Goethe on Cagliostro

Portrait of author Funck-Brentano, George Grantham Bain Collection (Library of Congress)
Portrait of author Funck-Brentano, George Grantham Bain Collection (Library of Congress)

Goethe’s Italian Journey and Cagliostro – a visit of Goethe to Palermo

This excerpt from Frantz Funck-Brentano’s “Cagliostro and Company, A Sequel to the Story of the Diamond Necklace,” describes Goethe’s visit to the family of Giuseppe (Joseph) Balsamo/Count Cagliostro. Goethe was one of the few who attempted to confirm Cagliostro’s identity as Balsamo, which he did during the period of his Italian Journey, when he visited Palermo.

A Visit of Goethe to Palermo

As we have seen, Cagliostro, exiled from France after his acquittal by the Parlement, embarked for England on June 16.

While our hero was basking for the third time on the banks of Thames, Goethe, then travelling in Italy, came upon his family at Palermo. ‘A little before the end of my journey,’ notes the great writer under date April 13, 1787, ‘an interesting adventure happened to me. During my stay at Palermo, I had often heard Cagliostro talked about at table, and stories told of him. The Palermites were all agreed on one point, to wit, that the mysterious personage was no other than a certain Giuseppe Balsamo, who, after more than one piece of scoundrelism, had been driven from the town. He was recognised in the published portraits. I learnt thus that a jurist of Palermo, at the request of the French Ministry, had made inquiries into the origin of this man, who had had the audacity, in the course of a grave and momentous trial, to retail the most absurd fables in the tace of all France one may say, of the whole world.

The alleyway Giuseppe Balsamo was raised in at Palermo. Approx. 38° 6'44.86"N  13°21'35.20"E.
The alleyway Giuseppe Balsamo/Cagliostro was raised in at Palermo. Approx. 38° 6’44.86″N 13°21’35.20″E.

Giuseppe Balsamo

Read about the Palermo swindler Cagliostro may have been, Giuseppe Balsamo.

Count Alessandro di Cagliostro

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I asked to be introduced to the man of law, and was presented to him. He showed me the genealogical tree, drawn out by him, of the family to which Cagliostro belonged, and the notes and documents which had assisted him to compile a memoir, which he had just sent to France.’ After perusing these, Goethe expressed the desire to be presented to Balsamo’s mother and sister, who were living in the town. ‘That will be difficult,’ replied the lawyer, ‘for they are poor people and live a very retired life; a visitor would scare them.’ But Goethe insisted, and at last the lawyer offered the assistance of his secretary, who knew the family personally. Goethe saw the secretary, and it was arranged that the visitor should pass as an Englishman bringing from London, where Cagliostro had taken refuge, news of him to his family. The house inhabited by the Balsamos was hidden away in the corner of an alley, not far from the principal street, il Casaro. Goethe, accompanied by the secretary, climbed a wretched staircase, which led straight into the kitchen. A woman of middle height, apparently very robust, broad-chested without being stout, was washing dishes. She was neatly dressed, and, when she perceived her visitors, raised the corner of her apron so as to conceal its dirty side. Her eyes beamed a glad welcome, and addressing the secretary, she said, ‘Signer Giovanni, do you bring good news? Have you succeeded?’ She alluded to some trifling business in which she was interested, and which the secretary had undertaken to manage for her.

Goethe as a traveler in the Roman countryside , By Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein
Tischbein’s famous 1787 portrait of Goethe as a traveler in the Roman countryside , By Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein
‘I haven’t yet succeeded,’ was the reply, ‘but here is a friend of your brother’s, who can tell you how he is just now.’

‘You know my brother?’ she asked, turning to Goethe.’All Europe knows him,’ replied the visitor, ‘and no doubt you will be pleased to hear that he is for the present in perfect safety, and his health is excellent.’

‘Come in’ she said, ‘I will be with you immediately.’

The visitors went into a large and lofty room, which seemed to serve as lodging for the entire family. There was one window. The walls, still bearing traces of the paint that formerly covered them, were adorned with a number of religious pictures, portraits of saints, all black in their gilt frames. Two large curtainless beds stood on one side; opposite them, a small brown cupboard like a writing-desk. The straw-chairs had had their backs gilded, and the gilt still shone here and there. The flooring had given way in several places. But everything was spotlessly clean. The visitors approached the family grouped around the window on the further side of the room.

Cagliostro and Faust

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While the secretary was bawling into the ear of Cagliostro’s old mother, who was very deaf, an explanation of the stranger’s visit, Goethe was taking stock of the persons and things around him. A girl of sixteen, comely, but marked with smallpox, was leaning at the window; near her a lad was stooping, his face not less pitted. On the other side of the window, extended on a long chair, was a person who seemed overcome with languor.

