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The Database of Ornament

A FEW months since a certain Maria G. appeared at my
clinique. She was forty years of age, her voice was mascu-
line in character, her forehead was high and remarkably
broad, her jaw and cheek-bones more massive than we
usually find in women. Her head also was somewhat above
the average in size. Touch was rather obtuse, but sensitive-
ness to pain almost normal. It was observed, however, that she blushed only
on one side of her face and forehead, and on this side also there was abundant
perspiration, while the other side was quite dry and pale. Her father had
died in an asylum ; her mother was healthy, and so were four brothers and a
sister. This last, however, was subject to fits. She herself suffered from
various neuralgic pains, and from hysterical convulsions.

    As a girl she wished to become a nun ; but, instead, she married, at
eighteen, a man whom she respected, but for whom she had no love. She
married him, against the wishes of her friends, solely to obey the will of God.
She has had eight children, of whom five are living.

    Ever since she was a child she has heard voices, and seen wonderful
visions of the Madonna and the saints ; also of evil spirits in the likeness of
beasts, monsters which inspired her with great terror, and she was thus
regarded as mad. This recalls what Calmeil tells us concerning various
nuns, especially Maddalena, whose hallucinations began at five. But it was
not until the age of fourteen, after being unwell for three days, that she
had an apparition, in a great flash of light that filled the room, of God
Himself, clothed in garments so dazzling that she could not fix her eyes upon
Him, and bearing in His hand a sword which He placed across the bed. She
still has such visual and auditory hallucinations very frequently; at these times
she ceases speaking, bends her head very low, and weeps. She tells also that
she has seen the eyes in a little picture of Jesus fixed upon her full of love,
and following her all over the house, and she says that one day she saw them
closed, as a reproof to an offence on her part.

    To the commands she has thus received from the Volere Supremo, she
refers the greater number of her acts, and frequently offers no further justifica-

14                              THE SAVOY

tion of them; thus she asserts that she was commanded by God to feign
madness in order to enter an asylum, and there fulfil to the utmost her mission
of fighting Satan, because there, she said, they whip people like beasts. Her
acts were, in fact, so strange, that she was shut up in an asylum, where for
some days she was the victim of further delirium, and she remained there for
three years.

    Now she lives at home, fairly tranquil, attending well to her domestic
affairs, and to her occupation of straw-plaiting chairs. She dresses neatly, is
devoted to her children, and weeps when she speaks of those who are dead.
She weeps also when she tells of her mother’s recent death, though latterly
there had been no intercourse between them ; so that her affection towards her
family appears to be normal. With her husband also she gets on fairly well,
although he reproves her for the strange ideas she has in her head, and once
turned her out of the house. On the other hand she hates her mother-in-law,
who interferes with the pleasure she takes in writing ; thus she is not able to
devote time to the laborious preparations of her very numerous manuscripts
in verse and prose, except for a few hours after dawn, when she is alone. The
verse, however, she composes in her head, not when she wishes to, but as it
comes to her.

    Her instincts appear to be chaste. She tells how, when she was a girl,
she repelled the advances of a priest, and again, after she was married, of a
canon, a monk, and an abbot. The education which she received as a child
from her mother does not seem to have been very religious, at all events not
sufficiently so to have determined her precocious inclinations. She only
attended an elementary school, and cared little for reading afterwards ; but
she read over and over again a book of religious devotion entitled, “L’Anima
Desolata Confortata a patire cristianamente,” to which title she has added in
her own handwriting, “Per Amor di Dio ,” and also the following remark:—
“This book is the greatest treasure I have had in this world.” Certainly her
own writings, however strange and incomprehensible they may be, always
manifest an intelligence above her condition and the instruction she has

    She believes that, although wholly unworthy, she has been charged by
the Gran Sovran del Cielo with an illuminative and redemptive mission among
men; and regarding this mission she writes—in large and clear characters,
with enormous capital letters and long strokes, in a fairly correct style—large
pages of verse or long letters to alienists, to priests, to the King and Queen.
The contents are uniformly the same ; she announces her mission to each,

                          A MAD SAINT                                    15

always saying that she is writing by command of God, and promising honour
and profit to those who follow her. Yet from all her very numerous writings
and oral declarations it is impossible to ascertain the ideas that lie at the basis
of this mission; perhaps her mind is not able to form such ideas ; perhaps she
possesses that unconscious consciousness of absurdity which Amadei has
acutely noted in mattoids. Once only she refers in her writings to the con
stitution of a Compagnia dei Fedeli Cristiani beneath the protection of the
Gran Madre Maria Addolorata ; and in conversation she alludes to certain
(imaginary?) followers.

