Alessandro Cagliostro: Wikis


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Alessandro Cagliostro

Count Alessandro di Cagliostro (2 June 1743 – 26 August 1795) was the alias for the occultist Giuseppe Balsamo (also called Joseph Balsamo), an Italian adventurer.

McCalman (2003: p.4) frames the intrigue enveloping Cagliostro and his contemporaries thus:

"His enemies would have been delighted at the neglect of his house. There'd been plenty of them: Casanova, the greatest lover of the age, was bitterly jealous of him; Catherine the Great, empress of Russia, wanted to strangle him; Johann von Goethe, the most revered of Germany's writers, was driven almost mad by hatred of him; King Louis XVI of France persecuted him as a dangerous revolutionary; Queen Marie-Antoinette wanted him locked permanently in the Bastille for involving her in a diamond necklace swindle; and Pope Pius VI accused him of threatening the survival of the Catholic church."[1]



The history of Cagliostro is shrouded in rumour, propaganda and mysticism. Some effort was expended to ascertain his true identity when he was arrested because of his possible participation in the Affair of the Diamond Necklace.

Goethe relates in his Italian Journey that the identification of Cagliostro with Giuseppe Balsamo was ascertained by a lawyer from Palermo who, on official request, had sent a dossier with copies of the pertaining documents to France. Goethe met the lawyer in April 1787 and saw the documents and Balsamo's pedigree: Balsamo's great-grandfather Matteo Martello had two daughters, Maria who married Giuseppe Bracconeri, and Vincenza who married Giuseppe Cagliostro. Maria and Giuseppe Bracconeri had three children, Matteo, Antonia, and Felicitá who married Pietro Balsamo. The latter couple's son was Giuseppe Balsamo who was christened with the name of his greatuncle and eventually adopted his surname too. Pietro Balsamo was the son of a bookseller, Antonino Balsamo, who had declared bankruptcy before dying at age 44. Felicitá Balsamo was still alive in Palermo then, and Goethe visited her and her daughter.

Cagliostro himself stated during the trial following the Affair of the Diamond Necklace to have been born of Christians of noble birth, but abandoned as an orphan upon the island of Malta. He claimed to have travelled as a child to Medina, Mecca, and Cairo, and upon return to Malta to have been initiated into the Sovereign Military Order of the Knights of Malta, with whom he studied alchemy, the Kabbalah and magic, much of the typical mystical background asserted by many impostors and charlatans of those times. Goethe classifies this as "silly fairy-tales."

Early life

He was born to a poor family in Albergheria, which was once the old Jewish Quarter of Palermo, Sicily. Despite his family's precarious financial situation, his grandfather and uncles made sure the young Giuseppe received a solid education: he was taught by a tutor and later became a novice in the Catholic Order of St. John of God, from which he was eventually expelled.

During his period as a novice in the order, Balsamo learned chemistry as well as a series of spiritual rites. In 1764, when he was seventeen, he convinced Vincenzo Marano—a wealthy goldsmith—of the existence of a hidden treasure buried several hundred years prior at Mount Pellegrino. The young man's knowledge of the occult, Marano reasoned, would be valuable in preventing the duo from being attacked by magical creatures guarding the treasure. In preparation for the expedition to Mount Pellegrino, however, Balsamo requested seventy pieces of silver from Marano.

When the time came for the two to dig up the supposed treasure, Balsamo attacked Marano, who was left bleeding and wondering what had happened to the boy—in his mind, the beating he had been subjected to had been the work of djinns.

The next day, Marano paid a visit to Balsamo's house in via Perciata (since then renamed via Conte di Cagliostro), where he learned the young man had left the city. Balsamo (accompanied by two accomplices) had fled to the city of Messina. By 1765–66, Balsamo found himself on the island of Malta, where he became an auxiliary (donato) for the Sovereign Military Order of Malta and a skilled pharmacist.


