The Mirror, Saturday, December 7, 1822.
The circumstance which the above engraving represents, is one of the most extraordinary and deplorable instances of self-delusion on record. Matthew Lovat was born at Casale, a hamlet belonging to the parish of Soldo, in the territory of Belluno, of poor parents, employed in the coarsest and most laborious works of husbandry, and fixed to a place remote from almost all society. His imagination was so forcibly smitten with the view of the easy and comfortable lives of the rector and his curate, who were the only persons in the whole parish exempted from the labours of the field, and who engrossed all the power and consequence which the little world wherein Matthew lived presented to his eyes, that he made an effort to prepare himself for the priesthood, and placed himself under the tuition of the curate, who taught him to read and to write a little. But the poverty of his family was an effectual bar to his desire; he was obliged to renounce study for ever, and to betake himself to the trade of a shoemaker.
Having become a shoemaker from necessity, he never succeeded either as a neat or expeditious workman. The sedentary life, and the silence to which apprentices are condemned in the shops of the masters abroad, formed in him, the habit of meditation, and rendered him gloomy and taciturn. As his age increased, he became subject, in the; spring, to giddiness in his head, and eruptions of a leprous appearance showed themselves on his face and hands.
Until the month of July, 1802, Matthew Lovat did nothing extraordinary. His life was regular and uniform, his habits were sample, and nothing distinguished him, but an extreme degree of devotion. He spoke on no other subject than the affairs of the church. Its festivals and fasts, with sermons, saints, &c. constituted the topics of his conversation. It was at this date, that, in imitation of the early devotees, he determined to disarm the tempter, by mutilating himself. He effected his purpose without having anticipated the species of celebrity which the operation was to procure for him; and which compelled the poor creature to keep himself shut up in his house, from which he did not venture to stir for some time, not even to go to mass. At length, on the 13th of November, in the same year, he went to Venice, where a younger brother, named Angelo, conducted Matthew to the house of a widow, the relict of Andrew Osgualda, with whom he lodged, until the 21st of September in the following year, working assiduously at his trade, and without exhibiting any signs of madness. But on the above-mentioned day, he made an attempt to crucify himself, in the middle of the street called the Cross of Biri, upon a frame which he had constructed of the timber of his bed: he was prevented from accomplishing his purpose by several people, who came upon him just as he was driving the nail into his left foot. His landlady dismissed him from her house, lest he should perform a similar exploit there. Being interrogated repeatedly as to the motive for his self-crucifixion, he maintained an obstinate silence, except that he once said to his brother, that that day was the festival of St. Matthew, and that he could give no farther explanation. Some days after this affair, he set out for his own country, where he remained a certain time, but afterwards returned to Venice, and in July, 1805, lodged in a room in the third floor of a house, in the street Delle Monache.
Here his old ideas of crucifixion laid hold of him again. He wrought a little every day in forming the instrument of his torture, and provided himself with the necessary articles of nails, ropes, bands, the crown of thorns, &c. As he foresaw that it would be extremely difficult to fasten himself securely upon the cross, he made a net of small cords capable of supporting his weight, in case he should happen to disengage himself from it. This net he secured at the bottom, by fastening it in a knot at the lower extremity of the perpendicular beam, a little below the bracket designed to support his feet, and the other end was stretched to the extremities of the transverse spar, which formed the arms of the cross, so that it had the appearance in front of a purse turned upside down. From the middle of the upper extremity of the net, thus placed, proceeded one rope; and from the point at which the two spars forming the cross intersected each other, a second rope proceeded, both of which were firmly tied to a beam in the inside of the chamber, immediately above the window, of which the parapet was very low; and the length of these ropes was just sufficient to allow the cross to rest horizontally upon the floor of the apartment.
These cruel preparations being ended, Matthew stripped himself naked, and proceeded to crown himself with thorns; of which two or three pierced the skin which covers the forehead. He next bound a white handkerchief round his loins and thighs, leaving the rest of his body bare; then, passing his legs between the net and the cross, seating himself upon it, he took one of the nails destined for his hands, of which the point was smooth and sharp, and introducing it into the palm of the left, he drove it, by striking its head on the floor, until the half of it had appeared through the back of the hand. He now adjusted his feet to the bracket which had been prepared to receive them, the right over the left; and taking a nail five French inches and a half long, of which the point was also polished and sharp, and placing it on the upper foot with his left hand, he drove it with a mallet which he held in his right, until it not only penetrated both his feet, but entering the hole prepared for it in the bracket, made its way so far through the tree of the cross as to fasten the victim firmly to it. He planted the third nail in his right hand as he had managed with regard to the left, and having bound himself by the middle to the perpendicular of the cross by a cord, which he had previously stretched under him, he set about inflicting the wound in the, side with a cobler's knife, which he had placed by him for this operation, and which he said represented the spear of the passion. It did not occur to him, however, at the moment, that the wound ought to be in the right side, and not in the left, and in the cavity of the breast, and not of the hypocondre, where he struck himself transversely two inches below the left hypocondre, towards the internal angle of the abdominal cavity, without however injuring the parts which this cavity contains. Whether fear checked his hand, or whether he intended to plunge the instrument to a great depth, by avoiding the hard and resisting parts, it is not easy to determine; but there were observed near the wound several scratches across his body, which scarcely divided the skin.
