‘Count’ Cagliostro, Europe’s Charlatan Extraordinaire

Count Alessandro Cagliostro
Count Alessandro Cagliostro

Most everyone has heard of Europe’s’ legendary lover Casanova, but how many of you have heard of his equally infamous counterpart, Cagliostro? Though not a famed womanizer, Cagliostro was nonetheless Casanova’s equal when it came to sheer audacity. ‘Count’ Alessandro di Cagliostro was equal parts alchemist, freemason, criminal, and con-man. He’s perhaps best known for his part in Marie Antoinette’s infamous “Diamond Necklace Affair” that helped spark the French Revolution. He was not in fact a Count at all, nor was his name even Cagliostro.

He was born Giuseppe Balsamo, a poor Sicilian, in 1743 Palermo. When his father died and his mother couldn’t support him (though she always claimed royal ancestry), he was sent to live with an uncle. A scamp of an kid, he soon ran away, was brought back, and ran away again. Fed up with the boy, his uncle shipped him off to a Benedictine monastery, the Brothers Hospitallers of Saint John of God, as a novice.  This order devoted itself to medicine and service. Young Giuseppe soon discovered he possessed a talent for chemistry and pharmacology. Always looking out for himself, he quickly found a way this could benefit him personally. So when he began selling the monastery’s medicines in the street, the abbot promptly expelled him. This was fine with young Giuseppe as monastic life obviously didn’t suit his felonious nature.

He joined a band of gypsy vagabonds, committing acts of petty larceny across Sicily.

Frequently caught in the act, it was only thanks to his uncle that he wasn’t sent to prison. At 17, he began to feign interest in alchemy and the occult when a goldsmith named Vincenzo Marano arrived in Palermo. Marano had met with many alchemists who claimed to transmute metals, but young Giuseppe somehow convinced him that he alone had the true power, having stolen it from a demon while at the monastery. Giuseppe asked for 60 ounces of gold (a very large sum at that time) to conduct his magical ceremonies. He would then show Marano the location of his secret laboratory and create for him immeasurable wealth! At midnight, Marano was led to an empty field where the only thing awaiting him were gypsy thugs. Balsamo had the gold, but also had to leave Sicily to avoid arrest.

He abandoned his name and began to focus on the ‘talents’ that had served him well as a con-artist. He studied art, not for its beauty, but its technique, helping him build a skill for forgery. He traveled throughout the Mediterranean, soaking up the occult and alchemy wherever he found it. And with this knowledge, he began swindling people as a learned mystic. He professed to have traveled as far as Persia and even India, both lies, to learn the arcane arts.

In the meantime, he reinvented himself, choosing the much grander name of Count Alessandro di Cagliostro. He latched onto his mother’s belief and claimed to have been of noble birth, the son of the Prince of the Anatolian Kingdom of Trebizond! He was orphaned at an early age and raised by the Grand Master of the Knights of Malta, eventually being initiated into that Sovereign Military Order, with whom he deeply studied, what else, alchemy.

In 1768, at the age of 25, Cagliostro returned to Italy, first to Naples, where he and an associate opened a casino to cheat wealthy foreigners. Authorities quickly discovered their ploy and forced the men to leave or face incarceration. He went to Rome next, where he established himself as physician, tapping into his monastic medical knowledge. He eventually rose to become secretary to Cardinal Virgilio Orsini.

While in Rome, he met a woman of his own pretenses, one Lorenza Feliciani, who preferred to be called ‘Serafina.’

As it turned out, she also had a gift for scamming people. The pair married (whether for love or business is unknown) and became trusted partners in dozens of cons. The couple stayed in Rome until members of the Italian Inquisition began to suspect Cagliostro of heresy.  The pair were forced to leave rather quickly ,so he took his new bride back to Palermo, where Marano quickly recognized the ‘Count’ and had him arrested. He was saved from prison by a yet another duped nobleman and amateur alchemist. Cagliostro promptly swindled him out of 100,000 crowns as well and the unscrupulous pair fled to England.