Esoteric knowledge

Cagliostro was familiar with the Secretes Admirables (1555) of Allesio Piemontese " of the most comprehensive occult manuals ever written, setting out detailed prescriptions for making paints, inks, medicines, cosmetics, and magical spells."[2] Cagliostro was aware of the story of the Wandering Jew, Ahasuerus the shopkeeper, who according to Christian folklore was:

"...condemned to suffer on earth forever because he struck Christ on the way to Calvary. By Giuseppe's day [that is Cagliostro], the Wandering Jew was also said to have become a world traveler and carrier of occult secrets such as the philosopher's stone and the universal elixir of life."[3]

Therefore, Cagliostro was aware of some of the mythical and folklore accretion of the Philosopher's stone and the alchemical elixir of immortality.[4]

Magic circle

McCalman (2003: p.18) relates in his biographical treatment of Cagliostro how he engaged a magic circle in a feat of near prognostication and possible conjuration:

"...he'd one day offered to show a group of his friends what a girlfriend was doing at that exact moment on the other side of Palermo. Drawing a magic circle in the sand and uttering some strange phrases, he somehow produced her image playing a card game, tresette, with two men. Some said that the boy had merely drawn a lifelike picture in the sand; others swore that he had created a hazy spectral vision in the air. Either way, the gang dashed to the girl's house, where the prediction was confirmed in every detail."[5]

Invented biography

Cagliostro claimed to be the son of the Prince and Princess of the Anatolian Christian Kingdom of Trebizond, orphaned and reared by the Grand Master of the Knights of Malta and, for several years, in the household of the Sheriff of Medina (who brought him up as a Christian.)[6]


In early 1768 Balsamo left for Rome, where he managed to land himself a job as a secretary to Cardinal Orsini.[7] The job proved boring to Balsamo and he soon started leading a double life, selling magical "Egyptian" amulets and engravings pasted on boards and painted over to look like paintings.[8] Of the many Sicilian expatriates and ex-convicts he met during this period, one introduced him to a fourteen-year-old girl named Lorenza Seraphina Feliciani, whom he married.

The couple moved in with Lorenza's parents and her brother in the vicolo delle Cripte, adjacent to the strada dei Pellegrini.[9] Balsamo's coarse language and the way he incited her to display her body contrasted deeply with her parents' deep rooted religious beliefs. After a heated discussion, the young couple left.

At this point Balsamo befriended Agliata, a forger and swindler, who taught him how to use his talent for drawing to his advantage. This meant he would teach him how to forge letters, diplomas and a myriad of other official documents. In return, though, he sought sexual intercourse with Balsamo's young wife, a request to which he acquiesced.[10]

The couple traveled together to London, where he supposedly met the Comte de Saint-Germain. He traveled throughout Europe, especially to Courland, Russia, Poland, Germany, and later France. His fame grew to the point that he was even recommended as a physician to Benjamin Franklin during a stay in Paris.

Affair of the diamond necklace

He was prosecuted in the affair of the diamond necklace which involved Marie Antoinette and Prince Louis de Rohan, and was held in the Bastille for nine months but finally acquitted, when no evidence could be found connecting him to the affair. Nonetheless, he was asked to leave France, and departed for England. Here he was accused by Theveneau de Morande of being Giuseppe Balsamo, which he denied in his published Open Letter to the English People, forcing a retraction and apology from Morande.

Betrayal, imprisonment, death and legacy

Cagliostro left England to visit Rome, where he met two people who proved to be spies of the Inquisition. Some accounts hold that his wife was the one who initially betrayed him to the Inquisition. On 27 December 1789, he was arrested and imprisoned in the Castel Sant'Angelo. Soon afterwards he was sentenced to death on the charge of being a Freemason. The Pope changed his sentence, however, to life imprisonment in the Castel Sant'Angelo. After attempting to escape he was relocated to the Fortress of San Leo where he died not long after.

Portuguese author Camilo Castelo Branco credits to Balsamo the creation of the Egyptian Rite of the Freemasons and intensive work in the diffusion of the freemasonry, by opening lodges all over Europe and by introducing the acceptance of women into the community.

Cagliostro was an extraordinary forger. Giacomo Casanova, in his autobiography, narrates an encounter with Cagliostro who was able to forge a letter of Casanova despite being unable to understand it.

Occult historian Lewis Spence comments in his entry on Cagliostro that the swindler put his finagled wealth to good use by starting and funding a chain of maternity hospitals and orphanages around the continent.