These extraordinary operations being concluded, it was now necessary, in order to complete the execution of the whole plan which he had conceived, that Matthew should exhibit himself upon the cross to the eyes of the public; and he realized this part of it in the following way. The cross was laid horizontally on the floor, its lower extremity resting upon the parapet of the window, which was very low, then raising himself up by pressing upon the points of his fingers (for the nails did not allow him to use his whole hand either open or closed), he made several springs forward, until the portion of the cross which was protruded over the parapet, overbalancing what was within the chamber, the whole frame, with Matthew upon it, darted out at the window, and remained suspended outside of the house by the ropes which were secured to the beam in the inside. In this predicament, the poor fanatic stretched his hands to the extremities of the transverse beam which formed the arms of the cross, to insert the nails into the holes which had been prepared for them: but whether it was out of his power to fix both, or whether he was obliged to use the right on some concluding operation, the fact is, that when he was seen by the people who passed in the street, he was suspended under the window, with only his left hand nailed to the cross, while his right hung parallel to his body, on the outside of the net. It was then eight o'clock in the morning. As soon as he was perceived, some humane people ran up stairs, disengaged him from the cross, and put him to bed. A surgeon of the neighbourhood was called, who made them plunge his feet into water, introduced tow by way of caddis into the wound of the hypocondre, which he assured them did not penetrate into the cavity, and after having prescribed some cordial, instantly took his departure.
At this moment, Dr Ruggieri, professor of Clinical surgery, hearing what had taken place, instantly repaired to the lodging of Lovat, to witness with his own eyes a fact which appeared to exceed all belief. When he arrived there, accompanied by the surgeon Paganoni, Matthew's feet, from which there had issued but a small quantity of blood, were still in the water—his eyes were shut—he made no reply to the questions which were addressed to him; his pulse was convulsive, and respiration had become difficult. With the permission of the Director of Police, who had come to take cognizance of what had happened, Dr. Huggieri caused the patient to be conveyed by water to the Imperial Clinical School, established at the Hospital of St. Luke and St. John. During the passage, the only thing he said was to his brother Angelo, who accompanied him in the boat, and was lamenting his extravagance: which was, 'Alas, I am very unfortunate.” At the hospital, an examination of his wounds took place; and it was ascertained that the nails had entered by the palm of the hands, and gone out at the back, making their way between the bones of the Metacarpus, without inflicting any injury upon them: that the nail which wounded the feet had entered first the right foot, between the second and third bones of the Metatarsus towards their posterior extremity; and then the left, between the first and second of the same bones, the latter of which it had laid bare and grazed: and lastly, that the wound of the hypocondre penetrated to the point of the cavity. The patient was placed in an easy position. He was tranquil and docile: the wounds in the extremities were treated with emollients and sedatives. On the fifth day, they suppurated with a slight redness in their circumference; and on the eighth, that of the hypocondre was perfectly healed.
The patient never spoke. Always sombre and shut up in himself, his eyes were almost constantly closed. Interrogated several times, relative to the motive which had induced him to crucify himself, he always made this answer: 'The pride of man must be mortified, it must expire on the cross.' Dr. Ruggieri, thinking that he might be restrained by the presence of his pupils, returned repeatedly to the subject when with him alone, and he always answered in the same terms. He was, in fact, so deeply persuaded that the supreme will had imposed upon him the obligation of dying upon the cross, that he wished to inform the Tribunal of Justice of the destiny which it behoved him to fulfil, with the view of preventing all suspicion that his death might have been the work of any other hand than his own, With this in prospect, and long before his martyrdom, he committed his ideas to paper, in a style and character such as would be expected from his education, and the disorder of his mind.
Scarcely was he able to support in his hand the weight of a book, when he took the prayer-book, and read it all day long. On the first days of August, all his wounds were completely cured; and as he felt no pain or difficulty in moving his hands and feet, he expressed a wish to go out of the hospital, that he might not, as he said, eat the bread of idleness. This request being denied to him, he passed a whole day without taking any food; and finding that his clothes were kept from him, he set out one afternoon in his shirt, but was soon brought back by the servants. The board of Police gave orders that he should be conveyed to the Lunatic Asylum, established at St. Servolo, where he was placed on the 20th of August, 1805,
After the first eight days he became taciturn, and refused every species of meat and drink. It was impossible to make him swallow even a drop of water during six successive days. Towards the morning of the seventh day, being importuned by another madman, he consented to take a little nourishment. He continued to eat about fifteen days, and then resumed his fast, which he prolonged during eleven.
These fasts were repeated, and of longer or shorter duration; the most protracted, however, not exceeding twelve days.
In January, 1808, there appeared in him some symptoms of consumption; and he would remain immovable, exposed to the whole heat of the sun until the skin of his face began to peel off, and it was necessary to employ force to drag him into the shade.
In April, exhaustion proceeded rapidly, labouring in his breast was observed, the pulse was very slow, and on the morning of the eighth he expired after a short struggle.