Said to be the last of the real European sorcerers, the infamous Count Alessandro di Cagliostro (17 May 1748? – 26 August 1795) died in an Italian Inquisition prison after a series of strokes throughout a hot August day in 1795. His books and manuscripts had already been burned by the Church, and his reputation destroyed.
Cagliostro (pronounced “kally-o-stro”) was famous throughout Europe in the late 18th century as a mystic, magician, Freemason, alchemist and a healer. With his wife, the young “Countess” Seraphina, Cagliostro traveled throughout Europe promoting his own brand of occult-based Freemasonry, and selling elixirs and creams to extend life and preserve youth.
He held séances and gave demonstrations of clairvoyance for the rich and aristocratic. As an alchemist he claimed to be able to transmute lead and mercury to gold and silver, and he claimed to be able to teach others how to live long and healthy lives.
An exemplary humanitarian (though not a trained doctor), he treated thousands of poor people in clinics throughout Europe and refused payment. He was enormously popular among the common people – sometimes the police were needed to control the crowds around his clinics – but disdained by the elite – except for those who became his disciples.
He said he didn’t know his true origin, but thought he was an orphan of Trebizond in the East, raised as a child named Acharat in the palace of the Mufti Salahayyam in Medina. The mystery of his exalted and exotic origins fascinated and awed his admirers, and enraged his detractors.
He was ultimately exposed by his enemies – and the authorities – as truly being a Sicilian swindler named Balsamo, on the run throughout Europe after being chased out of Palermo as a youth by an irate silversmith.
They said he was a pimp who lived off of his once-virtuous young wife, and who encouraged and then blackmailed her suitors.
He was accused of selling bogus remedies, and of faking séances and alchemical experiments. Questioned after séances, some children who had acted as mediums or pupils revealed that they had been coached by Cagliostro, and that in others he had simply led, or encouraged them. One particularly closely watched demonstration of the transmutation of gold by Cagliostro was exposed as a fraud.
Yet as much as he may have been guilty of those things, there was some undeniable legitimacy in him – he opened free health clinics and devoted himself tirelessly to the care of the poor until he was inevitably forced to leave town suddenly by jealous (or more responsible and ethical) medical professionals. While his medical talents were disputed, his clairvoyant abilities have not been.
Fascinated by Freemasonry, uniquely suited to it, and always in need of an influential connection and a place to stay, he was an active Freemason, and invented the “Egyptian Rite,” founding lodges in Europe.
Rumor says he joined Adam Weishaupt’s Bavarian Illuminati, itself suspected of dedication to the overthrow of European states. Indeed, whether by intent or fortune, he has been regarded as one of the causes of the French Revolution if only for arousing sympathy as yet another popular person, rightly pissed-off after being screwed over by the State, and willing to complain loudly about it – usually from a distance.
His reputation and friendship in France with the wealthy and powerful but opportunistic Cardinal Rohan led to his being charged in the famous 1785 “‘Affair of the Diamond Necklace’” in France, from which he was acquitted.
Because of his anti-Catholic antagonism (undoubtedly engendered by his childhood spent in Catholic institutions), his Freemasonry, his criminality, and his constant traveling, he was suspected by paranoid authorities of being a spy and agitator working to unite European revolutionary groups in an massive, international, anti-royalist, anti-Church, Illuminati movement spread among Masonic lodges – and perhaps they were right – he was all of those things, and the Freemasons were indeed a secret international organisation of free-thinkers who were free to circulate and say what they wanted among their secret brotherhood – and revolution was imminent.
Protecting him, Cagliostro was popular among many, including the poor, whether as an entertainer, a true sorcerer, a celebrity, a charming scoundrel, a mystic guru, a friend, or even a pompous clown. Among the nobility and in the Church, he may have been more of a usually harmless but obnoxious irritant who nevertheless was someday going to push them too far by either ripping someone off, getting a following, or goading them into a corner.
Both the Church and European nobility could see that he had the power to destroy them, even if Cagliostro didn’t realize it himself. Catherine of Russia, Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI, and Pope Pius VI personally interested themselves in his movements and directly contributed to his downfall, most prominently through exile.
Rejected and expelled from countries throughout Europe, Cagliostro retreated to Rome, where he was watched and soon charged with heresy by the Roman Inquisition for practicing Freemasonry.
Cagliostro was imprisoned for life, but remained defiant to the end.
Today, as in his own time, we don’t exactly know who he was, or where he came from, but he was, at face value, a gifted clairvoyant and an inspired mystic, healer, and Freemason. Yet if he is remembered at all (and almost not at all in English countries), it is as a charlatan and a clown. While this may suit modern rational sensibilities, it should be remembered that it is his enemies who have determined his legacy.
