People have all kinds of obsessions. Video games, history, movies. You name it, and there’s someone out there doing their 300th Google search on it right now.
One of my obsessions is Friedrich Nietzsche the man. He was, in many ways, a misunderstood thinker and writer, his philosophy reduced in the minds of many to the simple admiration of power and brutality. In reality, as is often the case, the true story is more nuanced than conveyed by those who have never actually read his works or biographies of him.
One of my favorite stories is the tale of Nietzsche and the horse. I don’t care if it’s factually true or not – it’s as true as any story can be philosophically and emotionally.
As the holiday season approaches, I want to take a break from the usual themes of this blog. So let’s elevate our minds and read the following little ode to Turin and the Philosopher, written by my good Italian friend, artist Giulia Bia. Follow her here. She herself lives in Turin.
THE PHILOSOPHER, THE CITY AND THE HORSE
“Turin is not a place you abandon.”
Turin is a large, industrious city that lays at the foot of the Alps in the region of Piedmont, Northern Italy.
Mainly known for its soccer team, Juventus, and for being the birthplace of Fiat, the automobile group held by the powerful Agnelli family, Turin has had for a long time the reputation of being just a dull, gray, industrial city inhabited by hardworking, relentless people.
When philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche arrived here in September 1888 in search of a better climate for his health, though, he fell in love with Turin: he described it as magnificent, dignified, soothing, full of aristocratic tranquility. He added: “Turin is a city after my heart, a breath of true 18th century. And the sight of the Alps from the center of the city… I would have never thought that the light could make a city so beautiful”.
He loved the quiet streets and covered walkways so much that, in a letter to his friend Franz Overbeck, he described them as “a paradise for the feet”.
During his strolls, Nietzsche also discovered the pleasures of the palate: he frequently stopped at Caffé Florio, a famous literary café where he was served ice cream, hot cocoa and meringues, and dined at the restaurant every day. He basked in the hospitality of Turin and wrote that he was being treated like a prince: he felt a “delicious feeling of well-being in everything”.
Completely mesmerized by the Mole Antonelliana, then under construction and already the tallest building in the city, the philosopher drew a parallel between its “absolute drive into the heights” and his Zarathustra. He even baptized the yet unnamed building “Ecce Homo”.
Nietzsche rented an apartment on the 4th floor of a building in Via Carlo Alberto 6, right above the entrance of the beautiful Galleria Subalpina, a covered passage that led to the main square of the city, Piazza Castello. From his window he could admire Palazzo Carignano and Piazza Carlo Alberto. His landlords also gave him access to a piano, that the philosopher used to play several hours a day.
In Turin, Nietzsche discovered a positive, exuberant disposition towards the world. He felt strong, relaxed, cheerful. Even his migraines had disappeared, and he was serene enough to write “The Antichrist”, “Ecce Homo” and “Twilight of the idols”.
The idyll between Nietzsche and Turin ended abruptly in January 3rd 1889 when, during one of his usual walks, he saw a man brutally whipping his stubborn horse. Shocked, Nietzsche rushed towards the animal and threw his arms around it to protect it from the flogging, sobbing uncontrollably. He then collapsed to the ground, whispering to the horse: “Richard, my friend”.
Davide Fino, his landlord, came running to rescue the philosopher, who was going to be arrested for his violent outburst and his assertions of being “Dionysus”, “the crucified Christ” and “The lord and tyrant of Turin”.
Once safely home, Nietzsche spent two full days on the sofa in a catatonic state.
At least, this is the romanticized and most known version of the events.
What is historically ascertained is that, on the fateful day of January 3, Nietzsche simply fainted in Piazza Carlo Alberto. Others say that the philosopher just scolded the man for flogging his horse, and that the altercation attracted several people, including the Police.
Whatever the truth, from that day on, Nietzsche started sending relatives, friends and famous people the so-called “Letters of Insanity”, a series of notes signed, indeed, “Dionysus” or “the crucified Christ”. He even sent a letter to the King of Italy, Umberto I of Savoy, calling him “my son”.
In January 9, Overbeck arrived in Turin and accompanied Nietzsche to Basel, where he entered a mental asylum and, on January 18, the patient was transferred to Jena, where he was diagnosed with tertial cerebral syphilis. Some say that, on leaving Turin, Nietzsche sang Neapolitan songs while passing the station of Porta Nuova, all the while claiming to be the King of Italy.
It is widely accepted that uncured syphilis is the culprit behind Nietzsche’s breakdown in Turin; however, some disagree. An alternative theory, developed by doctor Leonard Sax, is that Nietzsche’s descent into madness was caused by a tumor, as the philosopher didn’t display the usual symptoms associated with syphilis. Plus, tertiary syphilis would have killed Nietzsche in a short span of time, but he lived eleven more years, dying in 1900.
(an old, frail Nietzsche towards the end of his life)
Other culprits have been variously indicated as manic-depressive illness, front-temporal dementia, mercury poisoning and hereditary stroke disorder.
In 1944 the city of Turin dedicated a memorial plaque to its adoptive son. In the typical pretentious tone of the Fascist era, it reads: “In this house Federico (sic) Nietzsche knew the plenitude of the spirit that defies the unknown, the will of supremacy of the true hero. Here, as a testament to his noble destiny and his genius, he wrote “Ecce Homo”, the book of his life. The city of Turin dedicates this plaque in remembrance of those fruitful hours on the first centennial of his birth, October 15, 1944”.