Giuseppe (Joseph) Balsamo (2 June 1743 – 26 August 1795?) was a thief, charlatan, pimp and gigolo from the slums of Palermo. He was forced to flee Palermo in his late teens, and travelled around France, Italy and Spain with his wife Lorenza until he vanished in 1776, about the same time as the magician Cagliostro appeared to history.
In attempting to discover who Cagliostro really was, the majority opinion seems to be that he was Giuseppe Balsamo in a new guise. This has never been proven conclusively, but the evidence is compelling.
Was Cagliostro really Giuseppe Balsamo?
Count Cagliostro (pronounced “kally-o-stro”) was an 18th century occult mystic/conman/faith healer who ranged throughout Europe, claiming a noble, exotic, and mysterious origin. A political loose cannon in an age of revolution, he was implicated in the famous French “Affair of the Diamond Necklace“, and was ultimately condemned to death by the Roman Inquisition for practising freemasonry.
People (including prosecutors and particularly jail guards) wanted to know if Cagliostro was a real sorcerer. They also wondered if he really could extend life, and if he was really the head of an Egyptian Masonic cult. Some speculated that he was really a Jesuit spy, others suspected that he was really an agent for an international revolutionary conspiracy. They were curious to know where he came from, and especially, what he was capable of. It is a question that has intrigued researchers for centuries.
Some dismissed him outright, and considered his admirers to be deceived, overly-credulous fools. It was ridiculous to even consider his absurdities. Still, the greater the absurdity, the more breathtaking the possibilities….
Fortunately, the French police, the Italian Inquisition, and some members of the press all had occasion to look deeply and soberly into his past. They concluded that Cagliostro was really Giuseppe Balsamo, despite Cagliostro’s emphatic denial.
For his part, Cagliostro insisted on his right–or need–to travel incognito–and on his right to his privacy. He had always said that “Cagliostro” was only an assumed name. He admitted that. He claimed to travel under other aliases, too–just not the ones attributed to Balsamo.
The mystery of Cagliostro allowed people’s imaginations wide range to develop theories according to their beliefs, and it made him much more impressive as an occultist, alchemist, mystic, healer, and Freemason.
Cagliostro claimed to have been raised as an orphan at “the palace of the Mufti Salahayam” in Medina, Arabia, but kept ignorant of his origins and of the story of his birth or deliverance to that place, except for some tantalizing details.
He also claimed to be an emissary for an original, pure form of Egyptian freemasonry, protecting and preserving the secrets and rituals of that ancient cult, and ready to reform the European masonic movement.
Where he actually came from has never been satisfactorily decided, but after the researches of the highly disreputable Théveneau de Morande (1741–1805), those of the slightly less disreputable Roman Inquisition, the French police, and after Goethe’s personal visit to Balsamo’s relatives in Palermo, the world seems largely satisfied that Cagliostro was really Giuseppe (Joseph) Balsamo, the son of Peter Balsamo and Felicia Bracconieri of Palermo, Sicily.
According to the story, Giuseppe Balsamo was born on the 2nd of June 1743. One might expect that a man like Cagliostro-Balsamo would be born under the sign of the celestial twins–a Gemini!
He was baptized in the Palermo cathedral (Tovazzi) a few days later. Goethe says his godmother was Vincenza Cagliostro. Her husband Giuseppe Cagliostro was Balsamo’s great-uncle. Did Giuseppe Balsamo eventually take his great uncle Giuseppe Cagliostro’s last name?
Balsamo’s father had been a jeweller in Palermo, but he went bankrupt just before Giuseppe was born, and then died within a few months of his birth. Giuseppe’s mother Felicia raised him and his older sister Giovanna Giuseppe Maria in poverty.
They lived in a two room apartment in the Arabic slums near the Ballaro market in a alley now bearing Cagliostro’s name and within a block or two of the Jesuit Church of the Gesu and the Casa Professa monastery.
In his youth he was in and out of trouble. In his teens he was a leader of a street gang. According to his Inquisition “confession” (The Life of Joseph Balsamo), even in his youth he didn’t respect authority: he got into a lot of fights and he and his gang used to mug the local police constables returning to the jail and release their prisoners.
He was arrested for knifing and killing a canon of the Church, but was released for lack of evidence.
He acted as a go-between for his cousin and an acquaintance, passing letters between the two, and tricking his acquaintance into passing gifts to his cousin which he kept (not entirely unlike the “Affair of the Diamond Necklace”…).
Despite his lack of promise, his wealthy relations–his grandfather, and two maternal uncles, Matteo and Antonio Bracconieri–made efforts to provide for his education.
In childhood he lived with his grandfather and had a private tutor for a while and attended the seminary of Saint Roch in Palermo for several years.
When his abilities in chemistry and drawing were discovered, they were nurtured.