    For the rest, she declares that she is inspired by the Virgin, although she
is working for the Saviour ; she hates those who are outside the truth, and
wishes to correct them and spiritualize them ; she would cut off the heads of
the unfaithful with the tremendous sword of God, though this is only a
spiritual weapon. She uses such ferocious metaphors frequently. She justi-
fied herself by saying that if any of the students who heard her declarations
should go and repeat what they had heard to priests, it would be to these
latter like the blow of a dagger.

    She accepts Christian dogma, but with modifications. Thus when the
Gran Dio del Cielo had driven Adam and Eve out of Paradise, He told
them that He would send a woman to purify and “mend” the world.
“And with all my demerits I am that woman, the servant of the great
God, the queen of the whole world ; for in myself I am nothing, but in
the name of the great God I am everything ; and if I accomplish any good
thing here, the merit will be His.” And in connection with this she calls
herself, and often signs herself, “Regina Salviati,” that is to say, “Queen of
the Saved.”

    Repeatedly and insistently asked to expound to us her doctrines, she formu-
lated them thus : If you want to be happy you have to learn how to thoroughly
concentrate yourself in the great God of heaven and earth, and then to re-
cognize in her the saviour, not as the supreme judge but as His representative,
and she only recognizes those disciples who believe in Christ who died on the
cross and in St. Joseph.

    She respects the Christian Church, but wishes to pull up the evil weeds,
that is to say, bad priests, whom she considers responsible for the wickedness
of the world, but with strange want of logic she carries out all religious

    The Madonna cannot be the mother of God who is uncreated, because
otherwise she would be the supreme principle ; only as the handmaid of His

16                              THE SAVOY

spirit has God permitted her to be worshipped. The spirit of Christ will
reappear in the world in the person of a certain priest, a brother of hers,
and then there will be a general day of judgment, which she announces as
near, and the justice of God having assured the triumph of the just on earth,
the world will live a better life, and will not end in a shower of fire, as the
priests say. This idea of the reform of the world is certainly the same as
that of Christ, who, as Renan says in his “Vie de Jésus,” when seated as
judge of the world in the midst of His apostles, is the exact representation
of that conception of the Son of man, the first lines of which are already to
be seen so strongly drawn in the Book of Daniel. But she lessens and
abuses the conception by, for instance, apportioning the duties we are each
to have in the reformed world. She naturally promises a different future
to the good and those who respect her sayings from that ordained for
the bad, “because God has not made Heaven for traitors, and Hell to be
kept empty ;” she will pardon if God will pardon ; if not, she is ready
to put a dagger (probably always a spiritual weapon) into the hearts of those

    Of all this she speaks confusedly, as if she did not wish to be interrupted
in her discourse, but she converses much and willingly. She distributes her
numerous manuscripts, nearly all in verse, to the students. She frequently
sings the Psalms in Latin with passionate animation and large movements of
the arms, explaining the significance of what she sings. There is a notable
tendency to musical intonation in her replies to the questions put to her,
which she sometimes sings, always adapting the same air to her various
poems. The metre of these is, however, nearly always the same, very
sonorous, in rhymed quatrains of ten syllables ; but the rhymes are often
only assonances, and the last line of each stanza is cut short. Sometimes
while singing she falls into a condition of true ecstasy ; the eyeballs are
turned upwards, the eyelids become fixed, the arms extended, and she is able
to support a much stronger electric current than that which gives her pain
under normal conditions.

    This persistent use of melody and rhythm certainly represents an atavistic
return to primitive musical methods of expression which commonly accom-
panied emotional states among our ancestors. It is a kind of mental
palæontology, as Letourneau also has noted ;¹ and it corresponds exactly to
the vague, uniform, undifferentiated condition of her ideas.

        ¹ “Revue de l’École d’Anthropologie,” Nov. 15th, 1892.

                          A MAD SAINT                                    17

    The whole of this attitude, the convinced and absolute fashion in which
she enunciates her dogmas, the security with which in every great con-
tingency of life she trusts to the voice of the Volere Supremo, not only
recall and in part repeat what all the saints of religious history have done, but
they explain the force of attraction, and the suggestive power, which such
phenomena exerted on popular masses under other conditions of culture and

    It is also instructive to note her method of action, which is described
as by divine impulse, working through an automaton. “Under spiritual
influence,” she says, “a person is not free, and I am even compelled to act
for my own temporal disadvantage, without any reserve, ready to undergo
martyrdom, even if the gibbet were standing ready ; and if the least act
on my part, even the slightest word, would save me from martyrdom, I
would not try to save myself, not for the whole world.” “Pushed on,” she
writes, “by a supreme spiritual power, I set down these things, writing all
that the supreme spirit suggests to me to write.” She declared, also, that she
“was driven” by God to come to the clinique, although she doubted if she
would find anyone there.