Cagliostro scared people
“When Cagliostro died, so effectively died a belief in genuine sorcery, though it peeps from out of its grave occasionally even today.” “An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural.” Randi.Org
A Model for Goethe’s Faust – or Perhaps his Mephistopheles?
If you asked the Church, they would say he knew the Devil himself, and that if he hadn’t sold his soul to the Devil, it was because he had given it freely. If he wasn’t Faust, he was very nearly Mephistopheles.
Goethe was six years younger than Cagliostro and he was familiar with Cagliostro – as was much of Europe, but when Goethe began working on the preliminary Faust work (the Urfaust) somewhere before 1775, Cagliostro wasn’t yet well-known.
However, in the decades between Goethe’s first efforts on Faust, and the publication of the first Faust play in the first decade of the next century, Cagliostro’s life had played out, and he had been dead ten years already.
Between those two times, in 1787, Goethe was on his Italian journey. Cagliostro had just been expelled from France after being acquitted in the Affair of the Diamond Necklace and had taken refuge in London. The debate about who Cagliostro was had been investigated by the French Ministry, and was now being fanned by the journalist/libelist de Morande in London. It was being claimed that Cagliostro was actually a petty con-man from the slums of Palermo named Giuseppe (Joseph) Balsamo.
Goethe, in Palermo at the time, was curious to visit Balsamo’s family, and made several visits to them (see Funck-Brentano’s description in Goethe on Cagliostro).
So clearly Goethe knew a good deal about Cagliostro’s life, but to assume that Cagliostro was an inspiration ignores that Cagliostro was one of many possible influences.
International Men of Mystery
Although the Faust tale originates, or takes inspiration, from one man, Dr. Johann Georg Faust, he was not unique. Throughout history there have been men like him in character and deed, and many of the tales told about Faust were told of other men too. Cagliostro, for example was said to be unnaturally old, like the Comte de Saint-Germain, and that like Faust, “in the midst of winter he produced by magical power a plate full of fresh strawberries for a sick person who was craving it.”1
“Introduced to the court of Louis XVI, Cagliostro succeeded in evoking apparitions in mirrors before many spectators — these apparitions included many deceased persons especially selected by those present. His residence was isolated and surrounded by gardens, and there he established a laboratory. His wife affected great privacy and only appeared, in a costume, at certain hours and before a very select company. This heightened the mystery surrounding them, and the elite of Parisian society vied with one another to be present at their magic suppers, at which the evocation of the illustrious dead was the principal amusement. It is even stated that deceased statesmen, authors, and nobles took their seats at Cagliostro’s supper table.”Alessandro Conte di Cagliostro.
The strange stories told of Cagliostro, were also told of the Comte de St Germain years earlier, and had been told of others for countless generations.
These men were of a singular nature: their origins were mysterious and seductive; they were either great mystics, or great frauds–it was always hard to tell. They were magicians, or claimed to be, with wonderful powers, and it was suggested that they possessed the keys to great and secret knowledge.
They were individuals and adventurers: unconstrained, unpredictable, and independent. They were tricksters, wandering and chased throughout Europe, causing anxiety and consternation wherever they lit.
To the established religion they were the most dangerous sorts of individual–surely Satanic, they fascinated a gullible and superstitious public chasing after novelty.
Unfortunate Child of Nature
In his portrait (see above) he looks soft and energetic. He looks like the eternal child – always enthusiastic, always comfortably secure in his own self-centered world, but never understanding – one who can never be made to focus on, or recognize, the authority of others – their superiority – over him. He had no recognized station in life, and presumed to mingle with the elite. In the end, those powers tend to simply crush seemingly good-natured, guileless but oblivious people like him in frustration, and they did.
Who was Cagliostro?
He claimed to have been the son of a noble man, but was discovered to be from the streets of Palermo, Sicily. Although opinions have varied over the years, and many still hold differing opinions, it is currently accepted that Cagliostro was a Palermo swindler and thug named Giuseppe (Joseph) Balsamo.
It gives credence to his claim to have been raised as an Eastern prince named Acharat, for he was truly the “unfortunate child of nature” as the insightful “Sharif of Mecca (and all Arabia)” called him.
“In treating of the age of Cagliostro, and of the eighteenth century generally, it should never be forgotten that it was peculiarly and especially a period of transition. Science was in his cradle, as yet over weak for the strangling of serpents.
