Christopher L. C. E. Witcombe

Rudolph and Margot Wittkower
Born Under Saturn: The Character and Conduct of Artists,New York: Norton, 1969, pp. 98-105 (edited)

Genius and Madness

Of all the intricate questions concerning the nature and personality of artists few have given rise to more consistent inquiry than that of the connection between genius and madness. First discussed in Greece almost twenty-five hundred years ago, the problem has lost none of its peculiar attraction and urgency. Admittedly, silence prevailed during the Middle Ages, at least so far as artists were concerned, but since post-medieval times the idea has never again been wholly abandoned that artistic talent and genius are dependent on a precariously balanced type of personality.

Plato differentiated between clinical insanity and creative insanity -that inspired madness of which seers and poets are possessed. Later with the Hellenistic break-through artists also were admitted to the circle of inspired creators. The Renaissance returned to this Hellenistic interpretation of Plato's theory of the furores. But the Renaissance concept of the divino artista, the 'divine artist', had a double root. It was not only derived from Plato's theory of poetical enthusiasm but also from the medieval idea of God the Father as artist: as architect of the universe. When, as early as 1436, Alberti suggested in his treatise On Painting that the artist may well consider himself, as it were, another god, an alter deus, he probably had the medieval deus artifex in mind. Whatever Alberti's source, he evidently suggested that the artist should be divorced from the rank and file of 'normal' people.

It was Marsilio Ficino, the great Florentine philosopher and commentator on Plato's Dialogues, who paved the way for the diffusion of Plato's thought. Ficino summed up his ideas on inspiration in a letter of 1457 addressed to his friend Pellegrino Agli. A few passages from this long statement may here be paraphrased: The soul, which tries to grasp through the senses as much as possible of divine beauty and harmony, is enraptured by divine frenzy. Plato calls celestial love the unutterable desire, which drives us to recognize divine beauty. To see a beautiful body arouses the burning desire after divine beauty and, therefore, those who are inspired are transported into a state of divine madness.

Thereafter the idea that the true artist created in a state of inspired madness was much discussed and widely accepted. We need not probe further into the pervasive influence of Plato's theory of the furores, but shall turn to another tradition according to which genius was not far removed from real madness. Seneca's often quoted dictum: 'nullum magnum ingenium sine mixtura dementiae fuit' — 'there never has been great talent without some touch of madness'— would seem to express this point of view. In actual fact, Seneca's further comment leaves no doubt that he referred to the Platonic fire of divine inspiration rather than to insanity. But when the passage was quoted out of context, as it often was from the seventeenth century onwards, it suggested a different meaning.

During the nineteenth century clinical diagnosis confirmed the previous assumption of an alliance between genius and madness. Early in the century Lamartine already talked of 'cette maledie qu'on appelle génie'; by the end of the century the idea of disease was so firmly established that a popular magazine declared 'evidence is not lacking to warrant the assumption that genius is a special morbid condition'. Meanwhile a school of professional psychologists, represented by such men as the Frenchman Moreau (1804-84), the Italian Lombroso (1836-1909) and the German Moebius (1853-l907), had correlated psychosis and artistic activity. Their findings had a considerable influence on twentieth-century psychiatrists. At the beginning of the century Courbon maintained that 'megalomania. . . is usual in artists', while Lange-Eichbaum, whose encyclopedic work Genius, Insanity and Fame enjoyed and enjoys undue popularity, concludes that 'most geniuses were psychopathically abnormal . . . very many were also neurotics'. Nor do dogmatic psycho-analysts break away from the basic pattern, although the terminology has changed. Artists, we are told, are subject to Oedipus and guilt complexes, narcissism and 'heightened bisexuality', or are victims of their 'super-ego as well as of frustrations and psychic traumas'.

Psychiatric opinion conquered large sectors of the public. A writer like Proust maintained that 'everything great in the world comes from neurotics. They alone have founded religions and composed our masterpieces.' And Lionel Trilling regards the supposed connection between mental illness and artistic genius as 'one of the characteristic notions of our culture'.

However, the popular catchword 'mad artist' does not refer simply to lack of mental or emotional stability. It has been pointed out that the notion implied 'a mythical picture of the creative man: inspired, rebellious, dedicated, obsessive, alienated, as well as neurotic'. This image of the 'mad artist' which arose in the Renaissance, when artists had fought for and won a special place in society, and which lingers on in the popular mind, is compounded of many heterogeneous elements rather than restricted to the belief that genius is mentally ill.

In historical perspective the problem of the 'mad artist' confronts us with three intrinsically different forms of madness: first, Plato's mania, the sacred madness of enthusiasm and inspiration; secondly, insanity or mental disorders of various kinds; and thirdly, a rather vague reference to eccentric behaviour. These three categories, however, supply an insufficient frame of reference for a discussion of the perceived character and behaviour of artists. Before the revolutionary development of the modern medical sciences, character was interpreted in terms of the ancient doctrine of humours. A familiarity with this doctrine is necessary in order to understand more fully the image of the 'mad artist' current since the Renaissance.