    Thus her own personality occupies nearly the whole of her mind, her
conversation, her writings ; and, as if to accentuate this characteristic, she
always writes the personal pronouns referring to herself with an initial capital.
And yet amid the chaos and simplicity of her ideas, the uniformity and
commonplace of their manifestation, a stroke of genius here and there flashes
across the insanity. One day she improvised a logical and excellent discourse
to the university students who were late in their attendance, lamenting the
recent disorders among them as not only evil in themselves, but as bringing
grief and shame to the professors, etc. Among her very numerous writings in
verse, slovenly and full of errors as they often are, some are really beautiful, and
contain phrases and passages marked by fine feeling and insight. “The justice
of the great God of Heaven,” she writes, “is not paid by gold or silver.”
“My mind,” she writes again (in words that, in the original, tend to run into
rhyme), “will only ally itself with reverence and justice ; and my heart is not
caught save by reverence and gentleness.” And in verse : ” But the sorrow-
ing servant—Of our Lord—Possesses new hopes.—Already his heart opens.—
O you who live—In a deceitful world,—Open your eyes—To the true
light.” And again : ” I am no woman of proud ways—I am the handmaid
of our Lord ;—On my head there is a crown—All adorned with laurel and
honour.—I am faithful to the everlasting Lord—And no deceit can make

18                              THE SAVOY

me waver :—And though I am but a lowly flower—I am queen of the great
deep sea.¹”

    Yet these fugitive gleams of mental brilliancy not only heighten the
general vacuity, but accentuate strange references and hints, sudden falls into
the commonplace, and often the comic, which, with their painful contrasts,
characterize the psychic contents of such unbalanced brains. For example :
“I will take him up into the train and conduct him to eternal life ;” “I will
give myself up to the Gran Voler Supremo and leave to his lordship to con-
sider with the telescope of the Just and Supreme Divine Justice this my

    Nor are there also lacking in her writings and her discourse those frequent
and insistent repetitions of words, the strange metaphorical appellations, the
emphatic air, which give a special imprint of solemnity to the religious style of
every epoch. Here also these characters are due to analogous conditions,
that is to say, that all effort is applied to the task of impressing the imagina-
tion of the hearers by vaporous and solemn phrases, rather than to that of con-
vincing them by the force of reason ; it is as though the evidence of the
proclaimed truths disdained—and with good reason—all human arguments.
“Tell me, my children,” she writes, “what have you done for me to acquire
the strongest affection of my heart? Nothing : then it is God who deigns to
bind my heart to a lofty and supernatural affection towards you.” “To write
of my Lord I have detached myself from all the things of the world, and they
who would follow me must also detach themselves from the things of the
world  .  .  . with the sole thought of serving God faithfully in order to win the
great prize of honour for eternal life.” “Oh, this miserable and unworthy
creature that I am, Thy miserable and unworthy servant, Thy miserable and
unworthy daughter  .  .  . and I will say it again and again.”

    To the same unfailing elements of every religious movement belong the
prophecies which M. makes concerning the coming of God on earth, the
approaching universal judgment, and the glorious and fruitful future which
awaits the good cause, as well as certain miracles which she has already accom-

                        ¹    “Non son donna di vani costumi,
                        Son l’ ancella del nostro Signor;
                           Sul mio capo ci sta una corona
                        Tutta guarnita di lauro e d’ onor.
                           Io son costante all’ eterno Signore,
                        E niun inganno puo farmi tremar:
                           E bench’ Io sia un misero fiore  .  .  .
                        Son Regina dell’ alto gran mar.”

                          A MAD SAINT                                    19

plished, professing that she has prevented an outbreak of war between Africa
and Italy.

    To this now well-defined form of religious insanity are associated, as
often happens, though usually in a more accentuated degree, erotic insanity
and the insanity of persecution. This last, however, is very slight and is
directed in part against the priests, in part against the attendants and sisters
at the asylum, and especially the doctor under whose care she was placed,
and against whom, with much abusive language, she brings the usual vague
accusations of offences against her spirit and body.

