Martin Gayford

Mad genius

Martin Gayford examines the extraordinary lives — and deaths — of great artists and suggests that there is a link between manic depression and creativity

Martin Gayford examines the extraordinary lives — and deaths — of great artists and suggests that there is a link between manic depression and creativity

In the summer of 1667 the architect Francesco Borromini — one of the most brilliant figures of the Italian baroque — fell into what was later described as a ‘hypochondria’, complicated by fever. ‘He twisted his mouth in a thousand horrid ways, rolled his eyes from time to time in a fearful manner, and sometimes would roar and tremble like an irate lion.’ Doctors and priests were consulted, all of whom agreed that he should never be left alone, should be prevented from working, and all efforts made to encourage him to sleep so that ‘his spirit might calm down’.

But these efforts were unavailing; the patient grew worse. The failure of his servants to obey his orders enraged him. On the night of 2 August he asked repeatedly for a light, a pen and some paper, but on doctor’s orders was refused. Tossing in agitation, the great architect was heard to exclaim, ‘When will you stop afflicting me, Oh dismal thoughts? When will my mind cease being agitated? When will all these woes leave me? …What am I doing in this cruel and execrable life?’ He rose, found a sword — a standard piece of domestic equipment in that time and place — fell on it and pierced himself through the body from front to back.

However, he did not die immediately. Borromini lived for several hours, during which he saw his confessor and dictated an eminently lucid and detailed account of the extremely irrational process of thought by which he had come to kill himself. It describes how at around five or six in the morning he woke up and asked his servant Francesco to light a lamp, who replied, ‘Signor, no.’

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