To astronomy still clung odds and ends of astrology; chemistry was very alchemical, and smacked strongly of the Black Art, as its name implies. Herb doctors still gathered their simples under certain aspects of the heavenly bodies; the whole positive knowledge of the period was curiously bemuddled with mystic twaddle, signs, and symbols.
Science had not yet cut loose from the Supernatural, and the effect of new discoveries on old faiths and traditions was to produce a curious social salad, or rather salmagundy: Cavendish and Watt quarrelling over the discovery of the composition of water; Priestley discovering oxygen, and Johnson believing in the Cock-lane ghost.
Freemasonry a hundred years ago was a very different organisation from the great brotherhood of to-day, and in Germany, especially, was intimately connected with the Illuminati.
At Ingoldstadt we find, in 1773, Weisshaupt–a suppressed Jesuit, burning to found a sect of his own, to preach perfectibility and to regenerate the century–goaded into sudden action by an officer named Ecker, who, descending on the neighbourhood, founds a lodge of Freemasons in the next village, and produces immense excitement by alchemy, magic mirrors, and spirits evoked from the shades.
Ecker draws after him a crowd of would-be adepts, to the despair of Weisshaupt, who at once launches the opposition Society of Illuminati to save the world from masonic superstition.
After a while, however, we find the Freemasons and the Illuminati very good friends, until the formal suppression of the latter short-lived society.
While Freemasonry is thus for a time intermingled with magic, alchemy, cabala, and abracadabra, what could be a more natural thought to Captain Cagliostro than to graft his conjuring tricks upon a mystical stem, and bring before the masonic world an entirely new revelation of Freemasonry? A name for the new masonry is quickly found. Let it be called Egyptian.”
Dickens’ All The Year Around
Volume 14 June 19, 1875, No. 342
According to some sources, spies of the Inquisition watched Cagliostro in Rome, and when they found evidence that he had finally resorted to illegal Masonic activity, they picked him up.
According to present-day author Iain Mccalman, it was Cagliostro’s wife, Seraphina, who ultimately caused his downfall. Returning to Rome in 1789 with Cagliostro, she re-united with her uneasy family, and was inspired to confess both her sins and his to a priest of the Roman Inquisition.
Cagliostro was arrested, tried for heresy, found guilty, and imprisoned in a remote, specially-equipped prison cell at San Leo Fortress.
Seraphina (perhaps to her surprise and dismay) was secreted away in a convent where she presumably died.
Cagliostro, however, didn’t go quietly.
His time in prison was spent waging a bitter psychological battle with his captors2 that was wearing on Cagliostro, who seemed to gradually go mad, but who had fooled his captors on so many levels, for so long, that they still suspected a ruse. He died in the prison at the San Leo Fortress after a series of strokes on 26 August 1795. He was buried outside the Castle limits in an unmarked grave. When Napoleon’s revolutionary forces finally came to free him, they could hardly find his grave. It is now lost.
Cagliostro/Balsamo was a tragic figure in this: he was a man uniquely suited to a calling he was unlikely to succeed in.
Cagliostro might have become the prophet of the Masonic movement or a revolutionary leader, but Cagliostro couldn’t rise to be the great, the grand Cagliostro burdened with Balsamo’s history or reputation.
In Cagliostro was the requisite natural intelligence and creativity. He was trained in alchemy, pharmacy, magic, and even in religious ceremony. He had seen the benevolence of the religious Fatebenefratelli, and was a gifted healer and natural psychologist. He had traveled extensively, and was quick-witted, sensitive, and commanding.
Cagliostro was only half the man, according to his opponents. Spoiling “Cagliostro” was the Balsamo half–a creature from the slums: devious, vicious, vulgar, and crude. This is the thug that apologists deny Cagliostro originally was.
But Balsamo fits into the ugly side of Cagliostro like a puzzle piece. Neither the history of Cagliostro nor the history of Balsamo alone is complete, because they are portions. Balsamo and Cagliostro weren’t two different people – they were halves of the same person.
“Cagliostro” shouldn’t have been born in the slums of Palermo, because he could never rise to the station that suited him. “Cagliostro” seems to be a con of Balsamo’s that got out of hand when it got too large and when he came to believe in it. As much as Cagliostro tried to distance himself from his presumed past and his origins, he couldn’t, and he was derided as pretentious, dishonest, and a clown.
The true history of Cagliostro is difficult to know, because he was secretive and mysterious, and because he did both good and bad things, drawing large numbers of equally ardent enemies and admirers. Much time is spent in debating whether Cagliostro was the Eastern Prince Acharat or Balsamo, and it may be that who you decide he was depends on your feelings about Freemasonry, the occult, or free health care, for that matter.