    The erotic element is more distinctly marked ; in her writings and
discourses M. frequently recalls the name of a young gentleman who “because
of his religious wanderings” had to suffer grave danger in Africa, from which
danger she and no other could deliver him, or, as she says, “repair him in
body and mind from that terrible exile, offering her life to the Great God of
Heaven to expiate the faults accounted for guilt to Christians.” In the same
way, but more explicitly, she expresses herself in her verses, which reflect her
thoughts more faithfully and unconsciously. In these are many expressions
of affection and praise concerning this youth, whom she invokes as the
imaginary head of armies, a dear companion and man of pure faith ; as well as
in the replies, strangely veiled in spiritual mysticism, which she makes to
questions on this subject. She confesses also that she recalls seeing some
of her visions of God under the aspect of this gentleman. Yet she only
appears to have seen him occasionally, and it is not possible to guess the
circumstances which may have caused, if they have not justified, the direction
which M.’s erotic affections have taken.

    Altruism, which is the highest and noblest human note in the doctrines
and works of nearly all great religious reformers—as though from the mystic
contemplation of the superhuman, and man’s annihilation before it, grew a
more vivid feeling of the equality and fraternity of all human creatures—shows
itself, though only by brief hints, in the writings of M. In several places she
affirms that she would do nothing to avoid martyrdom, not fearing prisons,
nor kings, nor anything else, but only the Virgin. And in alluding to the
poor she exclaims : “O you miserable of the earth, oppressed by pain,”
offering them guidance and help ; and again, when she asserts she had feigned
madness, so that she had almost voluntarily entered an asylum because the
Volere Supremo had laid on her the burden of a mission to men. In this way
she often declares herself mad, and signs her name as the poor Maria of the
mad people—”povere Maria dei pazzi”—as a title that the Lord had given

20                              THE SAVOY

her. All this, however, contrasts with her rebellion against the doctors and
attendants on entering the asylum; this was indeed so violent that it rendered
necessary the application of the strait-jacket.

    Apart from this, it is certain that her mind is not able to appreciate, and
still less to conceive, the whole sublimity of the idea of altruism. Such
incapacity is revealed in the poverty and individualism of all her conceptions,
as well as by the strangeness and inco-ordination into which any informing
idea, any trace of system, rapidly falls. Yet the neuropathic foundation,
certain analogies of expression, certain other psychic affinities, render her a
crude and rudimental example of a saint, a religious reformer.

    I have presented this case in all its details, excluding the more technical,
because it really constitutes a valuable document which shows us, in the first
place, how genius often arises from a matrix of insanity. Here is an ordinary
uneducated woman who suddenly becomes a poet, in a rude fashion, and an
inventor of musical rhythms. But perhaps the phenomenon is more interesting
from the point of view of hagiology, because of the light it throws on sanctity.
This workwoman who thought more of others than of herself, who troubled
herself all day long over public morality, who justly reproves the university
students, who robs herself of her due nightly rest, after fulfilling all her family
duties, in order to devote herself to her religious writings, presents a manifesta-
tion of sanctity, also breaking forth from the matrix of paranoia, in evidence
of the effect of hereditary insanity.

    It is true that such cases are very rare : among thousands of mad
people I have only met with this case : whether it is that in such persons the
accompanying delusions of persecution, ambition, etc., too greatly preoccupy
the mind to leave any care for the hagiological form, or that it here assumes
a more prominent form by virtue of greater intelligence and greater energy.

    But perhaps the cause of this rarity may be of a very different order. It
is probable that the prevalence of saints in past ages, as compared with our
own days, may be first of all due to the fact that religious preoccupations
being to-day less intense, men are driven mad in quite other pursuits, their
diseases arising from other pretexts and taking on a different veneer. And,
again, the public among us being indifferent to such ideas, even when they do
arise, these mad saints find none to listen to them ; and if they insist, like this
woman, they are at last secluded in an asylum. Three or four centuries
ago she would have attracted followers, founded monasteries, carried away
crowds ; she would have become a historical event. It is sad to reflect on the

                          A MAD SAINT                                    21

fate of so many men of genius, born before their time, or in lands incapable
of understanding them, and dying sterilized, when they were not killed as
rebels or heretics. Even among ourselves to-day, indeed, it is only after death
that such men are admired and honoured.

    The germ of holiness, as well as that of genius, must be sought among
the insane.

                                                                                C. LOMBROSO.

                                                                        (Translated by Havelock Ellis.)

MLA citation:

Lombroso, Cesare. “A Mad Saint.” Translated by Havelock Ellis. The Savoy, vol. 2, April 1896, pp. 13-21. Savoy Digital Edition, edited by Christopher Keep and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, 2018-2020. Yellow Nineties 2.0, Ryerson University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2019.