There Cagliostro claimed to have met the immortal Count Saint-Germain who in 1770 initiated him into the ancient rites of Egyptian Freemasonry. The sect was supposedly based on the deities Isis and Osiris and featured extensive rebirth/reincarnation imagery.  He adopted as his sign the circular symbol of Ouroboros, the snake that bites its own tail. What does a conman do with such a claim? Why travel Europe of course, collecting money from wealthy aristocrats to start Egyptian Rite Freemason lodges of their own, both men and women in separate lodges.  He did so in Holland, Germany and even Russia.

The couple went to Paris in 1772, where Cagliostro opened lodges, sold magic elixirs and held séances with the dead. Cagliostro was welcomed with open arms by the gullible French nobility who embraced his Egyptian Rite. He was even recommended to US Ambassador Benjamin Franklin as a personal physician. Old Ben however was to shrewd enough not to buy into it though. King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette however became very interested and invited the Count to Versailles to hold magic suppers, becoming a regular fixture at court.

Life for the pair could not seem to get much better! However that shine was about to end in 1785.

Cagliostro became peripherally tied to an affair in which a female con artist, the Comtesse de la Motte convinced a wealthy cardinal to buy an expensive diamond necklace on behalf of Marie Antoinette to win the Queen’s favor.  The con artist actually sold the necklace and pocketed the profit. The Cardinal was accused of defrauding the royal jewelers and sent to prison by the King. Though Marie Antoinette was innocent, the whole incident portrayed her as frivolous Austrian and soured the French public against her. Cagliostro was arrested as an accomplice and imprisoned in the dreaded Bastille for 9 months. Following a lengthy trial, he was eventually acquitted, but banished from France.

Though released, his troubles were far from over. The pair travelled back to London where a muckraker Theveneau de Morande publicly accused him of being Giuseppe Balsamo, airing all his past crimes and scams to the newspapers of the day. Cagliostro refuted the claim and even earned a retraction, but the damage to his reputation was done.  He was no longer welcomed where he went.

Count Cagliostro AKA  Giuseppe Balsamo
Count Cagliostro AKA Giuseppe Balsamo

Cagliostro and Lorenza returned to Rome in 1789, taking up their usual practice of elixirs and séances. All went well until he attempted to begin a Masonic Lodge in Rome. He met two gentlemen who asked to be initiated into the ancient Egyptian Rite. Cagliostro was more than happy to do so, for a price.  However, they proved to be spies of the Roman Inquisition. This time, none other than his own beautiful wife betrayed him. She made a deal to testify against him, in return for her own freedom.

The Inquisition imprisoned Cagliostro in Rome’s Castle of Saint Angelo, accusing him of heresy, magic, and conjury.

After an 18 month trial, the Inquisition sentenced him to death by hanging. But his sentence was later reduced by a sympathetic Pope to life imprisonment. Serafina, meanwhile, was shuffled off to a convent! Cagliostro attempted a feeble escape, but was easily caught and overpowered. He was sent next to solitary confinement at the castle of San Leo near Montefeltro, one of the strongest in Europe.  He died in 1795 at the age of 52 of unrecorded causes, most likely disease or malnutrition.

His reputation lived on however. Cagliostro had made a great impression on German writer Johann von Goethe. Some argue that Cagliostro served as a model for Goethe’s character, Faust, in the play of the same name.  Others, however, point to the less well-intentioned devil Mephistopheles. Some musical historians have linked Cagliostro to the Mozart’s The Magic Flute’s wise mystic Sarastro, who triumphs over the Queen of the Night.

Most historians label him as a reckless, sometimes successful charlatan. However, many claim Count Cagliostro was the real deal. Among his defenders was Madame Helena Blavatsky, who popularized mysticism, séances and fortune-telling a hundred years later at the end of the 19th century. Others, such as the modern Theosophical Society, considered him a guru of occult magic.  Cagliostro posthumously achieved immortality in all kinds of ways, as an Japanese anime villain, and even a font.

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LOST IN HISTORY Blog/Podcast about key forgotten history still relevant in today's world. Paul Andrews also has 5 historical adventure novels, all available on Amazon.

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