In music

  • The French composer Victor Dourlen (1780–1864) composed the first act to Cagliostro, ou Les illuminés which premiered on 27 November 1810. The second and third act were composed by Anton Reicha (1770–1836).[11][12]
  • The Irish composer William Michael Rooke (1794–1847) wrote an unperformed work Cagliostro.[13]
  • Adolphe Adam wrote the opéra comique Cagliostro which premiered on 10 February 1844.[14]
  • Albert Lortzing wrote in 1850 the libretto for a comic opera in three acts, Cagliostro, but did not compose any music for it.[15]
  • Johann Strauß (Sohn) wrote the operetta Cagliostro in Wien (Cagliostro in Vienna) in 1875.
  • The French composer Claude Terrasse (1867–1923) wrote Le Cagliostro which premiered in 1904.[16]
  • The Polish composer Jan Maklakiewicz (1899–1954) wrote the ballet in three scenes Cagliostro w Warszawie which premiered in 1938.[17]
  • The Romanian composer Iancu Dumitrescu (1944–) wrote the 1975 work Le miroir de Cagliostro for choir, flute and percussion.[18]
  • The opera Cagliostro by the Italian composer Ildebrando Pizzetti (1880–1968) was performed on Italian radio in 1952 and at La Scala on 24 January 1953.[19]
  • The comic opera Graf Cagliostro was wrtiten by Mikael Tariverdiev in 1983.
  • In the new Kunze/Levay musical "Marie Antoinette," the entire story is told by an illusionist and an occultist: Cagliostro. The musical most recently opened in Bremen, Germany after playing to sold out houses in Tokyo, Japan in 2006.

In fiction

  • Cagliostro appears as a criminal mastermind bent on upsetting the world economy with lead bars temporarily turned to gold in the Wonder Woman episode "Diana's Disappearing Act".
  • Cagliostro is Dracula's arch-foe and Marie Laveau's lover in Marvel Comics' The Tomb of Dracula series, and is impersonated by Sise-Neg, an enemy of Doctor Strange, in Marvel Premiere.
  • Cagliostro is a character in Psychoshop, a novel by Alfred Bester and Roger Zelazny.
  • Josephine Balsamo, a descendent of Joseph Balsamo who calls herself Countess Cagliostro, appears in Maurice Leblanc's Arsene Lupin novels.
  • In reference to the above, the second Lupin III movie goes by the title of The Castle of Cagliostro. Cagliostro appears as the main antagonist of the film, a ruler of a fictional country bearing the same name who influences the world's economy through counterfeiting.
  • Cagliostro makes several cameo appearances as a vampire in Kim Newman's Anno Dracula novels. In Dracula Cha-Cha-Cha, he finds his magic defeated by Orson Welles' conjuring tricks, a sideways reference to the film Black Magic mentioned above.
  • Cagliostro appears as a character in the anime series, Le Chevalier D'Eon, by Production I.G.
  • Cagliostro is referenced in Hoffman's "The Sandman", comparing Chodowiecki's portrait to that of Nathaniel's physic's teacher, Spalanzani.
  • In The Queen of Diamonds by Jean Plaidy, Cagliostro is a charlatan involved with the Cardinal de Rohan with the Affair of the Diamond Necklace.
  • The manga Rozen Maiden reveals Count Cagliostro to be merely one of many different aliases adopted by the legendary dollmaker Rozen. He was shown to be in prison whittling wood.

In films

 The Prisoner in the Mirror (Thriller 23 May 1961) Henry Daniell portrayed Cagliostro.

