Alessandro Cagliostro

Alessandro Cagliostro
Alessandro Cagliostro

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



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.


In early 1768 Balsamo left for Rome, where he managed to land himself a job as a secretary to Cardinal Orsini.[1] 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.[2] 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.[3] Balsamo's coarse language and the way he incited Lorenza 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 proposed to teach Balsamo how to forge letters, diplomas and a myriad of other official documents. In return, though, Agliata sought sexual intercourse with Balsamo's young wife, a request to which Balsamo acquiesced.[4]

The couple traveled together to London, where Balsamo allegedly 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 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, narrated an encounter in which Cagliostro was able to forge a letter by 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.

He carried an alchemistic manuscript The Most Holy Trinosophia amongst others with him on his ill-fated journey to Rome and it is allegedly authored by him.

In popular culture

  • He appears as a principal character in the 1794 opera Le congrès des rois, a collaborative work of 12 composers.
  • 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).[5][6]
  • The Irish composer William Michael Rooke (1794–1847) wrote an unperformed work Cagliostro.[7]
  • Adolphe Adam wrote the opéra comique Cagliostro which premiered on 10 February 1844.[8]
  • Albert Lortzing wrote in 1850 the libretto for a comic opera in three acts, Cagliostro, but did not compose any music for it.[9]
  • 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.[10]
  • The Polish composer Jan Maklakiewicz (1899–1954) wrote the ballet in three scenes Cagliostro w Warszawie which premiered in 1938.[11]
  • The Romanian composer Iancu Dumitrescu (1944–) wrote the 1975 work Le miroir de Cagliostro for choir, flute and percussion.[12]
  • 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.[13]
  • The comic opera Graf Cagliostro was wrtiten by Mikael Tariverdiev in 1983.
  • Friedrich Schiller wrote an unfinished novel Der Geisterseher (The Ghost-Seer) between 1786 and 1789 about Cagliostro.[14]
  • Johann Wolfgang Goethe wrote a comedy based on Cagliostro's life, also in reference to the affair of the diamond necklace, The Great Cophta (Der Groß-Coptha) which was published in 1791.
  • Alexandre Dumas, père used Cagliostro in several of his novels (especially in Joseph Balsamo).
  • Cagliostro is mentioned by Friedrich Nietzsche in section 194 of Beyond Good and Evil, first published in 1886: "One type wants to possess a people -- and all the higher arts of a Cagliostro and Catiline suit him to that purpose."
  • Aleksey Nikolayevich Tolstoy wrote the supernatural love story Count Cagliostro where the Count brings to life a long dead Russian Princess, materializing her from her portrait. The story was made into a 1984 Soviet TV movie Formula of Love.
  • The Phantom comic book featured Cagliostro as a character in the story The Cagliostro Mystery from 1988, written by Norman Worker and drawn by Carlos Cruz.
  • In the DC Comics universe, Cagliostro is described as an immortal (JLA Annual 2), a descendant of Leonardo da Vinci as well as an ancestor of Zatara and Zatanna (Secret Origins 27). Also, the DC Comics supervillain known as the Fadeaway Man wields an item called the Cloak of Cagliostro, which allows him to teleport.
  • Cagliostro is a character in Robert Anton Wilson's The Historical Illuminatus Chronicles.
  • Cagliostro is frequently alluded to in Umberto Eco's novel Foucault's Pendulum.
  • Mikhail Kuzmin wrote a novella called The Marvelous Life of Giuseppe Balsamo, Count Cagliostro (1916).
  • 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.
  • Cagliostro makes several cameo appearances as a vampire in Kim Newman's Anno Dracula novels.
  • 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.
  • The French film director Georges Méliès (1861–1938) directed the 1899 film Le Miroir de Cagliostro.[15]
  • Cagliostro has been played in film by
  • In the 1943 German epic Münchhausen, Cagliostro appears as a powerful, morally ambiguous magician, portrayed by Ferdinand Marian.
  • Jean Marais played Count Cagliostro in the 1978 film Cagliostro in Wien.[16]
  • The second Lupin III movie goes by the title of The Castle of Cagliostro, drawing on Maurice Leblanc's Arsene Lupin novels. 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.
  • The Mummy (1932 film), starring Boris Karloff, was adapted from an original story treatment by Nina Wilox Putnam, titled "Cagliostro" for Karloff to star in. Based of the concept of Allessandro Caliostro, set in San Francisco, the story was about a 3000-year old magician who survives by injecting nitrates.

Links and references

  1. ^ 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".
  2. ^ Iain McCalman, The Seven Ordeals of Count Cagliostro, 2004.
  3. ^ Iain McCalman, The Seven Ordeals of Count Cagliostro, 2004.
  4. ^ Wilson, Pip. "Count Cogliostro — Alchemist who could turn people into gold". Wilson's Almanac. Retrieved 22 September 2008. 
  5. ^ David Charlton: "Dourlen, Victor-Charles-Paul", Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy (Accessed 28 June 2008)
  6. ^ Peter Eliot Stone: "Reicha [Rejcha], Antoine(-Joseph) [Antonín, Anton]", Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy (Accessed 28 June 2008)
  7. ^ 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)
  8. ^ Elizabeth Forbes: "Adam, Adolphe", Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy (Accessed 28 June 2008)
  9. ^ Clive Brown: "Lortzing, Albert", Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy (Accessed 28 June 2008)
  10. ^ David Charlton/Cormac Newark: "Terrasse, Claude (Antoine)", Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy (Accessed 28 June 2008)
  11. ^ Bogusław Schaeffer: "Maklakiewicz, Jan Adam", Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy (Accessed 28 June 2008)
  12. ^ Octavian Cosma: "Dumitrescu, Iancu", Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy (Accessed 28 June 2008)
  13. ^ Guido M. Gatti, John C. G. Waterhouse: "Pizzetti, Ildebrando", Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy (Accessed 28 June 2008)
  14. ^ Alessandro Cagliostro. The Oxford Companion to German Literature, Oxford University Press, 1976, 1986, 1997, 2005., accessed 28 May 2008.
  15. ^ "Le Miroir de Cagliostro (1899)". British Film Institute Film & TV Database. Retrieved 28 June 2008. 
  16. ^ Cagliostro in Wien at the Internet Movie Database

Further reading

  • W. R. H Trowbridge: Cagliostro: The Splendour and Misery of a Master of Magic (Chapman & Hall, London 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 US 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

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