The result of nurturing his talent for drawing (copying), was that he became an expert forger. He forged theatre tickets for sale. He forged a will cheating a Church establishment out of a legacy in favour of a Marquis Maurigi.
In his early teens, he was trained as a novice monk by the Padri Fatebenefratelli di San Giovanni di Dio at Caltagirone (Brothers Hospitaliers of St. John of God). The Brothers ran a hospital for the poor, gave free health care, and ran a pharmacy (today they run the Vatican Pharmacy).
Among the Fatebenefratelli, Balsamo learned something about the care of the sick, and about the philosophy of charitable care. He was said to be particularly skilled in the preparation of medicines (apothecary).
And since the Brothers were also the keepers–and copiers–of alchemical manuscripts gathered from the Arabs (who had occupied Sicily in the previous two centuries), he would also have learned a thing or two about alchemy, mysticism, and Egypt, too.
He was good at his work, and the monks tried to keep him for that reason, despite his poor attitude and wild behaviour. But he was desperate to get out. They finally threw him out when he substituted the names of saints with those of prostitutes in his reading of the Martyrology.
Clearly Balsamo wasn’t meant for the clergy or the cloister, and he returned to Palermo.
His education to that point could be considered a failure: he had learned theology and blasphemed; he learned drawing and became a forger; he learned chemistry, and would soon use it to commit fraud.
One gift actually benefited others, and that was his gift of healing, although even that seems due more to his gifts of deception and hypnotic suggestion than to any breadth or depth of medical knowledge.
He was clearly not a traditionally religious man. He chaffed at Catholic repression and the constraints of religious life. Perhaps Balsamo felt more affinity with the superstitions and folk mysticism of ancient Sicily, and the charms, amulets, soothsayers, and witchcraft of the Ballaro market stalls, and was truly more sorcerer than monk.
His lifetime of travelling began some time before 1765 when he led a wealthy goldsmith, Vincenzo Marano, on a phony hunt for buried Saracen treasure. While Marano was digging, Balsamo’s gang, disguised as angry demons, mugged and robbed him.
Marano soon realized he’d been cheated, and swore deadly vengeance. Balsamo and his cronies fled Palermo to Messina, and then may have headed out on a boat to Egypt, or, they may just have hung around in Calabria.
He was gone at least a few months, possibly longer. He says he went to Alexandria and Cairo. What trouble could a boy from Palermo on the run get into in Egypt?
With a familiarity of alchemy he would have known that Alexandria was the centre of Egyptian alchemy, and the birthplace of European alchemy.
Somewhere around 1765 or 66, he went to Malta, and worked as a clerk for the Knights of Malta. Here his experience with religious life, and with apothecary and alchemy assisted him in ingratiating himself with the Knights.
He worked there for several years, and left with good letters of recommendation (though he was a forger) that helped him get his next job as a secretary with the Cardinal Orsini in Rome in 1768.
On the side he sold artwork and relics he’d copied to tourists, reconnected with some Sicilian friends, and met his future wife, the very young and alluring Lorenza Feliciani.
She was fourteen years old and from a poor, working class family. Balsamo and his wife moved in with her family, but it wasn’t long before Balsamo’s sexual grooming of little Lorenza offended the family to the extent that the young couple moved out. As long as there was no love, he would tell Lorenza, adultery was not a sin.
He met a man named Agliata who taught him more about the art of forgery, and they all set off for Germany (although they never got further than Venice) to pass their forged papers and notes.
Agliata’s price, in part, for his tutelage was the lovely Lorenza, possibly now known by her apparent middle name, Serafina. On the trip, she travelled privately with Agliata, while the rest of the party travelled in another coach.
When another member of their party betrayed the forgers, the party scattered. Balsamo and Lorenza, destitute, travelled to Aix, in southern France, dressed as pilgrims. There, they ran into the famous Casanova, who recorded his encounter with them in his diary.
From there, they went to Spain, and Balsamo worked variously as an artist or chemist. A wealthy merchant. Anselmo de la Cruz took Lorenza as a mistress, paying a fee to Balsamo for each visit by her.
Balsamo used the money to buy topazes, which he planned to sell in London.
But in London by 1771, things went badly, and they were quickly cheated and robbed of their topazes. Debts caused him to be jailed, but the plucky Lorenza found a patron in Sir Edward Hales who not only paid Balsamo’s debts, but also hired him to paint a mural at his country home, Hales Place, near Canterbury.
Balsamo may have been an excellent forger, but he wasn’t an artist. He was not capable of original work. He botched the murals job, and when Lord Hales discovered that Balsamo had also managed to seduce his daughter, Balsamo and his wife headed for France. It was 1772.
But even before the boat landed on its short trip, the Balsamos had moved on to new opportunities. A man named Duplessis who had taken an interest in Lorenza, offered to take them to Paris.
Lorenza rode in Duplessis’ carriage, while Balsamo rode alone on a horse. In Paris Lorenza became the lover of Duplessis for three months–until his money began to run out.
