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Giuseppe Francesco Borri, between Crucibles and Salamanders

by Massimo Marra. Translated by Carlo Borriello
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Giuseppe Francesco Borri, between Crucibles and Salamanders.

"There is no body that is not material, and if the chemists had found the secret for taking and extracting all the matter from the body, they would be more satisfied than having revealed any other secret." G. F. Borri

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.

In the same school, among others, Athanasius Kircher, the great Jesuit, cabalist and author of Aedipus aegyptiacus and Mundus Subterraneus, had taught.

Like the Dominican and Franciscan alchemists during the Middle Age, the hermetic and cabalistical arts had become diffused among the 17th century Jesuits.

Very soon Borri’s strong spirit of independence and his intolerance of ecclesiastical authority deteriorated his relationship with his teachers (at a certain point, Borri even led a collective rebellion of seminarists, provoking the replacement of the Rector) and 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 scientifical 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, the whole world (Christian and non-Christian) should have been conquered and ruled by a Papal theocracy, that should have trailblazed the Kingdom to come: a sort of heavenly world, a new Golden Age, where the values of a renewed and universal Christianity would triumph.

At the summit of such theocracy Borri imagined the Pope, and considered himself (at least according to the later Inquisition’s records) 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.

It is only obvious that the latter would look forward to leading the mysterious stranger into his alchemical laboratory.

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 the 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 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 two letters we transcribe, with the title The cabalistical commerce with the elemental world, are a sort of a magical and fantastical narration that needs some commentary.

La chiave del gabinetto, from which the two letters are taken, is almost completely a plagiarism, except, probably, the specifically alchemy-oriented letters that, for Borri, it would be useless to plagiarize.

As the entry edited by S. Rotta in the Dizionario Biografico degli Italiani mentions, the first two letters of the Chiave are a rather literal version of the Conte di Gabalì, while the last one is "…a faithful translation of the De l’Ame des Betes by A. Dilly, published in Lyon in 1676" (Dizionario Biografico degli Italiani cit. ed Treccani).

Both the Conte and the Chiave show the same humoristic and sneaking style that, if we can easily relate it to Mountfacon De Villars’ style too (a mysterious adventurer, driven in his youth by messianic and reformational urges, involved in not too much edifying familiar crimes, and in a not too much clear affair too, concerning an heritage, that led him to a death sentence by the authorities, never executed because Mountfaucon was murdered in mysterious circumstances), we cannot consider it to be atypical of Borri, whose figure, extraordinarily complex and obscure, still attracts attention. even after so many centuries.

The pretext for the exposition of the magical and alchemical doctrines in the two epistles about the elemental beings that we discuss in this paper are the dialogues between the protagonist (the author, a reasonable and faithful supporter of the Holy Mother Church’s doctrines) and a mysterious character, a great cabalist: a Dane in the Chiave, a German in the Conte. Obviously, the righteous protagonist tries to convince the ineffable gabalista to abandon his absurd theories and his diabolical practices, but the cabalist floods the other with the most incredible revelations about the elemental entities and the cabalist’s relationship with them, and the most audacious magical and cabalistical concepts.

Actually, for Montfaucon as for Borri, the Danish and the German characters are simply alter-egos, that, free from the Inquisition’s restraints, can freely expose doctrines and principles that, in another form, expressed under the author’s direct responsibility, could provoke great troubles for him.

The letters and their dialogical content are a pretext to expose traditional notions of a magical vision of reality that, we want to underline in these notes, surely had some relationship with an aspect of the alchemy practiced between the 15th and 16th centuries.

But now let’s focus on the Chiave and its author.

Borri’s alchemy can be framed as a magical-cabalistical conception of reality, populated by otherworldly and immaterial entities - Undines, Salamanders and Gnomes - whose friendship is a part of the work of the natural philosopher, who, thanks to these creatures’ obedience, can obtain knowledge and power. Not counting the very deep mixture between magic and alchemy that enlivens Borri’s pages (and a long procession of other alchemists), it would be impossible to interprete correctly the universe and the alchemical cosmology proposed by Borri. The action on the matter, the investigation itself, are strongly influenced by such characteristics.

Let’s not make the mistake to think that such magic-cabalistical heritage ended in its residual 16th century exponents. In 17th century, Raimondo De Sangro, animated by a surely non literary interest, edited an Italian version of the Conte di Gabalì, and, still in the 20th century, many esoteric organizations preserve the traditions expressed in the great Milanese alchemist’s works.

Actually, Borri’s cabala is very different from the original tradition from which it adapts its name. Perhaps it is much closer to pagan relics that in the 17th century probably were still alive in the folklore and popular religion of many parts of Europe.