Sources and some important works:
- Cagliostro’s celebrated ‘Letter to the French People’, sent from England after his banishment as a result of the “Affair of the Diamond Necklace”
- 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, but torture is unproven.
- Thomas Carlyle: Count Cagliostro (a PDF will open), Fraser’s Magazine (July, Aug. 1833). “Carlyle in one of his fine literary rages” said Trowbridge. Thomas Carlyle, famous English essayist, social commentator, and historian–was highly critical and derided Cagliostro.
C. J. Ryan quotes P. A. Malpas as writing this about Carlyle on Cagliostro (Theosophical Path Magazine, January to June 1932, page 308.):
“Thomas Carlyle, have we wandered through a dozen long pages of reading merely to learn that all, all you have said or are going to say is based on Imagination? Would you not have done better to label your screed a ‘fantasy’? Now we know how to take your periods and wordy flights! That same ‘larger pinion’ of Imagination proceeds to take us through the babyhood of a ragamuffin, a guttersnipe, in a picture labeled ‘Palermo.’ A stupid, nonsensical, verbiferous boyhood follows, equally imaginative, based on the ridiculous story concocted by the French police.”
- Clementino Vanetti wrote an objective and detailed book of observations, but wasn’t able to gain further access to Cagliostro’s friends after publishing work thought to be critical of Cagliostro.
“But the most humorous writing of Vanetti, in the Latin language, and that on which he himself set the greatest value, was a bitter satire on that well known adventurer Cagliostro, who in 1788 carried on his deceptions for some time at Roveredo, and under the character of a prophet and worker of miracles, had an astonishing number of followers.
To unmask the juggling tricks of this impostor, Vanetti wrote, in the manner of the books of Chronicles, and in the Latin style of the Vulgate, a small work entitled “Liber memorialis di Cagliostro.” At first it was circulated only in manuscript, but as every one wished for a copy, it became so mutilated by frequent transcribing that the author determined to print it. This witty production was read with incredible avidity, except by some devout persons who considered it as a profanation of scripture and it produced a much more sensible effect on the secret partisans of Cagliostro, than all the serious and learned works published in Germany and France, to expose his deceptions.” —
General Biography; Or, Lives, Critical And Historical, Of The Most Eminent Persons Of All Ages, Countries, Conditions, And Professions, Arranged According To Alphabetical Order. By John Aikin, M.D., and William Johnston. Volume Nine. London. 1814. (not considered reliable according to Wikipedia (““This source tends to be filled with factual errors and anachronisms.”) Page 553.
- Cagliostro: the splendour and misery of a master of magic. W. R. H. (William Rutherford Hayes) Trowbridge, 1910
Trowbridge reconsiders Cagliostro’s legacy and writes a more rational and consequently more positive book, on the assumption that the negatives things which had been written up until then simply followed the tide of prejudice. He concludes that Cagliostro wasn’t Balsamo. This turned the tide of opinion slightly, but generally the Balsamo identity is held to be probable, and his reputation as charlatan perseveres.
Despite his inference of objectivity, his positive attitude to Cagliostro seems to be inspired by his excitement and anticipation of the benefits of occultism. Thus, in order to defend occultism, he has become Cagliostro’s champion. “Occult phenomena are real,” he seems to be saying, “…and Cagliostro is our proof.”
“Occultism is not a menace to progress, but a spur. Its secrets are not to be ridiculed, but to be explained. That is its challenge to modern science, which is at once its offspring and its servant.” p. 77.
“It is from Cagliostro’s ability ‘to transmit his powers,’ as it was termed, that the singular phenomena of modern spiritualism were developed. In reality it was nothing more or less than the discovery of the ‘psychic’ – the word must serve for want of a better – properties latent in every human being, and which in many are capable of a very high degree of development. This discovery, till then unimagined, was the secret of the veneration in which Cagliostro was regarded by his followers.” p. 207.
- Count Cagliostro: An Authentic Story of a Mysterious Life. By Constantin Photiades. Kessinger Publishing, LLC (May 20, 2003)
- 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, HarperCollins.
- W. R. H Trowbridge: Cagliostro: Savant or scoundrel? – The true role of this splendid, tragic figure (1910). p. 306. [↩]
- Iain Mccalman’s book outlines the often amusing frustrations and anxieties of the Catholic bureaucrat overseeing Cagliostro’s remote imprisonment. It vividly shows that often the Church was hamstrung by dependence on the initiative and doubtful abilities of distant minions. [↩]