Borri, Joseph Francis

, a famous chemist, quack, and heretic, was a Milanese, and born in the beginning of the seventeenth century. He finished his studies in the seminary at Rome, where the Jesuits admired him as a prodigy for his parts and memory. He applied himself to chemistry, and made some discoveries; but, plunging himself into the most extravagant debaucheries, was obliged at last, in 1654, to take refuge in a church. He then set up for a pietist; and, affecting an appearance of great zeal, lamented the corruption of manners which prevailed at Rome, saying, that the distemper was come to the height, and that the time of recovery drew near: a happy time, wherein there would be but one sheepfold on the earth, whereof the pope was to be the only shepherd. “Whosoever shall refuse, said he, to enter into that sheepfold, shall be destroyed by the pope’s armies. God has predestinated me to be the general of those armies: I am sure, that they shall want nothing. I shall quickly finish my chemical labours by the happy production of the philosopher’s stone; and by that means I sball have as much gold as is necessary for the business. I am sure of the assistance of the angels, and particularly of that of Michael the archangel. When I began to walk in the spiritual life, I had a vision in the night, attended with an angelical | voice, which assured me, that I should become a prophet. The sign that was given me for it was a palm, that seemed to me surrounded with the light of paradise.

He communicated to his confidants, in this manner, the revelations which he boasted to have received: but after the death of Innocent X. finding that the new pope Alexander XII. renewed the tribunals, he despaired of succeeding, left Rome, and returned to Milan. There too he acted the devotee, and gained credit with several people, whom he caused to perform certain exercises, which carried a wonderful appearance of piety. He engaged the members of his new congregation, to take an oath of secrecy to him; and when he found them confirmed in the belief of his extraordinary mission, he prescribed to them certain vows, one of which was that of poverty; for the performance of which he very ingeniously caused all the money that every one had to be consigned to himself. The design of this crafty impostor was, in case he could get a sufficient number of followers, to appear in the great square of Milan; there to represent the abuses of the ecclesiastical and secular government; to encourage the people to liberty; and then, possessing himself of the city and country of Milan, to pursue his conquests. But his design miscarried, in consequence of the imprisonment of some of his disciples; and as soon as he saw that first step of the inquisition, he fled, on which they proceeded against him for contumacy in 1659 and 1660; and he was condemned as an heretic, and burnt in effigy, with his writings, in the field of Flora at Rome, on the 3d of January 1661. He is reported to have said, that he never was so cold in his life as on the day that he was burnt at Rome: a piece of wit, however, which has been ascribed to several others. He had dictated a treatise on his system to his followers: but took it from them as soon as he perceived the motions of the inquisition, and hid all his papers in a nunnery, from which they fell into the hands of the inquisition, and were found to contain doctrines very absurd and very impious.

Borri staid some time in the city of Strasburgh, to which he had fled; and where he found some assistance and support, as well because he was persecuted by the inquisition, as because he was reputed a great chemist. But this was not a theatre large enough for Borri: he went therefore to Amsterdam, where he appeared in a stately | and splendid equipage, and took upon him the title of Excellency: people flocked to him, as to the physician who could cure all diseases; and proposals were concerted for marrying him to great fortunes, &c. But his reputation began to sink, as his impostures became better understood, and he fled in the night from Amsterdam, with a great many jewels and sums of money, which he had pilfered. He then went to Hamburgh, where queen Christina was, and put himself under her protection: persuading her to venture a great sum of money, in order to find out the philosopher’s stone. Afterwards he went to Copenhagen, and inspired his Danish majesty to search for the same secret; by which means he acquired that prince’s favour so far, as to become very odious to all the great persons of the kingdom. Immediately after the death of the king, whom he had cheated out of large sums of money, he left Denmark for fear of being imprisoned, and resolved to go into Turkey. Being come to the frontiers at a time when the conspiracy of Nadasti, Serini, and Frangipani, was discovered, he was secured, and his name sent to his Imperial majesty, to see if he was one of the conspirators. The pope’s nuncio, who happened to be present, as soon as he heard Borri mentioned, demanded, in the pope’s name, that the prisoner should be delivered to him. The emperor consented to it, and ordered that Borri should be sent to Vienna; and afterwards, having first obtained from the pope a promise that he should not be put to death, he sent him to Rome; where he was tried, and condemned to perpetual confinement in the prison of the inquisition. He made abjuration of his errors in the month of October, 1672. Some years after he obtained leave to attend the duke d‘Estree, whom all the physicians had given over; and the unexpected cure he wrought upon him occasioned it to be said, that an arch-heretic had done a great miracle in Rome. It is said also, that the queen of Sweden sent for him sometimes in a coach; but that, after the death of that princess, he went no more abroad, and that none could speak with him without special leave from the pope. The Utrecht gazette, as Mr. Bayle relates, of the 9th of September, 1695, informed the public, that Borri was lately dead in the castle of St. Arigelo, being 79 years of age. It seems that the duke d’ Estre*e, as a recompence for recovering him, had procured Borri’s prisou to be | changed, from that of the inquisition to the castle of St. Angelo.

Some pieces were printed at Geneva in 1681, which are ascribed to him; as, 1. “Letters concerning Chemistry;” and 2. “Political reflections.” The first of these works is entitled, “La chiave del gabinetto;” the second, “Istruzioni politichi.” We learn from the life of Borri, that when he was at Strasburg, he published a letter, which went all over the world. Two other of his letters are said to have been printed at Copenhagen in 1699, and inscribed to Bartholinus; one of them, “De ortu cerebri, et usu medico;” the other, “De artificio oculorum humores restituendi.” The Journal des Savans, of the 2d of September, 1669, speaks fully of these two letters. Konig ascribes also another piece to him, entitled, “Notitia gentis Burrhorum.” Sorbiere saw Borri at Amsterdam, and has left us a description and character of him. He says, that “he was a tall black man, well shaped, who wore good clothes, and spent a good deal of money: that he did not want parts, and had some learning, was without doubt somewhat skilled in chemical preparations, had some knowledge in metals, some methods of imitating pearls or jewels, and some purgative and stomachic remedies: but that he was a quack, an artful impostor, who practised upon the credulity of those whom he stood most in need of; of merchants, as well as princes, whom he deluded out of great sums of money, under a pretence of discovering the philosopher’s stone, and other secrets of equal importance: and that, the better to carry on this scheme of knavery, he had assumed the mask of religion.1


Gen. Dict.—Mosheim’s Eccl. Hist.—Sorbiere, Relation d’un Voyage en Angleterre, p. 155.