roman court.
In 1689 Christine of Sweden died, and the new Pope Innocent XII revoked the privileges granted to Borri. In 1691 he was imprisoned in Castel Sant'Angelo, where he was to die of disease in 1695. Having caught a fever, the great physician had prescribed himself quinquina’s bark, the most advanced cure then available. But the bark arrived too late, and on 16 August the fever claimed the life of Borri, at the age of 68.
- 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 Chymiae Hyppocraticae Specimina 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
- G. Cosmacini, Il medico ciarlatano. Vita inimitabile di un europeo del Seicento, Laterza, Bari 2001.
- P. Bornia, La porta magica di Roma. Studio storico, Phoenix, Genova 1983
- L. Pirrotta, La porta ermetica, un tesoro dimenticato, Atanòr, Roma 1979
-  Giuseppe Francesco Borri, between Crucibles and Salamanders