Gershom Scholem, in a book on the relationship between alchemy and kabbalah, Alkemie und Kabbala (Frankfurt 1984), describes very well the nature of the presumed cabala emerging from the complex panorama of the hermetic writings composed between the 16th and 17th centuries:

"The name of the mysterious discipline […] became the password of all the circles interested in theosophy and occultism in the Renaissance and, later, in the Baroque period. It became a sort of flag, behind which – because they didn’t fear no control whatsoever by the few true kabbalah adepts – they could offer practically everything to the public; from authentically Jewish notions to only vaguely Jewish meditations of deep Christian mystics to the most recent Fair-day products of geomancy and cartomancy: the name kabbalah, awesomely thrilling, comprised them all. Even the most remote elements of western folklore, even the sciences of that period somehow inclining to occultism, as astrology, alchemy, and natural magic became kabbalah…".

What we have said stays true even today, if we think about the definition of phonetic Kabbala that some modern alchemist (Fulcanelli and his pupils) attribute to the wonderful symbolic game based on assonant etymes they use so frequently.

Actually, Borri’s Gabala has nothing to do with the Jewish kabbalah, even if the latter had few italian exponents, and the alchemy was known among Jewish cabalistical circles (a century before, Milan, Borri’s hometown, had seen the blooming of Mordecai De Nello, a famous Jewish alchemist who travelled all over Europe).

Apart from the background belief in the ability to couple and procreate with immaterial entities (see, in the Jewish tradition, the Lillim: the demonic sons that Lilith procreated by stealing the man’s wasted semen), very common to various traditions, Borri’s elemental's background is eminently magic instead.

Borri’s universe is populated by elemental spirits, that give life to fire, air, earth and water. More than a century before, the De Occulta Philosophia by Cornelius Agrippa (a text that surely had deeply influenced Borri’s Chiave) after having listed more than thirty different species of mundane and elemental demons, dares to state that "the Platonians affirm that there are as many legions of them as are stars in the sky…" (La Filosofia occulta o la Magia, trasl. by A. Fidi, ed. Mediterranee).

On the other hand, we find an echo of this magic gabala, that characterizes such works as Il conte di Gabalì or La Chiave del gabinetto, in writings attributed to Paracelsus, considered as the father of Renaissance alchemy. Actually, Borri quotes openly Paracelsus’ theory, and he uses it profusely. With the purpose to identify the more signifying cultural antecedent of Borri’s work, we will illustrate briefly the Paracelsian notion, quoting literally a writing extracted from Scritti alchemici e magici (1991, ed. Phoenix).

"I want to entertain you about the four species of beings of spiritual nature, that is, the Nymphs, the Pygmies, the Sylphides and the Salamanders; to these four species, to say the truth, we should add the Giants and many others. These Beings, even if they have a human appearance, don’t descend from Adam at all… Although they couple with the man, and from this union are born individuals belonging to the human race." In Paracelsus’ vision there are two natures: the first is the human one, thick, palpable, sensible and mortal, while the other is spiritual, ineffable, eternal. Between the two there is an intermediate nature, participating to both, to which "… belong the beings which are subtle like the spirits… they evacuate, drink, have flesh and bone like the men. The man has got a soul, but the spirit doesn’t need it; the creatures in question don’t have a soul at all and still they are not similar to spirits: the latter don’t die, the former die… They’re a rough image of the Man, like the man is an imperfect image of God."

According to the Great Theophrastus, "… every creature is proper to the element in which it lives; the Undines, conceived to live underwater, are bewildered when they see us living in the air… In the same way, the Gnomes pass through the densest rocks easily, like we move through the air, because the earth is their chaos…" Being subtler than us, Undines, Sylphides and Salamanders can tolerate our environment, while we would die in theirs. On the other hand, the Gnomes can freely walk in our woods, while we would die suffocated by the thick rocks of their natural environment. Paracelsus continues stating that "… these beings could couple with men and have sons. These children belong to the human race, because the father, being a man and descending from Adam, gives to them a soul that makes them similar to him and thus eternal. And I believe that the female receiving that soul with the semen is like the woman redeemed by Christ. We don’t reach the divine kingdom if we do not communicate with God. In the same way, this female cannot obtain a soul until she meets a man […] Here it is another reason of the apparition of such Beings: they seek our love to elevate themselves, like the pagans seek the baptism to obtain a soul and to be born again in Christ." After having said to us that the Gnomes, among other things, have much money, thanks to the underground gold, Paracelsus goes back to the relationship between elementals and men, and he says that if a man betrays a Nymph without her permission, the latter reappears and kills him.

