Coincidentally: Intestinal Fortitude

In 782, Charlemagne suppressed a Saxon uprising led by the Westphalian chieftain Widukind, and massacred 4,500 captives in revenge for the annihilation of his own army three years earlier at Suntelberg. The fields were drenched in gore for days, and the pagan Widukind quickly asked to be baptized at Attigny. No one gazing upon that melancholy landscape could have predicted that on the millennium of the battle, the Montgolfier brothers would make their first successful launch of a heated air balloon. Unnoticed in that giddy year of 1782 were the births of the poet Esias Tegner (who might well be called the Swedish Kochanowski) and history’s greatest violinist, Niccolo Paganini.

Paganini suffered from numerous intestinal complaints, and nearly died from an infection in 1823. In November, he wrote to a friend ironically named Germi: “I am almost a miracle. An American doctor has saved me . . . the cough will go, little by little.” In 1799, at the behest of the Princess Elise of Lucca, Paganini had written his undying “Sonata for the G String,” naming it for her brother, Napoleon, by whose grace the proud father of the Montgolfier brothers was granted a peerage. Napoleon, of course, habitually kept his hand inside his waistcoat because of an ulcer. The “Sonata” that Paganini played on his favorite violin, a Gaumerius given him by a French merchant in Lugano, enjoyed a rapturous reception, but envious malcontents spread a rumor that the instrument’s string was part of his wife’s intestine. This distressed Paganini, while increasing public interest in his recitals.

The prodigy cast off this mortal coil on a balmy day in 1840. Seated in his villa in Nice, near a portrait of Byron (who had died in 1824 in Missolonghi from a fever after eating sausage), Paganini adjusted the cat gut on his violin, and began to play ethereal improvisations. Suddenly the bow dropped and that romantically tortured figure was gathered up by his Muse to a height no heated air balloon can reach. It was the centenary of the birth of Joseph Michel Montgolfier, whose earliest research on inflatable apparatus had involved the use of cattle bladders. As Paganini lay finally free of earthly constraints, the embalmed corpse and viscera of Napoleon were interred in Paris after his long exile.

In the pageant of religion, it is believed that the overwrought sentiments in Martin Luther’s Wider das Papsttum zu Rom were the product of colonic impactions in 1545. More familiar is the morality tale of Louis XIV’s late mistress, the Duchesse de La

Valliere, whose intestines were accidentally dropped and eaten by pigs in 1710. Doubtless, the most famous painting of an intestine is Nicholas Poussin’s “Martyrdom of Saint Erasmus,” now in the Pinacoteca of the Vatican, which has attracted gastroenterologists since its completion in 1629. The masterpiece was returned to Rome, Italy, through the diplomacy of Cardinal Consalvi in 1817, the same year that Governor De Witt Clinton broke ground in Rome, New York, for the Erie Canal. Consalvi’s adviser was Canova, who had sculpted a bust of Paganini’s patroness, the Princess Elise.

Ever since the death of Sixtus V, pontifical entrails had normally been enshrined across from the Trevi Fountain in the Church of Santa Maria in Trivia. But in 1846 the munificent Pius IX permitted the canons of Valence to keep the internal organs of Gregory XVI in their cathedral. Gregory XVI succeeded Pius VIII, the successor of Leo XII who had made Paganini a Knight of the Golden Spur in 1827, the same year in which the English environmentalist, Peter Baume, stipulated in his last will and testament that his bones be made into knife handles and buttons, and his internal organs be used as fertilizer. This was carried out in 1829 and, as Baume’s upper and lower intestines were being planted in his favorite rose garden, Parliament passed the Catholic Relief Act.

In 1802, in his Traite du Physique et du Moral de l’Homme, Pierre Cabanis, physician to Mirabeau and father of physiological psychology, claimed that all poetry and religion are products of the smaller intestines. Thomas Carlyle mocked him for this, and rightly so, for the conceit is far more cynical than Pascal’s naive location of the soul in the pineal gland. But the inspired word (1 John 3:17) speaks of the “bowels of compassion,” and I would avoid those modern versions that translate “bowels” as “heart.” I would also avoid the translators.


*Originally published in Crisis Magazine

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