The Saturnine Temperament

The Greeks were the first to classify the infinite variety of the human psyche as derived from four humours. Hippocrates, the great physician of the fifth century BC, seems to have firmly established the theory according to which the human body consists of the four humours or fluid substances: blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. Health is dependent on the equilibrium of these substances, while an excess of any one produces disease. Through Galen, the second century AD physician whose prolific writings contain the fullest exposition of Greek medical thought, the 'humoral pathology' was handed on to the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. By associating the humours with psychology, they became determinants of man's temperament: predominance of blood, it was believed, engenders sanguine types, of phlegm, phlegmatic types, of yellow bile, choleric types, and of black bile, melancholic types. From here it was a short step to the linking of temperaments not only with physiological characteristics but also with intellectual and professional predispositions. It was Aristotle who first postulated a connection between the melancholic humour and outstanding talent in the arts and sciences. 'All extraordinary men distinguished in philosophy, politics, poetry, and the arts,' he maintained, 'are evidently melancholic.' Thus he gave rise to the belief in the link between genius and melancholy. But the melancholy of such men is a precarious gift, for if the black bile is not properly tempered, it may produce depression, epilepsy, palsy, lethargy and what we would nowadays call anxiety complexes — in a word, although only the homo melancholicus can rise to the loftiest heights, he is also prone to conditions bordering on insanity. For a long time the melancholic temperament retained the ambivalent quality of Aristotle's definition. Yet it must be emphasized that for Aristotle and those influenced by him, melancholy does not simply lead to the alternatives of genius or madness, of assiduity or sloth, of achievement or waste; he was well aware of the many intermediary stages between the poles, and this is an aspect of great importance in our context.

Although the Aristotelian concept of melancholy was never forgotten, the Middle Ages regarded melancholy mainly as a physical disorder and the Church condemned it as close to the vice of sloth (acedia). Not until the late fifteenth century was Aristotle's position newly and fully endorsed. In his De vita triplici (1482-89) Marsilio Ficino showed that melancholy, the ambivalent temperament of those born under the equally ambivalent planet Saturn, was a divine gift, and he, the zealous Platonist, closed the circle by reconciling Aristotle's and Plato's views, for he maintained that the melancholy of great men was simply a metonymy for Plato's divine mania. The Renaissance accepted Ficino's conclusion: only the melancholic temperament was capable of Plato's creative enthusiasm.

In order to understand fully the peculiar power of the classical doctrine of the temperaments, one has to see it in conjunction with the belief in astrology which exerted an ever-growing influence from the twelfth century onwards. Renaissance scholars, trying to buttress the 'scientific' foundation of astrology, turned to the writings of late-antique astronomers and astrologers for confirmation of the causal connection between the stars and all emanations of life on earth. Ficino himself, in the third book of De vita triplici, considered the entire field of medicine in its relation to astrology. A man's temperament was determined by his planet: while men born under Jupiter are sanguine and men born under Mars are choleric, Saturn determines the melancholic temperament; depending on Saturn's conjunction at the moment of birth, the melancholicus will be either sane and capable of rare accomplishment or sick and condemned to inertia and stupidity. The importance of horoscopy as a method of establishing a person's temperament need hardly be emphasized. The belief in astrological determinism led to a coordinated macrocosmic-microcosmic conception of the world which was swept away with the victory of the empirical sciences; but chaos descended in the wake of enlightenment.

The stars determined not only the humours but also occupational interest and talent. Each planet's field of occupational influence was the result of a long and complicated process of transmission of old beliefs. We cannot delve into this strange chapter of human imagination and circular thinking. Suffice it to say that when the Greeks 'mythologized' the sky between the fifth and the third centuries BC, they endowed the planets and constellations with the qualities attributed to their gods. Later these same qualities were thought to determine man's fate on earth. Thus the copper-red planet was given the name of the warrior-god Mars; war, plunder, rape, and misery was his domain and those born under him were predestined to be soldiers and killers. The swiftly-moving planet was called Mercury, after the light-footed messenger of the gods. His Greek equivalent, Hermes, was venerated as the god of commerce and as the inventor of the sciences, of music and the arts. It is for this reason that his 'children' are industrious and devoted to study; they are watch-makers, organ-builders, sculptors and painters. According to astrological tradition, therefore, artists were born under Mercury.

How, then, are they related to the sinister, brooding, secluded Saturn? A shift of 'patronage' from Mercury to Saturn came about in the Renaissance, for very good reasons. We have seen that in Ficino's re-assessment of the Aristotelian position, men endowed with genius have a saturnine rather than a mercurial temperament and Saturn must therefore be claimed as their planet. Ficino in this context considered only scholars and writers. But Renaissance artists who regarded themselves as equal or even superior to the men of letters could not forgo their saturnine birthright, the prerogative of exalted creators.

Ficino's work rather than anyone else's was the signal for a new approach to the problem of talent. From then on even moderately gifted men were categorized as saturnine and, conversely, no outstanding intellectual or artistic achievement was believed possible unless its author was melancholic. In the sixteenth century a veritable wave of 'melancholic behaviour' swept across Europe. Temperamental qualities associated with melancholy such as sensitivity, moodiness, solitariness, and eccentricity were called for and their display acquired a certain snob value. It is only to be expected that melancholy is an ever-recurrent topos in Vasari's Lives. Even minor artists join the saturnine company. As regards the great masters their melancholy was a foregone conclusion. Melanchthon tells us that Albrecht Dürer was a melancholicus, and the artist himself left us a deeply moving self-revelation in the brooding figure of his Melancholy engraving. Of Raphael a contemporary reports, still during the artist's lifetime, that 'he is inclined to melancholy like all men of such exceptional talent', and in the School of Athens Raphael gave his own interpretation of Michelangelo: he showed him wrapped in solitary thought in the traditional pose of Melancholy. One feels bound to infer that Renaissance artists displayed traits of personality which would tally with the then current ideas on creative talent and that consciously or subconsciously biographers and contemporaries read into the character of artists what they expected to find. One has to be careful not to take such information at its face value or use it as historical fact on which to build psychological theories.

Renaissance artists appropriated to themselves this condition of inspired frenzy, for it gave their art the aura Plato had conceded to poetry. The alliance between Platonic 'madness' and Aristotelian 'melancholy' postulated by Ficino is echoed in Vasari's use of these terms, and there is reason to assume that it was this alliance that many a Renaissance artist regarded as essential for his own creativity.