Such elementals have a precise role in the economy of the creation: "… God made these Beings as sentinels to his Creation. It is thus that the Gnomes watch over the treasures of the earth, the metals and others; they prohibit them to see the light before the right time… The Salamanders watch over the treasures of the fire regions, the Sylphides watch over the treasures brought by the winds, the Undines over the treasures lying under the water. All the treasures are made by the Salamanders in the fire region, and then they’re scattered in other places."

Now that we have found the source of the traditional data used by Borri and Montfaucon de Villars, we have only to frame the way in which such data merged with the mythical universe and the inner search of alchemy, to explain the complex relationship between the superstitious appearance of the Borri’s gabala and the heroic path of regeneration that an alchemist has to take. In few lines, another great alchemist and italian hermetist, Cesare Della Riviera, offers us an interesting interpretive key. In his Il Mondo Magico de gli Heroi (1605), that we quote in the version edited by Evola, within the scope of the alchemical-magical work made by the hero, Della Riviera quotes the spiritual perception of the occult aspects of the nature. The italics are ours:

"As red is the magical Earth, and red is the blood too, as we said elsewhere. This blood is the fatness, that is the earthly mud from which God, our first Father, created us and from which our little World is made. For what regards the various forms hiding in this World, they are similar to the very much admired invisibility of the magicians. Nonetheless, it is true that the true and holy Magic would be partially inferior to the false and diabolical one, if it didn’t make visibile those forms […] But because every gift coming from above, from the Father of the Light, is – as states the glorious James – perfect […] as such, it could reveal perfectly the various forms contained that appear not prestigious and apparent, but real, consistent and palpable…

To fulfil his purpose, the hero will have to strain more than if he would use the diabolical and false magic, summoning tricky demons.

After having described the magical metarmophoses that the matter undergoes under the hermetic hero’s eyes, Della Riviera continues:

"Finally, in our magic World don’t appear only the corporeal species, but the immaterial ones too manifest themselves. The world is formed by the hero in the following order.

From the first matter, that is from the first magical earth, he takes with admirable spagyric artifice and subtle pyronomic art all the elemental and corruptible species: the elemental World. From the latter the hero makes, with great accuracy, all the elemental and celestial substances and, lastly, come the others, completely perfect, that […] can be said to be intellectual species and magical minds dissolved."

The palpable contact with the elemental species is part of the alchemical process, a fruit of an "admirable spagyric artifice" and "subtle pyronomic art," a spiritual perception within the individual path of that separation of the mixtures which is the basis of the great work.

Sylphides, Gnomes, Undines and Salamanders are symbolic precipitates, hypostases indivituated by the essence of the elements that the alchemist-magician purifies, real products of the hermetic work and of the contact of the artifex with the materia prima. They are palpable, as the mercury fixed by the igneous action of the alchemical sulphur, as the invisible splendour leading the artist toward the Stone, as palpable, for the alchemist, as the thick web of correlations and analogies binding the visible with the invisible, the solid with the ethereal.

Closing this brief parenthesis, devoted to trying to find the place of a beautiful Undine between the beaks and the alembics of the controversial Milanese alchemist, we want to close quoting a few words from an article dated to 1957, written by a modern alchemist, Eugene Canseliet and issued in the N° 11/12 of The Tour Saint Jacques:

"… More precisely, Magic and Alchemy form, together with Astrology, the three branches born from the central tree, that is the Universal science, the real emanation of the indivisibile Truth. If we imagine them as a trident, magic is its middle shaft […] Magic, we have to insist, is the origin of alchemy and astrology and it is necessary for all their operations, because is the essential and imponderable engine…"

And still recently, for those thinking that Nymphs and Salamanders are hermetic relics from an era long gone, a Nymph oversaw, with endless sweetness, the works of Cyliani in Hermes Devoilé. We quote the words of that Nymph, while she says farewell to the sad Cyliani:

"… I threw to her feet to thank her for such a blessing and I humbly thanked the Eternal too, for having made me avoid so many dangers.
Then she bade me farewell, adding: Do not forget me!
She vanished, and her departure hurt so much that I woke up…"

Apart this strong magical-cabalistical connotation, Borri’s alchemy is rather normal, reporting faithfully the precipitate of ideologies and traditions typical of the 17th century.

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 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

Bio-bibliographical informations are available in:

P. Bornia - La porta magica di Roma - studio storico 1983 Genova
L. Pirrotta - La porta ermetica, un tesoro dimenticato Roma 1979
G. Cosmacini - Il medico ciarlatano Bari 1998


The letters are presented in a version conforming to the one published between 1910 and 1911 on the magazine Commentarium per le Accademie ermetiche (S.P.H.C.I) directed by the contemporary Neapolitan hermetist Giuliano Kremmerz. We only simplified the punctuation, to make the reading easier.

Massimo MARRA