‘We sat down,’ says Goethe. ‘The old woman addressed a few questions to me which I got my companion to translate, for she expressed herself in the pure Sicilian dialect. While she was speaking, I watched the old woman with pleasure. She was of middle height, but well formed. Her features were regular, and age had respected their pure and firm outlines. Her expression had that serenity which is usually found in deaf people. The tone of her voice was low and pleasant.’ Goethe told her that her son had just been acquitted by the French courts, and was then in England, where he had been well received. ‘Her replies were exclamations of joy, mingled with pious words that were very touching. And as she then spoke more slowly, I could almost understand her.’ Meanwhile her daughter, Cagliostro’s sister, the woman they had found washing the dishes, had re-entered. She sat down beside the secretary, getting him to repeat what the stranger said. She had put on a clean apron, and carefully arranged her hair in a net. She seemed of a happy disposition, lively, and in robust health. I should take her age to be forty. Her blue and cheerful eyes gave a quick wide-awake glance around, without the least perceptible shade of mistrust. Seated, she appeared taller than when she was standing. She sat on her chair, her body bent slightly forward, and her hands on her knees. ‘She closely resembled Cagliostro,’ adds Goethe, ‘as he is represented in the engravings that are so common. She questioned me on my plans for making excursions in Sicily, and told me that I must certainly return to Palermo to join them in the festival of St. Rosalia.’

Goethe resumed his conversation with the mother, while the daughter talked to the secretary. The latter said that her brother still owed her for purchases she had made for him before he left Palermo. As he was now in possession of such great treasure, he must be able to return the money; and she asked the stranger to take charge of a letter for him. For her situation was precarious. She was a widow with three children; one daughter was being brought up in a convent, another daughter was at home, and a son was at present at school. She had her mother also with her, and was also saddled with the poor sick woman lying on the long chair. And in spite of all her industry, she found it very difficult to meet such obligations. ‘To be sure,’ she said in conclusion, ‘God will not let my efforts go unrewarded, but the burden is too heavy, and I have borne it too long.’

The young people took part in the conversation, which had become animated. Goethe heard the old woman ask her daughter: ‘Does he follow our holy religion?’ And the younger woman tactfully replied: ‘The stranger seems well disposed to us, and it would hardly be polite to ask him that question so soon.’

And when the good people learnt that Goethe was soon to leave Palermo, they became pressing in their entreaties that he would return and spend with them the feast of St. Rosalia, the patron saint of the town. He would see in Palermo on that day unequalled splendours. The visitor took leave, with the promise to come back next day for the letter which Cagliostro’s sister was to write to her brother. ‘And I came away,’ says Goethe, ‘profoundly impressed with this pious and quiet family.’

Next day, after dinner, he returned alone. His appearance provoked surprise. The letter was not yet finished. ‘Besides,’ added the kindly folk, ‘several of our relatives wish to make your acquaintance.’ But Goethe assured them that he could not defer his departure for more than one day.

At this moment entered the son, whom the visitors had not seen on the former occasion. He held in his hand the letter for Cagliostro, which he had just fetched from the public scribe, whom it was the custom of the country to employ in such matters. The lad had a quiet manner, marked with reserve and melancholy. He spoke of his uncle, his wealth, his large expenditure, adding sadly: ‘Why does he desert his family thus? It would be our greatest joy to see him back for a little at Palermo, showing some interest in us. And people say that he everywhere disowns us, posing as a lord of illustrious birth.’

The girl came in. She had lost the timidity of the previous evening, spoke of her uncle, gave the visitor many messages for him, and pressed Goethe to return to Palermo for the festival of St. Rosalia. The mother was as pressing as her children. ‘Though it is not the proper thing for me to entertain strange men,’ she said, ‘since I have a daughter growing up and we have good reasons for guarding against scandal as well as actual peril, I must say that you will always be very welcome among us when you return to the town.’

‘Yes, indeed!’ cried the young people: ‘we will take Signor everywhere during the festival, and show him everything. We will sit in the best places for seeing and admiring the procession. How delighted Signor will be when he sees the great car, and especially the illuminations!’

Meanwhile the old woman had finished reading the letter for Cagliostro. She handed it to Goethe, saying: ‘Tell my son how glad I was to have news of him; tell him that I press him to my heart’ and the good creature extended her arms and folded them across her bosom. ‘Every day I pray God and the Blessed Virgin for him. I send my blessing to him and his wife, and have only one desire to see him once more before my death, with these eyes which have shed so many tears for him.’

In reporting these words Goethe remarks that they were rendered doubly impressive by the peculiar grace of the Italian tongue and the vivacity of the Sicilian dialect. ‘And I left these good folk,’ he adds, ‘with a full heart. All hands were stretched towards me, and as I went down the stairs, the children rushed to the balcony running along in front of the window on the street. Thence they still called out to me, with joyous salutations, not to forget to come back. I reached the corner of the street, and for the last time saw them waving their hands to me.’

Goethe, who never saw the Balsamo family again, had an idea of sending them, before he left Palermo, the money owed by Cagliostro, justifying the gift by alleging that the debtor would doubtless reimburse him on his return to London. But on examining his purse, he found that his funds were running low; and remembering that he had arranged to penetrate into the interior of Sicily, where the communications were very difficult, he was afraid of leaving himself penniless.

From Cagliostro and Company, A Sequel to the Story of the Diamond Necklace. By Funck-Brentano, Frantz. Translated by George Maidment. London: John Macqueen, 1902.