Links and references

  1. ^ McCalman, Iain (2003). The Seven Ordeals of Count Cagliostro: The Greatest Enchanter of the Eighteenth Century. Australia: Flamingo. ISBN 0732273978, p.4
  2. ^ McCalman, Iain (2003). The Seven Ordeals of Count Cagliostro: The Greatest Enchanter of the Eighteenth Century. Australia: Flamingo. ISBN 0732273978, p.43
  3. ^ McCalman, Iain (2003). The Seven Ordeals of Count Cagliostro: The Greatest Enchanter of the Eighteenth Century. Australia: Flamingo. ISBN 0732273978, p.46
  4. ^ McCalman, Iain (2003). The Seven Ordeals of Count Cagliostro: The Greatest Enchanter of the Eighteenth Century. Australia: Flamingo. ISBN 0732273978, p.46
  5. ^ McCalman, Iain (2003). The Seven Ordeals of Count Cagliostro: The Greatest Enchanter of the Eighteenth Century. Australia: Flamingo. ISBN 0732273978, p.18
  6. ^ Faulks, Philippa and Cooper, Robert L.D., The Masonic Magician: The Life and Death of Count Cagliostro and his Egyptian Rite, London, Watkins, 2008, Chapter 1
  7. ^ The cardinal in question would have been Domenico Orsini d'Aragona (1719–1789), nephew of Pope Benedict XIII Miranda, "Cardinals of the Holy Roman Church".
  8. ^ Iain McCalman, The Seven Ordeals of Count Cagliostro, 2004.
  9. ^ Iain McCalman, The Seven Ordeals of Count Cagliostro, 2004.
  10. ^ Wilson, Pip. "Count Cogliostro — Alchemist who could turn people into gold". Wilson's Almanac. Retrieved 22 September 2008. 
  11. ^ David Charlton: "Dourlen, Victor-Charles-Paul", Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy (Accessed 28 June 2008)
  12. ^ Peter Eliot Stone: "Reicha [Rejcha], Antoine(-Joseph) [Antonín, Anton]", Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy (Accessed 28 June 2008)
  13. ^ W.H. Husk/W.H. Grattan Flood/George Biddlecombe: "Rooke [O’Rourke, Rourke], William Michael", Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy (Accessed 28 June 2008)
  14. ^ Elizabeth Forbes: "Adam, Adolphe", Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy (Accessed 28 June 2008)
  15. ^ Clive Brown: "Lortzing, Albert", Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy (Accessed 28 June 2008)
  16. ^ David Charlton/Cormac Newark: "Terrasse, Claude (Antoine)", Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy (Accessed 28 June 2008)
  17. ^ Bogusław Schaeffer: "Maklakiewicz, Jan Adam", Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy (Accessed 28 June 2008)
  18. ^ Octavian Cosma: "Dumitrescu, Iancu", Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy (Accessed 28 June 2008)
  19. ^ Guido M. Gatti, John C. G. Waterhouse: "Pizzetti, Ildebrando", Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy (Accessed 28 June 2008)
  20. ^ Alessandro Cagliostro. The Oxford Companion to German Literature, Oxford University Press, 1976, 1986, 1997, 2005., accessed 28 May 2008.
  21. ^ "Le Miroir de Cagliostro (1899)". British Film Institute Film & TV Database. Retrieved 28 June 2008. 
  22. ^ Cagliostro in Wien at the Internet Movie Database

Further reading

  • W. R. H Trowbridge: Cagliostro: Savant or scoundrel? - The true role of this splendid, tragic figure (1910)
  • Alexander Lernet-Holenia: Das Halsband der Königin (Paul Zsolnay Verlag, Hamburg/Vienna, 1962, historical study on the Affair of the diamond necklace, including a description of Cagliostro's background)
  • Iain McCalman: The Seven Ordeals of Count Cagliostro, 2004: Flamingo (Australia) and Random House (UK); published in the USA as The Last Alchemist, HarperCollins.
  • Thomas Carlyle: Count Cagliostro, Fraser's Magazine (July, Aug. 1833).
  • Giovanni Barberi, The life of Joseph Balsamo commonly called Count Cagliostro, London, 1791.
  • Faulks, Philippa and Cooper, Robert L.D., The Masonic Magician; The Life and Death of Count Cagliostro and his Egyptian Rite, London, Watkins, 2008.
  • Camilo Castelo Branco: "Compêndio da Vida e Feitos de José Bálsamo Chamado Conde de Cagliostro ou O Judeu Errante", excerpts from the process against him in Rome, on 1790. Translated from the Italian by the author. Livraria Chardron, de Lelo & Irmão, editores, R. das Carmelitas, 144, Porto, Portugal. Date unknown.

External links

* The Mirror of Cagliostro, (nv) Fantastic Jun 1963


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