Duplessis encouraged Lorenza to rid herself of the controlling and occasionally abusive Balsamo–even to return home to her parents. Lorenza moved into lodgings provided by Duplessis and then complained to the Parisian police that Balsamo beat her, and was a criminal.
But Balsamo responded with counter-suits of theft and abduction against Duplessis, and Duplessis caved in.
Balsamo had Lorenza thrown into the Sainte Pelagie convent for loose women, to think about things until he had her released four months later.
In the meantime, Balsamo lived with another woman, sold his elixirs for long life and beauty, and defrauded several gentlemen of money on the strength of claiming to be able to alchemically produce gold, and extend life.
Soon–as creditors and the police edged ever closer–Cagliostro gathered up his repentant and loving wife and fled France for Italy. They were in Naples in 1774 as Count and Countess Pellegrini.
In Naples he met his accountant uncle, Antonio Bracconieri (who would later describe Balsamo in a deposition), and headed home to Sicily and Palermo, having first ensured he was free to return.
But Marano was still waiting, and at first opportunity, Balsamo was thrown in jail by Marano’s lawyers.
As the story goes, Lorenza went to her alleged lover the Prince de Pietre Persia who had assured them they were free to return, and the prince furiously beat and bullied Marano’s lawyer into having Balsamo released.
Once free, the Balsamos fled Palermo, never to return. They headed to Malta, where Balsamo was kindly remembered by the Knights, and they stayed there for some months before heading to Europe where they spent the next few months wandering France, Spain and Portugal. For a while, perhaps, he became “Don Thiscio.”
They say he defrauded people with his alchemical pretensions, and lived off of various women (supposedly old, ugly and especially susceptible to the attentions of a man).
Lorenza’s brother Francesco joined them in Naples, and in short order they were off again, to Toulon and Marseilles where Balsamo tried to place Francesco into a lucrative marriage without success, due perhaps to Francesco’s lack of interest or guile.
In Valenzia, Balsamo (as Pellegrino) hired a young medical student named Carlo Sacchi as a servant. It would be Carlo Sacchi (or Sachi) who would be called upon by Balsamo’s enemies to denounce him at every opportunity. Balsamo said Sacchi was dismissed for taking money from patients. Sacchi said Balsamo owed him money.
In the south western Spanish city of Cadiz, perhaps despairing of ever turning Francesco into an accomplice instead of a free-loading brother-in-law, Balsamo turned Francesco over to the police, and three months in prison after discovering the loss of some coins and other valuables.
It was also in Cadiz that Balsamo acquired an extremely expensive walking cane with a repeating watch (a watch that chimes the time on demand) set in diamonds in the handle. He would later claim that it was given to him by his admirers, but the jeweller Silvestre, uncovered by Cagliostro’s enemies when they were trying to trace his movements, would claim the cane had been stolen from them, and demand payment.
Perhaps further inspired by the legend of Christian Rosencrutz, (a story which was not unlike his own to this point), he also evidently re-invented himself, as about this time, he became variously Pellegrini or Cagliostro, taking the name of his great uncle Giuseppe Cagliostro, with the assumed titles of Captain or Count.
And at about this point–perhaps in London–Giuseppe Balsamo disappeared into history, and at about this point–in London–Count Cagliostro appeared.
It is known that first there was a Balsamo and then there wasn’t. And then, shortly afterwards, there was a Count Cagliostro, and nobody knew where he had come from.
However, Cagliostro had Spanish and Portuguese money in his pocket, and carried an expensive-looking cane with a repeating watch set in diamonds in the handle–just like Giuseppe Balsamo’s!
Click to read more about the life and travels of Cagliostro….
Sources and some important works:
- Cagliostro’s Letter to the English People. Published by Cagliostro as a defense and reply against de Morande’s attacks against him in the Courier de l’Europe. Translated and republished in ‘Theosophical Path Magazine’ by G. De Purucker.
- Giovanni Barberi, The life of Joseph Balsamo commonly called Count Cagliostro, London, 1791. Translated from the original “final” proceedings against Cagliostro which were published at Rome by order of the Apostolic Chamber (Attributed to Monsignor Barberi). Trowbridge (p.22) suggests this is not authentic. Others dismiss it as evidence possibly gathered under torture (which is only assumed).
- Iain McCalman: The Last Alchemist: Count Cagliostro, Master of Magic in the Age of Reason (A.k.a.: The Seven Ordeals of Count Cagliostro), 2004: Flamingo (Australia) and Random House (UK); published in the USA as The Last Alchemist, Harper Collins.
- Italian Journey: 1786-1788 (Penguin Classics)
Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe. W.H. Auden (Translator), Elizabeth Meyer (Translator).
- Giangrisostomo Tovazzi Manuscripts of the Franciscan historian Giangrisostomo Tovazzi, lived in the second half of the 1700’s.